This week, we discuss the differences between rules, agreements, and boundaries, and how sometimes they can hurt a relationship more than help one. We explore how to make informed, healthy decisions with your partner or partners regarding what everyone involved needs in the relationship.
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Jase: On this episode of the Multiamory podcast, we're talking about rules versus agreements featuring special guest, boundaries.
Actually, in putting this episode together, I noticed a huge shift in the polyamory advice out there since five years ago or so when we started doing this podcast. That's that more and more people are discouraging rules and not leaning so hard into rules when they're giving advice about getting into polyamory or opening up a relationship, and that is a change even from just five years ago and then even a bigger change from 10 years ago or 20 years ago is a huge change from that. Yet, it's still one of the most common assumptions that people make when they think about opening up a relationship or when they think about what non-monogamy is.
Even when they think about what any relationship should have, even monogamous ones, it's like people don't even ask the question a lot of the time because they just assume, it's got to all be about rules and if you just have the right rules, that must be how you're able to do it. Today, we're going to be diving a little more deeply into rules and looking at how they compare to agreements and how we might be able to change our thinking about them.
Dedeker: I think what I've noticed over the past five years and also noticed after working with clients for a number of years now is, sometimes it comes down to semantics because I've seen some people incorporate what they in the relationship call rules, that actually are quite effective and feel really good and healthy and secure for everyone involved. On the other side, I've seen people in their relationship incorporate something that they call, boundaries that are actually very restrictive, very controlling, very inflexible and controlling someone else's behavior.
I don't want to turn this necessarily into just policing people's language and be like, "Use the right word." I think it is more about looking at the intent and the functioning of the rule or the agreement or the "Special guest boundary." Whatever it is that you are putting in place in your relationship.
Jase: I did want to say, it's more of like the philosophy of agreements versus the philosophy of rules rather than like, "This one thing is always good as long as you call it that or it follows some certain rules to become an agreement-"
Like, "If it matches these things, then it's okay, and if it's these things then it's not." It's more about changing even the intention of them and how you go about them and the whole philosophy behind it.
Emily: We're going to start off here with rules because I think it is the one that people-- At least when we started doing the podcast and when we started thinking about our own relationships, it became the thing that we were like, "Well, I don't know if this is something we really want to do." I remember in early interviews with other experts in the field, some of them said, "Well, this is not something that you want to be a part of." Even the ethical slot, I think talked about rules quite a bit because, it was with that parameter of, "We're in a relationship where there's a primary person and the rules are applied to the secondaries or to whomever as well."
Anyways, we're going to get into what a rule actually is and why people do them. People might do them to make themselves feel safer, especially if they don't really trust their partner or if they don't know their partner that well or, they just started opening things up and it's like, "Well, I don't know what's going to happen, so let's do a rule to make us feel safe."
Jase: Especially, when opening up, I think it's like, "All of a sudden, there's these unknowns because we haven't done this before, so I'm scared, and in order to make myself feel safer I think rules are going to do that. Let's make rules because then I'll feel safe."
Emily: You might want to do it because you want to protect or preserve your relationship, especially again if you're opening up for the first time and there is a lot of unknown there and you want to essentially keep the relationship still feeling the same way that it always has. So, feeling as safe as it always has been, and so you might make a rule in order to preserve that.
Also, rules can give us stability and clarity or at least we think that they can. Stability in the relationship, clarity for what each person wants, it becomes very clear and clear about what the people don't want as well. Also, rules are put in place just to get what we need. If we really want something, then we might put a rule on it and say, "Okay, that way, I'll always get what I need." At least that might be the idea.
Dedeker: That was the most interesting one to me especially as we're talking about, "Well, is it about rules? Is it about agreements? Is it about boundaries? Is there something that underlies all of that?" I think it really is about just being able to communicate what you need and maybe even what you fear as well because-- I'm going to put this out there. I have not put this theory through the gauntlets of criticism and thought, stuff like that, so this is untested as it is.
I have a theory that the better you are at communicating your needs and your fears to your partner and the better you are understanding your partner's needs and your partner's fears combined with wanting to help your partner get what they need and wanting to help your partner-- Not be in a constant state of panic and fear. I feel like the more that information is understood amongst both partners, the less of a need you have for things like rules. That's my suspicion, I'll have to continue some more experiments on that and see.
I feel it's like if I know that these are the things my partner values, if I know that these are the things my partner needs, not that I have assumed it, but my partner has told me this. Provided that those needs don't cross some boundary of mine, I'm going to act in such a way that supports my partner getting those needs fulfilled. Does that make sense? I'm sure someone is going to come out of the woodworks and be like, "What about this?" "What about that?" It's totally fine like I said, "Untested theory."
I try to think of the example like in my partnerships that for instance, I text Jase pretty much every single day and I text Alex pretty much every single day. There was never an agreement put in place, there was never a rule put in place, but it became clear to me pretty early on in both those relationships what level of communication they needed and wanted and also, what would make the relationship feel the best. I'm like, "Okay." Then I do that. I feel like there's a lot of other things that that applies to.
Jase: I think combined with the trust and belief that your partner will do the same for you. That they are-
Dedeker: They also have your best interesting in mind.
Jase: Right, that they're not someone who ultimately would just want to screw you over and you need to arraign them then.
Emily: Exactly, I think that sometimes there is this assumption that, "If I don't put this rule in place, then everything is just going to be chaotic. My partner will want to do these things that are not healthy or good for the relationship and so, in order for me to be certain--" Which is the next one, to experience certainty. That, "In order to feel certain that my partner is always going to have my best interests at heart, we'll put these rules in place just to make sure that that always happens for both of us."
Jase: I feel like this is one of those things that once you really start digging into some of the assumptions that are behind a lot of rules, it's actually very troubling. You're like, "Actually, this is fucked up." Essentially what I'm saying is, "I think that my partner is selfish. I think that my partner doesn't care about my feelings." Or some variation they're in, but that's at the heart of a lot of rules that I see people make and ones that I have made before or partners have wanted to make. At the heart of it, is this very negative assumption about my partner and once I realized that I was like, "Except, maybe that's a bigger issue to address." You know?
