I’m looking for a list of questions that my partner and I can ask ourselves in trying to make an open relationship agreement.
Hi Newbie! Thanks for addressing what I consider an important but often overlooked part of poly: working together to make all parties happy. Since your question involves just the two of you at this stage, I’ll address both of you with my suggestions, although these should be easily extrapolated for larger groups.
I find that most relationship negotiations are best handled in this order: 1) figure out what you want; 2) figure out what your partner wants; and then 3) figure out the best solution for everyone. If you’re familiar with the concept of game theory – this is it, applied to real life. The idea is to find the path which leads to the most collective happiness and the least collective dissatisfaction.
Find some time you both can set aside uninterrupted, at least an hour (but could easily be more).
For step one, I’d recommend that each of you should on your own (no peeking!) write up a list of things you’d want in your relationship going forward, both long and short term. Include things you feel are mandatory, best-case scenarios, and what you’d be happy ‘settling’ for. Also include any dealbreakers you have which you would NOT consider at this point. Be as detailed or as general as you like, but cover as much ground as you can. Also remember these are ideas and talking points as much as they are ingredients for agreements, and nothing at this point is set in stone. It’s just a list of what you want – all of which your partner should know.
Step two, communicating with your partner, is more than just sharing the lists, although that’s how it starts. The biggest stumbling block in negotiating relationship agreements I’ve found is where people think they’re on the same page but it turns out they’re not. Therefore, be prepared to explain your underlying reasons for each item on your list, even if you think they are obvious. The key here is understanding why your partner wants what they want. I would recommend being as honest as possible about your true desires, even if you think your partner wouldn’t agree to or doesn’t share them, because the better your partner can understand what you want and why, the better chance you have of reaching mutual understanding. Conversely, when your partner is sharing things with you honestly, you may be surprised by some of what you hear. Keep an open mind, and remember that listening openly is part of the exercise. Make sure you each have the chance to speak as much as you want, and don’t move on past any item until you both feel you understand the other. Negative feelings may arise, but if you have a strong underlying primary relationship, and you mutually commit to holding your relationship as special, you will come to appreciate their sharing their desires with you, rather than feeling jealous or uncomfortable. Practice compersion.
Once you feel you have shared what is important to you, and have heard what is important to your partner, it’s time for step three, coming up with the actual agreement. Since you’re both new at this, your ground rules should be mutually agreed upon in writing, with definitions included if needed. (What is ‘sex’? What is ‘overnight’? What is ‘together’?) Try to include a catch-all, a plan of action to take if you’re unsure about what to do in a situation. Each of you should get a copy, and it’s a nice personalized touch to have each of you sign the other’s. Agree to revisit the rules after a set period of time (a week, a month, six months, whatever), or before then if one or both of you have concerns. Also remember that miscommunications happen, even after you’ve spent all this time clarifying them. Sometimes rules seem to conflict or become impractical in practice. In addition, negotiated rules cover the situations you can imagine, but what happens if something you haven’t covered comes up? This is where sharing the underlying rationale for your rules comes in handy; once you truly understand the rationale behind your partner’s desires you can usually extrapolate appropriate behavior for situations you haven’t yet considered. But check in with your partner if you’re not sure about something. I also recommend letting any new partners you may have know about your agreement; you don’t necessarily need to each walk around with your copy at all times in your wallet (although you could!), but definitely make sure new people in your life are aware both of your existing relationship/s and its relevant terms.
As an aside, I’ve found that most negotiated relationship agreements evolve over time, and after time they may simplify or even disappear entirely. The whole point of an agreement is to find ways to reach that mutual “win” that takes each of your wants into consideration, and the more you find you understand each other, the easier it becomes to achieve. Eventually you may reach the point where you each do the things you want, automatically incorporating the things you know make your partner happy, and you’ll find you won’t need that piece of paper after all. Good luck reaching relationship nirvana! Mischa, what’s your take?
Well, I really don’t have much to add to all that! You have definitely laid out the whole process soup-to-nuts….spoken like a real attorney! And if you are an attorney (like Leon is) then I’m sure this all sounds perfectly fine to you.
[Insert lawyer joke of your choice here]
I agree wholeheartedly about getting to the underlying reasons one person wants something from another person. Contrary to popular rumor, poly people aren’t immune to jealousy. But there is always a way to deal with it constructively versus destructively. Remember that jealousy is one partner’s issue; no one “makes” you feel jealous. You control your own feelings based on what you’ve agreed to with your partner(s). If they don’t honor those agreements, then you can feel disappointed and hurt, but put the blame squarely where it belongs and for a specific action without condemning the whole person or the relationship.
So a good relationship agreement lets each partner know where the boundaries are that makes the relationship valuable and sustainable for them. If you follow Leon’s process above and can’t come to an agreement, then maybe the relationship isn’t going to be what you want it to be. It could still be a positive thing in your life, but maybe it’s not sustainable. Or maybe it’s sustainable in a different form but doesn’t have the intimacy you wanted, meaning you have to find that component elsewhere.
The point is that everyone is transparent about what they have, and everyone has the choice to take it or leave it.
While I also agree with Leon that relationship agreements tend to loosen over time, I’m not a big fan of making draconian agreements in the first place. My one little piece of advice is to keep agreements as simple as possible and try to make agreements that you are confident you can keep. Not everybody has the temperament to sit down and go through the whole litany of relationship possibilities at the beginning.
So another option is to tackle one or two big rules first, and work in the rest as time and experience dictates. It’s like, instead of filling up your plate on your first trip to the buffet, just start with a salad and come back for the main course. The key is to create an atmosphere where every partner feels safe in bringing up new situations that might affect the relationship. Regular check-ins can be used to go over what rules are in place and what might need to change over time.
A great example of why this approach might work better is illustrated brilliantly in Franklin Veaux’s blog post titled “If People Approached Monogamy The Way They Approach Polyamory.” In reading this article, it’s easy to see how relationship agreements that sound perfectly reasonable to a couple might make absolutely no sense to a potential new partner.
It’s also a basic courtesy to include all parties that are affected by rules into the rule-making process (remember, we Americans fought a war over power imposed without representation – it’s not something easily tolerated). So especially if you are just a couple for now, maybe you start small and work your way through new rules if and when a new person joins you, incorporating that person’s specific desires and situation organically into your agreement.
And of course, if you get stuck, you might want to think about bringing in a professional, like our Open Love NY co-conspirator Diana Adams, a New York-based attorney who specializes in non-traditional and polyamorous relationship agreements. Her fee might be a small price to pay for a successful and happy relationship with the right person.