I have written in the past about the concept of “veto” in polyamory; specifically, about relationship agreements, common in polyamorous relationship circles, which allow one’s partner to say “I don’t like you dating so-and-so. I forbid it. Your relationship with so-and-so is now over.”
I am no great fan of such rules, as long-time readers of this blog will no doubt be aware. Really long-time readers will also be aware that I have come from relationships which did permit veto power, and my thinking about veto has changed over time.
I’m not even going to get into the borderline-evil concept that people in relationships have veto power over their partners’ friends. This is just R-O-N-G Rong, stupidly and evilly wrong, in all but the most extreme circumstances. (“My partner is making friends with the man who tried to murder me.” Okay, you have veto power. Everyone else, shut up. Your partner is a free agent, with the right to make their own damn friends independent of you.)
Now, she was writing about friendships, not romantic relationships. But in thinking about the post, I realized something I haven’t put into words yet:
I have come to believe that veto power in romantic relationships, too, is a borderline-evil concept, that is in practice stupidly and evilly wrong.
I’m sure that’s probably pissed off at least some of you. Believe me, I know how seductive the idea of having a veto is, and how reassuring it can be. It calms all kinds of fears; it makes things seem less threatening; it gives you an out–if that other person starts stepping on your toes or making you feel displaced, one word and he’s gone.
That doesn’t change the fact that it’s stupidly and evilly wrong.
Earlier today, in a different forum, I read a post by a person who wrote “I’m a big fan of veto power – I have four kids and nothing should be allowed to break up my primary relationship, since it will affect them more adversely than anyone else.”
This is probably the most common reason I’ve seen put forth for veto–the idea that it will prevent anyone else from breaking up a relationship. Emotionally, it feels seductive, and it seems to make perfect, brilliant sense; if I share my partner with Bill, and Bill comes to replace me in my partner’s heart, that’s bad, right? But as long as I have veto, I just say the word and Bill is gone. Problem solved; relationship saved; threat neutralized. Right?
For starters, if you’re relying on a rule to save your relationship, it’s already one-quarter doomed. A relationship agreement can not prevent a person from breaking a relationship agreement; if it could, no relationships would ever fail.
More to the point, though, it misses something I think is much more obvious, and much more important. It starts from the assumption that new relationships are a threat; if I allow my mate to become intimate with someone else, this will, of necessity, endanger me. Our relationship will surely fail if I don’t put it on a tight leash. Without a veto, this “polyamory” stuff is scary and hazardous and I need veto or else my partner will leave me.
So the million-dollar question is, if you believe that, why be polyamorous in the first place?
Because here’s a nasty little truth, you see: If you share your partner with Bill, and Bill comes to replace you in your partner’s heart, and you feel threatened and defensive so you order your partner to end the relationship…what makes you think your partner will obey? After all, by the time Bill has become a threat to your relationship, it’s already too late, right? If your relationship is so feeble that someone else can just slide in and usurp you that easily, why would your partner listen to you?
There is an assumption at work here which I find kind of interesting. It’s the assumption that one’s partner will, if left to his own devices, leave.
There’s a profound lack of trust there. The psychological comfort of veto is born of mistrust, insecurity, and fear. It is birthed in the fires of a belief that my partner does not want to be with me, not really. My partner is only with me because nobody better has come along; our relationship is tenuous; I can not trust my partner to make decisions which honor and respect our relationship. I need the power to compel my partner to be with me, because without that power, it’s all over.
In short, I must use veto power to save my relationship, because without veto, my partner won’t choose to save my relationship.
And that’s a little fucked up.
Here’s another idea to try on for size: If your relationship is healthy and good, you don’t need veto. If your relationship is not healthy and good, veto won’t save it.
Because that’s the way of it, seriously. People stay in relationships not because rules tell them to stay, but because they choose to stay. If your partner no longer loves you, vetoing Bill won’t make your partner love you. If your partner doesn’t want to be with you, then veto won’t make your partner want to be with you. If your partner wants to replace you with a better model, then veto won’t, and can’t, prevent that.
Sorry, but it’s true. Having a veto arrangement feels good; it makes you feel safer and more secure. But the feeling is a lie. It does not provide real safety or real security. In the end, your partner loves you, or doesn’t; your partner wants to be with you, or doesn’t; no rule will make the difference.
It might, however, chase your partner away.
If veto rules only offered the psychological illusion of security, and that’s all they did, they’d be fine. People wrap themselves in illusory security for the sake of their own mental health all the time.
But here’s the thing. Veto rules have consequences–some of them subtle, some not so subtle. And those consequences can corrode your partner’s relationships and your own.
I’ve talked before about the slow, far-reaching damage that can be done to a relationship by veto; how every time you kick someone your partner cares about out the door, you hurt your partner, and how the long-term accumulation of hurt can undermine and poison your relationship with your partner. In the end, that’s one of the single biggest factors in my own breakup with my ex-wife; the gradual accumulation of a series of hurts, inflicted, ironically, in the name of “protecting” our relationship. So I won’t go over that again.
