This primer is an introduction to one perspective on having healthy, ethical relationships. 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.
Relationships are complex strategies for satisfying a variety of human needs. This includes needs like helping others, feeling appreciated, and demonstrating kindness as well as often assumed needs like sexual satisfaction, domestic companionship, and emotional connection.
A. Compassionate Communication (NVC) and the Language of Needs
Humans have a limited set of needs which include: Connection, Sustenance, Honesty, Play, Peace, Autonomy, and Meaning. For more, consider reading Non Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg or exploring his site at the link above.
Q1) Which of your needs from the needs inventory above are you interested in pursuing?
Q2) Do you have needs not mentioned in the list?
B. Relationship Philosophies
People relate to each other based on relationship philosophies they’ve learned (like monogamy) often implicitly adopted instead of discussed and designed. Each have pros and cons and none are universally better than any others.
In open, ethical, Honest Non-Monogamy, all of your intimate needs do not need to be met by the same person. Therefore, needs can be viewed as separable from each other. Thus sexual, romantic, or other intimate connections; community, emotional, or financial security – these can be met by different people. This is an umbrella term holding literally every relationship philosophy except monogamy or cheating (see “open, ethical, honest” above).
Non-monogamy often means getting one’s needs met is one’s personal responsibility. This frees partners from feeling obligated to provide for needs as they are no longer the only source. One relationship may not provide all things. Rather than accept a fraction of what one wants, one can explore multiple honest, ethical intimate relationships.
C. Forms of Non Monogamy
I’m not a swinger, but will attempt to share some information about swinging.
Traditional Swingers (sometimes Lifestyle Swingers) often identify as romantically or socially monogamous but may meet sexual needs both in and out of their socially monogamous, “open” relationship. They may interact with singles or couples. They might soft swing (exhibitionistic sexual monogamy). If they do have sex outside of their relationship, often (but not always) the relationship/romantic partner has veto (a power dynamic) to end relationships (often with no discussion). As with all ethical power dynamics, this must be negotiated in advance with any “thirds” or “other partners.” My opinion is for this to be ethical, informed consent is required, meaning everyone understands what it looks like when that veto power is exercised and what happens with the third – are they discarded? Given the silent treatment? Kept on as a friend? Are they even allowed to say goodbye?
In relationships without veto, a range of oppressive rules can be used to intentionally prevent intimacy or kill connection forming outside the socially monogamous relationship.
From my understanding, at least historically, homophobia used to be quite commonplace for men while female acts of homoflexibility were highly encouraged. While this may not be in progressive circles, it’s important to be aware this used to and may still be part of some swinger cultures.
Hierarchical Polyamory involves one “primary” partner who may have veto or the ability to define their partner’s other relationships often termed “secondary.” The key feature with polyamory is having multiple “loves” or romantic relationships. Polyamorists may engage in swinging or casual sex; swingers may find themselves forming romantic attachments and therefore wandering into polyamory. Both of those situations may be desirable or undesirable, permitted or forbidden.
Clear expectation setting is key to getting informed consent. Asking what makes someone “secondary” to the open “primary” relationship is important. Is it a range of interactions? A prioritization? A prohibition of activities? What makes any relationship special?
It’s important in my opinion to watch out for potentially harmful rules used instead of good expectation setting. Rules designed to deliberately prevent “secondary” relationships from usurping “primary” roles can end up causing pain and objectification where “secondaries” get treated as need fulfillment machines, not whole people.
While hierarchy can be very fun when negotiated and informed, it can also be a way of substituting control and power for trust.
Polyamory often requires emotional work and self growth, leading to moments of stress, jealousy, anger, frustration, and fear. Without working on oneself or seeking therapy, one can get stuck in those moments until one is unstuck. Using power and control as a substitute for trust is in my opinion a short term solution to a long term problem, but perhaps that’s my bias.
Non-Hierarchical Polyamory is any ethical form of polyamory without partner hierarchy or control (no veto). There may still be a hierarchy of obligation (children, shared finances, marriage), but not one of power. It’s not one open relationship. There are no “other” relationships, just each person open to multiple relationships.
One method is to focus on needs-based requests for resources instead of entitlement based on seniority or “specialness.” Needs to feel special, valued, loved, etc or to share time, get attention, etc are all valid while a need for hierarchy (“being first”) isn’t compatible in my opinion.
There are many ways to make a relationship special other than exclusivity. Intimacy, trust, and love do not require dependence.
Relationship Anarchy (RA) (original manifesto is here/here) makes the radical assertion that intimate relationships can be those that satisfy any needs, not just sexual or romantic as with other relationship philosophies (monogamy and polyamory).
It also focuses on autonomy and consent. (For example, a best friend and roommate can be a stakeholder in house purchases, children, or other life decisions in RA while in polyamory they would usually be considered “less than” intimate partners.)
