On rules, and the letter of the law

Rules are often a contentious topic in polyamory. On the one hand, restrictive and apparently-arbitrary rules can be a sign of insecurity rather than respect and trust; on the other hand, it’s disingenuous – unless you’re practising a very particular form of free-agent poly – to pretend that your relationships do not and will not restrict or change your behaviour in any way.

The idea of relationship rules makes me uncomfortable; it feels restrictive and makes me itchy. When asked what the relationship rules are between The Rake and I (interestingly, no-one has ever asked me this question about partners I don’t live with) I usually say it’s ‘practice safer sex’ and ‘don’t be a dick’. Yes, it’s slightly more complicated than that – but not by much. If The Rake were to do something inconsiderate or thoughtlessly hurtful, I wouldn’t say that he’d broken any rules – I would assume that he’d done something that it just hadn’t occurred to him would bother me. Because if he’d thought it would bother me, he wouldn’t have done it. QED. *shrug*

I know some people really enjoy working within an explicitly defined framework of rules, but the way I see it is that concrete rules can actually be counterproductive. Instead of encouraging kind, thoughtful, considerate behaviour, strict rules can result in behaviour that obeys the letter rather than the spirit of the law. Let me give you a toilet roll example. (No, seriously!)

Most houses have a spoken or unspoken rule that whoever finishes off the roll should replace it. This rule serves (at my guess) two purposes: one, so no one goes into the bathroom to discover there’s no loo roll, and two, so that one person doesn’t feel like the ‘toilet roll fairy’, expected by the rest of the house to just sort it out for them.

But… This rule, or expectation, is exactly what leads to the lonely loo roll sheet. Because technically, if there’s one sheet left balanced on top, then you haven’t finished it so you don’t have to faff around with changing the roll – right?

If there was a household rule that was ‘don’t act in such a way as to inconvenience other household members’ then perhaps this wouldn’t happen. But that’s not the rule in most homes or offices (even if it should be…). The rule is about surface behaviour, not underlying outcomes.

If you must have relationship rules, make them about the underlying needs, not the surface behaviour. “We agree not to leave each other wondering where we’ve got to at 1am” is a better rule than “always text me from your date to tell me your plans”.

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One response to “On rules, and the letter of the law

  1. Yes! Having rules is not a bad thing. Don’t drink and drive. Don’t steal from people. Don’t use up the toilet roll without replacing it. Learning to have consideration for another person’s feelings is not so easily done for some. Those who have learnt to practise this kind of solicitude can make the difference between harmony and resentment.

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