It’s the Morning After, and we're sitting on the front stoop - I'm wearing their t-shirt and a pair of borrowed PJs as we cradle our coffee cups and watch the world go by. I take a contented sip and listen to them ask the age old question, asked a thousand times before.
"So, what are we doing here?"
I pause, because, innocuous and common as this question is, in my case the answer is a bit... complex.
I'm married. Happily, (now) legally, and still head-over-heels in love with my wife. We live together, share a bank account, and plan on adopting kids as soon as we can afford it. Full on nesting partner status here. And yes, she's cool with last night.
Not everyone comes to a conscious definition of their relationship orientation in the same way (or ever). For me, I came to understand my polyamory the same way I found bisexuality. Being bisexual gave me a basic premise to question prescribed sexuality narratives; being polyamorous gave me a framework for questioning prescribed romantic narratives.
Which, eventually, led me to the One Rule to Rule Them All.
Hold on a sec, why are we talking about sex and relationships?
Whenever I teach my Exploring Sexualities class, I am inevitably asked to tell the story of how I found my relationship orientation, developed the One Rule, and set out to grow the skillsets needed to make it work, and work well.
One of the sneakiest reasons I talk about sex and relationships throughout my facilitation practice (aside from my personal mission of more high quality consensual intimacy for all!) is that the practices and frameworks being grown and used in the ‘non-default intimacy’ world are highly transferable to ALL other relationships (from the personal to the economic to the democratic).
After all, from one angle, intimate relationships are simply high-stakes, identity centered, resource sharing, consensual, long-term, multi-stakeholder negotiations – and folks who have to innovate on the daily practice of negotiating them (because the default ones don’t see or serve them) are likely to have lessons to share across contexts.
This is what we are here to discuss today: the power of Non-Default Relationship Frameworks to deconstruct received narratives, empower participants, cultivate self-reflection, and flex the communication muscles of any group, to the betterment of each and all.
From Many "Rules" to One Rule
"So, you're poly?" "Yup" "Huh... so, that means--" "Probably not what you think it does. Lemme break it down for you."
I take a deep breath, and launch into some context for why I follow my One Rule.
Now, we receive a whole heck of a lot of narratives - both overt and covert - from our world about how intimate relationships are "supposed to" work (I call these 'Defaults' as shorthand). These narratives are often cloaked in the language of "natural" "normal" "common sense" "god's path" and even "legal." Let’s get a little perspective by unpacking just a (very) few sources of narrative instruction on how “proper” intimate relationships function:
- Love, Marriage, Baby Carriage – we begin receiving these narrative massages early in life. In fact, our society’s current ‘normal formula’ for Relationships are well laid out in that old rhyme about the love, marriage and reproduction which must inevitably follow from climbing a tree to make out with your kindergarten crush. Folks have named this narrative the relationship escalator, and it can be almost impossible to step off of.
- Fairy Tales – even if we do manage to jump on the Escalator with The One, many of our childhood fairy tales warn us that that we’d better live ‘happily ever after.’ If we don’t, it must never have been ‘true love’ and the Real One For Me must still be somewhere out there, and all we have to do is wait for them to show up and sweep us off our feet.
- Media & Politics – for many of us, TV shows, movies, and the almost-reality-TV-show that is American ‘politics’ make up the bulk of today’s explicitly received messages about ‘appropriate’ relationships – and gender roles – and how to navigate them. Which is a TERRIBLE thing because these forms of media thrive on presenting dramatic, attention-grabbing narratives. And in the absence of alternatives, these selected-for-drama stories (which rarely include accurate depictions of the mundane, awkward or tedious-but-necessary parts of relationships) become our cultural stories, the very context in which we form our own experiences of relationships.
- "Sex Ed" – sometimes when facilitating I get to ask, “How many of you would say you were well served by the sex and relationship education you received in your K-12 schooling?” It always gets a loud-but-rueful laugh. All I can say in response to this sad and terrifying average experience of public school “sex ed” is this: if our society wanted to design a curriculum that prepares generations of children to become sexually unhealthy, disempowered victims with few intimate relationship skills, we're doing a great job!
