This is part two of a primer intended as an introduction to one perspective on having healthy, ethical relationships. The first part is here. This series as written in 2015.
All opinions are my own and do not reflect a supremacy or One True Way position. Questions are given for self reflection as a courtesy for those who want to go deeper.
While respect, consent, and agency are in my opinion universal, it’s important to stress again that these are just my relationships values. You may not subscribe to them. I encourage you to write your own. They are how I choose to conduct myself in relationships in general and may not directly describe my behaviour in BDSM scenes though that behaviour is still motivated by these guiding principles.
Relationships are an exchange. You can negotiate that to look however you want. Needs exchanges can happen without emotional content, but people aren’t need-fulfillment objects.
Stuffing people or relationships into boxes of all they are ever allowed to be sets up future conflict if they outgrow those boxes.
The key here is communicating: talking, writing, messaging, etc, as expectations and experiences change over time.
Feelings exist and can get complicated regardless of choosing not to see or acknowledge them. No one likes being dictated what their role in a relationship is when it isn’t serving them.
Q4) For you, what communicates that your partner respects you? What communicates disrespect?
I use the VOICES Consent Framework to get consent. It’s a best practices framework, meaning I view consent as a subjective experience of agreement for all parties doing an activity. This allows me to address minor failures where one party does not experience a subjective feeling of agreement even when agreements were made.
Part of thinking about consent in terms of risk profiles and risk management is accepting sometimes we will fail each other by degrees, and that identifying these failures when they are near misses or while they are small helps to avoid larger consent / boundary injury later.
Getting consent means agreeing to mutual agency unless otherwise negotiated. People have to be free to make their own decisions, fuck up, learn, and grow. It’s okay to offer support, advice, and help so long as you don’t demand actions or take away someone else’s agency – their ability to make their own final decisions (at least without prior power exchange negotiation).
Principles instead of Rules are part of how you allow people agency to make choices and room to fail. It also helps take some shame out of failure. Asking someone “did you break rule A?” often promotes a litigious or defensive reaction in my experience whereas I think asking them “do you feel that was totally in line with principle A?” is more likely to trigger open, authentic conversation.
Boundaries are limits on your person and your participation. You cannot set a boundary on what someone else does if you’re not involved (that would be a rule). If you and someone else mutually agree on their behaviour, that’s an agreement.
Expectations are usually informal understandings but the term may also include rules and behaviours.
Conflating these other terms with boundaries can seem hyperbolic or even manipulative as culturally there is shame around “violating a boundary.”
It’s valuable to spend time getting clear on your personal boundaries.
I assume my risk profile hasn’t changed unless I’m informed otherwise. If a partner had unprotected sex with me after having unprotected sex with someone else without telling me (and we hadn’t agreed to that prior), that would be a violation of my boundaries as it would introduce me to risk I didn’t informedly consent to.
However I’m a principles-based person, not a rules-based one. That means if it was a genuinely misinterpretation of our agreements or a forgetful, unintentional fuck up, I’m not going to see it as a breach of relationship.
I’m also a transformative justice values based human, so I’m not interested in shame or punishment.
Keep in mind, one exposure like this is unlikely to meaningfully harm me as my polycule tests regularly and even if an STI were transmitted, many are treatable.
I believe anyone can withdraw participation in a relationship, dynamic, or situation at any time. This involves getting clear on your wants, and is different from holding a relationship hostage where you constantly threaten the relationship to get your way.
It’s also very important that you notice if a person respects your minor boundaries (calling you by a nickname after being asked not to) as this is in my opinion indicative of whether they’ll respect more serious/dangerous boundaries. People change, but often the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. If people insist on trying a relationship again, I often ask “what’s changed? What’ll be different this time?”
Q6) Can you list three boundaries that are important to you?
E. Benefit of the Doubt
Trust is a requirement for any agreement or relationship. In polyamory, someone can lie to you just as easily as in monoamory. The truth is that untrustworthy people exist and while you can’t choose whether or not you get hurt, you can choose who might hurt you, and if you choose well, it’ll almost always be by accident and imo worth it.
The biggest indicator of confidence in a partner (trustworthiness) is in my opinion, a person’s willingness to own and resolve harmful behaviour. Being able to work through mistakes that will happen with compassion is essential to healthy relationships. Often accountable people (amazing folks) will require you to be accountable right back. That is hard. Still, it’s worth it.
It’s ideal to consider your core relationship values before dating. People are unique, therefore each relationship is unique in what it requires and offers, in how it feels and moves. This goes back to treating people as complete humans and not as need fulfillment objects.
An assumption of goodwill goes a long way to disarming tension and conflict.
John Gottman has a lot of research on monogamous marriage that mostly applies to non monogamy. I especially like Gottman’s Sound Relationship House. There’s an excellent book called Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love (summary) that focuses on relationship troubleshooting. Another essential concept is love languages which relate to how individuals get their NVC needs met.
F. Common Language
Love is not limited. However, time and resources are. Remember you have a limited amount of self to share. Don’t forget to consider self care/me time when scheduling your week. Be mindful of polysaturation.
Let’s talk about Obligations, Commitments, and Integrity.
Obligations (kids, pets) or commitments /agreements or control (sexual exclusivity, romantic exclusivity, Dominance/submission, Master/slave) can be desirable or undesirable. It’s a best practice to negotiate all of these things in any relationship style.
Obligations like children or pets can be healthy in alternate relationships too. Coparenting is a topic of much research with marriage’s incredibly high divorce rate. Divorced parents are quite similar to non-monogamous co-parents, except often there’s less animosity in non monogamy. Here’s a blog. Here’s an article.
Commitments are agreements you make to others and people who complete their commitments are said to have integrity. However, if a situation changes, it is up to you to decide where your commitment to taking care of yourself supersedes others. It’s an unclear spectrum that often involves yes or no decisions.
Obligations / commitments to others must be balanced with those to yourself. It’s a moving target. Check in with yourself and your partners often. Try to be compassionate when someone messes up. They eventually will.
People and relationships change. Negotiate but try not to rigidly script what you are. What doesn’t bend breaks. Needs can change over time; a focus can change as needs get filled. That’s okay. Try not to take anyone for granted.