“What do we do if one (or both) of us decides we no longer want our relationship to be open?”
This isn’t a question that always gets discussed explicitly when partners are weighing whether to open their monogamous relationship and explore some form of consensual non-monogamy. Unfortunately, even when it is discussed, sometimes partners end up making agreements that in the short-term can make consensual non-monogamy feel less “risky” and ease some of the fear and anxiety; however, in the long-term some of these agreements can make it more likely that someone—one or both of the partners in the relationship, or potentially some of the people they’re making connections with as they explore consensual non-monogamy—will end up experiencing hurt or resentment in the future. In this post, I’ll talk about two relatively common arrangements (veto, and unilateral closing) that are sometimes used to soothe the feelings that consensual non-monogamy can trigger, and we’ll look at some of the faulty underlying assumptions that can lead to partners making those sorts of agreements. I’ll also suggest a framework for thinking about if/how/whether/when to close a relationship that I think helps to avoid some of the potential pitfalls of a veto or unilateral closing agreement.
Defining “Veto” and “Unilateral Closing”
Before I talk about the underlying assumptions of veto or unilateral closing agreements, let me just quickly describe what they are. A “veto” arrangement is one where one partner (Partner A) can decide—for whatever reason—that they don’t want their partner (Partner B) to have a connection with a specific person (Partner C), and Partner B is expected or obligated to end their relationship with Partner C. On the other hand, a “unilateral closing” arrangement is one where one partner (or either partner) can decide—for whatever reason—that they don’t want their relationship to be open anymore, and both partners are expected or obligated to end their connections with everyone else, and not form new connections with others.
Now that we’re on the same page about what I mean when I refer to “veto” or “unilateral closing,” I want to explore two metaphors that can help to highlight two different approaches to managing the feelings of anxiety and fear that often come up when people think of the “risks” of consensual non-monogamy.
Revert To Saved
Veto and unilateral closing agreements fall under what I think of as a “revert to saved” model for thinking about relationships—non-monogamous or not. Some of you are probably familiar with this term from doing different tasks on computers. “Revert to saved” refers to the ability—on a computer—to save multiple versions of the same file or document, which makes it really easy to undo some mistakes.
Did you just add a few rows of data to a spreadsheet so now none of the reference formulas work and you can’t figure out where the problem is? Revert to saved. Were you just trying to change the color balance on a photo for your newsletter, and now your skin is somehow bright purple? Revert to saved. Did you delete a whole section from the presentation you put together for work because your boss said there wouldn’t be time to talk about that, only to have your boss call you back 15 minutes later and say that the other person who was going to be presenting is out sick so now you have 10 extra minutes to fill in the meeting that starts in 20 minutes? Revert to saved. The ability to instantly bring back an earlier version of a computer file with just a few clicks has undoubtedly spared people countless headaches, tears, and panic attacks. It’s brilliant.
However, I wanna be reeeeeeaaaalllllyyyy clear here… this is not how relationships between humans work. Did you catch that? I’ll repeat it. Humans don’t operate like computers. Please don’t expect them to. Don’t expect it from other people. Don’t expect it of yourself.
Instead, I’d like to propose a different metaphor for thinking about making changes within human relationships; one that I think is more helpful and realistic than the wonderful, impossible-for-humans-but-simple-for-computers, panic-averting magic of “revert to saved.” That metaphor is…
Hang with me here; I’m gonna talk really literally for a minute before we get metaphorical. If you’ve ever moved furniture with someone before, you’re probably familiar with five different scenarios:
- Scenario 1: Yeah, we should be able to get this thing upstairs no problem. Just take the legs off and stand it upright… what do you mean the legs don’t unscrew???
- Scenario 2: No, I said lift higher. No, stop, careful you’re gonna smash my fingers on the doorway! You can’t set this down or it’ll leave scratches!!! Don’t chip the edges!!!!!!! Wait, I don’t have a grip here! …don’t talk to me for an hour.
- Scenario 3: …
Nope. I hate the couch there. We’re moving it back.
- Scenario 4: There’s no f***ing way we’re gonna fit this through that doorwa… oh, that was easy.
