Below is an excerpt from my book, Not Your Mother’s Playground: A realistic guide to honest, happy, and healthy open relationships. I’ll be sharing a few of these occasionally. If there’s a specific topic that you’d like to hear about, let me know in the comments!
Want to get your own copy of the book? Check out all the different ways to do that here.
Establishing Guidelines, Rules and Boundaries
Now that the big conversation’s (hopefully) out of the way, let’s help you figure out some initial rules and boundaries. You might hear some members of the poly community say that rules are unnecessary, a crutch that people use to never have to deal with discomfort, or that they simply highlight insecurities that people aren’t willing to budge on. In actuality, rules, guidelines, and boundaries — whatever language you find the most comfortable using — can be very important safeguards to help keep everyone feeling safe and respected, particularly important at the beginning stages of non-monogamy. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that you’re not comfortable with this, that, and the other, especially at first. You’re allowed to feel insecure or uncertain or nervous, as long as you’re not an asshole when you confess to those feelings. Rules can help people feel safe and secure, making them an essential part of creating successful and happy open relationships.
Whether you are in a couple, a group dynamic, or a solo polyamorist, being aware of your boundaries and being able to share them gives you something to work from when both meeting new lovers and negotiating comfort levels with current ones. There’s a difference between pushing yourself past a tough, but workable issue and then learning from it, vs. being involved in things that genuinely make you feel uncomfortable, and may forever, or at least for a long time.
Don’t worry. What you start with doesn’t have to remain indefinitely; your comfort levels will evolve over time, and your insecurities will become more manageable. What do you think you want the structure of your relationships to be? Sex only? Dating only? No kissing, a la Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman? Group sex, but only in specific configurations? Whatever your thoughts are, try writing them down, or saying them aloud. Whatever you find works for you and those you’re involved with.
Rules can include everything big and small, from things like sexual practices to logistics. You may feel more comfortable setting up very strict boundaries in the beginning, until you get used to certain ideas over time. This approach requires plenty of “checking-in” discussions — a practice that I believe is always important, rules or not — as you’ll want to see if anything needs to be adjusted or relaxed, the more time goes on. Alternatively, you may want to work within more relaxed boundaries, allowing yourselves to experiment with your reactions to developments as they happen in real time. Then you can make informed decisions about what needs to change or stay the same. This approach can be a bit of a minefield for your emotions, but if you enter into it knowing you’ll likely encounter moments that might not sit well and will be challenging, it can also be effective.
No matter which approach you take, whether you choose to have limiting rules at first, none at all, or some relaxed guidelines, there’s no doubt that you will make mistakes. Things that you might have thought were cool could turn out to not be. Language can be misinterpreted and reactions you didn’t anticipate feeling can easily sneak up on you. One of the worst things that you can do is make assumptions instead of clarifying what happened.
I’ve had circumstances change, causing one person to assume that the new landscape means it’s ok to relax boundaries, or scrap them completely, without talking about it first. These notions can cause friction for others involved, who aren’t aware that opinions and decisions were changing in the other parties’ mind. The old adage, “When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me” isn’t always true, but certainly here, it can be!
For Steph and I, our guidelines evolved over months and years of conversations and still change now, though more so on a case-by-case basis. In the beginning we were chatting about our current reality, hypothetical future realities, and fantasies every minute that we weren’t at the office. We wore ourselves out staying up late hashing it all out, but there were so many “What if this?” and “What if that?” moments happening that we felt we had to talk about it constantly. We were trying to ensure that we were both happy with the relationship as it evolved. If you’ve forgotten this part already, allow me to point out again: open relationships take work!
Below are a few ideas for rules and guidelines to help get you started. You might like some of them and hate others. None of this stuff is set in stone; this is just a jumping-off point to help you find your bearings, and get your minds thinking about how you would like to build your relationship framework. Take them and adjust them to suit your needs, write your own from scratch, or skip the whole thing entirely if you want! Most of these are couple centric, but there are many ways to adapt them for solo or group needs.
Rule & guideline suggestions
- Seeing other lovers no more than once or twice a week;
- Ensuring all your partners know about each other;
- Meeting your partners’ other lovers;
- Planning date nights specifically for the two (or more) of you;
- Making your bedroom off-limits for other lovers;
- Planning sleeping schedules in group dynamics;
- Reconnecting in the bedroom before and/or after dates;
- No relationships with mutual friends;
- Only relationships with mutual friends;
- Dating pool limitations, i.e.: no one from your place of work;
- Having a shower as soon as you come home from a date;
- Always going “dutch” when on dates with other lovers;
- Using calendar systems to coordinate date nights;
- Calling or texting only at specific times.
There’s no right answer to what makes a good rule. If you feel upset in the pit of your stomach, or believe that a certain structure is necessary for you moving forward, then you have every right to speak up and work together to find a compromise. Your rules or boundaries may bend and flex over time, and they also may not. Work on figuring out what feels like a line that’s permanent vs. one that can be redrawn when the time is right.