Emily: Yes, some of these things are for sure.
Dedeker: It seems like what we're getting to is, for the purpose of this discussion, that a rule is anything that's put in place with the purpose of controlling your partner's behavior, right?
Dedeker: I don't think you get a free pass if that rule also controls your behavior, even if the rule applies to both of you. I think that's the philosophy behind what we are calling rules for this episode?
Jase: Yes, and I would adjust that a little bit to say, "Controlling someone else's behavior-"
Dedeker: That's what I said.
Jase: -because sometimes it's a metamour, you said your partners.
Dedeker: Okay, I got it.
Jase: It could even extend out to-
Emily: That's true.
Dedeker: That's true.
Jase: -to other people as well, but anything trying to control someone else's behavior even if you're also abiding by it doesn't matter, you're still trying to restrict someone else's behavior.
Dedeker: Okay. With that fundamental in place, let's examine what rules tend to actually do. One of those things is that rules, especially, particularly controlling rules tend to turn our partner away instead of toward us. That tends to be more of an action, I feel of, either protecting or pushing away rather than, I'm bringing you in or turning towards you or looking towards you for what it is that I need. We've talked about this before on our cognitive biases episode. There's this cognitive bias known as reactants.
Basically, the more that a person perceives that their personal freedoms or personal freedom to choose or make decisions is restricted or threatened in some way, the more resistance they're going to experience. Including feeling anger toward the source of whatever the rule or whatever the control is. People are often not consciously aware of this reaction. To give an example, not related to relationships, I think we also mentioned this example in the cognitive biases episode. That they find, if you have a wall and there's a sign on the wall that says, "Absolutely under no circumstances should you write on this wall."
People are more likely to write on it than when you have a wall where the sign says, "Please don't write on this wall." Both of them are asking for the same thing, but one of them gives more of this sense of, I'm taking away your personal freedom to write wherever the heck you want, and therefore, people are going to feel more likely like, I need to assert that I do have this freedom and they're going to be more likely to want to break that rule.
Jase: Yes, it's so interesting. I found just like, I know this is maybe childish. But, I've literally just this last week with Dedeker, had this experience where there was something I was going to do. I was going to like switch over the laundry or put the clothes in the laundry or something. I was literally getting out of the chair to go do it and Dedeker calls from the other room and it's like, "Hey, put the laundry and don't forget to do that." I was just like, "No, I don't want to." I did go do it, but I felt that reaction of like, "Don't, no."
Dedeker: Don't you tell me what to do? Even the dog is like, "Hey, that's messed up."
Jase: Anyway, maybe that's a little bit childish but there is that reaction. I've even had that toward my alarm clock. Where it's like, I was going to get out of bed, but now that the alarm's going off, now I want to go back to sleep. I felt like that little bit of like, "No, don't take away my freedom to choose what I'm going to do." I went down this big rabbit hole of research about reactants and studying about it and stuff like that. One of the things they found is interesting is that this reaction of anger toward the source and also resistance against it tends to be especially strong when, either that freedom is a really important one to you or, it's part of a group of other freedoms.
Part of what, or I'm sorry, or it's like a whole group of freedoms which is being restricted all at once. Part of that comes from this fear or at least they theorize part of this fear that, well, if I let this freedom get restricted, what's next? That if I let this one get taken from me, others might get taken too. Or if this person is someone who's going to take this from me, they might want to take others later. So, I'm going to react against it now. I thought that was really interesting.
Emily: That's probably why some people are like, for government or against more government, just because of that fear-based reaction, for sure.
Jase: Sure, yes.
Emily: Depending on who they are. But yes, it also-- these studies that you were looking into talked about how we can experience vicarious reactants. It's like, when we witness somebody's freedom being restricted, we experience this intense anger and also a desire for the thing that they aren't being allowed to do. We might fear things like you just said like, our freedom would be restricted as well. There was a study by-- I'm going to try to pronounce this, city in the color and colleagues, I think that's right. Yes. There was a study about public health messaging.
The study showed that using less controlling language and reaffirming a person's freedom to choose will increase the effectiveness of a message. Rather than saying something like, you cannot go to-- your children, cannot go to school unless they have the flu shots. But rather saying like, it's a great idea because, you should get .
Jase: Like, actually giving reasons why.
Emily: Yes, you should give your kids a flu shot so that you will stay safe and that they'll stay safe or something along those lines. That is not like restricting the fact that they would get to go to school or something. That's a completely hypothetical, by the way.
Dedeker: Yes, Jase, when you were telling me about this study, you were saying that also, not only is it like less restricting language but also throwing in a PS of, but hey, you got to make choices best for you and your family. Throwing into the end take, you still have freedom to choose that that was the most effective messaging that actually got people to be the most compliant with whatever the message was.
Jase: Yes, unfortunately.
Emily: It's like reverse psychology.
Jase: Yes, a little bit. Just not exactly reverse psychology. But, reverse psychology actually is based on this idea of reactants or is intertwined with it. Is that idea of like, "I'm going to restrict your ability to do the thing I don't want you to do," in the hopes that that will make you want to do it more. Yes, that is the whole idea there. Yes, I couldn't find exactly the wording that they used for that reaffirming of your freedom to choose at the end, but I did think that was interesting. I think that goes along with what we're going to talk about later, about approaching things more as an agreement of like, well, you can do what you're going to do, I'm not going to restrict that.
I hope that you'll choose things that help me out and that benefit me and I trust you to do that. That's a very different thing from saying, "You can't do X, Y, or Z because I might be upset by it, or it might go badly," or something like that. Another one with that vicarious reactants thing, that study was-- it was specifically women watching a video of a meeting where the women weren't allowed to participate in a discussion about something. Afterward, they found that the women who watched that expressed more interest in the topic of what that meeting was about than they're base level.