Rooted in anarchism, it stresses creating the rules we follow instead of following social norms, rules, or scripting created for us. As such RA reduces entitlement and stresses negotiating interactions. (Ex: invitation for drinks at their place is starting a script that usually ends in sex – or following RA, it just means an invitation for drinks.)
Polysaturation (being polysaturated) is the state of having all of the partners you care to have. Often this is linked to one’s needs. Often satisfying needs involves an exchange of cups – giving some of one thing to receive some of another. When your need for cuddles or sex etc is full, spending energy to get more is unproductive.
Having a Monogamy Hangover is painful or harmful behaviour to oneself or others caused by a lifetime of monogamous conditioning through stories, misconceptions, and indoctrination. Myths like “you can only really love one person at a time” or “if I’m not enough for them by myself, something is wrong with me (or them)” or “if they find someone better they’ll leave me.”
Love isn’t limited, and typically if someone is invested in your happiness and wants you to get all your needs met with various partners, why would you leave someone that supportive and flexible? Ultimately relationships fail or succeed on their own merits or issues, not because of other relationships. Again, if your partner isn’t looking for just one relationship, there’s no motivation to leave one person for another.
Q3) Which if any relationship styles interest you? Are they (is it) compatible with RA?
2. Relationship Values
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.
Can we agree everyone deserves respect? That means not treating people as objects without prior negotiation and allowing for things to shift and change.
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 risks them outgrowing those boxes or not wanting to grow into the fullness of those boxes and feeling pressure to do so.
The key here is communicating: talking, writing, messaging, etc.
Feelings exist and can get complicated regardless of choosing not to see or acknowledge them. Thus regular reevaluation of relationships is important for mental health. No one likes being told what their role in a relationship is, especially when that role isn’t serving them.
Q4) For you, what communicates that your partner respects you? What communicates disrespect?
Can we agree respecting others includes getting consent?
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 avoid larger consent / boundary injury later.
Prior consent means giving consent before an activity begins. Ongoing consent means the ability to withdraw consent during the activity. Sometimes folks don’t feel safe saying no in the moment due to red flags, threatening body language, trauma, or any other reasons. It is for this reason I put value in what people say was consensual or not after the fact. I’m not talking about regret. I’m talking about reporting that during the activity one did not feel in agreement with what was happening.
An extension of consent as a relationship principle is restorative justice, a model of dealing with wrong-doing through voluntary, consensual participation of all parties. Accordingly it isn’t important or necessary to “prove” wrong-doing nor is it necessary to shame people for having done wrong. Instead, I think in interpersonal relationships, intimate partners can hold each other accountable for their harmful behaviours and work towards each being less harmful and more kind with themselves and others.
Consent applies to sex, but it also applies to touch. Consent can also apply to everyday activities. Example: you get into an elevator in a scent free building and you discover someone wearing a very strong perfume that begins to give you a headache. Thoughtless acts push others’ enthusiastic willingness to the point of regret every day.
Q5) What would be possible for you if everyone applied consent to everyday situations and acts?
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.
A person may decide they want something you don’t want. Boundaries are limits on your person and your participation. You cannot set a boundary on what someone else does if you’re not involved (ie. you cannot do this thing, cannot see this person, etc.). If using rules dictated to others to provide a sense of security or safety, please don’t conflate them with boundaries as that can accidentally slide into abusive territory where actions become controlled by how threatened another person feels.
It’s valuable to spend time getting clear on your personal boundaries. I reserve the right to withdraw consent to sex and 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, that would be a violation of my boundaries as it would introduce me to risk I didn’t consent to. Having said that, it’s unlikely to result in any harm like contracting an STI (my polycule is mindful of their health and we all test regularly), and even if I did contract an STI, many are treatable. Often the stigma of untreatable STIs is worse than the symptoms though there are exceptions. Regardless, the behaviour itself of not respecting my right to give or withdraw consent would be enough for me to end the relationship.
Keep in mind you can always withdraw participation in a relationship, dynamic, or situation at any time (if you decide to become (non-)monogamous, I don’t particularly want to be involved in this relationship anymore). 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?
B. Trust and Accountability
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 will hurt you, and if you choose well, it’ll almost always be by accident.
The biggest indicator of confidence in a partner (trustworthiness) is in my opinion, a person’s willingness to own and resolve problems. 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.
C. Obligations, Commitments, and Integrity
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.
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.
D. Change and Expectation Setting
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.
E. Hold Me Accountable
I’m not a perfect human. I mess up all the time. When I do, it’s my intention to grow and improve. It’s easiest to do that when friends and lovers point out how things have gone wrong yet focused on the future and what can be done to be my best self.