More Than Two commentary – Chapter Three: Ethical Polyamory

Part of my series of comments and thoughts about More Than Two by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert.

I love ethics. No really, I do. I love a good ethical conversation/debate, so I was deeply excited by Chapter Three’s discussion of ethics. Especially when it started from such a fantastic place! I was thrilled at how they went straight to the point and boldly stated that YES, there are ways to do poly that are good and are bad. I loved that they want to focus on all relationships being healthy for everybody involved – wanting all partners to feel loved, cared for, and secure, regardless of their place in a hierarchy (assuming a hierarchy was being used). And the thing I loved most of all was the two guiding principals they came up with as paramount to all relationships (poly, monogamous, familial; all the flavors of relationship that exist):

  • The people in the relationship are more important that the relationship.
  • Don’t treat people as things.

Wow. So much there. Those are big ideas that I think nearly everybody could take a closer look at, especially the first one. The idea that the people within a relationship are more important than the relationship itself is still somewhat of a revelation, even in the US/Western world, where divorce is pretty well accepted in most circles. Though it’s become legally easier to end a relationship, the emotional barriers (often erected by both ourselves and by those around us) still loom large. I bet we’ve all heard some of these comments:”He’s a really great guy; I don’t think you’ll do better elsewhere” “Every relationship has problems – you just need to learn to live with them!” “You really want to break up? You’re never happy with anything, are you?”

What is this collective obsession/yearning/determination to have decades-spanning, life-long relationships?

You know, that could be the subject of a loooooong post by itself, so I’m going to stop focusing on that question for now and get back to More Than Two.

Again, those two glorious concepts are:

  • The people in the relationship are more important that the relationship.
  • Don’t treat people as things.

Every time I read them, I get all tingly inside.

So what do these mean to me? Why are they so exciting?

I believe that all people have the right to be treated with respect and humanity. Treating someone with humanity, for me, is about not treating them as “lesser” – for any reason. Beyond the usual characteristics of race, ethnicity, nationality, religion (or lack thereof), political affiliation, economic status, relationship status, age, sexuality, and gender expression; I’d happily add “placement within a relationship hierarchy”. I may “only” be a tertiary partner within your relationship hierarchy, but I am very much a primary person in my own life. Though my needs and desires may not be enormously important to someone else, they should still be treated as reasonable and acceptable to have (even if they’re not possible to fulfill). The same goes for all the people in my life. No matter how transient the relationship between me and another person is, I should be respecting them in the way that I want I want to respected.

On that subject, More Than Two‘s Relationship Bill of Rights does an excellent job of describing how we go out treating people with respect. The book tells us that we have the right:

In all intimate relationships:

  • to be free from coercion, violence and intimidation
  • to choose the level of involvement and intimacy you want
  • to revoke consent to any form of intimacy at any time
  • to be told the truth
  • to say no to requests
  • to hold and express differing points of view
  • to feel all your emotions
  • to feel and communicate your emotions and needs
  • to set boundaries concerning your privacy needs
  • to set clear limits on the obligations you will make
  • to seek balance between what you give to the relationship and what is given back to you
  • to know that your partner will work with you to resolve problems that arise
  • to choose whether you want a monogamous or polyamorous relationship
  • to grow and change
  • to make mistakes
  • to end a relationship

In poly relationships:

  • to decide how many partners you want
  • to choose your own partners
  • to have an equal say with each of your partners in deciding the form your relationship with that partner will take
  • to choose the level of time and investment you will offer to each partner
  • to understand clearly any rules that will apply to your relationship before entering into it
  • to discuss with your partners decisions that affect you
  • to have time alone with each of your partners
  • to enjoy passion and special moments with each of your partners

In a poly network:

  • to choose the level of involvement and intimacy you want with your partners’ other partners
  • to be treated with courtesy
  • to seek compromise
  • to have relationships with people, not with relationships
  • to have plans made with your partner be respected; for instance, not changed at the last minute for trivial reasons
  • to be treated as a peer of every other person, not as a subordinate

All of these various rights play upon three basic concepts – that of consent, honesty, and agency.

