Guest Blog: Building Obstacles to Autonomy

If you’re a frequent reader of this blog, you may have noticed the common thread of autonomy and how it applies to various types of relationships. Rusty and I strive to practice it in our relationships and encourage others to do the same. At its core, autonomy is what this entire blog is about.

The culturally dominant narrative of monogamy does not foster nor encourage much autonomy. That isn’t to say it can’t exist there, rather that it’s not as prevalent. Known generally as “the monogamy hangover,” bleed over of toxic relationship practices lead to eroding one’s autonomy. When we allow this bleed over to compel us to place restrictions of some sort on our partner(s), we refer to that as relationship protectionism.

As someone who’s practiced various forms of ethical non-monogamy, I will readily admit to having asked for and consented to various forms of relationship protectionism. Every time one of us would reach a point where these agreements would stop us from doing what one naturally does in a relationship, we saw how problematic they were. Not only was everyone’s autonomy in jeopardy, but the agreements caused other problems that then needed to be addressed as well.

Relationship protection agreements are often made under the misguided notion it will make everyone feel safe and secure by keeping fears at arm’s length. The reality is that it achieves neither and usually only lays the groundwork for future resentments. Honoring autonomy is scary because it means partners have agency to do what makes them happy, even if it’s not what you would have them do.

A common agreement in non-monogamous relationships is the ubiquitous “heads up,” requiring a partner to let the other know before they do a thing with someone else. I’ve been that person. On both sides. It felt like no big deal to ask for and give a “heads up” before proceeding with another person . . . in theory. In practice, we both noticed quickly that it being compulsory felt wrong. Instead of our other relationships (potential or existing) progressing of their own accord, we would occasionally hold back to make sure we honored our agreement. And on the other side? Who wants to wait around for someone to tell you they’re going to do a thing and OH MY GOD I NEED TO PROCESS THIS NOW.

Odds are you’ve either been a part of, have encountered, or will encounter the “heads up” agreement. You and/or your partners are going to do things like flirt with someone, get their number, go on a date, and maybe even doing things that adults do with people they’re into, like fall in love or haveThe Sex. It can’t be avoided, but we’ll be damned if we’re not going to build an obstacle course for them to go through first.

Many people use relationship protectionism to avoid doing the work they should be doing in the first place. Instead, people often try to redirect that responsibility onto others or push it out as far as possible by making it more difficult for their partner to proceed naturally in their relationships. I had a short lived agreement of this nature with one of my partners around sex in specific. We sat down and had a long, drawn out conversation and discussed all sorts of different options . . . you know, as poly people do from time to time. Ultimately, we wanted to be as loose as possible and keep it simple with “give me a heads up if you consider sex to be on the table with someone you’re seeing.” There’s a few ways this was problematic, but with how she and I generally operated, it seemed fine. We felt uncomfortable to varying degrees with the notion of telling the other this tidbit of information. I found myself delaying natural progression in relationships because I was nervous to tell my partner for fear of them feeling bad. Just another hurdle that doesn’t belong in what’s already a challenging enough process for people.

Getting rid of relationship protectionisms requires a strong sense of boundaries as well as proactively doing our work before it becomes necessary to do it. If you know your partner will eventually do something with someone else that may make you uncomfortable, why wait until it’s upon you to do the work? Identify the source of your feelings and do the necessary work of sitting with and sorting through them beforehand and save yourself and your partners the anguish.

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Since mid 2016, Adam (he/him) has been an educator and presenter in the ENM community. He realized he was poly in high school and has practiced various forms of non-monogamy ever since. With a primary goal of normalizing a variety of relationship structures, he shows up as his authentic self: an egalitarian polyamorist who practices relationship anarchy.

Rules vs. Boundaries

A long time ago in a galaxy right next door to the one I’m in, I learned an important lesson about setting and enforcing boundaries. As a poly person, I’ve had ample opportunities to practice all I’ve learned in that regard. So today I’m writing about boundaries and how they differ from rules in relationships.

To me, the concept is fairly simple to grasp but complicated to implement because while the concept is pretty rational, implementation involves FEELINGS.

Here is what I know:

Boundaries are created when you advocate for yourself. Rules are borne of wanting to control others.

Now, I’m a mom. I have a fair amount of rules because the job of parenting necessitates it. Rules keep the people I’m responsible for safe. But I am not responsible for my partners. I am responsible for myself, and responsible to them.

Huh?

I see it like this – I have expectations of my behavior when it comes to interacting with my partners. I’m honest, I mind my motivations, I own my personality flaws, and I honor their importance in my life to the best of my ability. These are the ways I feel responsible to them. I’m holding up my end of the bargain! But, in no way am I responsible for them. Not their behavior or their feelings or their Other Relationships.

So that means it’s not my job to make rules for them.

Boundaries? I have plenty!

And the really cool thing about taking the rule I want to make to appease my own insecurities and turning it into a boundary? Well… I usually realize just how silly it is. To illustrate I’ll address an issue I ran into with a partner about 20 years ago: the “I don’t want you to take your other partners to the places we go” conundrum. One of my boyfriends was upset I took another partner to his favorite restaurant. Here were the options available to him to address his concern:

Rule: “you’re not allowed to take other partners to the places we go together”

Boundary: “I don’t want to go to places you take your other partners”

I was unwilling to consider the rule, and he decided he didn’t want to limit himself.

So, instead of limiting the behavior of another person, boundaries limit what you’re willing to do. And in that process, you might discover you have no desire to limit yourself in that way. That’s usually how it shakes down for me. I dislike restrictions that stem from insecurity. I think rules that attempt to address insecurities tend to only be band aids for issues that need to be addressed, and in the end breed resentment.

Sometimes boundaries are necessary to keep us safe.

Safer sex is an oft-addressed topic in poly circles. Many couples choose to go barrier free, and as such, each of them is accepting some additional risk as their non-monogamous partners may engage in activities that could transmit STIs with others. The use of barriers between couples can look like rules or boundaries, also. In my own relationship, I’ve asked to be made aware of any mishaps with barriers or if a decision is made to go barrier free with another partner. That information will allow me to decide how I want to proceed with my body – if I want to continue to be barrier free, or if I want to choose to use barriers moving forward.

Rule: “you’re not allowed to go barrier free with other partners”

Boundary: “I want the ability to assess and address my own risks if you have other partners you go barrier free with”

Again, the boundary dictates my behavior while the rule is attempting to dictate the behavior of another.

So I’ll leave you with a parting exercise if this is something you’re interested in working on. Try taking a look at some of the rules you have in your partnerships and rephrasing them as boundaries for yourself instead to see if they still make sense. Caveat: beware the ultimatum – the “boundary” that includes a punishment for not getting your way. Those can be avoided by asking yourself what your motivations are – a thing that’s good to do all the time anyway.

Have a happy poly!