It's that idea of like, I'm more interested in this thing because I saw someone else's ability to participate being taken from them. It has become more important to me and the same way it probably became more important to those women in the video. Although I think they were actors but, still, yes. It is really interesting. Then lastly, just that short-term restriction is more likely to be accepted. That is, even if someone is going to really limit your freedoms, as long as there is an understanding that this is temporary, that's going to elicit less of that reactant response. The example is-
Emily: You can't go outside in a storm or something.
Jase: Sure, yes. Or like, if someone, there's an earthquake and someone comes in and it's like, everyone go this way quickly into this hallway. Whatever it is, you're more likely to not be, "No, I can choose where I want to go." Because it's like, "Yes, I get it. This is just an emergency." Unfortunately, people can abuse this for things like Homeland Security laws. Where it's like, "Oh, well, this is an emergency, everyone. Don't worry. It's just temporary," and then 10 years later, well.
Emily: It ain't. Yes.
Dedeker: Well, I'm thinking okay, sorry, but to apply it to relationships and not to national security emergencies or weather emergencies.
I feel like this could be something like, I don't know. It's like, yes, I know, you had plans for a date tonight but I'm knocked out with the flu and puking every 10 minutes. I'm really sorry, I really need your help taking care of me tonight. Can you do-- do you mind rescheduling your date? Something like that.
Jase: I might even propose some things. I think we'll get to that actually a little bit later with one of the other examples, but I would say more. It's something that like the idea of we're-- like, I'm pregnant right now. While I'm pregnant, let's put some rules in place about our dating habits or something with the understanding that this is right, this is temporary during this time. That's just an example. It depends what the rules are still. But just an example of that's probably going to elicit less reactants and resistance against you.
Dedeker: Because we understand clearly, this is temporary. This is a very special circumstance or something like that.
Emily: Let's move on to what else rules actually can do. Rules are inflexible and they can often lead to things like legalistic disputes. The law out there, our American law, and I'm assuming most laws. Yes, exactly. It's really complex. My best friend went to a law school. He is a lawyer now and I'm glad that he has to deal with all that and not me because, it's a lot. Law is designed to be followed to the latter of the law, but that prevents us from seeing the spirit of the law. Rules really tend to not be flexible for extenuating circumstances. Again, if you have a rule in place, like, "If I go on a date or if I have a date planned, then I will always go on it."
For example, but then an extenuating circumstance comes up of like, "Hey." Like, "I'm puking my brains out, can you please help me?" You say, "No, I have this date, that's our rule that we always allow the dates to happen and go with the thing that's set and is done. That really doesn't allow for an extenuating circumstance, so you're either following the rule or you aren't." We can try to anticipate all possible situations that might arise, but then, often, we can end up with this really big dictionary size book of rules like one does in the legal system. Unfortunately, you're just getting into the small semantics of each thing I guess.
Jase: It's like the thing Dedeker likes to mention, it's like trying to draw a map of a country you've never been to. It's that you can-
Emily: It's impossible.
Jase: It could be like, "No sleepovers with anyone else." It's like, "But what if they are sick and I want to go be with them while they're really sick or something's wrong." It's like, "Well, okay only under those circumstances but only if the sicknesses is bad enough that they had to go to a doctor." You get into this thing where you're-
Emily: "I want to see the doctor's note."
Dedeker: "You need to be back home by 8:00 AM, the next day-"
Jase: Your doctor's note proving that that's where you were. It gets out of hand really quickly. Some examples of this is worrying about following rules to the letter since rules are inherently a binary system. You either follow them or you didn't. These things like say a rule saying, "You can't have sleepovers." You come home at 6:00 AM in the morning and your partner is really mad. It's like, "Hey, we have a rule that you can't have sleepovers." You're like, "Well, we didn't sleep so, I'm fine."
Dedeker: Oh my God.
Emily: That's not going to go well.
Dedeker: That's going to go over real well.
Jase: The example like we just brought up of having a partner who's really sick or an emergency happens where they have death in the family and you want to support them. That if you have a rule in place, your only flexibility comes from being willing to break a rule. It's like, "Well, I care about you and I want to support you, so I'm going to break my rule with another partner in order to be there and support you." The rules are inherently inflexible like that unless they have these million different clauses and you have to go consult the-
Dedeker: Related to that often, I think what we see with restrictive rules is that the only options are either compliance with the rule or just failure and breaking the rule or failing to follow the rule. Often, it's unenforceable as well. I think rules as we traditionally know them, especially if you hearken back to your elementary school days, for instance, using-
Jase: No hitting.
Dedeker: No hitting or no talking or talking outside, whatever it is. They're reinforced with punishment. You use punishments or penalties on a partner and that can lead to a toxic relationship that involves threats and passive aggression. It can be things like, "Okay, our rule is, whatever you're doing when you go out, you're always home by 10:00 PM. That's the rule." Like, "We're always home by 10:00 PM, that's the rule." Something happens, maybe the partner loses track of time, they're home half an hour later, then it's the punishment. Usually being that your partner is really upset, "We have to have a big discussion about it."
Maybe what comes out of that discussion is something productive of like, "Maybe this wasn't a realistic rule for us." or "Hey, maybe we need to put in place that, if you're going to be late, you'll communicate with me or something like that." Maybe it'll be productive, however, it's like you had to go through breaking the rule and dealing with the punishment of your partner's upsetness in order to get there.
Emily: On the flip side of that punishment, if you do follow a rule that doesn't really elicit a positive response necessarily, it more is just a neutral one. It's like, you follow the rule because it's a rule obviously. Sometimes, there can still be a negative in your head like, "Oh, shit, I'm worried that maybe I might accidentally break a rule and someone will get pissed."
Also, as more rules are added to the equation, because of those extenuating circumstances or because of all of those things that come up in life, there's really fewer and fewer ways to show your partner that you care or to accept caring because, you have all of these required behaviors that occur. Instead of affectionate and loving ones, they just become things that someone feels almost entitled to because we put that rule or that thing in place.
