It’s common for people opening their relationships to start out with some ground rules to help them feel more secure in their primary relationship. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having agreements. Every relationship should have them and discuss what they are. But often people try to use agreements to legislate about “acceptable” emotions or protect them from their own insecurities. I’ve also seen agreements be used quite well for rebuilding trust when it’s been broken, but you have to create the agreement to address the actual problem instead of, again, just legislating around insecurities or emotions.
We see people come up with the same agreements over and over again, and we see people break the same agreements over and over again. There’s a reason these agreements get broken: they often ignore how reality actually works, or they are not actually ethical to people affected by the agreement that you didn’t consider.
#1 We Won’t Fall in Love With Other People
The biggest problem that happens with this agreement is that “falling in love” isn’t something that people choose to do. Hormones and neurotransmitters act without our input. Have you ever dated someone that was perfect on paper, but it felt like you were kissing your sibling? Or have you ever fallen for someone that later turned out to be a disaster? You have a lot less control over who you end up going gaga for than you realize, and it often happens all at once. Sometimes it’s when you first meet them, and sometimes it’s after you’ve been friends for a few years or had sex with them four times.
This is an agreement that also applies in monogamous relationships, and yet people fall in love with other people unintentionally in monogamous relationships all the time, too. This is part of the human condition for a good portion of the population. If you are opening your relationship up to just sex, you are actually encouraging hormones and neurotransmitters to flow even more than if you are monogamous. You almost can’t escape it.
So instead of having a provision that attempts to sidetrack the inevitable, it’s better to talk about what you want to do should it come up. You might try to implement veto power (which I will talk about in #5), but that’s a bad idea. I would suggest coming up with ways to discuss the falling in love process utilizing language we’ve provided in the NRE posts about what you are feeling and how you expect relationship dynamics to change.
#2 You Can’t Have Sex/A Relationship with Someone of the Same Gender/Genitals as Me.
This rule (and yes, it is usually a rule) most often comes in the form of the One Penis Policy, since we rarely see (insert disclaimer about genitals and gender here) women telling boyfriends/husbands that they can’t have sex with other women while she goes off and has sex with other men. But sure, maybe sometimes that happens. What’s normally happening is that a guy is “allowing” his girlfriend or wife to “explore” her bisexual side “cause it’s hot” and he’s got permission to get some of that, too, because “fair is fair.”
In the end, this is a sexist and gender essentialist rule that highlights the insecurities of a person who engages in comparing themselves to others. Your partners are each unique people, and you are with them for different reasons. Reducing them to their genitals objectifies and over-simplifies other people.
Trans-exclusion aside, this policy also treats same-gender relationships as if they are less important than heterosexual relationships. One reason people “allow” for these agreements is because they are less threatening. If you inherently think that a homosexual relationship isn’t going to destroy your heterosexual relationship, you clearly aren’t taking that relationship seriously. You might be the same kind of person that thinks they can convert gay people with their amazing genitals, too.
#3 You Can’t Go Do X Thing With Other People
There are two main areas where this agreement shows up. One generally involves sex things: kissing, anal, that thing with the eggbeaters. The other is either a specific “special” place or a blanket rule not to take other dates somewhere first. Again, most of what this agreement comes back to is an attempt to protect an insecurity. What about your relationship feels insecure?
I’m going to address where people screw up that sometimes ends up getting this rule implemented. An established couple talks about doing a thing they haven’t done yet, and then person A REPEATEDLY goes and does that same thing with other new people first while person B hasn’t been able to get person A to plan a single date in years. In this case, the agreement you are trying to put in place isn’t solving the actual problem, which is ‘why person A doesn’t feel the need to plan dates in the relationship’ which is a whole other problem. And no wonder person B is feeling insecure in the relationship.
But sometimes people just implement this agreement to “keep something special” in the relationship. Every human is a special snowflake, and every dyad is a special snowflake duo. What need consistently hasn’t been met in your life that has led you to feel not special? You can likely find other ways to help you and your relationship feel special that don’t involve preventing two other grown adults from engaging in safe and consensual behavior (There’s a line with sexual health that we talk about in our safer sex class).
This is one of those agreements that may not be fair to the outside partner who didn’t have a say in the agreement. This comes up more often if it’s associated with sex or kink, but sometimes if it’s associated with restaurants, events, or even pet names/honorifics. If you have one of these agreements with your primary relationship, it’s important to make sure you communicate that arrangement to any new people entering your life so they can decide that they want to participate. If it’s just a matter of avoiding one restaurant or calling someone a pet name, they might not care, but it also could be a deal-breaker.
#4 I Need To Be Able To Get A Hold Of You At Any Time
There is room for this if you have children, disabled adults, or medical needs that have genuine possible emergency factors associated with them. It’s best to make it very clear what circumstances might constitute an emergency, and difficult feelings probably should not be considered an emergency. However, people have made the assumption that just because we have cell phones and can get a hold of people all the time, that means we SHOULD be able to get a hold of people at any time. I think this assumption is hurting our relationships more than it’s helping.
Most often, this ends up being a rule when one person is feeling more insecure when their partner is going on frequent dates, and they feel the need to check in on them, or have “emotional breakdowns” that happen every time they are out. This is really rude to both your partner and the person they are trying to go out on a date with. No one likes it when their date spends half their night on the phone texting with someone. This is one of the agreements that affects people outside of the primary arrangement, and if it happens too often, you are likely to lose some dates/partners.
#5 Veto Power
When people decide to implement veto power, they often do so in an attempt to “protect the primary relationship.” But this one rule ends up doing far more harm than good. Even if you both agree to it at the opening of the relationship, and think it sounds great, the way and time it often gets implemented is what often ruins everything.
The other problem is that people try to enact veto power when their partner is in the height of NRE. Telling someone in the heat of NRE to stop seeing the person they are obsessed with is a recipe for disaster. If your partner is a highly limerent person, you are only making the problem worse by enacting the thing that revs limerence into high gear: creating adversity. You are also putting yourself into the outgroup.
This agreement is seriously unethical to the third person that is also getting vetoed. It doesn’t matter whether they are actually are a walking maypole of red flags, interfering in someone’s relationship is infringing on their autonomy. Would you like it if your mom came in and told you to end your relationship? That’s what you are doing to someone else. There’s a reason we have a thousand tragic stories about this type of interference not going well in monogamous relationships. It doesn’t go well in nonmonogamous relationships either.
People tend to want veto power because they already don’t trust their partner to pick the right person, they are afraid of being replaced, or they don’t trust their partner to know when they are getting so deep into a new relationship that they are neglecting their primary relationship. If you don’t trust your partner in these ways, you are already likely to have other issues that are going to make nonmonogamy difficult. In the end, veto is legislating around insecurities instead of working on the insecurities.
A healthier option for avoiding veto is to better understand where the insecurities are in the relationship, talk about them, and manage them directly through more functional communication and trust building. If you have good communication, you can discuss any red flags you might be seeing that your partner may be missing in their NRE. If you have built up trust, you will feel like you are on the same page in addressing red flags and hard feelings around time spent together. Instead of taking the nuclear option out on other relationships, you can talk through smaller adjustments that strengthen your dyad.