- Scenario 5: Wow! I can’t believe how much nicer this room feels when we have it set up this way!
Look, moving furniture is stressful. Sometimes it’s frustrating. Sometimes it’s strenuous. Sometimes it doesn’t work out like we wanted it to or expected it to. But also, it can be a lot easier than we expected. And hopefully, with the right furniture, in the right configuration, it can actually enhance the quality of our living spaces—and the quality of our lives.
So, that was all very literal. Now let’s talk about furniture—and moving it—as a metaphor for relationships and consensual non-monogamy. Let’s say your relationship with your partner is a house. It’s up to you and your partner what you put in the house. Where you put it. Whether you keep it there.
You and your partner want a loveseat for two? Great. You want two separate recliners? Wonderful. You want one couch over here, a recliner there, and a daybed in the corner? Lovely. You want child-safe with soft, rounded edges and easy-wash upholstery? Smart. You want grown-ups only, modern, expensive, sculptural statement pieces that are going to leave bruises on your shins every time you even think about walking past them? If that’s the look you’re going for, you’re doing it…
Opening a previously monogamous relationship is (kind of) like bringing a new piece of furniture into your space… or moving an existing piece into a new configuration. You can do it. You can like it. You can ask, “why didn’t we do this years ago?” You can be unsure about it. You can question if that new piece matches the other furniture that’s already in the space. One or both of you can decide you don’t like that piece of furniture, or the arrangement. You can try a new arrangement. You can move the piece out.
It’s your relationship. Your furniture. You get to decide.
But I wanna be reeeeeeaaaaaaalllllllyyyyyy clear here too, just like I was when I said that humans don’t work like computers, and that we shouldn’t expect them to. Ready?
Humans are NOT your furniture!
If there is a piece of furniture, in your home, and you don’t like it, you are well within your rights to remove that furniture from your home. (You get to have control over your relationship(s).)
But if there is a human being sitting on that piece of furniture, even if you’ve decided you want to get rid of the furniture (which you do have control over), you don’t get to control the other human. It’s really important that you and your partner don’t lose sight of the importance of treating the human like a human as you make decisions about what kinds of furniture you want to offer for the humans to sit in, and how you want that furniture to be arranged.
Using a veto arrangement is kinda like deciding that a guest in your home isn’t allowed to sit in a certain chair anymore because the last time they sat in the chair, they stayed and talked with you when you wanted to go to bed. I mean, sure you could say they can’t come over and sit in the chair anymore… or you could set an expectation ahead of time that you’d like the visit to be over by 9pm so you can get to bed at a reasonable time. And a unilateral closing agreement would be like getting rid of the chair altogether because someone sat in it when you wanted to go to bed, even though your partner was actually enjoying the conversation.
My point with all this: It can be really tempting to reassure a partner (or self) with the idea that it’s possible to solve all of the “problems” of consensual non-monogamy if it doesn’t match expectations with the snap of a finger, a few clicks of a computer mouse, or a simple request to a partner to just go back to “the way it was.” But I don’t think that’s realistic. Opening a relationship takes work. Closing a relationship takes work. Hell, even just being in a relationship —open or closed—takes work. If you’re not up for that work, that’s fine… it just might mean you’re not up for that relationship.
Alternatives to Veto and Unilateral Closing Agreements
If you or a partner find yourself considering or asking for a veto arrangement or a unilateral closing clause, I’d encourage you to consider these alternative steps instead:
- Be honest with yourself and your partner
Continue talking about what each of you need and want from your relationship with each other, and from potential relationships with other people. Open communication is so important in any relationship, but particularly in consensually non-monogamous relationships. As part of that honesty, I’d encourage you both to wrestle with the reality that even if you put a “revert to saved”-type agreement in place, the fact is that that’s still not a guarantee… those agreements are only as good as the trust we have in a partner. Acknowledge that the “power” of a veto or a unilateral closing is actually an illusion: If I can trust my partner to honor a veto agreement, I can trust them to honor other agreements or commitments we could make instead; and if I don’t trust my partner to honor other agreements or commitments, why am I willing to somehow believe that they’ll honor a veto? The security doesn’t come from the veto. The security comes from trusting that a partner will honor their commitment within the relationship.