Let’s say you want to have two primary relationships – how do you go about doing that ethically? For starters, both of these prospective partners need to know about each other – they cannot consent to the relationship with you (and to having a metamour relationship with each other) unless they each know that the other exists. Once they do, they have the agency to choose whether or not they want to be involved in this relationship dynamic – and if they do, how much involvement they want with their metamour. They can also choose to walk away. You are still free to try to have two primary relationships, even if you can’t have that particular set of relationships. Because consent, honesty, and agency are two-way streets. Unless all parties decide to meet in the middle and build something together, healthy and ethical relationships cannot be created.

Think about the evolution of any relationship: friendship, romantic relationship, working relationship – in the beginning (and often all the way through, as people grow and change), compromises are made – on who does what (How about if you clean the kitty litter and I’ll do the laundry?), on how often various things are done (Can we do all invoicing every Friday? How about a newsletter that goes out once a month?), on what things are done (I’ll go out for coffee with my best friend, since I love coffee and my partner doesn’t. Let’s agree to do a boys/girls night once a month with our friends.) and nearly every subject in between. And after those relationships are solidified, they change further, as life circumstances change. Maybe one partner becomes physically disabled, so no longer does any housework, but does take on all the bill paying. That Sunday night dinner with the parents, your brother and your brother’s husband will eventually include your new squeeze if the two of you get serious, right? You might go rock-climbing with your sweetie every weekend, but if you make friends with someone who can’t go rock climbing, maybe you’ll want to have one weekend a month to watch movies with your new friend. Or maybe your last job had you working late  when things got crazy, but the new job flows better if you go in super-early to get things done.

The shape of our lives ripple and change any time something new is added or something old is taken away. That’s a part of living, and how life works for most people. So why then, as polyamorous people, would we assume that adding a new partner means that the new partner must do all the changing to fit into the existing dynamic, instead of all parties talking and figuring out compromises that work well for everybody?

(I’m looking at you, couples who decide to open up your relationships, but only to bisexual women who will be secondaries and are willing to contort their lives to suit yours as it currently is. Lucky for me, Franklin has already written a wonderful piece on this. Unlucky for me, I’ve had a small taste of this experience, and it’s every bit as shitty and dehumanizing as it sounds.)

In order to honor the humanity of all of our partners, as well as foster love, compassion, and a willingness to work together, compromise is one of the most paramount keystones of polyamory. That said, compromise isn’t always possible – and when that’s the case it’s important to remember that enormously important principal: The people in the relationship are more important that the relationship.

I have a friend, Elaine. She dated a guy named Robbie for awhile. At first, it seemed like they were perfect for each other; they had the same feelings about kids, schooling for those kids, the importance of family, their political leanings were similar, they shared several hobbies…Elaine was super-excited and started to wonder if she’d met someone who she could marry and settle down with.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Elaine and Robbie had one very large different between them – how they felt about dividing their time between each other versus other relationships.

Robbie went out once a night with the guys some weeks. He saved the weekends for his significant other and/or time with his significant other and friends. In his ideal world, he and his partner would see each other four or five nights during the workweek, and almost exclusively do things together on the weekend (with and without other friends or family members).

Elaine liked to go out networking at least once a week, and also spend a night or two out with different groups of her friends. She also loves rock climbing (which Robbie had no serious interest in) and went at least twice a month. Having a serious relationship to her meant spending significant time together two or three times during the workweek, and spending some time together most weekends, but also doing separate activities on many weekends.

After months of trying to figure out a way to compromise how often they saw each other, Elaine and Robbie realized that “enough time together” for Robbie felt stifling to Elaine. And “enough time apart” for Elaine felt alienating to Robbie. Though both of them were really sad about it, they broke things off.

That is where ethics and treating the people more important than the relationship came into play. They could have kept trying and resorted to passive-aggressive jabs at their differences (“If you really loved me, you’d make more time for me” “If you really wanted me to be happy, you’d stop whining about always spending time together and get a life of your own”), or simply kept trying and struggled to maintain lives that included each other and made them happy – but they realized that it wasn’t going to happen, it didn’t make either of them into “bad people” or “people who ask for too much”. It just made them too different to find a compromise that worked.

