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Why Making Rules Isn't the Best Way to Start an Open Relationship – Psychology Today

Our conversations are sprinkled with slips, pauses, lies, and clues to our inner world. Here’s what we reveal when we speak, whether we mean to or not.
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Posted January 20, 2022 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
If you’re looking online for advice about how to explore a polyamorous relationship, you’re going to see one phrase over and over again: “Set some ground rules for your nonmonogamous relationship.”
While I’m all about partners communicating openly with one another, I try to avoid the term “rules.” Instead, I focus on helping partners develop agreements. It might sound like a subtle difference, but there are some good reasons that I prefer talking about agreements:
Since emotions are unpredictable, it’s far better to develop the skillset to handle uncomfortable feelings with grace than to try and avoid any and all situations that may provoke them. Rather than encouraging clients to come up with airtight rules that cover every possible situation, I encourage them to develop techniques for self-soothing, communicating effectively about difficult emotions, and co-regulating — taking care of one another emotionally. That means that no matter what unexpected developments life throws at them, they’ll be prepared to help themselves and their partner through it.
These can be very challenging conversations, and there’s no one right answer to any of the questions they raise—which might be why it’s tempting to just come up with a rule and hope you can stick to it. But I find that the people whose relationships thrive the most are those who have learned how to have these tough conversations, approaching each other with warmth, honesty, and a spirit of teamwork that can carry them through.
To catch potential loopholes and avoid agreeing just to agree, you need to create space for some really thoughtful, pressure-free conversations in which each partner comes to deeply understand the other’s perspective. I think that when people think in terms of rules rather than agreements, they’re much less likely to have a deep conversation about what they envision. They’re more likely to simply lay out the rules they expect each other to follow and leave it at that. Unfortunately, by doing that, they’re also setting themselves up for broken agreements down the road. Crafting relationship agreements takes more work up front and ongoing attention.
When you talk with your partner about how to make nonmonogamy work for you, think about agreements rather than rules. Keep your conversation warm, curious, flexible, and ongoing. You’re certain to discover more about yourself and your partner as you explore together; be open to what emerges in the process.
For more guidance on the “soft skills” that support healthy polyamory, see “Why Good Manners Are Key to Successful Polyamory.”
Facebook image: Nebojsa Tatomirov/Shutterstock
Martha Kauppi, LMFT, CST-S, is a therapist, author, and educator specializing in complex relational therapy, sex issues, and alternative family structures.
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Psychology Today © 2022 Sussex Publishers, LLC
Our conversations are sprinkled with slips, pauses, lies, and clues to our inner world. Here’s what we reveal when we speak, whether we mean to or not.

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