Each relationship is it’s own thing. Yes, when you date people who know each other, are friends, or who may also be lovers, there will be aspects of your relationships with them which overlap and interact, but each relationship needs to be its own entity, at least to some degree.
There are many levels of desired control, information, and involvement with metamours (partners of partners). Some people don’t need or want to know much, and they may never be close to your other partners. Some people really love the idea of closeness, friendship, and possibly more from metamours. There are all sorts of conversations about boundaries, rules, or possibly even vetoes that happen in the polyamorous community when it comes to the people our partners have relationships with. Some people set close guidelines, others do not.
My preference for how boundaries, rules, and even vetoes should be applied leans more towards relationship independence, while recognizing that our partners should be listened to, at very least, when it comes to the other people we develop intimacy with. The closer we are to a partner, the more their opinion should matter, but it should never be the only factor.
In some cases, the complicated inter-relations between multiple partners will create unique situations where 3, 4, or more people all mesh together in a special way, and the individual boundaries may disappear (to some degree, at least) and give way to shared intimacy. Insofar as this can and does occasionally happen, the one-on-one nature of intimacy starts to give way to some degree, and if this happens then it can be rewarding. But in most cases, whether with polyamory, monogamy, etc, each relationship will build up its own intimacy and boundaries, and those intimacies need to be respected.
That said, I’d like to address some thoughts about various factors that come into play when it comes to establishing guidelines, rules, and vetoes.
Obviously, the more people we are having sex with, and the more people those people are having sex with, increases the likelihood of STIs. Within a responsible community or network of people, this can be minimized by regular STI-testing, by creating a sort of firewall either through family fluid bonding or other methods of creating a physical boundary between you and the general population and other families/networks. But no matter how you address it, the reality of STI’s is usually an important factor for anyone who is sexually active with more than one person, whose partners are in the same situation. If your sexual network reaches outside of an enclosed group, and reaches the general population, STI’s can get in.
Some people are much more anxious about this than others. But whether you are one of those people who is more anxious about such a consideration or not, if someone you are involved with is, then it should become an important consideration for you. Setting guidelines or rules about safe sex sex is a legitimate request for a partner to make, because the consequences extend beyond the two people involved, and could possibly effect other partners. Assuming, of course, that an STI makes its way into your network, which can again be minimized by regular testing, maintaining good safe sex firewalls around your network/family, etc.
I’m of the opinion that the degree to which a partner is closed off from the greater network or population, sexually, the anxiety about STI’s should decrease, and the rules and guidelines around protections against STI infection should reflect that by being relaxed, assuming that everyone involved is comfortable with that. Being a person who is less anxious about those considerations, I realize I’m in a place of privilege here, and will not expound as to what degree people should attempt to overcome such anxieties.
Even in a world without the concern for unwanted STIs (and pregnancy, of course), there are still emotional considerations to take into account. In previous posts, I have argued that emotional concerns are the responsibility of the individual, and that other people are not responsible for how we feel about their relationships with other people. And while I agree that feelings of envy, jealousy, etc are ultimately our own responsibility, I believe that it is morally superior to take the attitude that how our actions with one partner affect our relationships with and the feelings of our other partners is relevant to us all. In short, we need to care about our partners, but we should at very least be aware of how our actions might emotionally affect their other partners.
The closer metamours are, in space or intimacy, the more it matters that consideration and care are accounted for. Depending on the closeness of metamours (especially if they cohabitate), there is a responsibility to consider the effects of their actions and relationships on others, as well as the effect on their immediate partners. So while I don’t think that a metamour is always responsible for how another feels, in general a metamour should be considerate and aware of how their behavior and attitude might affect those around them. They may not be responsible for the feelings, but they should at least attempt to be aware that those feelings exist and why.
Insofar as what a pair does in private, the emotional effects of those actions will depend on many factors, perhaps too many to diagram or parse out (so I won’t try). Outside of actions with health consequences, what people do in private should have little or nothing to do with what any of those people might do with other people or how those other people feel. Private intimacy is private (if you want it to be), and those relationships we have are important in their own right, even if another tangential relationship might have existed longer or may even be a marriage.
My partner going out and having a kind of sex that I might be envious or jealous of is my problem, not theirs. And while there may be specific examples where some moral responsibility comes into play in such cases, in general creating boundaries, rules, and even vetoes in terms of what your partner is allowed to do with other people is usually a means to protect our feelings, which are usually fears. And while those feelings matter, those feelings are not sufficient by themselves to create rules or vetoes about specific kinds of actions.
If my partner really wants to have sex with someone, and I’m uncomfortable with that, my demanding that they don’t do so is crossing a line in most cases. I may choose to have their decisions effect how I want to relate with them, but I should not demand that my feelings effect what actions they take elsewhere, assuming those decision will not expose me to physical risk. If I’m in a situation where their acting on desires will hurt me, I have some responsibility to find out why I’m being affected, not merely demand they don’t do the affecting thing. If that ‘why’ turns out to be that I don’t want to share, that’s different from a feeling of inadequacy or fear of my partner leaving me, and needs to be addressed by a different solution.
