against the veto (or, fear by any other name…)

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

I’ve been thinking lately about how the first question on everyone’s lips—poly and monogamous alike—when the topic of non-monogamy comes up is, “How do you deal with the jealousy?”

Seriously? I’m so tired of it.

The first reason is because jealousy comes up in every kind of relationship, not just in poly ones. The most incredibly awful jealousy I’ve ever seen has been in my own monogamous relationships. In my experience, poly brings up a whole bunch of stuff for people, and most of it’s not really specific to poly. It’s basically the same stuff that comes up in monogamous relationships,  just more intensely and with fewer buffers. If you’re poly, then whatever your particular weakness is, poly will shine an even brighter light on it, and that’s the shape your personal challenge will take; it’s each person’s individual challenge to work through whatever that stuff is. Lots of folks make the mistake of thinking poly is to blame for all that stuff, but really all poly is is a rather unforgiving mirror that causes us to have to face ourselves, and sometimes we don’t like what we see.

At least when you’re non-monogamous you (may) have access to a subculture with tons to say about jealousy management. Jealousy is seen as something to be acknowledged, understood and dealt with – books, websites, conferences and tons of other resources abound. And while I applaud those people who create those resources, and further applaud the people who take advantage of them, I think it makes for a bit of an unfortunate situation: because poly folks actually tackle jealousy head-on by talking about it a lot, it makes it look as though jealousy were the province of the polyamorous, when in fact it’s rampant all over the place. The only difference is that the rest of the world thinks that’s okay.

Which leads me to the second reason I’m so tired of the jealousy question. This one takes a bit more explanation.

Our culture gives enormous weight to jealousy, as though it were both inescapable and agonizing. We attribute such all-reigning power to jealousy that we use it as justification, however contested, for a range of incredibly poor behaviour, including some that’s truly horrific—everything from the cold shoulder to murder.

The stuff that most often comes up in any relationship is around fear of loss or fear of pain and how we each respond to that. Clamp down and try to control? Pull back and try to escape? Lash out and try to hurt first, or worse, or in revenge? Feel inadequate and try to get reassurance?

That whole package—which is basically a whole lot of variations on “fear”—we call jealousy. That’s one problem. Even the name we use for that package of emotion acts as a mask that tries to protect what’s underneath it. “I’m jealous” is somehow easier or more acceptable to say than “I’m terrified.” Sort of like how “I’m angry” is seen as somehow more powerful than “I’m vulnerable.” This is the product of a messed-up patriarchal culture and messed-up ideas about what’s really powerful, cuz trust me, vulnerability is incredibly strong.

Then we make it worse. We decide that jealousy must be avoided at all costs. Pull out “jealousy” and all of a sudden you have a nicely packaged reason to make your partner do anything you want. Don’t see him more than twice a week or I’ll be jealous. Don’t touch her in front of me or I’ll be jealous. Don’t wear that dress, other men will look at you and that makes me jealous. In short: don’t do anything that triggers my jealousy, and then I won’t be jealous, and then everything will be fine. We will have successfully avoided jealousy.

But if we drop the protective mantle called “jealousy” and we simply talk about “fear” the picture changes. If we instantly saw a demonstration of “jealousy” as simply a high-stress manifestation of fear, it would all of a sudden be a lot less powerful and a lot more vulnerable.

Most people know, in our self-help-truism-loving culture, that confronting one’s fears makes a lot more sense than avoiding them. Avoidance means you let the world go on without you because you aren’t participating. If you fear venomous snakes and therefore avoid pet stores, you might manage all right. But if you fear a car accident and so avoid being anywhere near cars, well, okay, but that severely limits your options in the world. So it is with relationships.

The only way to avoid the fear of being hurt within relationships is to not build new relationships. In theory this can be accomplished in three ways:

1. Remaining eternally single. Although then you’ve got a whole new set of consequences to deal with. Hey, a happy chosen single life can bring with it many advantages, but when you make that choice not from happiness but from fear, you’re probably not enjoying many of those advantages.

