On this most recent episode of Poly Weekly, on Rules About Beds, cunningminx shared a story that actually triggered a particular pet peeve of mine, but in a good way. It's this thing about "but it works for us!" That's usually a huge red flag for me, and almost always follows something toxic or harmful that people are justifying. But cunningminx's story was an example of when it's legitimate.
She told of a compromise that came about between her, Lusty Guy, and Elle regarding morning sex. Elle apparently heard Lusty Guy and cunningminx having sex one morning in their spare room and she felt, well, I don't want to put words in her mouth, but it sounded like a description of possibly envy - she wanted to do something that other people were doing. So she asked that, from now on, could she have "right of first refusal", where if Lusty Guy wanted sex on Sunday mornings (the day of the week that cunningminx slept over), could he ask Elle for sex before he asked cunningminx. This was an acceptable arrangement to everyone involved, so that's what they instituted.
Now, the problem I have is that people are going to hear that story and think it justifies them making rules or giving certain partners "priority" (or, rather, power), over others. Because this arrangement "works for them". But, here's the real distinguishing factor - Lusty Guy then went on to explain *why* it "works for them". You see, just prior to this story, cunningminx and Lusty Guy talked about how cunningminx can't share sleeping space with Lusty Guy because of his snoring, so she always sleeps in another room. That's why they were separated - not because she's the "secondary" and she's not "allowed" to sleep in the primary couple's bed or because he is "required" to always sleep next to his wife. This arrangement "works for them" because it's something that cunningminx genuinely needs for her health and happiness. She was an equal contributor in building this arrangement, and it was her own preference, not a concession she made to Elle in order to date Lusty Guy.
So, now that it's established that they are in separate rooms, and *why* they are in separate rooms, let's look at why "right of first refusal" is a legitimate use of "it works for us". Lusty Guy and Elle have been together a really long time, and their personal preferences and connection with each other has resulted in a, I guess you could call it efficient form of sex that they are both pleased with. According to the podcast, they can have a very good, enjoyable time in about 15-20 minutes. I totally understand that - I am not a fan of marathon sex myself. I love being teased for a long time (and I mean, *long* time - like start flirting with me days ahead of time if you can, and I won't be able to control myself by the time we finally get together), but then when it gets down to the slippery bits, I'm an in-and-out sorta gal. I want to get to the penetration and hopefully but not necessarily the orgasm, and then either eat something or roll over and go to sleep. Or *maybe*, if I have things to do, I want to get back to those things if I can fight off the post-sex fog.
So, Lusty Guy and Elle aren't likely to take a very long time in the mornings. But cunningminx says that she's more likely to go an hour and a half or longer. So, if Lusty Guy and cunningminx had sex first in the mornings, Elle would be waiting all day before she got a turn. But if Elle goes first, they'll be done before cunningminx is even really awake enough for sex. Add up all these details about their sex life and sleeping habits, and you get an arrangement that "works for them".
But what too many people are actually saying when they say "it works for us", is "I have this insecurity and this is how I want to manage it, how dare you tell me that I'm not being considerate towards other people while in the grips of my insecurity and how dare you tell me that my insecurity is causing me to act in ways that might harm other people!" As I and many others have said before, if everyone naturally just wants to do this thing, then you don't need a rule making people to this thing. If people really don't want to do the thing, a rule isn't likely to stop them, at least not forever. Also, as tacit and margareta87 say in More Than Two, it's really really hard to be compassionate when all you feel is fear. When people are managing an insecurity, then they are extremely likely to be inconsiderate towards other people in their efforts to manage that insecurity. They're just not very likely to see *how* they're being inconsiderate because that fear is whispering nasty little lies in their ear and rationalizing and justifying everything done in service to the insecurity. But just because they manage to find someone willing to agree to their method of managing, it doesn't mean that it's OK. It just means that they got lucky and found someone with boundaries that just happen to not cross the line that the person managing the insecurity is crossing. For now.
So, if a V similar to Elle, Lusty Guy and cunningminx were to make a "rule" saying that no one in the house is allowed to have sex before the wife has sex with the husband, and the wife, say, was actually more of a night person but the husband and girlfriend were both morning people, then even everyone agreeing to the rule is not "this works for us". Technically, people could say "this works for us", I guess, because of that agreement, but in my opinion, and what those of us who dislike that justification mean when we complain about it is, this isn't "working" for everyone, this is "managing". This is way too likely to lead to coercion, if it isn't already coercive just by its nature.
What would be "working" for that kind of V would be for the wife to work on her insecurity so that it didn't bother her if the husband and girlfriend had morning sex in the first place. That would be the three of them working together, accommodating and accepting the nature of who they are as people, and giving everyone the power to design the relationships that they are in according to their own needs and preferences and natural interests. If the husband and girlfriend didn't *want* to have morning sex, then they didn't have to have morning sex. But deciding that they *can't* have morning sex because the wife wants it first even though she actually doesn't want it (because she'll sleep until noon, whereas the husband and girlfriend will have been up for hours by then, and likely sexually frustrated, as well as lacking in agency because the person with the power to decide what Hubby and GF do is Wife) is not "working for them". Again, even if everyone technically agrees.
This is the difference between "priority" and "power" that I'm always talking about. No one, and I mean no one, who is complaining about hierarchy or couple privilege or primary/secondary is saying that there is anything wrong with relationships that look different from each other, as long as that difference happens organically. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a married man having a "secondary" if that partner wants to, say, remain living in her own apartment, or only see him one day a week, or has no interest in meeting the wife, or whatever. No one, and I mean no one, is demanding that all relationships must be life-partnerships even when the people in those relationships are not interested in a life-partner arrangement with each other.
