Why We Make Rules

FOLLOWUP POST HERE: Should We Make Rules?

Rules are often debated in poly circles. Some partners love them. Some partners hate them. Most lie somewhere in between. Franklin Veaux Says:

If a person loves you and cherishes you, and wants to do right by you, then it’s not necessary to say “I forbid you to do thus-and-such” or “I require you to do thus-and-such.” All you really need to do is communicate what you need to feel taken care of, and your partner will choose to do things that take care of you, without being compelled to.

On the other hand, if your partner doesn’t love and cherish you, and doesn’t want to do right by you…well, no rule will save you. The rules might give you an illusion of safety, but they won’t really protect you.

This is true… to a point. No rule can prevent someone who is determined from doing harm. However, it may overstate the case a bit. There is good psychological research to suggest that the act of committing to follow a rule will actually make a person more motivated to follow it.

Robert Cialdini, in his landmark book Influence, describes a process that people have called “consistency drive.” Wikipedia summarizes:

If people commit, orally or in writing, to an idea or goal, they are more likely to honor that commitment because of establishing that idea or goal as being congruent with their self-image. Even if the original incentive or motivation is removed after they have already agreed, they will continue to honor the agreement.

If all parties could be confident that the original incentive/motivation for the behavior would continue, the commitment would be unnecessary. Making a commitment presupposed that, at some point in the future, one or both parties may be motivated to behave in ways inconsistent with the commitment. The commitment is there to keep those impulses in check. Cialdini sees two reasons for this:

“I think there are two factors behind consistency,” Cialdini says. “One is the desire to be consistent with what we’ve already done. If you see yourself doing something, it’s only in keeping with what you’ve already done, to do something that is likewise congruent with those actions. We like to be consistent. The second thing related to this is, when you see yourself doing even a small act in favor of a particular cause or issue, you come to see yourself as somebody who actually does favor this idea.”

The concept of consistency is often used in the marketing field. Getting someone to commit to a small purchase or show of support will enable a skilled marketer to obtain a much larger purchase or show of support later, as people are driven to be consistent with their prior actions. It’s a powerful tool:

Take, for example, a problem faced by most any manager: An employee who never makes it to work on time.

The key would be to not only discuss the problem with the employee, but also get the employee to put down, in writing, why arriving at the office at the appointed time is consistent with something he or she values at work. By doing so, the employee would have made an active, public and voluntary commitment, and the signed paper would create a sense of obligation far stronger than a simple verbal agreement could.

So by making a commitment, we create a sense of obligation in our own minds to stick to the commitment, even if, on a more conscious level, we no longer want to.

This is exactly the point of making rules, and why I find Franklin’s statement above somewhat misleading. Without a rule, a person would do their own analysis regarding whether to take an action, weighing the pros and cons, factoring in the effects on other people, and making a decision. A rule puts a thumb on the scale, weighing the analysis in favor of the prior commitment.

For some people, this is fine. Some people don’t trust their in-the-moment decision making, so they feel the need to commit to a course of action ahead of time. This is especially effective with safer sex rules. It’s common for a person to feel that, in the moment, they may be tempted to forego safer sex practices, and so they (and their partner(s)) make a rule in order to give them some extra motivation in the moment.

Rules become dangerous, however, when they start being put in place for emotional reasons. Because rules operate to create psychological pressure to make certain decisions, rules can easily become coercive. Sometimes what we want changes, and if there are rules in place against what we want, we can feel trapped or repressed.

The other thing to remember about rules is that they are only for situations in which we don’t trust our in-the-moment judgment. If we trust our judgment, it’s far better to make the decision as late as possible, so we make the decision at the moment when we have the most information. Things (including our needs and desires) could have changed in the meantime, we may have additional information, or we may just be in a situation that we didn’t anticipate. If we are able to exercise good judgment, we will make better decisions if we refrain from making our decisions in advance (by making rules).

This is why some poly people have a distaste for rules. When you make a rule (or agreement) with your partner, you’re saying that you don’t trust them to make the correct in-the-moment decision without it. Your lack of trust may be completely reasonable, but it can still sting.

I don’t have rules in my relationships because I prefer to only have close relationships with people whose judgment I can trust when it comes to making decisions about what they are going to do. When I feel the impulse to make a rule or agreement, I take that as an indication that I’m feeling distrustful, and explore that. Most of the time, I find that if I adequately express my desires or expectations, the mistrustful feeling goes away, but sometimes it is indicative of a bigger issue.

Regardless, rules serve a function for those who choose to use them. They provide additional psychological encouragement to choose the agreed-upon path. Used well, rules can be an important check on our impulsive actions. Used less well, they can be an oppressive control mechanism.

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9 responses to “Why We Make Rules

  1. Man, the only rules I ever made with Russ were rules he broke. So he broke all the rules. Because of course he did. I only made rules when I was like, “This is exactly what you’re going to do…so don’t fucking do that.” (Like…don’t get wasted and stick your condomless dick in people, maybe.) And he’d be like, “You’re right! I should definitely not do that!” and then he’d fuck it right up and I’d be like, “Well, I saw that coming because you are the worst. This is really my fault for dating you.”

    I’ve never had any luck with rules. Because I only feel the need to use them when the other person sucks in some huge and predictable way. And then the rules don’t even stop them.

    Otherwise, I’ve found rules unnecessary because usually all I have to do is communicate that there’s an issue and that’s enough to motivate the other person to find a reasonable solution.

    So in my mind rules are just a sign that you’re in trouble. Because if not they’re probably unnecessary.

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