- Religion – in America’s ostensibly secular and pluralistic but oh so Christianity-dominated culture, a certain flavor of Religion has a lot to answer for in the shaping of normative relationships. The moral narratives that underpin any organized religion often explicitly prescribe the ‘righteous’ and ‘holy’ forms of relating to sex and relationships – and proscribe other forms.
- Culture and Family of Origin – the oldest answer to the question of “How do we do this?” is "Just like mom and dad did it.” – or, by extension, "How all the folks in my culture do it." The context we grow up in, and the relationships we see modeled in our early and daily life are the most basic blueprints we are handed with which to build our world and the relationships it will contain (for better, or for worse).
- Intersecting Identities – likewise, all the intersecting aspects of our identity – our race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, age, etc. – are threads in the fabric of our lives that cause different folks to experience the same narratives in wildly divergent ways. The more ‘Otherness’ you embody, the more you are constrained, as each additional 'narrative transgression' will compound your vulnerability to social sanctioning and invisibility.
- Legal Codes – the laws of the land are essentially the codification of the dominant moral codes held by the people of that land. And so, cultures have created – and then selectively and punitively enforced – legal codes to target and suppress groups of folks who dare to operate outside the realm described by these traditional narratives. Laws against homosexuality, sodomy, adultery, cross dressing, miscegenation, queer families, bigamy, and ‘immoral behavior’ have existed throughout our history – many still constrain us today.
This is a set of confusing, often conflicting instructions for how to build our intimate relationships. It’s laced through with systemic oppressions (heteronormative xenophobic patriarchy anyone?) and – given current marriage, divorce, and infidelity statistics, to say nothing of intimate-partner rape and domestic violence etc. – it’s obviously not a particularly robust system for teaching ourselves how to love well as a society. Like the narratives of any hegemonic system, they exclude and homogenize as a tactic for producing 'harmony' – and that’s just a tangled web we're weaving.
The One Rule (that Rules them All)
The One Rule is the sword I forged to slice this Gordian Knot. It sweeps all these confusing and conflicting instructions for building our relationships off the table, leaving a blank canvas – a tabula rasa on which we create ourselves.
So, what is it, I hear you cry?
Any relationship is only and whatever those in it and affected by it agree upon it to be.
That’s it. Sublimely simple, and yet (appropriately) complex – because, yeah, that sounds great, but what does that actually MEAN, in terms of the mechanics of relating? Let’s break it down a little further.
- Any Relationship – yes, ANY. This includes your relationship with your housemates, co-workers, family members, partner, lover, spouse, gardener, babysitter! Why do we place the Romantic Love Relationship above all others, and put so much energy and emphasis on this one bond as special and ‘first’ in how we run our lives? This (often unconscious and automatic) pedestalizing of one relationship has ripple effects on the complex web of relationships which sustain us. Taking the Relationship down off its pedestal has a leveling effect, which helps us evaluate and engage with ALL the relationships in our web on their own merits and within the context of each other.
- Is Only and Whatever – permission to radically self-define granted! Above we unpacked many of the Default modes that we are handed by our world – this rule says that the ultimate power to design your experience is Yours. The format and contents of your relationships are Only what y’all define it as – Whatever it may be or become – and Nothing Else.
- Those in It and Affected by It – everyone who has a stake in the relationship should have a voice (or even a vote) in deciding how that relationship is shaped. This boundary – of those in it and those materially affected by it (like folks who are dependent on the participants, or sharing other relevant resources or commitments) – defines who needs to be included in the co-creation of the relationship, and who does not.
- Agree upon It to Be – agreements are how we articulate the exact details of what this relationship looks like on the daily. Relationships following the One Rule frequently ask questions like: What are our agreements in X, Y, and Z situations? How do we know them, maintain them, and renegotiate them? How do we feel secure in our commitments while leaving space for innovation and exploration as we adapt to our ever-changing world?
The One Rule is, at its core, a formula for having the conversation of ‘So, what are we doing here?’ at a very deep and yet very practical level.
“Ok, so how do we actually use this fancy rule of yours to answer my question again?”
I grin. “Well, here, let’s run through it: I like you, and I’m available for an intimate, sexytime-inclusive relationship that is not co-habitating, co-parenting, or finances-sharing. I’m free about once a week, and would like to explore whatever excites you in that time. I will need to let my wife and consort know that we’ve connected, and they might want to have dinner and chat with us soon. I’d love to hear how that sounds, what excites you, and then let’s see where we overlap, try it for a while, and then check-in. Sound fun?”
