Every Relationships Has Rules

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.

No One Owes You Time

I’ve seen a few articles floating around about how Snake People are bad friends/people/relationship havers because they RSVP ‘maybe’ too much and they blow off plans by saying they’re too busy. Essentially, many of the posts about new social norms suggest that Snake People don’t prioritize their relationships and often telegraph that they don’t care about friends and family by saying they’re busy, by saying ‘maybe’ (and waiting to see if other plans come up), or by forgetting about plans.

I understand this frustration. I’m often the one in my group of friends that’s wrangling everyone together and it’s no fun at all. But I also understand that I am not the #1 priority of everyone that I know and care about. It’s incredibly self absorbed to assume that other people should always make time for you or that they will always know ahead of time whether they’ll be healthy, have energy, or not be dealing with a crisis.

No one likes flaking on another person. I am guilty of often flaking, and I feel awful every time I do it. So why do I continue to do it? Because I know that I am in full control of how I spend my time, and that I get to balance my needs and priorities against the needs and priorities of the people around me.

No matter how close we are, there is no point at which you have a right to my time and energy. That may sound harsh, and in practice there are repercussions to cutting someone off in that way, but every time another person chooses to spend their time with you, they are giving you something because they want to, not because they have to. There is no “you didn’t spend time with me” police that will come and discipline them or drag them to your side when they haven’t spent enough time with you. Everyone’s time is their own to use as they decide.

When someone else tells you that they’re busy it does in fact mean that they have prioritized something else over you. And that’s ok. We’re fine with this if it’s work or some kind of other Serious Obligation, but for some reason self care never rates high enough to be considered a priority. There are things in people’s lives that need to happen, like sleeping and eating and earning a paycheck and fulfilling the art/exercise/hobby needs and sometimes just being alone. Of course friends are in the mix, but simply because hanging out involves another person does not give it Ultimate Power over scheduling. Making plans with another person adds a fair amount of weight to following through on those plans, and the gift that your friends gives you when they ask to see you adds weigh to their request. But it’s never a guarantee.

I understand how frustrating it is to get a clear blow off when someone says maybe or changes plans at the last minute. But instead of blaming awful, selfish Snake People, I’m far more inclined to blame a culture that makes open conversation about mental health and well-being taboo.

Imagine this: you make plans to go see a movie with your friend and they text you day of and say they’re sick and can’t make it. Is your first instinct that they’re a flakey awful person, or that they’re sick and should take care of themselves? Most likely the second, although there are well documented instances of people being shit to individuals with chronic physical illnesses as well as mental ones.

But if you change that scenario to texting the day of to tell your friend that you’re having a small attack of the jerkbrains, or you just don’t feel up to leaving the house, you’ll get thinkpieces about the selfishness of Snake People. Even worse if you say that you’re not feeling up to it and then go do something that you are feeling up to, like being with a close family member, or spending a low key hour or two with a partner. Or if you aren’t sure whether you’ll have the energy and answer with a “maybe,” only to later decide you can’t quite make it happen.

Today I responded to an offer to hang out with “I’m kinda sick today but I’d like to make it. I’ll do my best, but I might be asleep.” Most people understand that this is me openly letting someone else know that I have a higher priority in my life, but that if possible I’ll put them up there. Most people aren’t offended, because we know that health and safety should be people’s top priorities (and for the people who don’t get that, fie on thee I say!).

I do have some friends who understand openness around mental health well enough that I can let them know I’m having a rough day and I might try to make it to see them, but I might need to stay home. And that is my right. My friends also have the right to get annoyed or stop trusting my plans if I do this repeatedly and flippantly. What’s important is that we can talk openly about what we want out of our relationship and our lives. What’s important is that  each of us has the right to set their own set of priorities.

I think that most non snake people would be surprised to find how highly many people my age prioritize relationships and friends, and how often we do make time or drop everything to see our people. But our friends also show respect and care for us by understanding that they are not the only things in our lives. And the more open we can be about why we need to prioritize something else (such as because of mental health or chronic illness), and the more people are willing to negotiate, the better relationships will be.


*My Google Chrome extension that changes the word m illenials to Snake People apparently works in post, which is why this post refers repeatedly to Snake People. I see it as an improvement.

Self-Parenting in Adult Relationships

Libby Anne is one of my favorite bloggers around, particularly when she writes about positive parenting. Although I never intend to be a parent myself, I find her insights refreshing, but also applicable to all kinds of relationships beyond the parent/child one.

In a recent post about positive parenting, she had one line in particular that stuck out to me: “I would call for a different response, one where past mistakes lead not to dwelling on guilt but rather to resolve to do better in the future, and where mistakes aren’t glibly justified as acceptable rather than merely understandable.”

In this case, she’s talking about parents losing their temper with their kids. But this statement can apply to any relationship, and is just as often a problem in other circumstances: romantic relationships, friendships, or even professional relationships. People are really bad at both forgiving themselves and still taking responsibility. These two things can look contradictory. It turns out they’re actually complementary in really helpful ways.

Oftentimes we view mistakes as something that needs to be dealt with on an individual level: how do you approach your own mistakes? There are a fair number of techniques for how to deal with guilt and taking responsibility geared towards individual people. And in relationships we get some advice about mistakes when it comes to communication style (e.g. don’t use someone else’s past mistakes against them), but rarely do we think about how to deal with mistakes as a partnership.

