I was recently reading this very interesting essay on More Than Two, and this point struck me:
Let’s give an example. In her memoir The Husband Swap, Louisa Leontiades describes her metamour Elena giving an ultimatum to Louisa’s husband, Gilles, who was also Elena’s boyfriend:It’s her or me. Elena made it clear that she could no longer remain in a relationship with Gilles as long as he was in a relationship with Louisa. I won’t spoil the book by telling you what he chose…or how Elena responded. But while I was working with Louisa on the companion guide to the memoir,Lessons in Love and Life to My Younger Self, the two of us had a discussion about whether Elena’s actions constituted a veto of Louisa.
An outside observer who did not know Elena would in fact not be in a position to say whether her actions were a veto or not. Why? Because the difference comes down to expectation and intent. Elena had every right to set boundaries concerning what kind of a relationship she was willing to be involved in—up to and including who she was willing to be metamours with. But in giving Gilles an ultimatum, was she prepared for the possibility that he might say no—thus leaving her in the position of having to make good on her promise to end her relationship with him? Or was she working from an expectation that he would say yes—thus making the ultimatum dangerous for only Louisa, and not for Elena? What would her response be if Gilles said no? Would she be angry? Consider his choice a betrayal? Use shame and guilt to try to get him to do what she wanted? Or would she accept his decision—and leave the relationship?
An underlying element of all these questions is this: Did Elena feel entitled to have Gilles choose her? Healthy relationships are ones in which we can express our needs and desires, but it’s when we feel entitled to have our partners do what we want that things go off the rails. Entitlement makes us feel like it’s okay to overrule our partners’ agency (and that of their partners). If we’re part of a socially sanctioned couple, this is especially dangerous, because we’ve got lots of societal messages feeding that sense of entitlement. And the most damaging parts of hierarchical setups tend to come about when we enshrine entitlement into our relationship agreements.
On one hand, I entirely agree with this argument. It goes against my values to exercise power, control, or coercion over my partners. When I set a boundary or talk about my relationship needs, I am not saying what my partner can or can’t do, because I don’t want that kind of control over another person (and I think attempts to get that kind of control are mostly illusions anyway); I’m saying what I will do. I don’t say “you can’t have anal sex with other people without a condom”; I say “if you have anal sex with someone else without a condom, I will use a condom with you when I have anal sex with you.” I don’t say “you aren’t allowed to yell at me”; I say “if you yell at me, I will leave the conversation.” I don’t say “you shouldn’t lie to me”; I say “if you lie to me, I will no longer trust things you say, and I do not want to have close relationships with people I don’t trust.” I don’t ever think it’s okay to overrule my partners’ agency, or to allow them to overrule mine.
(Note that this comment on this particular quote might imply that I think getting angry at your partner is inherently entitled and denying agency. I don’t, and I’m pretty sure the authors of the More Than Two blog don’t either, but discussion of how emotions intersect with boundary-setting is a tangent this margin is too small to contain.)
(Incidentally, can someone come up with a name for this mindset other than ‘egalitarian’? I see where it makes sense in a poly context but it’s kind of silly to apply to relationships where no one is dating other people.)
(Tangent time over.)
On the other hand, I and my husband kind of stood up in front of like seventy people and announced to everyone that we were going to be together until death or the previously negotiated list of reasons to divorce do us part. And I take this commitment very seriously; I do not break my promises.
So that might mean problems with my value system. After all, what would happen if I said to my husband “I hate your enbyfriend, and either you dump them or dump me”? He both committed and precommitted to be with me forever; he presumably did no such thing to them. I and the enbyfriend are in a tremendously unequal position of power.
The thing is, from an egalitarian mindset, if I say “I hate your metamour, and either you dump them or dump me” and my husband dumps me, my husband did not break his promise. The person who broke their promise was me.
I could have lots of responses to the metamour situation. I could refuse to be in the same room as the metamour. I could end conversations where they are talked about. I could treat them with an icy civility when circumstances force us together. I could explain exactly why I dislike this metamour so much in the hopes I will convince my husband. I could ask my husband to explain to me what he gets out of the relationship, so I could understand what important role it plays in his life. I could ask the metamour to hang out, in the hopes I will like them more once I get to know them. But one thing I am absolutely not going to do– the thing I agreed not to do when I got married– is say “if you date this person, I will leave you.” Leaving is off the table.
I am not in a position of strength. I am in a position of weakness. I did not give myself the option to make my husband do whatever I want; I took one of my options for boundary-setting and I threw it away. One of the most powerful options, in fact! It is quite difficult to treat someone like shit if they refuse to interact with you.
Why would I do such a thing? Well, for one, I think it is terribly romantic, which played no small role in my decision. For another, you make different plans if you can expect that your partner will be in your life forever. I am pursuing a higher-risk and lower-paying career path because my husband works well-paying jobs and will be able to feed and house me; my husband plans to have children with me because he knows he won’t be their primary caregiver, potentially derailing his career. For a third, my husband is really a extraordinarily good person for me to live with and have children with; I expect there are no more than a few dozen people who would be better at it. Therefore, if I in the future think that I don’t want to be married to him anymore, I think it is more likely that I am mistaken than that he is ill-suited for me, and I want to prevent future me from making any rash and ill-advised decisions.
(The fact that my husband thinks that last paragraph is extremely sweet is exactly the reason we’re married.)