Dedeker: I know Jase is going to give an example, but I wanted to give a way that I've seen this play out often with couples that I've seen or that I've worked with, that sometimes there can be that rule like the one I used of like, "We have a rule that we're always home by 10:00 PM, regardless of whether we're on a date or what we're doing or whatever. We're always home by 10:00 PM."
I've definitely seen partners try to put rules in place and think that they're actually going to be rewarding it, the idea being like, "Well, if my partner can follow these rules, then I know that I can trust them and then I can ease up on the rules." That's going to be their reward, but again, it's a problem of like, "Well, your partner is coming home on time probably because they don't want to upset you." You know?
Dedeker: Because there's this implicit threat of, if they break the rule, it's going to go really poorly for them. It's not because they're necessarily invested in taking care of you and your feelings or so invested in making sure that the two of you have a good evening together or something. It's like, part of the motivation becomes around just avoiding the punishment of breaking the rule. If that makes sense?
Jase: Even if their motivation is like, "I really want to be here to spend time with you." You don't get to experience that because you don't know," "Are they here because they want to be with me or just because they're following the rule?" It's like on both sides. You could end up building resentment and a feeling of obligation and then on the other side I don't get to feel like, "Wow, they came home early to spend time with me." It's just like, "No, they just follow the rule." I feel like you're missing out on the positives while also adding the threat of negatives.
Emily: Yes, just because your relationship is so stuck in this box of what you want it to be in order for it to be perfect all the time.
Jase: Like, this idea that, "In order for my needs to get met, because I don't trust my partner to care about me, I'm going to put rules to make sure I get these things." At least in my experience and in a lot of people that I know, the experience is, they end up not feeling satisfied by those things that they made this rule to make sure that they get. A real life example here that I-- Some variation of this comes up quite a bit actually and that comes from a place of like, "I want to know if you care about me, even if you are with other people or maybe we don't live together or something."
"We'll make a rule that you need to text me every morning. You'll text me, "Good morning, I love you." Something like that every morning." The problem is here, it's just like that, where it's when they do it, they're just following a rule and-- I had a friend in a relationship like this and at sometimes, it'd be later in the day, I'd see him for lunch or something and he'd be like, "Oh shit, I was really busy this morning and I totally forgot to text my girlfriend, "Good morning," fuck she's going to be pissed at me later tonight." He'll send a message and be like, "Okay, she hasn't responded yet. She must be mad at me."
On the other side when he does text "Good morning," I bet that's not as sweet and special as a random "Good morning" text is. Even if you do it every day, it's still like, "Wow they think about me." Instead it's like, "No, he's just following the rule." That's one where I've seen it. Several relationships really end up as this, just like, not fun, not romantic, not loving thing for either person when that was the whole purpose of the rule, was to feel cared about and to feel loved.
Dedeker: -and to feel safe, I suppose?
Dedeker: Here's this last one. It is a doozy and I think a little controversial but, rules can be a way to make your partner responsible for your unwillingness to be comfortable or to work through something uncomfortable or, rules can also hide the fact that you're not compatible and that you just want different things in the relationship. The thing is that, if I'm uncomfortable with something or uncomfortable with something my partner is doing or uncomfortable with the direction my partner is heading in the relationship, I can either discuss it with my partner and we can work together on the ways that I can grow or we can grow or, we can negotiate.
We can figure out what's going to actually make this work or, I can just make a rule that forbids my partner from doing the thing that they're doing that's making me uncomfortable and it protects me from this situation. The metaphor that I think I've mentioned on this show before-
Jase: It's been a while though, tell us again.
Dedeker: How about the story of the thorn, little thorn story.
Emily: I don't remember, say it.
Dedeker: You don't remember that? This comes from a book by Michael Singer called The Untethered Soul, which is fantastic and great and I recommend it to everybody but, it's this idea of like, imagine that one day you get this big old thorn stuck in your arm and it's lodged right in a nerve center. It's like, anything that mildly brushes up against it sends all the shooting pain up and down your arm. Emily's flapping in despair just listening to this story.
Emily: Sounds horrible.
Dedeker: You are like, "This sucks." Okay, what I do is I will create a little protective barrier, some little shield around this thorn to make sure that no one accidentally bumps into it. What I'll do is I'll also, I need to kind of in my house, I need to widen all my doorways because, sometimes when I'm going through a doorway, I bump in, it really sucks. I'm going to widen my doorways so that I don't risk that. I'm going to put on a hazmat-like suit of armor so that if someone comes close to me and wants to touch me, that they won't touch the thorn, the armor will protect me. You go through all of this rigmarole instead of just working on getting the thorn out.
Emily: Taking the thorn out of your stupid arm.
Dedeker: I wanted to be more compassionate about it.
Jase: Maybe we should get rid of that.
Dedeker: I don't want this to come across as if anything upsets you in a relationship, it's just your fault and it's just something you need to work on. But, it's maybe something to consider and at least examine and analyze.
Jase: Yes. Then, the example of being incompatible is something like, my partner and I fundamentally disagree about something important, about our future. Instead of seeing that incompatibility for what it is as, as hard as that could be, instead, we try to make rules that prevent one of us or both of us from doing certain parts of that or for indicating the fact that we do want different things or acting upon the things that are different from what we want, rather than them changing what they want, we put rules around it as a way to not face the reality of just like we want fundamentally different things, or we have fundamentally different philosophies about what a relationship looks like, or how communication should go or any number of things. So, we'll make rules to stop us from having to accept that fact, as hard as that could be.
Emily: Our our lovely friend, Annalisa, who was on the Buddhism and polyamory, or Buddhism and relationships podcast that we did a couple of weeks ago. She actually does a class where she talks about non-monogamy and rules and boundaries and agreements and things like this. She has a good example for this specific thing on rules being a potential to not have to work on your own shit. This one is-- the example is okay. I'm uncomfortable with the idea of you dating other men. That shouldn't be followed by therefore, we should set up a one penis policy type of situation. That's the rule.
