There’s a fairly common trope running around in open relationship/poly circles that rubs me all the wrong ways. This trope says that the first conceptions of polyamory were rule based, but that’s bad and it only happened because monogamy is rule based. The trope is all about how awful monogamy is because it’s predicated on a rule that controls your partner, their body, and their actions.
I don’t at this moment want to get into the “is poly better or is mono better” debate (spoiler alert: I don’t think either one is better), but I do want to address the idea that having rules in a relationship is a bad thing and that there are relationships that exist without rules.
First and foremost, all of us have rules in our relationships. They might not be articulated, but there are things that if your partner does them you will end the relationship or at the very least have to have a very serious sit down to discuss what the fuck happened. A good example of this for most people is physical abuse. Most people have an unspoken rule against their partner punching them. This is a good thing.
Different relationships are more explicit or less explicit about their rules. Some couples negotiate rules together about what they feel comfortable with their partner doing (having other partners, kissing outside the relationship, having sex with other folks, going away on long business trips, splitting up household and childcare duties etc.) while others just assume their partner has the same rules they do and get mad when the rules aren’t followed.
And some relationships focus less on rules and more on boundaries, wants, and needs. There should probably be a few hard and fast rules at the base of your relationship, just like there are in almost any interaction you have with other human beings. Each of us has some “dealbreaker” style things that make us feel disrespected and actively harmed and no one should have to put up with those sorts of things. Some of my rules include that I do not let my partner swear at me, physically hurt me, and that when we have problems we need to discuss them. It makes sense to have a few very basic, self-respect kind of rules about what other people may or may not do to you.
But beyond those very basic rules I try to focus instead on being clear about how my partner’s actions affect me instead of telling him what he can or can’t do. In general, in all relationships, mono or poly, romantic or platonic, this is probably a more useful tactic. I have some pretty nasty misophonia about chewing. When people chew around me I get irrationally angry and usually have to leave the room to restrain myself from punching someone or something. I told my partner this and let him know that it’s much easier for me if I also am eating or if there’s another noise happening, like TV or music. Now he typically doesn’t eat around me unless there’s something else going on.
Some people might say this is a rule, but it just doesn’t make sense to me to think of it that way. I was being responsible for my emotions by letting my partner know what was up, giving them a way they could make it easier, and then letting them know I’d go somewhere else if they did a certain behavior because it upsets me. This is the exact same way that I approach monogamy in my relationship.
EVERY relationship that I have ever witnessed has a mix of these very strong rules and the softer, more conversational boundaries. I tend to think that healthier relationships center around setting boundaries or expressing wants, but that doesn’t mean that any rules are a bad thing. Every person has some things that they 100% cannot tolerate. If my partner were to comment regularly on my weight, tell me to lose weight, criticize my food, or in some other way actively trigger my eating disorder, I would leave them because I cannot be around someone who does that and if someone wants to date me then that is a strong, hard, and fast rule.
There’s nothing wrong with having hard lines. There’s nothing wrong with recognizing that your partner’s behavior affects you. Being responsible means telling them that you cannot be around certain behaviors. But ideally you won’t have to do that because you’ll be with someone who cares about you and doesn’t want to hurt you. That’s true no matter what kind of a relationship you have, and I personally don’t care if it makes me controlling to have needs and boundaries. I get to take care of myself.