Part of the problem with polyamory advice is that it usually comes from people who give advice.
This creates two distortions. First, many people who dislike commonly given polyamory advice would prefer something along the lines of “whatever works for you and your partners is great.” The problem is that this is really terrible advice.
As a comparison, consider a certain genre of sex-positive advice columns. These advice columns will answer every question with “talk to your partners! People are diverse, so you should figure out what works for you.” How do you eat someone out? “Talk to your partners! People are diverse, so you should figure out what works for you.” How do you dominate someone? “Talk to your partners! People are diverse, so you should figure out what works for you.” You like sex when you have it, but you’re rarely in the mood, so it’s easy to go weeks or months without having sex? “Talk to your partners! People are diverse, so you should figure out what works for you.” The sex is just kind of… meh? “Talk to your partners! People are diverse, so you should figure out what works for you.”
Of course, people are diverse, you should talk to your partners, and it’s a good idea to figure out what works for you. But this is also totally useless advice. If I knew what worked for me and my partners, I wouldn’t be writing to an advice column. And it’s not like there are literally zero generalities. You can say “in general, it’s a good idea to warm up your partner a bit before you approach her clit”. You can say “a lot of people find that making your partner call you ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ puts them in a good headspace.” You can say “that’s called responsive desire, it’s very common among people of all genders, and if you want to have sex more you can plan to spend some time kissing and cuddling on a regular basis and you may find that you’re in the mood for sex.” You can say “why don’t you try some different things that seem interesting? Even if most of them turn out to be silly or boring, adding a couple new things to your repertoire can stave off boredom.” Even though that isn’t going to work for everyone, it is sure as hell going to work for more people than “figure out what works for you!” without any guidance about how you do this.
Similarly, there are certain generalities among people in relationships. You should be familiar with your partner as a person, ranging from their favorite books to their problems to their deeply held values. You should try to be thankful about nice things your partner has done for you and to admire their good qualities. You should listen when they want to tell you something, even if you are a little busy. You should compromise. You should take a break when you feel like screaming at your partner.
Of course, these don’t apply to every relationship. There are people who are in happy marriages that are primarily an economic exchange and division of chores, where they don’t know much about each other beyond what is necessary to do their respective jobs. There are people who don’t mind being taken for granted. There are people who consider it an important part of respect for each other’s intellectual work that they never interrupt a train of thought with a question. There are people who thrive when their partner does whatever they want without taking their wishes into account. There are people who scream at each other and then have hot sex and feel like their conflict is resolved.
But that said, if I know that someone is unhappy in their relationship, and they don’t know how to fix it, and I know that they resolve all their conflicts by screaming at each other, I am going to suggest “why don’t you try resolving your conflicts through calm discussion and not screaming?” And I think that is much more likely to work than “whatever works for you and your partners is fine!”
I think this generalizes to a lot of the controversial polyamory advice as well. Is there somewhere out there a triad with an ecstatically happy bisexual woman partner who isn’t allowed to have sex with people outside the triad, is officially secondary, is required to love both of her partners equally, is an unpaid nanny/maid, and isn’t allowed to tell anyone whom she’s dating because they’re not out as poly? Probably! But I am not going to endorse this as a general practice.
Second, most people are reasonable, sensible people, but some people are ridiculous and terrible. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people who write to advice columns are either ridiculous terrible people or reasonable sensible people who have somehow managed to get stuck in a relationship with ridiculous terrible people, because the reasonable sensible people generally have good relationships and therefore have no need to write to advice columns.
(yr humble blogger queers the ridiculous terrible/reasonable sensible binary)
So someone writes to the advice column and says “I won’t let my husband’s girlfriend kiss him except on the cheek or through a dental dam because she has oral herpes. She’s upset about this. How do I get her to see that this is necessary to prevent me from becoming a disgusting diseased herpetic?” And the advice columnist says “Jesus fucking christ, cut that shit out, you are ridiculous and terrible and also really bad at risk analysis.”
And then some reasonable sensible people read this and say “But I am immunosuppressed! I’m lucky enough not to have herpes, but if I catch it it would be really bad! It makes sense that my partners should have to take lots of precautions to avoid transmitting herpes to me.”