Dedeker: This is assuming a relationship but like a heterosexual seeming relationship that is opening up, okay.
Emily: Yes. Heterosexual relationship or even-- I guess it would be a heterosexual one. If a homosexual relationship with two men is going to be non-monogamous. I'm assuming-
Jase: Two penis policy.
Emily: -the one penis policy-- it would be a two penis policy, not one. All right. Instead of the one penis policy thing or rule, instead, that should be followed by something like, "I'm going to work on this, while I'm working on it, please understand that I'm going to have some fears. It would be amazing if you could be supportive." Maybe that support would look like something of maybe, you don't date men for a short period of time. It might look like you just help your partner process what they're going through while you are dating men. Any number of things but it basically is about helping your partner in their growth, not shouldering their fears so that they don't have to.
Dedeker: Yes. We could go off on this for so long. I'm not going to-- maybe I'm going to-- No, I'm not going to.
Emily: Well, you wrote a whole article about it back in the day and that's I think our most talked about post. People got angry about this one.
Dedeker: Well, it's just that there's just so many options available to you outside of just telling your partner you're not allowed to date any other men. There's so many options because it could be like, "Hey, actually, I would love to sit down with you and talk about my fears of dating other men, or I want to sit down and talk to you about my bad history of other men. Or, I want to talk to you about my fears of what might happen if someone hurts you, or let me sit down and then let's kind of come up with some actual things that we could do."
Maybe it's like, "Hey, actually, if I met your other male partner sooner in the dating process rather than later, that would make me feel better or, if I didn't meet them for a while, maybe that'll help me feel better." There's so many options, I feel outside of just, "Here's the rule, no other men."
Jase: Then maybe, God forbid, let's have a conversation where I can actually examine what being a man means to me and what you dating other men means to me about my masculinity or about my-- what I mean as a human being, God forbid, we actually, have that.
Emily: Have those conversations?
Jase: Right and actually, that willingness to introspect and to grow. Instead, it's like, "No, I don't want to do that work. I'm just going to make a rule for you instead. That's easier."
Dedeker: Right. Another example of a rule like this, that can mask the unwillingness to work through uncomfortable stuff is a rule of, no introducing other partners to our friends. I've seen this one a lot, especially with couples who just started opening up and they decide like, "Okay, fine, you can date whoever but, you can't introduce them to anyone that we know." Now, of course, this is going to be accepting scenarios where it is paramount to your personal safety to stay in the closet. If your friends, being aware of the fact that you're not monogamous is going to cause major problems for you, then yes, okay, collaborate with your partner on what is going to help everyone in the situation, including the person that your partner is dating to feel relatively safe or safe enough in the situation.
However, I do feel like in most scenarios, a rule like this, it can mask my worries of being replaced. I worry if you can introduce a different partner to our friends, then our friends are going to love that partner way better and think that they're way cooler and think that you've abandoned me or I'm old news and then, I'm going to be abandoned and totally replaced. It can mask worries of looking bad in front of your friends or being emasculated in front of your mutual friends. This idea of, "If my friends see that I let my partner date a bunch of other people, they're going to think that I'm a dupe of some kind or-
Jase: A dupe, what?
Dedeker: Well, you get what I mean. People have those worries. Again, it's like, "I'm not willing to sit down and have these uncomfortable conversations with you of like, hey, this brings this up for me because I have this story that if my friends meet your other partner, they're going to like them way more or if they meet your other partner, it's gonna make me look bad." There's so many other options to talk about that and confront it and come up with things to do about that to make that feel better rather than just inflexibly deciding, "Okay, no-- Our friends never shall meet, never the twain shall meet."
Jase: Yes. Just another quick example of this would be, in that situation where we have different ideas of what we want our relationship to be, where for example, one person wants to have a monogamous relationship and the other wants to have a polyamorous relationship, for example, that sometimes a rule like Don't Ask, Don't Tell comes up as a way to just sort of hide ourselves from the fact that we are very deeply incompatible about this.
Where it's like-- we think it's like, "Well, this is a way where we can both get what we want." But, I feel like it can end up leading to bigger problems down the road because of the fact that it's preventing you from actually confronting that thing. Preventing you from actually having to face it and discuss it and think about it and figure out if your relationship is going to work with these two people who you are. That was a weird way to say that.
Emily: It's two people who you are.
Dedeker: I think we get the gist.
Jase: Yes, you get the gist. All right. Now, we want to look at agreements as an alternative philosophy to rules. Like we said at the beginning, it's not about just you phrase something differently and call it an agreement, now it's okay. But, more this philosophy of making an agreement instead. This is what we mean by that. That's that, it's making a change from instead of focusing on either requiring a behavior or restricting a behavior. Instead, it's a philosophy change turning toward each other, having honest conversations, taking ownership of your own growth, trusting each other to mutually care and respect each other. Then, from there, discussing with each other, what it is that you would really like, what are the things that are meaningful to you? What are the things that are challenging for you right now, and that this is going to be an ongoing conversation. Because if we are taking ownership of working on our own things, those are going to change over time. This is an ongoing conversation.
Emily: It's flexible.
Jase: Yes, it's flexible. If an agreement ends up in a place where it's like, “Well, okay, yes, we had this great conversation and we made this agreement that you're going to text me every morning, and I get upset if you don't do it.” It's like, “No, we've actually just ended up back in the same place.” I think that's where people can -- and I don't even know if ‘agreements’ is the right term for this.
Dedeker: Yes, I agree. It gets all sticky; it really I think does boil down to the philosophy behind it.
Emily: The intention.
Dedeker: The intention behind it, yes. I will say that I think that when we started this podcast, I definitely came into it in much more of a harsh, like, “Any rule is bad. Any agreement is good.” Then, “That's just what you got to live by.” I will say, after working with clients and seeing all the myriad of ways that people make this work, I've softened on that a little bit. Because I think I have realized it's really more important to focus on what's the need behind this rule or this agreement that's working in the relationship. Is it working? Is it functioning? Is it helping everyone to feel safe and feel relatively happy and peaceful?
