Making fair agreements in polyamory and non-monogamy

May 04, 2024
Two people hug each other against a background on green grass and thick green trees and bushes. The person on the right is taller with short black and gray curly hair. He is wearing a blue and white checkered button up shirt with a collar. He is cradling the other person's head in his hand. The person on the right has long straight black hair. She is wearing a dark blue long sleeved shirt and is closing her eyes as she embraces the other person.

4 minute read

“We just want to make sure we stay on the same page. You know, things are fair,” Kevin said. With a smooth tone and an easy smile, he joked with me about how this would protect his future with his wife. He was confident that keeping things even-steven in their relationship agreements would ensure that neither of them got ahead of the other. 

Yeah. It doesn’t work that way.

There’s a paradox when it comes to agreements. 

If you try to make your agreements perfectly uniform for everyone involved- trouble is coming.

If you make things different for the wrong reasons, it sets the stage for abusive power dynamics.

Adding nuance to relationship agreements

It seems simple enough–make agreements that are a set of rules that apply to everyone. But we aren’t the same. We have different needs, wants, and desires, different bottom-line requirements, and different access to opportunities. 

Our agreements must be asymmetric. 

“But that’s not fair!” Kevin did not like the idea of an asymmetric agreement– he wanted to know that Lena would be held to the same rules he was holding himself to. “It just makes sense to have one set of rules we both follow.”

When I review agreements with people, I’m not looking for them to be matchy-matchy. I’m looking for how the agreements help everyone feel more connected and how they encourage everyone to be treated with their full humanity–including new partners who aren’t in the room yet. 

Navigating the complexities of relationships, particularly non-monogamous and polyamorous ones, means you need agreements. We all have them, but in my many years working as a relationship coach, I can verify that most people rely on implicit agreements or “an ongoing conversation” rather than getting clear and explicit with each other. Then when life happens, they wonder why they don’t seem to remember their implicit, verbal agreements the same way. 

Shocking.

Explicit agreements are essential for setting expectations and managing relationship dynamics effectively. But making them with the primary aim of balance and sameness usually backfires.

Asymmetry as a Necessity

Episode 150 of the "Playing with Fire" podcast explores why asymmetry in agreements is not just common but often necessary in non-monogamous relationships. Asymmetry acknowledges that each individual has different needs, desires, and boundaries. Trying to enforce symmetry, where each party gives and receives equally, can lead to unrealistic expectations and may not truly meet the needs of everyone involved.

When Kevin finally came around to the idea of asymmetry it was a revelation. 

He’d been trying to avoid being the asshole, “I don’t wanna be one of those guys who has a one-penis policy or some crap like that.” So his original intent was great, he wanted to encourage autonomy and fairness… but he missed the mark. He asked for his wife to only go on dates when he was also able to make connections and offered to cancel his dates if his wife wasn’t meeting anyone. 

In just a few months they’d managed to turn off several potential partners because they each bailed on new people if their anchor partner didn’t also have plans. Then it got worse in a way Kevin never expected. It turns out, he falls into the throes of new relationship energy harder and faster than Lena tended to. She tried to tell him it was okay, but he struggled to believe they could have a healthy relationship that wasn’t super “balanced.”

What if balance isn’t the goal? What if fair doesn’t look like symmetry? How will you handle it when your partner’s needs, wants, or boundaries mean that a unilateral agreement doesn’t work?

Download episode 150 of Playing with Fire: Asymmetric Agreements to learn all the details about upgrading your relationship agreement skills!

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