Polyamory Without Rules, and a World Without Hierarchy

'Amor,' by Daquella Manera

Franklin Veaux's recent post insists relationships with rules aren't "anarchy." But in a way, it is. And the social implications are bigger then you think.

Recently, Franklin Veaux posted an excellent and thought-provoking essay on rules in poly relationships, adding to his already impressive collection of what I consider some of the best poly writing that exists. I highly recommend that everyone read his piece in its entirety, but to summarize, his stance on rules is that they give us a false sense of being able to control others, and that we should be able to grant our partners autonomy and freedom and still trust that they will respect our feelings and needs. As Franklin says: “If a person loves you and cherishes you, and wants to do right by you, then it's not necessary to say ‘I forbid you to do thus-and-such’ or ‘I require you to do thus-and-such.’ All you really need to do is communicate what you need to feel taken care of, and your partner will choose to do things that take care of you, without being compelled to. On the other hand, if your partner doesn't love and cherish you, and doesn't want to do right by you...well, no rule will save you.”

I agree wholeheartedly with this position on rules. But to take the discussion a step further, I don’t think it’s any real surprise that most people approach polyamory with a focus on rules and regulations. After all, we live in a society that organizes itself around the basic principle that human beings are only able to treat one another with kindness and respect if we are forced to do so. The structures of our criminal justice system, our work places, and even our schools are all predicated on the notion that people must have the threat of punishment in order to behave properly. If we took away a rigid legal system, common opinion says people would simply be running amok and committing heinous acts of violence against one another. If we gave factory workers any real autonomy, they would be sleeping on the job. If we gave children the ability to make their own decisions, they would sit and watch TV all day and never choose to learn anything at all. In a world with such a dismally negative opinion of human nature, is it any wonder that many of us assume we also need rigid rules within our relationships in order to prevent our partners from behaving inconsiderately and irresponsibly?

While elaborate rules and written agreements might not be the norm in monogamous relationships that they seem to be in many poly relationships, the only real difference is often that the rules are of monogamy are implicit rather than explicit. Monogamy itself is, after all, a form of regulation. If formal rules are unheard of in monogamy, it’s not because monogamous folks are more free-spirited. Rather, it’s because rules such as “don’t make out with anyone else,” “don’t develop romantic feelings for anyone else,” and certainly “don’t have sex with anyone else” are so culturally ingrained that for most folks, any official statement of such rules seems completely unnecessary. There is a basic expectation in many monogamous relationships that a person should not even spend too much time socializing with people of whichever gender they happen to be sexually attracted to (good luck with that one, bisexual folks!), lest they find themselves “tempted.” In other words, according to a common mindset, monogamous partners are not faithful because they are incapable of desiring anyone else. They are faithful only because they avoid the lure of others, and because of the consequences they would face if they were to stray. And while this mindset might not always mean the kind of micro-managing we sometimes see in poly relationships (though I believe it often does), it is rooted in the same pessimistic assumption that our partners are only as good to us as we force them to be.

The one small point where I do have to disagree with Franklin’s piece on rules is in his use of the word “anarchy.” Franklin points out that a lack of rules does not have to mean “anarchy and chaos,” a statement that reflects a common misunderstanding of what “anarchy” actually means. “Anarchy,” in fact, does not mean “chaos” at all. What it means is organization without hierarchy. I would argue that this is exactly the kind of relationship Franklin is advocating. And in fact, I would argue that “organization without hierarchy” is an ideal on which all relationships should be based.

My eight-year-old daughter has recently begun attending a democratic free school. The kids determine their own behavioral guidelines, via consensus, at all-school meetings. They are free to choose for themselves what they’re interested in learning, and how they’re most comfortable learning it. I’m a long-time believer in child-led education, and my daughter was unschooled prior to attending the free school, so it does not surprise me in the least that children learn well in this environment. What I find most striking, however, is their behavior. These kids have no threats of punishment. When a conflict arises, they can choose to talk it through with a peer mediator. Otherwise, they are governed only by their own mutual agreement to abide by community guidelines. And these children—given their autonomy and freedom—are kinder to and more respectful of one another than most people believe children are capable of being. It reaffirms my belief on a regular basis that human beings are basically good, that our natural impulses are to care for rather than harm one another, and that—even as small children—we do not need the threat of punishment in order to be good to one another. I believe that this little school is a microcosm for what the whole of society can potentially look like, in a world where all people are respected as equals and liberated from oppressive hierarchies.

When I embarked on actually living polyamorously, one of the primary things I wanted was more autonomy in my life, not less. My relationships have never contained anything I would consider “rules,” aside from mutually consented-to agreements about safer sex. But just as being non-monogamous doesn’t mean we have no commitment, being without rules doesn’t mean being without commitment, either. I am deeply committed to two men. They are commitments I maintain as a free, autonomous individual. I respect my partners’ needs and desires because I love them and want them to be happy and fulfilled, not because there is a system of rules in place forcing me to do so. For me, it feels inaccurate to label something as “love” if it is not freely, enthusiastically, and consensually given. I choose freely to treat my partners with love and respect. And it matters a great deal to me to know that their love and respect for me are given freely, as well. 

Many of us who have made the choice to live this way feel as though we have been liberated from monogamy—an arrangement which works just fine for some, but for whatever reason feels artificial and restrictive to most of us who choose polyamory instead, and for many monogamy is never a “choice,” but a social norm we subscribe to without freely considering alternatives. But I think we have to ask ourselves whether we’re truly leaving behind the constraining aspects of monogamy—and of society as a whole—if we simply replicate constraining conditions in our poly relationships. It is difficult, certainly, to see beyond the negative view of humanity we’re constantly presented with. But it is worth considering that every hierarchical, oppressive social condition—from racism to patriarchy to imperialism, and so on and so forth—has thrived to a large degree on the argument that as a general rule, people must be constrained and controlled and repressed in order for society to function. If we want a path forward out of an oppressive society, we have to learn to trust that as human beings we are capable of being good and kind and loving to one another even when given full autonomy and freedom. And while it might be quite a long road to travel before we reach that point, our most intimate personal relationships seem like an excellent place to start.

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About the Author

Angi Becker Stevens - Writer - Active Contributor

Angi’s column at Modern Poly is focused on placing polyamory in a broader sociopolitical context, examining intersections between polyamory and LGBTQ struggles, feminism, and more.

Angi is a freelance writer whose work appears at such places as RH Reality Check, the Ms. Magazine blog, Role/Reboot, and her own blog, radicalpoly.wordpress.com. Her debut collection of short fiction will be available early 2014 from Aqueous Books. She lives in Michigan with her two partners and her daughter.