I believe that understanding how relationships work is key to being happy in them, whether we’re talking about friendships, family relationships, monogamous relationships, non-monogamous relationships, or something else entirely.
A friend recently shared The 12 Pillars of Polyamory (by Kenneth R. Haslam, MD) with me, and I thought, gosh, these ideas are just too good to keep to myself. No matter what kind of relationship(s) you’re in, you will benefit from pondering these principles and figuring out how they apply to your life. I’ll list each of the 12 pillars with some of my own commentary, focusing on making them applicable for everyone, no matter whether you’re single, dating around, happily monogamously married to your high school sweetheart, consensually maintaining a harem, or something in between.
This is the first step in even determining what you want from a relationship: knowing who you are and what your needs and desires are. This goes for any relationship, whether it’s you looking for a workout buddy or looking for someone to spend the rest of your life with. If you can’t be honest with yourself, how can you be honest with anyone else?
Most relationships are ones we choose to go into and stay in. For the minority that aren’t (such as family relationships and coworkers), we choose how to maintain those relationships, and how much energy to put into them. If you approach your relationships with choice in mind (“I choose to be here” rather than “I have to be here”), how might that change your outlook?
This takes on a slightly different meaning in non-monogamous relationships, where individuals might have arrangements about how much detail they want to know about their partner’s adventures with others. But in general, it’s important to have high levels of transparency in relationships. Don’t keep secrets from your spouse, your friends, your family members, your bridge partners. Yes, there are topics that require delicate handling, and there are times when keeping information confidential on someone else’s behalf might be the most ethical thing to do. Still, check in with your relationships every so often and ask yourself if you’re being as transparent as you might aspire to be.
Duh. Every relationship should be founded on trust. But what does that mean? In the original 12 pillars post, trust is defined as the “firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.” In your relationships, you might assess how much trust you’re willing to put in that person, in terms of whether they’ll be honest with you, whether they’ll follow through on their commitments, and so on. If you find yourself hesitating to trust someone who’s a major player in your life with something important, maybe try to figure out what’s going on there.
5. Gender Equality
Again, in non-monogamous relationships this might take on a particular significance: participants should closely scrutinize whether they’re putting gendered restrictions on their partners and if so, what purpose it serves. But even in monogamous relationships, you might examine your social patterns and your division of labor. If your partner gets uneasy when you hang out with one gender but not the other, why is that? Is it a jealousy thing? A control thing? Or what?
Related to transparency, authenticity, and trust is honesty. You must be honest with yourself. You must be honest with others. Deceit, lying by omission, and fabrications have no place in healthy relationships.
7. Open Communication
Everyone in a relationship needs to be kept in the loop about the happenings with its members. You should decide for yourself which channels of communication feel most intuitive and effortless to you, because those are the ones you’ll use the most. You may need to compromise with your partner(s) if you’re a texter and they prefer phonecalls or emails, but you should figure out a good middle ground that works for everyone.
This one doesn’t just apply to non-monogamous folks. Even married couples don’t have the right to be possessive of each other’s time, emotional energy, bodies, or other resources. You know that saying “if you love something, set it free”? Yeah, that. If you need to clutch and cling to feel like you’re maintaining a hold on someone you love, maybe you should reexamine your priorities (and I know, a lot of those behaviors are fear-based, but if that’s the case, consider hiring me or another relationship coach or counselor to help you figure your issues out!).
Every ethically-done relationship required informed consent: that you know the expectations and parameters of the relationship you’re entering, so that you’re able to consent to them consciously and knowledgeably. In non-monogamous relationships this may require more explicit discussion of your boundaries (is it okay to kiss other people? what about going on dates? which acts require previous discussion and which can happen anytime?), but it’s also good to have these check-ins in monogamous relationships and friendships.
In the original poster’s words: “Everyone knows what is going on in all the partners’ lives and everyone AGREES to what is going on. If there is no agreement it is cheating. And if it is cheating then it is NOT Polyamory. It is cheating.” Informed consent and agreement thus constitute the ethical foundation of non-monogamous relationships… and quite likely monogamous ones too!
10. Accepting of Self Determination
You cannot control your partner’s, friend’s, or family member’s desires and life directions. Accept this fact, encourage them to be unique snowflakes, and welcome them home when they’re done exploring.
11. Sex Positive
This is particularly important in relationships where your partner, friend, or family member is looking to be sexually active. As I’ve discussed here, sex positivity has many potential meanings, but at heart it’s about setting healthy boundaries for yourself based on consent, pleasure, and safety. It includes saying “no” to things as well as saying “yes” and “maybe later.” It involves not judging others so long as they’re being honest and healthy, even if what they choose is different than what you would choose for yourself. There’s potential for interpersonal conflict here, of course, but do try to be respectful!
Compersion is the idea that you can experience joy when someone you care about is happy, even if you’re not the source of that happiness. In non-mono circles it tends to mean feeling happy when your partner has a good time with another lover. However, I think it could apply just as well to other areas of life, such as being happy when your friend achieves a major life goal (again, you are not the cause of this increase of happiness, but you get to enjoy your friend’s glow).
Whew – did you make it through the whole list? What did you think? Are there relationships out there where, say, transparency and consent aren’t important to include? I know I’m a fan of relationship strategies that span relationship types, but maybe this approach doesn’t work for everyone. In that case, I challenge you to come up with counterexamples!