If the two people (i.e. Hubby and GF, in this example) are *happy* with GF living in her own place and only seeing him every other Tuesday because she has too many things on her plate anyway and that's all the time and emotional energy she has for him and Hubby has kids and his weekly D&D night and karaoke on Thursdays so that's all he wants to see GF too, then they don't need any rules telling them that they can only see each other on every other Tuesday and GF can't move in. That "works for them". All relationships look different, that's kind of the whole point. The entire reason why it's possible to love more than one person is because everyone is different, and no relationship is going to look exactly the same as any other relationship because the people in those relationships are different people. So yes, by all means, go out and have relationships that have different priorities from each other. No one, and I mean no one, is complaining about that.
When couples (and it's usually couples, but occasionally I hear it from male-headed poly-fi groups too) say "it works for us", they're very rarely describing *priority*, even though that's almost always the examples they trot out to justify "it works for us". Usually, what they're saying is that the *rules* "work for them" BECAUSE the people involved have different priorities or needs or whatever. So, to keep using the morning sex example, I almost never hear "it works for us" the way that cunningminx and Lusty Guy told it - their individual sexual preferences naturally led them to a pattern of first sex for Elle whereas trying it differently is inconvenient for everyone involved. Instead, I hear people saying "we made a rule that the wife should get sex first because she's the primary, and it works for us because our secondary doesn't object".
Can you see the difference? If not, then you're probably part of the problem that so many of us have with the poly community.
Let's try it this way. I don't eat breakfast in the mornings. I have a sleep disorder and waking up before noon fucks with my biology, but of course I have to wake up before noon sometimes because life. So I wake up, but I can't eat food that early or that soon after waking or I'll get nauseated. So I don't eat breakfast. Other people can't function without a good breakfast first thing in the morning. A lot of people try to talk me into trying different kinds of foods for breakfast because they think that not eating must be worse for my health than eating. It's not. Skipping breakfast and having something sugary (like orange juice) about 3 hours after I wake up works for me. I'm not imposing on anyone else, I'm following my own dietary and biological needs within a set of social constraints that I'm forced to accept. There is no need for me to pass a rule on myself *making* me skip breakfast, that's just what I want to do naturally. And every once in a while, when a certain set of circumstances happens (that I'm aware of, but I'm skipping over those details for brevity), I'll feel the desire for food first thing in the morning. So on those days, I eat something. No rule is broken because I don't have a no-eating rule. This gives me the flexibility to have control over my own eating habits as circumstances change and "what works for me" doesn't happen to work under these particular conditions.
If one person is a morning person, one person is a late-riser, and the person in the middle has no strong preference, then the morning person asking to be given the option of morning sex first because it's the option that would inconvenience the fewest people, that's "working for them". That's not eating breakfast in the morning, except on days when I want to eat breakfast in the morning. That's "priority". That's when two different relationships just naturally look different from each other. What that is NOT, is hierarchy, couple privilege, or rules.
But if one person is a morning person, one person is a late-riser, and the person in the middle has no strong preference, and the *late-riser* is the one who *decides* that they get the option of morning sex first, especially if the decision is based on relationship status (I was here first / I'm the legal spouse), which is usually a sign of some deeper, unaddressed insecurity, then even if the other two people agree to it, that's not "working for them" in the sense that those of us who complain about these sorts of things mean by "working". This is me not eating breakfast in the morning because I, or someone else, decided that I shouldn't eat breakfast in the morning even though I'm actually really hungry in the morning and I can't really function until I get something solid in my tummy. Sure, I might have "agreed" to it, but it's not really in my best interest and it inconveniences, not just me, but everyone who has to deal with me not at my best because of this rule.
The big problem that I see in the community is that people look at the end result - not having breakfast in the morning, or getting first crack at morning sex, or living alone, or whatever - and see no difference. Either way, I'm not having breakfast and you're getting the option of morning sex so what's the big deal? Well, intentions and motivation and agency are the big deal. The outcome is *not the issue*, that's why no one is complaining about different priorities or relationships that look different from each other or any of those other things. The outcome is not where the problem is. The problem is in the way we arrive at the outcome, is the intentions and motivation and agency. And if you've never had your agency taken away, particularly when the removal of your agency was justified by shady or hidden intentions and selfish motivations, then it may be difficult to understand why this is such a big deal if the outcome is the same either way.
Consider yourself extremely fortunate and just believe us when we say that it's a big fucking deal. If you can't understand what the big deal is because you've never experienced it, then I hope you remain ignorant for the rest of your life. I hope you *never* have to learn first-hand what the big deal is with having your agency taken from you. But what we need you to do is to just accept that coercive structures, even if you don't *mean* to be coercive or don't understand why it's coercive, accept that coercive structures are not "working" for anyone, even when people "agree" to them, the way you might just accept something Stephen Hawking says about Hawking radiation because he is more familiar with the subject than you are. If your partner doesn't want to eat breakfast in the mornings, they don't need you to make a rule telling them not to eat breakfast in the mornings. Because, maybe one day, they might. Rules only work, until they don't. And you will be a better, more compassionate partner if you design your relationships to accommodate when your partner might someday want to have breakfast in the morning and if you really examine why them not eating breakfast is a big enough problem for you to think you have the right to tell them that they shouldn't, so that when the day comes that they want to eat breakfast in the mornings, it doesn't bother you and they can make the decision for themselves whether to eat that breakfast or not.