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Rules, agreements, and boundaries in polyamorous relationships

Updated: May 13, 2019

There is a lot written about rules and boundaries in polyamory and open relationships. Some authors strongly recommend having relationship rules in place, others are very much against them and advocate relationship anarchy. How do we know what’s best for our relationship(s)?

First, some definitions:

  • A rule  is a principle that governs an action or procedure

  • An agreement  is an act of agreeing or of finding a common ground with someone

  • A boundary is  something that indicates someone’s [often personal] bounds or limits

So what would a rule, an agreement, and a boundary look like in a poly relationship context?

  • A rule:  you are not allowed to go on more than one date a week with someone other than me

  • An agreement:  let’s agree to check in with each other if we want to go on more than one date a week with someone outside of this relationship

  • A boundary: I feel more secure when my partners go on dates with me more frequently

Every relationship is different and you and your partners may require having some combination of rules and boundaries in place. I prefer to communicate my needs and limits using nonviolent communication principles instead of having strict rules in place. One exception is health and safety - I do have a rule or two around regular checkups and using protection. For everything else though, when someone tells me I have to follow their rules no questions asked, it makes me feel like they don’t trust me. At least not enough to believe I would make the right choice for all involved based on my sound judgement and good will.

When I try to think of a situation when I would need to enforce a rule, it usually happens when I don’t believe the other person is capable of meeting mine or their own needs without that rule. For example, I have to impose rules around screen time with my children, because they are not capable of controlling their screen time themselves yet. Most of the time I don’t think I have the right to tell anyone what they can or cannot do, unless they are minors under my care. I feel even stronger about not imposing my rules onto my partners when it involves other people outside of the relationship.

Agreements make much more sense to me because they imply that all of the people involved have agreed to them. That brings me to the next issue with having rules: they are often agreed upon by two people, and when new people enter the picture they don’t have a say in those rules. This, of course, makes sense to a certain extent — when you visit a different country you have to follow their laws, but in poly relationships it might be possible to avoid using rules outside of safety. Here is an article explaining how poly relationships without rules might look like.

Here is the kinds of rules, agreements and boundaries my husband and I have established in our marriage:

  • When we decided to open up our marriage, we agreed that the most important thing was physical and psychological safety for everyone involved

  • We agreed to check in with each other often, and address any concerns and negative emotions as soon as they came up

  • We agreed not to have any hard rules in place and that anything that could potentially make up a rule was up for discussion

  • We agreed that we could ask the other to stop doing something only if we see that this person is not showing solid judgement and could harm themselves or the family

  • We also agreed that the well-being of our children is our first priority and whatever we do with our personal lives should not interfere with theirs

Those are all of our “rules”.

As for my personal boundaries, I like to reference Franklin Veaux’s bill of rights. It prompts me to think about what I am okay with and what falls outside of “okay”. I think that people in any kind of relationship — monogamous or not — should consider their needs and limits more often. Being poly nudged me to do that organically, but when I look back at some of the relationships I’ve had in the past, I realize that a familiarity with my own needs and limits would have saved me a lot of trouble and heartache. Now, I feel much more in control of my situation.

Would love to know your thoughts on rules, agreements, and boundaries in relationships. Have you found identifying your needs and limits helpful in establishing trust and working through your relationship issues?

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1 Comment

Jul 31, 2020

Good article - well-structured and thought-provoking. I liked your distinctions and the implicit sense of negotiation and common ground attached to 'agreements'. I also felt a resonance when you talked of the 'bill of rights'. I recently started writing exactly this kind of 'relationship rights' document, so that was cool that you provided the link - thanks. A couple of specific thoughts on the article come to mind. When someone comes into a poly situation, they are not always well-informed on the ethics. They might have made a vague choice to follow a non-monogamous route but have little sense of the extra ethical and communicative requirements that have grown up around poly. I didn't when I started out. Some people…


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Polyamory (Greek πολύ poly, "many, several", Latin amor, "love") is the practice of, or desire for, intimate relationships with more than one partner, with the consent of all partners involved.

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