I've recently landed on this ‘training wheels’ metaphor, essentially. Especially for people who are just starting out in a non-monogamous relationship, or they're just opening up from a monogamous relationship, you can put in rules or agreements -- whatever you like -- but I encourage people to think of them like training wheels. The thing is that training wheels on your bike, they were never intended to be a permanent feature of your bike. They were always intended to be something that you put on and you take off. That's why they're built that way; they're not soldered directly onto the bike. You have to attach them. Is soldering what you do? Welded? ‘Saw-derd’?
Jase: ‘Saw-derd’. I've always said ‘saw-derd’.
Dedeker: What is ‘soldering’? Is ‘soldering’ a thing?
Jase: That's how you spell it. I just think it's pronounced ‘saw-derd’.
Dedeker: It’s ‘saw-derd’? My mind is blown right now.
Emily: Yes, you weld it.
Dedeker: You weld?
Emily: It’s fine.
Dedeker: Okay, you get what I mean. Training wheels are not welded onto your bike when you get it. They're designed to be put on and put off. That's something to invite into your process as you're negotiating with your partner of what kind of rules or what kind of agreements might help us here. Of knowing like, “We should put things in place that are not going to be super difficult for us to put down.” It can include things like putting sunset clauses on particular agreements or rules, if it's stuff that we're just starting out with. Because this is the thing: if you do leave your training wheels on, it makes it much more difficult for you to actually ride the bike in the long term.
If you're going to ride that bike for anything beyond just like up and down the sidewalk, if you're going to go on grass, if you're going to get up any speed, if you're going to do any turns, if you're going to keep up with all your neighbor kid friends. Or if you're going to go even more advanced level and try some mountain biking on some trails and really adventurous stuff, if you have training wheels on in those situations, they make it potentially more dangerous and more difficult for you to actually be in that situation. Okay, now I'm getting pretty excited about this bike metaphor. I'll bring it back to real world situations.
Is something like no sleepovers -- absolutely. I don't care what the circumstances are, you don't sleep over with someone else. It's like, “Okay, that's great,” for as long as you're going at like five miles an hour. Just maybe going on a first date occasionally with other people and not really escalating. If you're intending to be building more ongoing relationships with people or maybe deeper relationships with people, as the difficulty ramps up a little bit, it's like that training wheel that you have in place, of no sleepovers. Maybe it served you at the beginning of helping establish a sense of consistency, and safety, and knowing that your partner is not going to go to abandon you.
But as you start getting a little bit more advanced, it's going to be the thing that holds you back. If anything, if you try to go on a freaking mountain trail with training wheels on, it's probably going to break those training wheels even.
Emily: At the very least.
Dedeker: At the very least.
Emily: Maybe your whole bike.
Dedeker: Maybe your whole you, I don't know.
Jase: Yes, that's true.
Dedeker: I encourage people to think about that. Training wheels in and of themselves are not a terrible thing, but you are going to outgrow them. Or you're going to have to accept that we are kind of limited to just going back and forth on the sidewalk, whatever that means for you.
Emily: The sidewalk of life.
Dedeker: The sidewalk of relationships.
Jase: I don't know how well all y'all remember back having your training wheels, but I know some kids are ready like, “Get those off of me as soon as I think I can maybe wobble on this bike and be okay.” Other kids -- it's really scary, but someone is there being, “No, let's try taking these off.” It can be scary, but eventually, you would never imagine, “Man, remember the days when I used to have training wheels? That was so much better than this.” I do like this metaphor. It's a good one, it's a fun one.
Emily: It is a good one.
Dedeker: Just think of yourself as a teeny tiny baby with your training wheels. Then also, think of yourself when you were a teenager and you were like, “Training wheels are for babies; I don't need that anymore,” because it was true.
Jase: Yes. Okay, so, as we're continuing with this moving into a philosophy of agreements and -- maybe even we could say a philosophy of communication and trust, as opposed to a philosophy of restriction and requirement. That something else that comes up is boundaries. This is the “fwa fwa fwa;” this is like the bridge of the song where-
Emily: With special guest.
Jase: - where boundaries shows up in the song and sings a verse or does a guitar solo or something.
Emily: You drop some -- what is it--?
Dedeker: Some bars.
Emily: You drop some bars.
Jase: Yes, something like that. Boundaries comes in and -- we're not going to go into this because we have a whole episode about boundaries. It's honestly a little bit of a separate thing from what rules and agreements are trying to do. They're related and they're interconnected, which is why we want to acknowledge this here. We will talk about boundaries a little bit more when we get into real life examples. But the basic thing here is to not confuse boundaries with rules or agreements. They can get sometimes confused, because they are a little bit related, but the key difference here is that a boundary is something you set for yourself.
That can be enforced unilaterally completely by yourself, either by you removing yourself from that situation, usually that. Or by stopping a particular action, or something like that.
Dedeker: Of your own, an action of your own.
Jase: An action of your own. It's like, “I'm not going to be in a room where this is happening, or ,“I won't stay in a relationship where this is happening.” Whatever it is, it's something that is for yourself, to protect yourself, to protect your own well being, and that you can enforce entirely yourself. For more in-depth into that, our episode on boundaries is Episode 178. Definitely recommend going back and checking that out, but just keep that in mind.
Emily: Just something to be aware of with boundaries is that if you catch yourself thinking about your boundaries or saying to a friend of yours, like, “I put this boundary up for my partner,” or “My partner keeps breaking this boundary of mine,” or, “The two of us set up this boundary together,” that's probably a good way to show yourself that what you're talking about isn't actually a boundary. It might be a rule or an agreement, but not something that you yourself are enforcing. Rather something that you put up and that your partner keeps breaking or doing, whatever. That's something to think about that actually, you're not really talking about boundaries in this scenario.
