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“Rules” vs “Agreements” in Relationships

You should avoid hurting your partner because you don’t want to, not because you can’t.

By Thomas BrandPublished about a year ago 5 min read
Prostock-Studio |

Beginning your journey into polyamory can be daunting for many reasons. And one of those is the number of new words and phrases you can find yourself facing. No matter how prepared you think you are, when words such as “compersion” and “metamour” start flying around, it can feel overwhelming.

But as much as I aim to make things easier for those new to polyamory, I’m afraid I have bad news. It’s not only new words you need to look out for. Sometimes, even the ones you already know start taking on new meanings. Because sometimes words have more meaning and subtleties than we realise. Using the wrong ones can, without our realising, create problems we don’t see coming.

So let’s talk about Rules vs Agreements in your relationship.

Creating a new relationship

So, you’re creating a new polyamorous relationship. Hopefully, you and your partner(s) will have been having lots of discussions about what you want it to look like. You’ll each have a list of your wants, needs, and desires, of course. But you should also have a list of what you don’t want. Or at least what you’re not quite ready for yet. Your “Red Lines”, as it were. Because it’s important not to move faster than people are ready to, and setting these boundaries helps to prevent this from happening.

These Red Lines can be anything. One common one is not wanting anyone else having sex in your bed or not dating mutual friends. Another might be asking a partner not to do certain things with other people. It all depends on what reasonable requests will make you feel better as you adjust to this new stage in your life.

Some of these Red Lines might stay in place forever, remaining a part of your own style of polyamory. Others you might drop as you grow more comfortable. The important thing is that your partner(s) acknowledge, recognise, and above all, respect them when they are in place.

And so, these new Rules have been created and agreed upon by everyone in the relationship. We’re all good, right? No. We’re not. Because relationships should never have Rules. What you need is an Agreement.

Relationship Rules vs. Relationship Agreements

Okay, let’s break down the difference between a Rule and an Agreement in a relationship.

Firstly, what exactly is a Rule?

Rule: an accepted principle or instruction that states the way things are or should be done, and tells you what you are allowed or are not allowed to do. (Cambridge Dictionary)

A Rule is an instruction you are not allowed to break. A proscribed action or behaviour. And the thing about Rules is, we are obliged to obey them. Whether or not we have had any say in their creation, by entering a space covered by those rules, we agree to follow them. If we don’t like the Rules, our only choice is to leave.

Okay, what about an Agreement?

Agreement: the situation in which people have the same opinion, or in which they approve of or accept something. (Cambridge Dictionary)

An Agreement is something two or more people have come to together. Not everyone involved may feel it is their preferred choice. There may have been a large amount of discussion and compromise. But eventually, everyone will have reached the point where they agree on the best way to proceed.

Do you see the difference?

A Rule is something you have to follow, whether you like it or not, while an Agreement is something you want to follow, for reasons you believe are best.

And so why are Rules dangerous? Because in a healthy relationship, there should never be anything you have no choice over.

Why Relationship Agreements are the healthy way forward

If you have an Agreement not to do something that would make your partner uncomfortable, this implies you are willingly avoiding it because you don’t want to make them feel bad.

If you have a Rule saying you can’t do something that would make your partner uncomfortable, it implies you would be willing to hurt them if you had the option.

Do you want your partner to be able to trust you because they know you don’t want to hurt them, or because they feel safe something is stopping you?

Now, some people would argue this is a pedantically semantic argument. What does it matter if you call something a Rule or an Agreement? If the result is the same, why quibble over the exact wording? To those people, I would argue semantics are important because language is important. It’s how we define the world and can drastically change how we see our own lives.

Words are not blunt instruments. No matter how plain you think you talk, there will always be ways to misinterpret your words. And in the case of defining something as a Rule or an Agreement, it subtly affects how we think about our relationships. Are they something we are bound to, or at they something we maintain of our own free will?

Words and definitions are important, because they define how we think

I’m going to wrap up by bringing up exactly why this choice of words is so important for polyamory in particular.

Beginning your journey into polyamory can be a scary thing. Even those of us who have been travelling this road for some time run up against problems. And so, to make each step as easy as possible, we need to know we can trust our partner(s) and that they trust us. And part of this is using the correct words.

If we use words that imply — even if only faintly — that our partner(s) would hurt us if nothing was stopping them, it’s going to slowly erode our trust in them. If, however, we instead use words that imply that our partner(s) know what would hurt us and actively avoid doing so, it’s going to build our trust.

This is why words are important, especially in polyamory.


This article was originally posted at


About the Creator

Thomas Brand

Blogging about polyamory, ethical-non-monogamy, mental health, and modern relationships | (He/Him) | |

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