Sometimes being ethical means giving up people that we really really want in our lives in very specific ways. It’s OK to want someone to be in your life a certain way – but it’s not acceptable (or ethical) to pressure, coerce, or demand things from them that they can’t comfortably give. That sucks, but it’s a part of life.

I really enjoyed this little taste of the ethics inherent to polyamory. I feel like like it does a great job of covering nearly all the basics. The one thing that I really wish had some more nuanced covering (even in the beginning) has to do with honesty and disclosure.

On the subject of honesty, some people make a strong differentiation between lying by telling someone an untruth and lying by omission. There is a comment in the book that while we can’t be expected to tell our partners every little truth about ourselves, we should know which lies by omission would impact our partners. As the book says:

Failing to tell your partner how long it took to brush your teeth isn’t a lie of omission. Failing to tell your partner you’re having sex with the pool man is.

Sure, I see that. But what about omissions that we didn’t realize were important to our partners? Here’s another real life example that my friend Louis provided:

Louis had a rocky relationship with Katie. Although they cared about each other a lot, they had a lot of disagreements about various important subjects,  and their relationship was punctuated several break-ups and reunions. During one period, they decided not to “break up”, but to take a break from each other. They wouldn’t go looking to date anybody new, but they promised each other that if they met someone and started to feel serious about them, they’d let each other know.

One night, Louis was out at a bar with a bunch of his friends. He met woman there that he did a little bit of making out with. They exchanged phone numbers, and while he was interested in her, he didn’t feel nearly the attraction he had with Katie. A few days later, he mentioned to Katie that he had met someone, but that he didn’t feel strongly about her and didn’t think the relationship was going to go beyond making out.

As an increasingly irate Katie questioned him, he confirmed to her that yes, he did make out with this woman the first night that he met her. Katie was furious, and accused Louis of lying to her and/or withholding important information, because he didn’t volunteer to Katie that he’d kissed this woman. To Louis, kissing someone in a bar wasn’t any sign of commitment. To Katie, kissing someone under any circumstance was something that should be disclosed immediately, as it was a sign of a serious relationship brewing.

No matter which side of that resonates more strongly with you (Louis’ “kissing isn’t a sign of commitment” stance is the one that I would take also), I hope that you trust me when I say that Louis had no idea that kissing was a sign of commitment and that the most distressing thing for him was that Katie was accusing him of lying to her. Louis and Katie’s conversation about other people used words along the lines of “when we start to feel serious about someone, we will tell the other person” with no further discussion of what that entails. Is it any wonder that they had a miscommunication, given how broad their criteria was?

The thing that’s key here to me is the concept that people can have very different understandings of what words mean. When those misunderstandings come to light, they shouldn’t be treated as lies; they should be treated as miscommunications (unless, of course, there is reason to believe your partner intentionally lies about things, which is a whole other problem). I hope that More Than Two devotes a bit of time to this type of situation, and the best way for both parties to handle it.

I have been on both sides of this kind of truth/miscommunication situation; when I realized that a miscommunication has resulted in something negative or potentially trust-crippling between myself and another person, I do my best to figure out how the misunderstanding happened, and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Likewise, when I realize that someone didn’t disclose to me something that I think potentially has enormous impact on my feelings about them, I want to have a clear, non-blaming talk with them about it, to figure out how we can make sure that it doesn’t happen again. No matter what side I’m on though, I recognize that it *could* happen again, and that as long as it does appear to be an honest mistake, it should be treated as such.

For me, if I were to notice a pattern of lying or lies through omission by another partner, that is a subject that I would bring up separately, as a very important problem that needs to get settled. I don’t date people who deliberately lie to me. I also don’t date people who continually accuse me of lying to them and/or treat me as though I have intentionally lied to them – it’s an extremely harmful place to be in emotionally (as well as deeply unethical), as I wrote in the comments of one of Rabbit Darling’s thoughtful posts and one that I refuse to experience any more.

Other than wondering if those types of miscommunications were going to be covered on the subject of ethics and communication, I really enjoyed this little taste of ethical polyamory; I’d like another helping please!


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polyamorist, cat-lover, hopeless optimist when I'm not being a firm realist.

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