It's their turn to grin. “Wow. Seriously? No guessing games? Well. Um, so, I like to kayak…”
Truly ALL Relationships
The process of having this conversation – with myself, with my partners, with my co-workers, etc – over and over again has many benefits, not only to me and mine, but to our democracy as a whole.
Think Beyond the Box
Stepping away from the Default and assembling your own blueprint for this most fundamental of human interactions – intimate relationships – requires a) that we see that there IS a Default which isn’t necessarily ‘normal’ ‘natural’ or ‘common sense’ and b) that we develop and hone a critical lens for unpacking this Default worldview so we actually step away from it (and don’t just reproduce it). These narrative deconstructing skills are what we flex when “thinking outside and beyond the box” – skills so important that you can’t pick up a book on business, parenting, art, or anything else without seeing whole chapters devoted to building them.
Claiming the power to co-create your relationships into any damn thing y’all please can be terrifying – it’s hard to open your mouth and ask for what you really want, without the safety net of a narrative to feed you your lines! But it is precisely that terror – and building the skills to face and overcome it – that leads to one of the most important benefits, empowerment. In relationships which follow the One Rule, you have (for better or worse) full agency over defining and building your relationships. It empowers you to creatively try to maximize the pleasure, benefit, and well-being of all; and to flounder, fail, and bravely try again, all under your own power. Experiencing this empowerment gives us an actual embodied sense of what it is like to be an equal citizen in the ‘state’ of our relationships – an experience which is crucial to growing the necessary empowered citizens to make our democracy thrive.
Personal Growth as a Byproduct of Loving Well
In order to negotiate for what you want, you first have to know what your heart's desire is (or isn’t). When you stop relying on narratives to hand you a script (or even a loose set of guidelines), it can take a while – and quite a lot of trial and error – to figure this out. But a strategic process of introspection, asking probing questions, thinking deeply about our past and future and our baggage and dreams is something many of us pay a whole lot of money for. By following the One Rule, you actively build critical self-reflection and personal growth skills as a byproduct of your intimate relationships. This efficiency spills over – into your piggy bank, your free time, and the extra energy you gain from living life authentically.
Communication Skills Bootcamp
The one complaint I get most frequently when describing the benefits of the One Rule is often something like, “Yeah, but doesn’t all that extra talking take waaaaay too much time and energy?” to which I reply – “What, you don’t have time to do it right, but you have time to do it over?” Communication is a learned skill and the up-front investment of learning to do it well is worth the life-long payoff (not to mention the benefits of avoiding the often-deferred-and-unnoticed-until-we-breakup costs of being in an inauthentic relationship). Communication skills for high-stakes situations are skills that we need everywhere in our lives – in our workplaces, our families, our bedrooms, and our voting booths. When we flex and stretch our communication skills in our intimate relationships – where that mighty motivator Love pushes us to really, really put in the effort, and reap the resulting rewards – we build those muscles for the benefit of our whole lives.
Imagine a World where the One Rule Ruled Us All
If you could envision a world in which everyone you shared your life with swept the table clean of Default narratives, and made a commitment to follow the One Rule in how they relate to you, what would it look like? What might be possible in that world? No, seriously, get out some scratch paper, and try this out…
- What would your WORK life look like if it followed the One Rule?
- What would your LOVE life look like if it followed the One Rule?
- What would your FAMILY life look like if it followed the One Rule?
- What would our DEMOCRACY look like if it followed the One Rule?
I'm working on building that world one commitment at a time – slowly removing areas where I operate on the Default definitions and assumptions I have received, and repopulating them with relationships that build my agency (like worker co-ops, my polyamorous marriage, and the work I do serving clients).
I won’t lie - it’s a process, getting other folks on board. At first. But my experience shows that, so far, it definitely produces a more easily communicative, consistently authentic, and happy life.
So, the next time life hands you a cup of coffee, invites you to sit on the stoop in the bright morning air, and asks, "So, what are we doing here?"... think about the One Rule, and what you could create with it.