Consent is the practice of developing an informed agreement, and a consent violation is when people break those agreements. Consent violations are inevitable in pretty much any close relationship, and they are especially likely in complicated relationships like consensual non-monogamy (CNM). This blog lists four reasons these violations are so likely, and five things people in CNM relationships can do about them. The second blog in this series looks at community responses to ongoing and egregious consent violations.
1. Lack of Role Models
Even with a few television shows and movies now providing a realistic(ish) image of beautiful people doing polyamory, there are still very few role models in the media and people’s lives on how to construct a workable polyamorous life. Knowing what you want is hard with so few role models, because it means that polyamorists and other folks in CNM relationships are required to make it up as they go along. This process of trial and error inevitably includes some errors, even for those with the best of intentions. “Poly is a custom job,” says Cunning Minx, host of the Poly Weekly podcast and author of Eight Things I Wish I’d Known About Polyamory (Before I Tried it and Frakked It Up), “Society tells us what monogamy is supposed to look like and gives us monogamous role models in every film and TV show ever made. But once we reject that model, we are building an entire relationship structure from scratch. Pop culture isn’t going to give you any good poly role models to follow. You have to find them on your own.”
2. Negotiation is Difficult
In contrast with the dearth of consensually non-monogamous role models, there are so many examples of and rules structuring conventional relationships that it can be very difficult to diverge from what can appear to be hard and fast relationship procedures. People attempting to create polyamorous and other CNM relationships must make things up as they go along, learn to ask for what they want, and figure out how to compromise when partners inevitably want something different. That whole process can be incredibly challenging and there is a lot of room to make mistakes in what can be a fairly steep learning curve.
3. Can’t Rule Feelings
Emotions do not always follow rules, so making agreements around what others will feel is futile. Breaking those rules is inevitable, because people cannot control the way they feel. They can control how they act and react, the choices they make, and the way they handle the outcomes of their choices. But people feel what they feel, and trying to manufacture feelings where none exist or deny them where they (inconveniently?) exist is a losing battle. The heart wants what it wants, even though the brain controls what the hands do.
4. Can’t Rule Others’ Actions
In the same way it is not realistic to make rules about how people will or will not feel, it is futile to attempt to regulate or control others’ actions who have not been involved in making the agreement. This happens regularly in CNM relationships where primary partners agree what secondary partners will or will not do without consulting the secondary partners themselves. Then, when the secondary partners do not want to do what they have not agreed to, one or more of the primary partners may feel betrayed or angry that the original (unrealistic) agreement was not carried out.
What to do?
1. Be Flexible
In my 20+ year study of polyamorous families with children, I have found that a resilience model of interaction works best for successful, long term poly relationships. One of the primary reasons the resilience model fits these families so well is because it emphasizes flexibility, honesty, and communication as keys to resilient family interactions. These are also hallmarks of compatible CNM relationships as well, and serve to help people through challenges such as consent violations.
2. Be Realistic
Demanding that no consent violations ever happen is simply not realistic in any relationship, much less within the complexities of CNM relationships. Prior to freaking out about a consent violation, consider how big of a deal it really is. If your partner had a condom break, comes home to tell you about it, gets tested and provides everyone with truthful information, then consider giving them a break and points for attempting to deal with the slip in a forthright way. In contrast, if your partner routinely “forgets” to use condoms, infects people with sexually transmitted infections, and lies about their slip ups, then that is a problem that requires a serious discussion and reconsideration of the health of the relationship. It can be tempting to blow every consent violation into a major big deal, but not all of them are truly worthy of being made into an after-school special.
3. Know Yourself
If you do not know yourself, it is difficult to know what you want. When you don’t know what you want, it is quite difficult to negotiate for it. In fact, folks who don’t know themselves are far more likely to end up consenting to something that they don’t really want or can’t really do. Who you are evolves, so being open to the truth of change and flexible enough to move with it also contributes to knowing yourself and sustaining resilient relationships.
4. Directly Address Power Imbalances
Negotiation and consent involve power. Although contemporary conceptions of romantic relationships — and especially CNM relationships – envision them as islands of emotional intimacy between or among equals, in truth no relationship is completely free from power dynamics. From siblings and friends to co-workers and team-mates, all relationships among humans have some kind of hierarchy at some point. In some relationships people deal with power imbalances directly by designating spheres of influence where each individual holds sway. Others have an acknowledged power structure in which one person is in charge and others do as they are told.
The difficulty comes for those who are in an ostensibly egalitarian relationship that actually has unacknowledged power imbalances that are affecting negotiations and make real consent difficult or impossible to attain. My own experience was characteristic of this flaw. In a previous blog I discussed how being more in love with my partner than he was with me warped our negotiations and left me with lasting resentment that boiled over into fury when, after pushing for polyamory for 10 years, he changed his mind suddenly and did not want me to date other men. We had agreed to a veto power earlier in our negotiations (in retrospect a bad move but I did not know at the time) and he was irate when I did not immediately heed his veto and instead wanted to continue seeing a man I had had begun dating. Eventually I bowed to his pressure (again), but our mutual resentment was ultimately the death of our relationship.
5. Get Assistance
Finding support from others who have encountered the same issues can be incredibly helpful for people struggling with consent violations. Polyamorous and other CNM folks have thriving online and in person communities that help each other by providing advice, a range of perspectives, and a reality check when things seem murky. From Facebook to MeetUps in restaurants across the nation, polyamorous and CNM communities can provide advice, assistance, support, and teach skills like non-violent communication. If you would benefit from personalized assistance, I provide relationship coaching for people challenged by their CNM relationships.
This blog focused on consent violations in personal CNM relationships. The next blog in this series focuses on community response to more serious and further reaching consent violations.