And while some temporary boundaries may be helpful for beginners, in the long run they merely address the symptoms (the feelings themselves) rather than the cause (insecurity concerning the strength of the relationship, for example). Those causes are not fixed or addressed with boundaries, they are addressed by dealing with them directly. That’s harder, but it’s also a means to a long-term strategy rather than the emotional triage which rules and guidelines seem to be designed to deal with. Triage may be a useful skill when shit gets hard, but they are temporary solutions at best. In the long term, the goal should be to deal with the fundamental causes, rather than the fears about this particular action or feeling.
The intimacy, love, and quality of activities I have with a partner are about that partner primarily. How my other partners feel about that does matter, but they are not always the primary considerations I have to be aware of in deciding how to continue or discontinue those activities. My relationship with person A has to be it’s own thing, and how much I involve other people in that relationship will depend on the desires and comfort of all involved. Sometimes, that involvement can be quite open. Sometimes, the boundaries between relationships melt away into transparency and shared intimacy.
Voyeurism and Sharing
There are times when the relationship we have with one person will open up or bleed into a relationship we have with another person. There are times when you can all hang out together, be intimate (whether emotionally or physically), or possibly even make commitments as a group. But even when these things are true, there will probably always be aspects of individual relationships that won’t be shared. There will be special inside jokes, ways you show affection, or even places you go that are special to that relationship. It is the idiosyncratic little bits of private moments, feelings, and times which set relationships apart from each other, and it is these things that we may miss most if the relationship ends.
In situations where groups of people decide to make their lives more intertwined, it is possible for the walls that separate the individual relationships to become more transparent. Whether people cohabitate, enter into group commitments, or merely spend lots of time with each other the likeliness of this happening increases. And once people get to theses stages of polyamorous intermingling of relationships, those walls usually do become thinner (both metaphorically and literally). Boundaries, in those cases, become a different animal because of the increased intimacy.
With increased closeness with metamours, come greater need for consideration and attention to how we interact with the world around us. And at this point the question becomes less about what our partners do with their other partners in private (although that may still be an issue), but also what they do in more open settings. The closer we are with the network of people we are involved with, the more we will see of the intimate moments between people we love and who they love. This can have rewards, but it can also expose areas of conflict. Boundaries, rules, and vetoes becomes a question of everyday, or at least frequent, attention. Where metamours might become family, all of the dynamics of family interaction and negotiation come into play.
And when polyamory becomes family, all the issues will surface. Your issues, their issues, and issues you may not have known existed. Issues may develop that never existed before. Respect, communication, and honesty with oneself are necessary if such a thing will succeed. Because as boundaries melt away, we remain exposed to each other in ways that we might not be prepared for. And when it falls apart, it can be devastating.
Many of us build walls around certain aspects of ourselves, for varying reasons. Sometimes, those walls surround us completely, sometimes we build them towards specific people, and sometimes we merely pull a person or two inside our walls and keep the rest away. Boundaries, rules, and vetoes are like walls.
Walls can be useful things. They keep out those who might harm us, they protect us from the cold outside world, and they help support the metaphorical roof over our head as well as define what is our space. There are harmful things in the world, and walls help keep them at bay, when they need to be kept away. Boundaries, when they are devised to protect us from physical harm, are an important tool to use, and when they seek to create safe spaces for ourselves and those close to us. They help keep us emotionally and mentally healthy.
But walls can also separate us when they don’t need to. Sometimes they only seem to protect us, rather than to unnecessarily push people away when letting more people in might bring us more perspective or positive relationships which we might bristle against at first. When we find those who we want to be within our walls, it is greatly beneficial to allow them inside, but it isn’t always obvious who those people will be before we let them in.
In practice, I tend to build walls to easily and end up keeping people further away than they need to be. It is a part of myself I seek to change, and this behavior has consequences for me and people close to me. Therefore, I worry about the impulse to keep people out as a default more than I worry about being too open. Those who have been hurt by being open (and I include myself in that category) may tend to be more cautious, for perhaps good reasons. And yet I worry whether that the reactionary nature of such wall/boundary building is problematic. I also worry that if I manage to heal my wounds and open up more, I might be equally reactionary in the opposite direction, in exposing myself too much to harm.
I worry about putting walls or relationship boundaries where they do more harm than good, or which are merely unnecessary. I worry about putting bricks in unnecessary walls. I also worry about being hurt when I take those walls down. I also worry that I worry too much. I never meta-worry I didn’t worry about, I suppose.
Our relationships, and the intimacy within them, are important and–dare I say it–sacred. The boundaries we make around them should not be about protection only, they should be more about creating the necessary space we desire to enjoy that intimacy. They should not be primarily about keeping others out, they should be primarily be about creating the desired space to let the person we are with in. And if that means keeping others out sometimes, then so be it. But we should, perhaps, error a bit on the side of letting other people in. That’s my bias, anyway.
I’m striving to let more people in. There’s lots of room inside the palatial walls I have built for myself.