2. Monogamy, which most of the world does, although this option is about as reliable as the “I promise I’ll pull out” method of birth control. Why? Because for starters, even if you’re only ever with one person in your entire life, it’s a helluva gamble to think you’ll manage to pick one who will never hurt you. News flash: we’re human. We all fuck up. Fuck-ups sometimes hurt the people we love. The end. Beyond that, the vast majority of the people out there who understand themselves as monogamous are in fact practicing serial monogamy, as in, multiple partners sequentially rather than simultaneously (though many people do this with some degree of overlap between partners, above-board or otherwise). Have you ever met someone who does serial monogamy and who has never been hurt? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Have you ever met someone who does serial monogamy because they’re convinced that the next one is always the one that won’t hurt them like the last one did? Mmm-hmm. See the above comment re: being human.

3. Super-strictly-controlled types of non-monogamy. By this I mean the kind that usually involve only ever having sex with an outside person once, no exchanging names or numbers, only doing it out of town, and the like. That is awfully cold, and to be honest it usually doesn’t work too well, though I’ve known some people who can do it. They are usually the type who like lots of variety in sexual partners but who don’t get very emotional about sex, and who keep things pretty compartmentalized in life as a whole. Often not the healthiest paradigm to begin with, but it can be done, especially if you travel a lot and/or have access to a sexual culture (swinging, gay bathhouses, etc.) that provides conducive social parameters. Problem is, waaay more people think they can do this than can actually do it. This takes two forms. First, either the people doing it are not compartmentalizing per se, but rather simply shutting down emotionally, and meaningless sex is just one more example of that. Or second, most people are not nearly as good at compartmentalizing as they’d like to think they are, which means that all they’re in fact doing is trying really hard not to acknowledge what’s actually going on, which typically involves those scary things called feelings and all the risks that come with them.

People who opt for polyamory often attempt to add a fourth one to this list:

4. The veto. This is most common in couple-based poly, in which an existing pair decides to open their relationship to romantic involvement with others. The veto usually looks like the partners making a whole bunch of decisions about what they’ll do and not do, coming up with a  list of rules, and then agreeing that if anyone their partner hooks up with is not to the other partner’s liking, they each have veto power over the new person’s involvement. As in, “If Sam starts to make me feel threatened, then you’ll just have to break it off.” Other, somewhat milder forms of the veto include power to veto specific sexual acts (“I just realized that thinking about you going down on Sam freaks me out, so you can’t do that anymore”), activities (“Sorry, I need you to be my date to the work party on Thursday, you’ll have to cancel with Sam”) or specific ways of spending time (“I wanted to see that movie with you, so you’ll have to pick another one to see with Sam”).

The veto is, not surprisingly, yet another form of fear avoidance. It’s essentially saying, “When this thing gets too scary for me, you will alter your behaviour so I don’t have to deal with my fear.” But it comes with serious consequences—not only for the jilted new partner, who has suddenly found themselves dumped in the flush of NRE, or possibly sans blow job or Thursday-night date, or settling for Yet Another Stupid Teenage Horror Film instead of the latest Oscar nominee. No, the veto also has consequences on the existing relationship too.

Why? Because no matter what your partner says now, if they and a new lover get involved and something about that becomes too painful for you to handle, and you play your “veto” card, there will be resentment. Or if not resentment, then pain, or sadness, or disappointment, or something else of the sort. That’s just what happens when an exciting new relationship gets cut off before its time. It’s only human. If your partner has no negative feelings about pulling out, then they weren’t really in; or the new relationship wasn’t going well in the first place and needed to end anyway. But if they really do pull out just to make you feel better, it will cause relationship problems between you, guaranteed. The veto is a safety valve that dumps you out of one hard situation and into another: from the challenge of openness into the challenge of closing a door now that you know exactly how good it is on the other side.