What I will do, though, is something that I scarcely ever see done, and talk about things from the perspective of the third person, the one to whom the veto can, theoretically, be applied.
People seldom do this. I’ve seen this, in books and in conversations and in all the relationship rules I’ve heard about. Over and over, people approach polyamory with no though to the needs or feelings of the newcomer to the relationship.
And that’s a little fucked up, too.
When you’re terrified of losing something, it can be all too easy to become so wrapped up in that fear that you become blind to the consequences of your actions. If you truly believe that polyamory might mean the end of your relationship, it’s easy to chase security so hard that you become blind to your own selfishness. A veto arrangement is the equivalent of opening your front door to a guest, shotgun in the crook of your arm, and saying “Welcome! Come on in! Make one wrong move and I’ll splatter your brains out the back of your head. I just baked a pie; would you like some?”
Radical thought, here: The new people coming into your relationship are human beings. They have rights, and they are entitled to being treated with respect and compassion. They are not The Enemy. They are not faceless demons of your subconscious; they are not the physical embodiment of your insecurities and your abandonment fears. A little respect goes a long way.
To be the third partner in a relationship that permits veto is to have the sword of Damocles hanging over you. You think you’re insecure? You think that polyamory sounds threatening and scary to you? Imagine how it feels to the person who’s told, “One word from that person over there and I am obligated to kick you to the curb. That person has absolute right, without appeal, to take away anything you build with me, in an instant, for any reason or no reason at all. Just sayin’.” How well do you suppose those shoes fit?
You think you’d feel good if your lover said that to you?
One of the biggest fears that many folks face is the fear of being old news. Everyone who’s ever fallen in love knows the giddy rush that comes with a new relationship; there’s a time when your lover is bathed in light, and every blink of your lover’s eyes makes your heart go pitter-pat.
When you’ve been with someone for a while, the glow fades. Then along comes someone new, and you get to watch your lover fall in love all over again, only this time it’s not with you. You’re the old news now; you’re not all shiny any more. You’re the person who leaves dirty dishes in the sink or doesn’t take the trash out or does all those other not-perfect things that not-perfect humans do; and you can’t compete with the shiny, right?
And veto is the only way to cut through the shiny if things go seriously off the tracks, right?
Okay, let’s flip that around. You’re the new guy coming into a relationship; you don’t have anything yet. You’re confronted by a person who has a history with your new love; someone who your new love has dedicated time and effort with; someone with whom your new love shares a thousand smiles and a million little secret experiences, a long list of in jokes and pleasures and intimacies great and small. This person owns a piece of your new love’s heart that you can’t even begin to guess the shape of.
Who’s at a disadvantage now?
Yes, the new shiny is fun, while it lasts. Yes, it’s intoxicating. Yes, your lover is getting wrapped up in feelings that you’ve lost, and is going to be enraptured with this new person in ways that he’s not enraptured with you any more. Guess what? That’s nothing compared to what you have. The weight of history you share with your lover is something that new person feels more profoundly than you feel the lack of shiny, believe me.
Even if you do everything in your power to make that person feel welcome–and by the way, veto ain’t a way to do that–the fact is your shared history is something that is always going to be there. It is always going to be the subtext of that person’s relationship with your lover. You don’t even need to trot it out and rub the new guy’s face in it; it’s there. If anyone has cause to be intimidated, it’s him, not you.
The new shiny can, to be sure, make folks lose their heads and make decisions they might not otherwise make. I’ve seen many folks use this as a justification for a veto arrangement. “Hard to get past that new relationship energy,” I’ve been told. “Might need a veto power just to keep things from getting all whack and heading over the cliff.”
What about communication, instead? Not having veto does not mean not having a voice. You know how to talk to your lover, right? Do it!
Look, not everyone in the world is a good person, I know that. Not everyone acts in good faith; not every connection works out; not every relationship is positive and healthy. That’s the way it is. Every so often, it might come to pass that your lover makes a poor choice; good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from poor judgment.
Here’s a thought: Assume that your lover wants to make good choices. If you see problems, say so. Explain your concerns. Treat your partner like a functional adult.
One of the most evil, insidious things about veto is the way it infantilizes grown adults. Veto is, by its nature, the antithesis of maturity. Where adults make their own decisions, veto assumes that people cannot be trusted to make decisions for themselves. Where adults try to choose what’s right for themselves and their partners; veto assumes that people must be held in check, or they will run off and destroy their existing relationships. Where adults exchange ideas freely as equals, veto terminates conversation. Veto arrangements deprive those who agree to them of the one quintessential defining element of adulthood: self-determination. They reduce the person bound by veto to the status of a child, and the person holding the veto to the status of a caretaker, not a partner in a relationship freely chosen between equals.
All that, and they don’t even do what they are intended to do. The person who obeys a veto is a person who is already committed to making the relationship work! Obeying a veto is painful–more painful than the person pulling it out is likely to realize.
If your partner is committed to making your relationship work, veto is unnecessary. If your partner is not committed to making your relationship work, veto is worse than useless.