Jase: Yes, that's a great little litmus test. Okay, so for the end of the episode here, we want to take a look at some concrete examples of what does it look like when you shift from a rules-based philosophy to more of a communication and trust philosophy? Or we'll call it an ‘agreement philosophy’ as a short-hand for right now. Then also, is a boundary an option here? Is a boundary relevant to this and what would that look like? Who wants to take us on this little demo example here?
Dedeker: I'll take it.
Emily: Do it. That's smoking.
Dedeker: Yes, it's smoking. In this example, I have a personal feeling. The personal feeling is, I can't stand the smell of cigarette smoke and I don't want to be around it. That's my feeling, that's my preference. However, my partner occasionally likes to smoke at bars when they're out with their friends. Okay, so there's something that my partner does that runs counter to how I feel about it or makes me uncomfortable, or something like that. There's a number of options of how we can resolve this or rectify this, essentially.
I could put in a really restrictive rule, which is, you are not allowed to smoke anymore, or you're not allowed to go out to bars and smoke with your friends anymore. Now, that rule could solve my problem of preventing me from having to be around cigarette smoke. It would probably be a difficult rule to enforce,
honestly. Because it would require me to be keeping tabs on my partner and maybe having their friends report back to me on what's going on. It would require some work.
Emily: They might get resentful.
Jase: If you want to guarantee they really, really want to go to a bar and smoke, make that a rule.
Dedeker: That too, yes. That's also the side effect most likely in this situation. Okay, so I could ease up on the restrictiveness of that rule and I could make a slightly better rule, or -- we called it a ‘band aid rule’.
Jase: I don't even want to call it better per se, but --
Dedeker: Okay, but maybe slightly less restrictive, which is like, “Okay, the rule is, if you're going to go out to a bar and smoke, you have to take off your clothes in the laundry room before you come into the bedroom.” You have to; there is --
Emily: All your clothes.
Dedeker: You need to walk into the home naked.
Emily: Then take a shower and then put on deodorant, and brush your teeth, and then you can come in.
Jase: I feel like should have that too.
Dedeker: Okay. Now, again, this gets me a little bit closer to what it is that I need. It doesn't allow for a lot of flexibility if it's like, “Well, it's freezing cold and I don't want to have to take off all my clothes, and be naked completely, and walk through the house in the dark,” you know, or something like that. We could take a little bit further. We could talk about it and we could come up with an agreement. I can be like, “Hey, if you're going to go out to a bar and smoke, maybe when you come back, just consider how smoky you and your clothes might be. Maybe take some steps to mitigate the smell before coming into contact with me.”
Or maybe my partner and I can work on like, “What would make this feel easier?” Maybe he could be like, “Well, okay, I could get undressed in the laundry room, but I can also make sure that maybe I set some other clothes out in the laundry room ahead of time so that when I come home and it's late, I can just do that and switch clothes. Or maybe I'll keep extra set of clothes in my car,” or something. We could make it into a collaborative process of, “Okay, how can I get what it is that I need in this situation?”
Jase: To give them the freedom to maybe they have a different idea of like, “I could do this and that would also solve the problem for you, and help give you what you need.” It allows some flexibility and it allows them to take steps in caring for you.
Emily: It’s collaborative.
Dedeker: Yes. You could also have a boundary in this situation. It could be like if my partner gets into bed with me and they smell all smoky, then I'm going to go and sleep on the couch. Now, this can be tricky, because you could also turn that into a threat, because then it can loop around. It could be like, “If you come in smelling like cigarette smoke and get into bed with me, I am going to sleep on the couch and I'm never going to sleep in the same bed with you again. You better make sure that that doesn't happen.”
Dedeker: It could be that extreme. Or it could just be like maybe your partner goes out and smokes once a year with their friends. Then they come home that night and you wake up, and you're like, “Oh, God, they smell terrible. I'm just going to go sleep on the couch -- protect myself, protect my sleep -- just go sleep on the couch." Then, I don't know if it seems like it's a big enough problem that merits a discussion; we can talk about it. If not, then it's like, “Whatever. I enforced my boundary to protect myself in that situation.”
Jase: This is a good example too, where that boundary and that agreement we talked about work together. It's like, “I have this boundary, so no matter what, I won't have to sleep in bed with that smell. Because I have a boundary and I will go take care of myself. I will take responsibility for myself.” However, assuming that my partner does care about me and my wellbeing, they know that I don't like sleeping on the couch -- I'm assuming that you don't. If my partner knows that about me, and we've talked about this, then they would probably -- I would hope -- take some steps to not smell like that so that I don't have to do that.
See how these two can complement each other? It's not like, “Well, my partner either did or didn't do the thing I wanted, and now they have all the power, and there's nothing I can do about it.” That's where the boundary comes in is empowering yourself.
Emily: Yes, take some of the power back. Okay, there are common rules out there that lot of people will try, especially when they're first getting into polyamory. But some of these also have to do with monogamous relationships, rather. We wanted to get into a couple really common rules that people try. What are some of those?
Dedeker: Take the same treatment of all of them of-
Emily: Yes, we can try to do that. Sure.
Dedeker: - what's the rule version? What's an agreement version? What's a boundary version? Something like that?
Jase: Yes, I love that. Okay, I'm going to start here with rule number one. This one, there's different variations on it. But it's something like, “As your primary partner or the person you live with, you can only have two dates out of the house per week or less.” Some sort of time restriction, or like, “You can only date Monday through Friday nine to five while I'm at work.” Or whatever it is, like, “You can only go out on one weekend day or all your weekends have to be for me,” whatever it is; some restriction on time. Let's look at this one. What would be like where that rule comes from? What is it trying to get?
Emily: The personal feeling.
Dedeker: Yes. Okay, the personal feeling, I feel is related to like, “I want to make sure that I'm also getting quality time with you, or enough quality time with you.” I do feel like that rule can sometimes be phrased in a different way of like, “We need to have at least five nights a week together. That's our rule. It’s five times a week.”