In all relationships it’s important to recognize when you’ve hurt someone, lost your temper, behaved inappropriately, violated a boundary, or done something else that will damage the relationship. But those narratives make it easy to turn ourselves into awful monsters, or even to play a kind of a martyr card (“I’m the worst, most awful person ever” is really code for “reassure me that I’m good”). This can also lead into relationship tropes of who is the good one and who is the bad one. It’s easy to take on roles.

What isn’t as easy is admitting to a mistake and then working with the other person to constructively avoid the mistake in the future. What does that pragmatically mean? It means asking your partner (in whatever relationship) if they feel hurt or violated in some way and doing your best to rectify the current situation. Then it means taking the time to figure out why you did what you did. A lot of the time the ways we screw up with other people make sense. People get stressed out and tired, things push our buttons, other people are just plain hard sometimes. But even if something is understandable, that doesn’t make it justifiable.

So once you know the why you can look for ways to bypass that why. If you’re tired and cranky can you let your partner know in some way? Do you need to take space for yourself? Do you need to feed yourself or take a nap? It’s often easier to think about these things like you might think about parenting a child because the parts of us that lose our tempers are often rooted in childlike behaviors and patterns. What would you do for a little kid that was having a meltdown? Establish routine, make sure they’re fed and rested, and give them space to feel their feels.

And as adults we can go steps further to understand our own idiosyncrasies, heading them off at the pass. I get cranky when plans change at the last minute, so I try to make sure the people I care about know that and know to give me as much advance warning as they can when they want to do something. I also have worked to have backup plans or ideas in my mind. My boyfriend doesn’t like it when I’m on my phone or my computer when we’re doing something together, so he’s asked me to be clear about whether we’re just going to be engaged in parallel play style interactions or really be doing something together. In response, I have tried to be more engaged when we’re doing something together.

These things are work. They are the work of being responsible but also kind to yourself. Dwelling on guilt is harmful not only to yourself but also to your relationships. It’s easy to see relationship breakdowns as all one person’s fault or all the other person’s fault. If they didn’t do anything wrong, then I must be to blame. If I feel I did everything right, then it must be their fault for being hurt or upset.

Instead, imagine that each of us is trying to parent the kid version of ourselves. Sometimes we need some help with that parenting. And all of us make mistakes. It’s time to learn that what’s important is growing from it, not taking the blame.

You Can’t Fix It Today And It’s Not Yours To Fix Anyway

I’ve got a proactive personality type. When I see a to do list, all I want to do is start getting stuff done and checking off items. This can be really helpful when it comes to work or chores, but it’s not really a very helpful mentality when it comes to relationships.

Here are some things that I’m learning about relationships right now. They may be helpful to other people, they may clarify to others why a friend or family member acts the way they do, or they might just be me clarifying to myself what I think and what I’ve learned. But I’m going to write them here anyway because I find it helpful.

When you are in a relationship (of any kind: romantic, friendly, family) with another person, it’s likely that the other person will have times of difficulty and problems in their life. It’s even possible that they might have some serious work they need to do in terms of their emotions and mental well being. They might realize they’re depressed, they might decide they want to improve their communication skills, or maybe they have some really unhealthy habits in relationships. Whatever it might be, it’s highly likely that someone you are in a relationship with will have some personal long term problem that they try to solve.

Oftentimes when that happens, it’s easy to see it as a problem in the relationship. Even if you know that at least partially it’s something that the other person needs to own, if it causes stress and difficulties in the relationship, it’s easy to see it as something that both people need to work on, as something that you can help to solve because it is affecting you.

For the go-getters among us, it also is easy to think that it needs to get solved. Every day that goes by without closure, without a normal, safe conversation, leaves us feeling off balance and worried. Lesson #1: you cannot fix this yet. You can and will tolerate those feelings of discomfort if you want a healthy resolution. Things like depression don’t fix themselves overnight. They take years of serious therapy, and if someone you love is trying to sort through a big issue like not knowing how to communicate or serious anxiety, it will be at the very least months before you start to see the pay off of hard work. You just have to wait.

It sucks. It feels miserable. I am at least in part writing this blog so that I can refer to it in the next months to remind myself that I just have to wait, and show up, and keep offering any support I can. But when I try to hurry the process or force conversations that will “resolve” things, or expect the other person to be totally “fixed” after we talk things out once, I’m going to be disappointed and I’m just going to be more hurt. Recovery takes time.

But even more than that, no matter how hard you want to fix the problem, no matter how much it might seem like you know what the other person needs to do or feel like you can explain just the right way, this is not your problem to solve.

Some relationship problems are for both people. Figuring out how to communicate with each other, negotiating boundaries and support, working through finance things, talking through intimacy and sex, making long term plans about how you want your relationship to look…these are all relational issues. One partner is depressed/anxious/dealing with serious problems at work or home or school is not a relational issue. Of course if one partner is dealing with problems, it makes sense that they would ask for support, talk about it, and try to deal with how it affects the relationship. But the hard work of dealing with the root problem? That’s their work.

I don’t get to cure someone’s depression. I don’t get to force them into therapy and make them talk. I don’t get to deal with their employment or money problems. These are not for me to solve. Just as I need to learn how to relinquish my need for control when it comes to timing, I also need to learn to relinquish my need for control when it comes to problem solving. I can ask, support, help, cajole, explain how a problem affects me…I can make my opinion known that something is a problem. But my family/friend/partner’s problems are their own and they get to own them. And if I expect them to deal with those problems the way I would, at the pace I would, or simply because I would, I am going to be hurt and disappointed.

So despite my huge need to make it better, work on it until that uneasy feeling disappears, I simply can’t. And neither can you. This problem is not yours.