There is no such thing as consequence-free when it comes to poly. Everyone has feelings, and all those feelings are valid. I personally would feel very leery about getting involved with a couple whose baseline agreement was that I could be dropped at any time if they were having a hard time with things. That’s not the most respectful stance to take toward the additional person, and it sets up a really unpleasant hierarchy regarding whose feelings are important and whose aren’t. It essentially avoids the foundational element of relationship-building: the trust part. I mean, poly or no, would you get involved with anyone who might concievably ditch you at any moment at another person’s say-so? Talk about a skewed power dynamic.

And what if “the worst” happens? What if your partner leaves you “for” their other partner?

Well, one thing I can say for sure: if your partner leaves you and continues a relationship with their other lover, it’s almost never because of that other lover, properly speaking. There’s a very strong chance they didn’t leave you “for” the other one at all, but simply ended things with you and kept them up with someone else. Even if the circumstances make the “they left me for Sam” story an easier story to tell, and one that most (mono) people will believe and cluck in sympathy toward, your relationship will either last or not last based on its own strength, flexibility, resilience and overall health and quality, not based on the presence or absence of another person.

I have plenty of thoughts about how to get to a good place within yourself and enjoy happy non-monogamy. But what I’m aiming to do here (and there) is not so much to advocate for a specific form of non-monogamy that’s supposed to fit everyone. Rather I’m trying to provide a reality check. So many of the strategies we use to try and protect ourselves are essentially just defense tactics, whereas strong poly comes from having a good offense: building relationship strength, working on our own shit, being radically honest, admitting to our fears, developing really solid communication skills and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. We need to confront fears, work through them and get stronger rather than avoiding fears, letting them fester and allowing ourselves to be shored up by protective barriers we set up.

Is that easy? Hell no. It’s a ton of hard work. But believe me, holding up barriers to keep ourselves protected is also a lot of hard work. They may protect us but they also box us in. And they can get too tight and crampy and they make it awfully hard to breathe. And when your arms get shaky and the barriers start to fall, or if someone makes it over them despite your best efforts, then you’ve invested a ton of effort into protection and none into getting stronger from the inside out, so you’re all the more unprepared to deal with whatever does come up.

Just for fun, I’ll quote a recent short essay, “What Is Polyamory Really All About?” by Deborah Anapol, author of the well-known polyamory manual Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits and of the forthcoming Polyamory in the 21st Century:

“While many people define polyamory as the practice of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with everyone’s full knowledge and consent, I see it differently. To me polyamory is a philosophy of loving that asks us to surrender to love. Polyamory leads us to ask, ‘What is the most loving and authentic way I can be present with these people and with myself at this time?’

“The answer to this question may not always be obvious, and it may change over time, but the asking of it, and the willingness to consider answers we may not want to hear, is the whole point of polyamory. Most of us would rather surrender to our cultural conditioning, to our emotional discomfort, peer pressure, social censure, lust, convenience, or a partner’s demands than to the unvarnished truth about what would contribute the most to the well being of everyone involved.”

Does that mean we shouldn’t have any rules or limits or deal-breakers? Does it mean we’re not allowed to have fears or ask people to be gentle with us as we work on them? Of course not. I think it’s just absolutely crucial to make the distinction between creating situations in which you can actively and honestly work on taming your fears (i.e. challenging your “jealousy” and other forms of fear), and creating situations that allow those fears to continue merrily existing behind protective walls. Whether it’s unquestioned faith in a traditional monogamous paradigm, veto power that attempts to neutralize the scariness of polyamory, or avoidance of all intimate connection, the fear underlying those choices—whether it manifests as “jealousy” or anything else—needs to be faced head-on.

18 thoughts on “against the veto (or, fear by any other name…)

  1. This is one of the best relationship/love/”jealousy” musings I have ever read. You really get to the heart of the matter. I think I intuitively have had an illusive grasp on what you said but you very eloquently expressed it way beyond what I could. In fact there are some things I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around lately that you helped me get a better grip on.