And a member of Team Do What Works For You is like “people should do whatever they want as long as it works for them and their partners! There is nothing wrong with making your metamour only kiss your husband through plastic wrap!”
My position here is that:
(1) We are, of course, going to follow the John Stuart Mill rules about people who are hurting themselves– one may argue with, attempt to persuade, or entreat a person who is making a poor decision, but one may not force them to do the thing you want or visit any sort of evil upon them for not doing so.
(2) We are not going to get more liberal than John Stuart Mill and assume that tolerance requires that no one ever think you’re making a bad choice.
(3) Some people have good reasons for making their metamours kiss their partners through plastic wrap.
(4) For the vast majority of people, this is a horrible idea and your relationships would be a lot better if you instead learned how to do reasonable STI risk assessment.
(5) The majority of people would not force their partners to kiss their partners through plastic wrap, it would never occur to them to do so, and find the whole idea vaguely horrifying.
The problem of ridiculous terrible people comes up particularly with the cluster exemplified by vetoes, rules, relationship contracts, and hierarchy. Ridiculous terrible people can get up to all kinds of ridiculous and terrible shit with vetoes, rules, relationship contracts, and hierarchy. As an example, in the book More Than Two, a man vetoes his wife’s relationship, refusing to even allow her to talk to him again to say goodbye, because he makes her too happy (?!) and this makes him feel jealous (?!?!).
If I were reading a bunch of letters from similarly ridiculous terrible people or their partners, I would probably be pretty down on veto too.
But in practice, I don’t think there’s a whole lot of difference between Reasonable Sensible People Polyamory With Rules and Reasonable Sensible People Polyamory Without Rules. My husband does not have a veto over whom I date, but he does get to have opinions. Naturally, I respect my husband’s judgment about other people, so I will listen to him to see if he’s seen something I’m blinded to by new relationship energy. Naturally, my husband respects my judgment about other people, so he will listen to me about the merits of the person he’s judged distasteful. Naturally, he doesn’t want to make me unhappy, so he will swallow his dislike and be cordial if necessary. Naturally, I don’t want to make him unhappy, so I will avoid squeeing about the awesomeness of people he dislikes. And if in spite of all this we can’t resolve the conflict, we’ll figure out how to manage it while keeping the lines of communication open so we can maybe find a resolution.
I am dating people whose partners do have veto power, and in terms of actual relationship dynamics as opposed to rules, they do the exact same thing. “My husband has veto” translates to “I respect my husband’s judgment and don’t want to do things that make him unhappy, so if he dislikes one of my partners I put a fairly significant amount of weight on that.”
In this case, I feel like a veto is harmless. I personally don’t have one, because I dislike having a power that I would never actually exercise. If I am relying on my husband’s care for my happiness and respect for my judgment, I prefer to say that rather than having it disguised as a rule. Other people find that having a veto gives them a sense of comfort; it feels like a strong signal that their partner has respect for their judgment and cares about their happiness, which is very important in any relationship. Still other people have truly abominable taste and their partners have a veto as a way of recognizing that they must be continually saved from themselves; in this case, the veto is Past You and Present Partners conniving to harsh the buzz of Present You, who is absolutely convinced that this one-eyed three-legged dog is totally worth saving and, see, they only bite a little bit. (In my anecdotal experience, in such situations, their committed secondary partners sometimes also have veto, possibly because Present You is more likely to listen to four people yelling about why you shouldn’t date people with four restraining orders and a domestic violence conviction.) There are probably other decent ways of handling it that I’m not thinking of.
And, indeed, if ridiculous terrible people didn’t have vetoes they would probably be going around being ridiculous and terrible some other way. The core problem with “your partner is making you too happy! I’m upset! I’m vetoing your relationship!” is not the veto. It’s being upset because a person you claim to love is happy.
The actual solution here is probably something like honesty, compassion, forgiveness, courage, growth, fairness, joy, empathy, respect, a sense of humor, a sense of perspective, and all the other virtues. But “be more compassionate! The details will work themselves out” is also kind of terrible advice, because “be more compassionate” is not exactly taskified. So instead we’re stuck with the “don’t have veto” thing.