Some thoughts on rules, responsibility, ethics, polyamory, and relationships

So. A few months ago, i was talking to datan0de about his family, and he said something that in one moment really solidified some ideas Shelly and I have been exploring for quite some time, and which illustrated what has always been a fundamental flaw in my relationship with my ex-wife. I’ve been poking at what he said, and its implications, ever since, and the more I think about it, the more I believe that it represents what is arguably one of the most important axioms of an ethical non-monogamous relationship.

We were talking about relationship rules,and specifically about veto power–a relationship rule which gives one partner the right to “veto” another partner’s relationship. datan0de‘s relationships are based on rules, which explicitly include veto power; superficially, some of the rules between he and his partner resemble many of the rules that existed between me and my ex-wife. My relationship with Shelly is not rules-based; neither of us has any explicit veto power, nor any rules which explicityly govern who we may become romantically involved with or under what circumstances. Instead, our relationship understandings center around the idea that each of us has a responsibility to do what’s right for the other, and if either of us fails to take care of our relationship with the other properly, then it will result in consequences that hurt the relationship.

These seem like two different approaches; and as a result of my experiences with my ex-wife, during which she on many occasions would veto relationships that I and my partner had invested a great deal of emotional energy in, sometimes many years after the relationship started, and often for little or no reason she could articulate, I became inherently suspicious of rules-based relationship structures and most especially of veto power.

datan0de‘s relationship with his partner explicitly permits him to veto her relationship, but something he said during the cours eof our conversation really made it clear just how different in conception, if not in superficial form, his relationship structures are from the ones between my ex-wife and I. He said, “I could veto femetal‘s relationship with zensidhe, but if I did, there would be serious consequences for the relationship between femetal and I.”

That, in a nutshell, is the most crucial dfference between his relationship with his partners and my relationship with my ex-wife, and i think it’s an attitude that is crucial and fundamental for any ethical relationship at all. Just in that one sentence, i believe datan0de hit upon a key for any reasonable system of ethical relationships.

In my relationship with my ex-wife, there was never that sense of consequence–never an idea that “I am ethically responsible for the consequences of my decisions even if the rules we agreed to permit me to make those decisions.” In hindsight, it should have been obvious; when you make a decision that hurts your partner or that breaks your partner’s heart, you can reasonably expect that to have consequences regardless of whether or not your partner agreed to those rules or agreed to give you that power. All the things you do have consequences.

To some outside observers, it seems like the breaking point in my relationship with my ex-wife came about when i started dating Shelly. Some of the people who’ve known me well for a long time recognize that the seeds for the end of my our relationship were planted much earlier, when she arbitrarily vetoed a relationship between me and another partner, Lori, I’d been seeing for abou two or three years. Not only did she end that relationship, she also explicitly forbade me ever to speak to Lori again–not something that was originally a part of our negotiated framework, but something that it’s actually quite easy for one partner to enforce on another. Lori and I were both devastated by the loss of that relationship; the fact that I had agreed to give my ex-wife the authority to make that decision does not change the reality that if you break your lover’s heart, particularly if you break your lover’s heart on multiple occasions over an extended period of time, you’re going to damage your relationship with your lover, no matter what reason you have for doing it or what your relationship agreements say.

datan0de understands this on an intuitive level. My ex-wife does not; she maintains to this day that she did nothing wrong and bears no responsibility of any kind whatsoever for any part of our breakup, as everything she did was within the rules. Because of this, the relationship structures that exist in datan0de‘s family are, in operation, much closer to the structures within my relationship with Shelly than with my relationship with my ex-wife, even though they look similar to the rules between my ex-wife and I, because the behavior of the people in datan0de‘s family is governed by a sense of personal responsibility for the consequences of their decisions.

The difference between a rules-based relationship and a relationship not based on rules is, I think, far less significant than the difference between a relationship based on responsibility for the consequences of indifvidual decisions and a relationship based on a sense that anything permitted by the rules is okay. It is possible to buld a rules-based relationship in which the people involved take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, and I think datan0de and his family have done that. In fact, there are a lot of things about their relationship that both Shelly and I admire, and as we develop our relationship with phyrra and nihilus, thee are aspects of datan0de‘s relationship structures we are deliberately and consciously emulating. My own skepticism about veto power aside, datan0de and his family have built something quite remarkable, and a person could do far worse than hope to construct a relationship as well as they have built theirs.

This stuff has been rattling around in my head for months, but it took this post in the Polyamory community to really demonstrate to me how universally applicable the idea of responsibility is. The post concerns the question about whether or not it is socially acceptable to invite one or two members of a poly family to a function without inviting all the members of the family.

Many of the answers focus on manners and etiquette, and quite honestly, i think that misses the point. It doesn’t really matter what the rules of etiquette say. What matters is that a person who invites part of a poly family but not the entire family to a function is asking the people he’s invited to choose between him and their partners. By extending the invitation, he’s saying “I want you to make a choice: you may spend this time with me, or you may spend this time with your sweeties, but not both.”

Does he have the right to do that? Sure. A host may choose to invite or not invite anyone to a function as he pleases. But the law of unintended consequence is as universal and insecapable as the law of gravity; and in this case, the unintended consequence of inviting only some members of a family to an event is that if you make a person choose between you and someone he cares about enough times, eventually he’s going to stop choosing you.

Etiquette permits you to invite who you please, just as our negotiated rules permitted my ex-wife to veto who she pleased. In both cases, though, the decisions carry a price tag, and the person making those decisions is responsible for those consequences regardless of what the rules say. Invite only part of a family often enough, and you will eventually hurt your friendship with those people–people don’t like being put in a position where they have to choose between friends and partners. Veto enough people and sooner or later you’re going to break your lover’s heart, and you will eventually hurt your relationship–people don’t like having their hearts broken. In each case, it’s not the rules that are the most relevant; it’s whether or not you accept reponsibility for the consequences of the decisions you make.

Consequence is what shapes relationships. Responsibility for those consequences, not adherance to the rules, is what defines an ethical person.