    Although I’ve never liked the “veto” idea I have in the past established “ground rules” which as you said are vetoes. I think that some pre-arranged vetoes can be beneficial. For instance I got into a relationship with a guy who had a baby momma drama thing. They had been on and off again for years so I said that he couldn’t be with her sexually while we were a couple because I didn’t want to add extra drama to the situation. I think if I ever have an open or poly relationship again I really need to reconsider my “ground rules” and this is probably true of my monogamous ones as well. Thank you for helping me along my journey 🙂

  2. Good point. I’m also quite opposed to a veto, and although I agree with your logic, I came at it a different way. I strongly don’t want a veto right.

    Ultimately, it’s enforced with the Nuclear Option: either you honour my veto, or I leave you.

    But you know, I always have that option. I can leave at any time over anything. If your relationship with OSO is making me that unhappy, I’ll do what I gotta do.

    The only thing a veto does is limit my flexibility. I’ve issued an ultimatum, now I have to back it up or be a wimp. This benefits me how?

    Checking in on existing relationships is an important part of forming a new one, and if I’m in need of attention, I’ll speak up. If I think the new person is such bad news that I don’t want to date someone who’s dating them, I have the right to say so. I don’t need a prearranged contract to issue an ultimatum; if I think things are that bad I can just go ahead and do it.

    But the absoluteness of a veto seems stupid to me. If I have a problem, let’s solve it. Cutting my sweetie’s OSO dead is not a good start to a happy household.

  3. I love what you say about jealousy and agree with a lot of it, but not with the ‘no veto’ bit. Boxes are cramped and tight and imperfect, but no boundaries feels just as bizarre and wrong to me. I believe in boundaries, and feel that there is a ‘couple’ aspect to some relationships that’s important too. A couple (or family) might share more than just love – there’s the kids, the home, the shared bank-account. I think a partner should have every right to say, “you can’t go out with Sam Thursday – it’s talent show at the school” because I do feel that the couple’s life needs to take some priority. I also think that there’s value to my saying “I don’t like you seeing that new movie with Sam – I was really looking forward to sharing it with you. Isn’t there another one you can see?” If the partner says no, I’m definitely going to say “sure, it’s your choice, but I’ll be hurt and jealous and you’re stuck coping with those feelings and helping me deal with them”. To me, part of surrendering to love is surrendering to the deeper love that a committed and built family and relationship posesses, and sometimes, that might include a veto.

  4. Wonderful.

    Things that make open discussion and confrontation of fear incredibly difficult (someone breaking confidentiality in a serious nature, lying about important things) prevent the whole “creating situations in which you can actively and honestly work on taming your fears…”

    which to me is a large part of relationships- growing as a person and confronting fears. (As you wrote about in your last post…)

  5. I really like how systematically you laid this all out, and how directly you address the real underlying emotions of the emotions people commonly present. I know several of people who struggle fiercely with abandonment issues in the face of non-monogamy, and for some their non-monogamous relationships have been a way to actively trigger their fear so they can work on their stuff.

    I hadn’t thought of it this way before, but the veto, and expressing jealousy and anger in a “therefore you have to stop doing this” way are basically coping mechanisms like compulsively eating or looking for distraction in media. “If I do this, I don’t have to feel this.” Our culture treats jealousy and anger as complete in themselves, when they’re really a signal for something else going on in our emotional landscapes.

  6. I’ve lived under the veto system and I really relate to your post. I was angry the first time I set a veto so backed down soon after. When I myself received one I was gutted and it did create a lot of confusion (as my partner later did as I did and retracted it) and resentment.

    Jealousy and dishonesty eventually destroyed my happy poly relationship and I feel some of our ground rules (such as the veto) contributed to our inability to communicate our fears properly.

    I think I’m going to have to read your post several times before I ever get into a poly relationship again.

  7. OMG. Andrea Zanin please please grant me an interview and RANT LIKE HELL about this stuff on the radio so everyone can hear it again and again.

    I really need for these words to be animated by YOU!