Jase: Sure. Yes, it's the same thing, essentially.
Dedeker: Yes, but I do think it is that feeling of and maybe there's a fear there of like, “I'm afraid that if this rule isn't in place, then you're going to be gone all the time and I'm going to be alone all the time.” I think that's a common fear that people experience.
Emily: Well, the partner action in this could just simply be that they have another person who they really care about and that they want to see on a regular basis. There's a potential for those two things to be incompatible. The reality of that situation may or may not be the case. But yes, they may feel like, “There's a possibility that I'm never going to get to see my partner, because they're going to be gone with this other person all the time.”
Jase: Right. Then the restrictive rule is this one. It's that, “You can only go out two days a week, or you have to spend five days a week with me.” Or I would say that the slightly less restrictive version of it can sometimes look like, “Well, you just always have to spend more nights a week with me than with someone else.” Or it can turn into things like, “Well, you can't go on trips with them, or you can't spend more than two days in a row with them.” There's different ways it can look to try to soften it, but it's still coming back to the same thing that has a lot of those rule problems that we talked about earlier.
Emily: What’s --?
Jase: Yes, of being inflexible, and not allowing us to turn toward each other. Instead, just, the best you can hope for is just compliance.
Emily: Well, what's a good agreement with this one?
Dedeker: Yes, what might an agreement version of this be?
Jase: This is what I actually talked to people about quite a bit. It's to try to get to have a conversation where you're actually talking about the heart of this. Which in this case is, “I want to be sure that you're spending quality time with me. I want to know that you care about your time with me.” I find that often, this comes down not to the amount of time but the quality of it. Because if you think about it, especially with people who live together, and -- like Emily and I, we were really bad about this when we lived together years and years ago.
Yes, we spent more nights a week together than we ever did with anyone else, but it was usually doing chores, or watching TV, or just --
Emily: It was nuts. Just fucking around on the couch, watching TV, eating some -- I don't know -- Pad Thai. It was less about doing an actual date with each other. Yes, I'm assuming probably the thing that people want most is, “Well, if I'm going out two nights a week on dates with other people, then why don't we have a couple nights a week where we have a date night?” We're out of the house; we're doing something really special with one another. That way, I feel like my time with you is also really important to you.”
Jase: Or even just something about, “Let's make sure that we have even just one night a week together where we have a certain amount of time that we're not on our phones, and we're just here with each other. Or at least we're not talking to other people on our phones. Maybe we're playing Spaceteam with each other, or whatever. Whatever it is we like to do.”
Emily: Jeez, blast from the past.
Jase: “Maybe it is that we like to watch TV together, but let's do that intentionally. Let's be together and do that.” Instead of what a lot of us tend to do, which is just, “I'm watching TV, but I'm also on my phone and I'm doing other things. I'm not really as present as I could be.”
Dedeker: What would a boundary with this be? I suppose if I'm thinking about the boundary treatment, I guess it would kind of be going even deeper. It would be a sense of like, “I can't be in a relationship if I feel neglected by my partner.” Or, “I can't be in a relationship if I'm not getting my quality time needs met.”
Jase: That's a rough boundary there.
Emily: I know.
Dedeker: It still requires examination, because I think you need to examine for yourself, “What do I actually need as far as quality time or quantity of time is concerned?” Really check yourself, is it just that, “I need to feel like I'm getting more time than this other person,” or whatever.
Emily: Well, and communicate with the partner.
Jase: Yes. I think this is an example where a boundary is not actually appropriate for this particular thing.
Dedeker: I think it's, well, maybe not for trying to
enforce or change the situation, but people have those boundaries. Maybe they don't state them, but I know I have those boundaries. If suddenly I didn't see Jase for weeks at a time and there was no communication, I’m like, “There's a boundary there clearly. Because I don't think I can be in a relationship like this.” Either we'd have to figure out, “Okay, how do we fix this,” or I'd have to leave.
People have those boundaries. Again, it's a situation where it can be very easy to turn that into a threat.
Jase: Yes. What I'm getting at though is I don't think trying to turn everything into a boundary like that -- because even the boundary you mentioned is very amorphous. I just don't think that is necessarily helpful. Maybe it is for some people, but I think that, at least for me, falls more into this category of like, “If I'm with a partner who just really doesn't give a shit about spending time with me, we're just going to break up.” It doesn't have to be so much a boundary. Whereas I feel like boundaries are particularly useful in protecting ourselves when we can get them a little more specific.
Dedeker: I'm just going to say though that, like some people, I feel you are not this type of person, but some people need to be aware of this boundary with themselves.
Jase: Yes. That's a great point.
Dedeker: Because I've got tons of clients where they do start dating someone non-monogamous and that person is just checked out all the time. They don't know, “Am I just supposed to be just okay with this, because non-monogamy or -- but it is nice when we do spend time together.” For some people, it is important to be clear on that boundary of like, “No. Actually, I need these certain things in a relationship, and this relationship is not giving it to me. Therefore, I need to make my own decision to protect myself and maybe not be in this kind of relationship.”
Jase: In the bonus content for this one, we want to go through some more rules and more really common ones. We would love to do that now, but we're already had an hour long, and we got to have some sort of standards for the length of this podcast.
Emily: We have to have some sort of boundaries about how long we want to podcast at you all out there.
Dedeker: Never before have we gone over an hour as our listeners well now, so we got to keep hold ourselves to that.
Jase: Gosh, yes. Honestly, this is something that I think we all find really fascinating. This process of looking at these and getting to the bottom of what's really the purpose of these, and what are maybe more skillful ways of getting what we need? We would love to do that and to do that in the bonus content. We would also love to hear from all of you, what are your experiences with these? Do you have particular rules that you have struggled with or that you still do think are really important to have in your relationship?
Or was there something that came up in this that made you really realize, “Yes. I could be going about this in a different way that might make my relationships better and more positive, and more focused on turning toward and trusting each other?”