- Think about “would I really honor a veto?”
If your answer is “yes,” recognize that this is a sign of commitment within your relationship to each other. Great. Like I just mentioned, it’s the commitment—and the knowledge that you and your partner are looking out for each others’ wellbeing—that is going to create security in the relationship, not the veto arrangement. While I understand how commitment might look to some like “I want to prioritize our relationship, so if someone makes you uncomfortable I’m willing to cut them out of my life,” I would argue that a more stable foundation in the long run is “I want to prioritize our relationship, so if you’re not sure that this is a step you want to take, I’m okay with keeping our relationship the way it is unless and until you really feel good about changing it.” That second framing can help take away some of the pressure a partner might feel to make a decision—either because they’re feeling rushed, or because they’re afraid they’ll lose their relationship if they say “no.”
- If you wouldn’t honor a veto:
Be honest with your partner and yourself about that too… and then (here’s the important part) don’t agree to a veto arrangement. If you know you’re not going to honor it and you enter into it anyway, the whole thing is built on a lie. If your partner “consented” to consensual non-monogamy based on a lie or relevant information being withheld, it’s not consensual.
- If you and your partner decide to have a veto agreement in place anyway, recognize that this is super important information to share with any potential new partners you’re both encountering. Withholding or failing to actively disclose something like “oh by the way, at any point this other person in my life could decide my relationship with you has to end, and if that happens I’m going to drop you like a hot potato” absolutely falls under the category of “need-to-know in order to give informed consent” about whether to enter into a relationship with you.
And while some people might be OK with that arrangement, it’s likely that many of the people you’re interested in connecting with are going to hear that and walk the other way.
Not Just an Illusion… a Destabilizing Illusion
So far this post has focused on the potential problems of a “revert to saved” approach if/when those options are actually used; however, I would also argue that having these types of agreements in place can negatively impact the process of practicing consensual non-monogamy even if no one ever issues a veto or a unilateral closing ultimatum. I can think of two ways this might occur.
Fear of Asking — One of the ways that having a “revert to saved” agreement in place can negatively impact consensually non-monogamous relationships—even if they’re never actually used—is that they can make it unnecessarily difficult for partners to even ask for what they want. If Partner A holds veto power over Partner B’s relationship with Partner C, Partner C may feel less empowered to ask Partner B for what they want; but Partner B may also feel less empowered to come to Partner A to ask for something different as well.
All-or-nothing “solutions” lead to all-or-nothing interactions — This one might feel a little less intuitive at first, but I think it actually highlights a really important distinction in mentality. If two partners have already agreed that the “solution” to the potential challenges of consensual non-monogamy is to just ditch consensual non-monogamy altogether, it shifts the focus toward whether to use that all-or-nothing power. It forces the partners to continuously ask themselves “do I want to make this stop?” instead of asking themselves “what would help to make this better?” Don’t get me wrong here; I think it’s vital for partners to be willing to ask themselves “is this still working for me?” But focusing too heavily on “do I want to make this stop?” creates (I think) a narrowing of possibilities. It stifles the sort of creative, flexible problem-solving that is vital to maintaining satisfying consensually non-monogamous relationships.
Although it can feel (to both partners) like the partner holding the veto has ultimate control, the reality is that they have very little. It’s a bit like being a passenger on a plane with an ejector seat: sure, I can press the button and launch myself out of the plane if things get too intense, but using an ejector seat is it’s own kind of intensity; and if I didn’t have control over how fast we were going, how high we were flying, whether we were doing somersaults and barrel rolls, whether I’m ejecting myself over large open fields or whether we’ve drifted out over the ocean, whether I’m making my emergency landing a few hundred yards from the airport or whether I’m still 50 miles from anything even once I reach the ground, it’s hard to argue I that I’m really in control of my flight—even if I can get off the flight at any moment. And if I ask the pilot to slow down or stop making the tight loops that are bringing me to the brink of vomiting, and the pilot’s response is, “If you don’t like the way I’m flying, you know where the eject button is,” I’m not going to feel grateful that I have “ultimate control” over my situation. I’m going to question why I got on the plane with this asshole to begin with.