    Kaitlin Prest

    (i sent you a face book message about Audiosmut and our next show asking if you have aaaaaaaaaany time while you're in NYC to meet up and talk poly with me)

  8. I can’t believe I’ve left all these comments sitting here for so long. How rude of me! Thanks, everyone, for all the feedback and perspectives.

    One quick response to Anna L. I think we’re actually more on the same page than it might sound – because the kinds of situations you’re talking about, to me, don’t sound like vetoing, they just sound like clear and respectful communication. There are priorities to consider and balances to maintain in any non-monogamous relationship (including in the many poly formations that don’t include a foundational couple) and those concerns may include time spent, first dibs on movie picks, or any number of other things. I’m in no way advocating for a “no boundaries” paradigm. Boundaries are super-important. It’s just a question of how those boundaries – and desires – are discussed, agreed upon, worked with and shifted as needed. Perhaps for some people a veto can be a healthy way to do that, but to me it is a rigid approach, and most of the time I see it used, it seems to hurt most of the people who are involved. Saying “you can’t do X” to someone rarely has a positive outcome. On the flip side, “X makes me feel bad, isn’t there another way you can do this?” along with a clear explanation of the likely consequences if X were to be done anyway – this approach opens up lots of possibility for understanding.

  9. I am way late to this post, but I related to it. I have used veto in the past and have regretted it. Granted, the way it was structured was very different than I think what you are talking about. For me, it was a tool to communicate that if my partner continued this other relationship, I would have to remove myself from the situation.

    I was in a relationship where my ex was dating this women who verbally attacked me in public everytime I saw her, mostly around my weight. I talked to my partner about it and asked if he would be comfortable with me bringing it up to her. He said no. He then lied about a bunch of stuff in the relationship and things got all screwy. I was being a dumbass and though the issue was her instead of him (the overall relationship was abusive, so my perspective was a lil fucked). After months of this, I said I had to veto and that I could not be in this vee with them. My ex broke up with her (or she broke up with him, at this point I have no idea what is the truth) and we took some time to try repair things.

    The thing is that I should not have to be in the position to educate my ex on how to treat me decently, I learned if things were so bad in the communication structures of my relationship, that the relationship needs to go- not the metamor. Veto power could not make my ex a better person and it did not protect me from harm, it actually left me exposed to a situation of escalating abuse.

    I think veto frames potential problems in terms of metamors. Like, any potential problems that come up are due to an outside influence rather than a fundamental problem within the the existing relationship. If my partner respects and cares for me, they will be able to listen to my concerns around their other partners without the threat of veto.

  10. Thank you for the insights on fear masquerading as jealousy. I’m on a path working on my own feelings of jealousy in a committed relationship and I was working my way to the understanding that my jealousy is rooted in abandonment fears – your blog really helped put those thoughts into order. I have learned that I have to own my issues around this, I can ask my partner for support but I have to own my own behaviours and feelings and deal with the underlying issues. Thank you for laying the process out so clearly.

  11. While I can see where the veto power often comes from fear of others, I specifically set it up with my partners to self-regulate. I know that when I’m in the throes of NRE, I’m not really thinking clearly. As a reality check, if one of my partners says “hey – that new person’s a psycho, and they’re going to hurt you just like they hurt all these other people”, then that empowers them to make a judgement call so that I don’t go off half-cocked (pun intended) and do something that will hurt all of us. I have the same veto power with their new dates too, but the intent is not to block others from being loved, but to keep a loved one safe from harm. I know I can be really stubborn sometimes, so giving my lovers a formal veto power is showing them that I care. That my NRE won’t ever go overboard and ditch them all for some new hotness.

    It’s possible that my reasoning is flawed, (which is why I’m reading this article – I’m always willing to try something that seems like it would work better.) However, it seems to have worked so far.

    Just my ten cents (inflation)

  12. See I have never seen the Veto as being about Jealousy. Veto to me has always been about “I really don’t like and/or trust that person and would rather not have them be part of a relationship I am part of…” I could see how it could be used the way you describe it, but that’s not what I think it is FOR, if that makes any sense?

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