Open Relationships Need House Boundaries, Not House Rules

In my last post, I touched on why I prefer boundaries to rules, and the way boundaries apply to a lot more than just relationship stuff. Today I’d like to look at poly homes, house rules, and the clusterfuck that can be moving in together.

My first triad lived together in a large duplex. We had an extra bedroom in the basement, and when the rent got to be a bit much, we invited some of our friends who were house-hunting to come live with us. A few days after they moved in, my partner and I were in the kitchen when one of our roommates came in and tossed a soda can in the garbage. My partner immediately fished the soda can out of the garbage and said to our roommate, “In this house, we recycle.”

I was mortified. We had invited our friends to live with on the understanding that we would share this home, and the only thing we expected of them was helping with the cleaning and paying their part of the rent. But my partner felt free to dictate to them how they would live while in our home. Apparently, in his mind, the living agreements our triad had come to automatically extended to our roommates, even though those agreements had never even been mentioned to our roommates. Much less discussed and agreed upon.

What really horrified me, however, was when I realized that he and I had done the exact same thing to my other partner, when he entered our lives.

I distinctly remember a discussion when I was pregnant with our first child. We didn’t know who the father was, and didn’t care, but we got on the topic of school and I thoughtlessly told Partner B “We already agreed we would homeschool any children we had.”

Excuse me? What the hell was I thinking? The three of us were planning on raising this child together, but I was imposing on Partner B the agreements Partner A and I had come to on our own.

In hindsight, this is the danger of house or family rules or agreements in an open relationship. When you are open to bringing new people into your relationship and/or into your home, you need to be open to letting them decide how they will live and interact.

Poly partners aren’t pets–they don’t need rules for how to behave.

I could have said to Partner B, “I want any children I have to be homeschooled, this is very important to me and I hope over time you’ll come to agree with me.” I could have said, “Homeschooling my children is a hard limit. If you can’t agree to that, we will not be able to raise our children together.” I could have not said anything then, because the kid wasn’t even fricking born yet. Any of those things would have been fine, because those would have been me stating my boundaries regarding raising my children. My imposing an agreement between Partner A and I on Partner B? Completely not okay. But I wasn’t thinking in terms of boundaries, I was thinking in terms of agreements.

The same applies to the way my partner treated our roommate. He could have said, “There’s a recycling bin out back, would you like me to take this can out for you?” or “It bothers me that you don’t recycle, I’m not comfortable living with someone who just throws away recyclables.” Or if it was that important to him, he could have brought it up when we were discussing having our friends move in, “I like our friends, but I don’t want to live with people who don’t share my values. I’d like to talk with them about their feelings on recycling and the environment before we agree to this.”

Not everyone in a relationship will have the same boundaries–I recycle myself, but it didn’t really bother me that our roommates didn’t. This makes rules and agreements seem easier than boundaries–everyone in the home or everyone in the family agrees to them, and that’s the end of it. But think about this—if you have an open relationship and rules or agreements, you have two choices:

  • Impose the existing rules and agreements on everyone new who enters your home or family
  • Renegotiate every one of your rules and agreements—down to whether or not it’s okay to leave the toilet seat up—when someone joins your home or family

It’s actually a lot easier for each individual to establish their boundaries, and maintain those boundaries. When someone new enters your life, they can learn your boundaries, you can learn theirs, and you can all decide for yourselves what your comfort levels are.

If I had told Partner B that homeschooling my children was a boundary, he could have chosen to accept that boundary, to take some time to learn about homeschooling before he made a decision, or to say that if I was going to insist on homeschooling, we would not be able to raise the child together and needed to come up with a custody agreement.

Instead, I imposed a prior agreement on him, and that imposition poisoned every discussion of our children’s schooling for the next seven or eight years. Ironically, once I stopped pushing for homeschooling, he came on his own to the conclusion that he would prefer homeschooling—and then got trapped in a custody agreement that forces him to put the children in public school.

Beyond Relationship Boundaries

Polk folk tend to talk lot about relationship agreements, rules, and boundaries. Of the three I join Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickett in preferring boundaries. Unlike agreements and rules, boundaries are an internal matter. You decide what you are and are not willing to accept, and disassociate yourself from anyone who does not respect those […]

Polyamory Living Options

(If you found this post looking for bedroom/sleeping arrangements, click here.) When we talk about living arrangements with poly partners, we usually focus on two options: living together or living apart. There are very few truly binary choices in life. You almost always find a third (or fourth, or fifth, or….) option if you look. […]

Furnishing a Poly Home: Dishes (and things that come in sets)

Thanks to Walmart this isn’t as much of a problem as when I first entered a poly relationship, but I want to take a minute to talk about dishes, utensils, and other stuff that you can (traditionally) only buy in sets. Until Walmart started selling dishes one-off, and the various dollar stores followed suit (or maybe […]

Share Your Poly Stories

Dr. Elisabeth Sheff, author of The Polyamorists Next Door, is working on a book called “Stories from the Polycule: Real Life in Polyamorous Families.” This book will be an anthology of stories from and about poly-folk. She is seeking submissions for stories, pictures, poems and essays. Submissions deadline is October 15th. Submissions (and any questions) can […]