An Ethical Framework for Relationship Agreements

The marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle made me a romantic again, but love is not always roses and tiaras. My partner recently went through a crisis where his wife withdrew her consent for our relationship a year and a half into our relationship. She felt that our relationship was a threat to their marriage and that he could not love her in the way she wanted if he continued his relationship with me. After struggling for more than a year, he decided that it was too much for him to fight with her every day and he needed to prioritize his family, so he withdrew from our relationship. As much as he tried to maintain our relationship, in the end, there was no way he could satisfy her and me, so he chose the path of less resistance. I wrote this “manifesto” in response to what I saw as a not ethical or loving way to deal with conflict in a poly relationship. If anyone is wondering what to do when a partner tries to control your relationships, or if your partner tries to force you into opening your relationship, I hope this helps to clarify the ethical framework.

1. No one has a right to tell you who you can have a romantic relationship with, or how. As late as 1967, it was illegal in many parts of the US for a white person to marry a person of color, and as late as 2014, it was illegal to marry someone of the same sex. Today these laws are regarded as bigoted and unethical. The right to marry your chosen partner regardless of their gender, race, or religion is considered fundamental and belonging to everyone. Exceptions still apply to cases like minors and blood relatives, but even those are being challenged.

2. Your family and friends do not have the right to control your relationships. People you already have relationships with do not have the right to tell you with whom and how to have your romantic relationships. Parents may have strong preferences about who they want their children to be partnered with, and sometimes children decide to abide by those preferences because they do not wish to alienate their parents, but in Western, developed countries, parents don’t make that decision for their children. Children also sometimes have preferences about who you are in a relationship with, but they do make decisions about partners for their parents. Parents can and often do help their children adjust to partners they object to, but ultimately parents make the decision. Friends and other less intimate relationships have even less right to interfere.

3. An exception is your spouse, because you mutually agreed to forsake other partners when you got married, and that agreement is enforced with a legal contract. Should you breach that agreement, your partner has the right to invoke divorce and bring legal and social ramifications upon you.

4. However, agreements can be altered if they no longer serve the individuals involved. Agreements are written to serve the people involved, and they sometimes need to be updated in order to address new circumstances. Marriage contracts by default stipulate monogamy, and changing that requires explicit consent from both partners. Some couples agree to alter the wedding vows, and some couples decide to change their agreement after the marriage through discussion, or after an infidelity.

5. Changes to agreements need to be consented to by all parties involved. When someone decides to change an agreement, drastically alter it, or terminate it all together, they must raise the changes to the other parties involved, and the other parties need to consent in order for the agreement to be valid. If two people in a business partnership agree that they have equal say in decisions about their business, one person cannot decide that he will make major decisions for the other, without the other’s consent. A tenant cannot stop paying rent without the landlord’s consent. It sometimes happens that one person decides to renege on an agreement, and if the agreement has legal force, then the agreement holder can bring legal action against the agreement neglector and force them to uphold the agreement. An alteration to an agreement that has not been consented to by all parties is not valid.

6. Manipulating a partner into giving consent is not ethical. If the person who wants to changes the agreement cannot get the other person’s willing consent, they may resort to tactics to wear down their partner’s resistance. Tactics could include 1) making them feel guilty about things their partner has done, 2) gaslighting them into thinking that the agreement was something other than what was agreed to, 3) withholding benefits from their relationship, or threatening to withhold those benefits, 4) using their children, finances, possessions, or their reputation as tools of extortion, 5) Resorting to physical, emotional, or psychological abuse, 6) Generally making their life difficult or unpleasant. Through these means, the person may eventually obtain consent from the other person. Consent obtained under duress is not consent, and using tactics to obtain someone’s consent this way is manipulative, unethical, and not loving.

7. If one person stops upholding an agreement, the other parties involved are not obligated to uphold the agreement. If a business partner starts doing business in a way that is not agreed to by the other partner, then the other partner has the right to terminate that business partner. If a renter stops paying rent, then the landlord has the right to evict the tenant. In a romantic relationship, when one person stops being loving to their partner, then the partner is not obligated to continue being loving to them at his own expense. They may still feel love for that person, and try to talk them into upholding their agreement or come up with a new agreement, but they are not obligated to provide the deliverables in their agreement if the partner has ceased to provide theirs. Of course, people go through illness, depression, disability, stress, or other hardships that make it difficult or impossible for them to do their part in a relationship for a while, however, those cases can be differentiated from ones where the partner is simply uninterested, unwilling, or incapable of upholding their obligations in a relationship.

8. Love does not mean that you have to uphold an agreement that is no longer valid. Love is 1) not harming the one you love, 2) Supporting their personal growth, even if sometimes that means causing them pain and inconvenience, 3) Respecting their freedom and autonomy, even if you do not agree with their choices. Love is not 1) changing your values for the other person, 2) causing yourself harm, 3) restricting your autonomy to a degree that it causes you unhappiness. If someone loves you, they should not be intentionally causing you harm, restricting your growth, or suppressing your freedom. If they are doing that then you have every right to let them know what they are doing and demand that they stop.

9. All needs are not equal. People have different needs in relationships and compromises are sometimes necessary to meet them. However, needs are not all equal, and just because someone has a need, does not mean that one should sacrifice her own needs to satisfy another’s. For example, one partner’s need to work will sometimes supersede the other partner’s need for fun. A need to maintain relationships that are important to one partner may supersede the partner’s need to not be inconvenienced. A need for sexual freedom may not supersede the other partner’s need to feel safe physically and sexually. The importance of each need is relative compared to the needs that are compromised to meet it.

If we think about a relationship as an agreement, the way a business relationship is an agreement, then it becomes clear what can and cannot be done. When an agreement is disregarded, altered, or terminated without discussion or consent, it is a breach of contract and an ethical failure. Just because one is in a romantic relationship or married does not excuse someone from behaving unethically and abusively.

 

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