Non-Monogamy: Instinct vs. Rules


Non-Monogamy: Instinct vs. RulesOver the past couple of years – maybe a little longer, – since I started reading about and investigating the idea of ethical non-monogamy, I have accumulated knowledge of many hundreds of guidelines. Some set out as rules and regulations; some more like best practice; others just little tips that may or may not work in the case of difficult moments. Key things, such as openness and honesty and communication, have proven to be pretty important. In fact, most of the things I have read from well-researched sources have, over the past thirteen months, turned out to be extremely helpful at one point or another. Which is great: it’s great that as I, and many others, traverse the unknown paths of non-monogamy for the first time, we have, at our fingertips, some very good resources.

Building from that I certainly don’t wish to undermine anything that has come before, but I do have an addendum to that ever pervasive “communication” policy. To my mind, communication is one of the most affective things in a relationship. Lack of it can be incredibly disruptive, and full disclosure can derail disruption almost immediately. However, I don’t think “communication” means you have to tell everyone everything all the time. As Dan Savage would have it, “a relationship is not a deposition.” But what I’m referring to isn’t to do with secrets, and I wouldn’t want to write a piece that excuses lies or omission of important truths. It’s much more subtle than that.

Anyone who has had more than one partner at a time, or even more than one partner at different times! will know that different people need different things. What is an important and weighty conversation to one person, is just a Friday night anecdote to another. The very nature of relationships means that no two are alike. For example, let’s make up a little story:

Alice is dating two men: Jack and Jeff. Jack is outgoing, never displays jealousy and actively wishes good things for all around him. Meanwhile, Jeff is a little more sensitive; perhaps Alice is his only partner and that makes him feel somewhat vulnerable at times. Alice loves them both equally, divides her time equally, feels they are both equally important to her. She considers both of them to be her primary or core partners. Then she meets John; they flirt, and they develop a mutual crush. The outlines, and importance of her relationships with Jack and Jeff mean that on paper she should handle this in the same way with both of them. However, the difference between the two men means she instinctively feels they need to hear about John in their own ways. In fact, she knows that to Jack it would be just a little anecdote; she knows he flirts with plenty of people and feels no need to tell her, because to him it just isn’t that big a deal. Perhaps if she wanted to actively pursue something with John, she should tell Jack, in an open and honest manner, but as it is, maybe it doesn’t even occur to her that it’s a conversation they should have. Meanwhile, she immediately knows this is something she and Jeff ought to sit down and discuss, for the good of their relationship and in order to properly address and consider any feelings he may have about the matter.

What I’m trying to get at is the idea that whilst communication is extremely important, it’s a lot more nuanced than just keeping everyone on the same page. Different people require different things, and being a good partner, to my mind, means treating people and communicating with them in a manner that best suits their personal feelings and experience. Conversely, just because something doesn’t bother one person, doesn’t mean another person has no right to be bothered by it. In the end, I guess it comes down to treating people with respect and meeting their needs to the best of our abilities. Today’s lesson: fair doesn’t always mean equal.


Harper Eliot is a writer and podcaster whose work mainly centers around eroticism and social observation. You can find an archive of work, and links to all her other projects, on her website Harper Eliot. Harper lives in London, but rarely sees her own house, spending most of her time on public transport, listening to podcasts and tweeting too much. Her vices include cigarettes, lubricant, Earl Grey tea, opera, nail polish, and pinwheels.

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