Thanks to some experiences with people who use "agreements" as weapons and who also hide their abusive behaviour behind social justice language, I have become extremely averse to words like "agreements" and the casual use of the term "rules".
I was always pretty anti-rule, but a lot of things are treated as rules while being called other things. And I've discovered that the words we use are important because they subtly and subconsciously influence how we think and view our partners and other people, especially when we use agency-denying language in jest or casually.
So I have written an answer to the common question "what are your relationship agreements" that I'd like to archive on my blog to share every time the question comes up:
I don’t have very many “agreements”. I learned the hard way a long time ago that some people use the word “agreement” as a blunt object with which to beat partners over the head. I don’t do “rules”, which are things that are imposed on other people that dictate their behaviour (and sometimes their emotions and choices). I do “boundaries” which are lines that I draw around myself where I don’t want other people to cross.
Some people treat “agreements” like “rules”. You can usually tell that someone is treating an agreement like a rule when you discover what happens when someone “breaks” the “agreement” or wants to change it. If there are punishments, if breaking or changing the agreement is seen as a “betrayal”, then it’s probably a rule in disguise.
What I do is, I have certain things that I *prefer* to do with my own body, and I tell my partners what those things are so that they know what to expect of me. If I change my behaviour for any reason, then I notify my partners as soon as possible that I’ve done or am planning to do something different, so that they can make informed decisions about their own body (mind, emotions, time, etc.) based on my choices.
The things that I prefer to do is to get tested once a year for HIV, gonorrhea, syphilis, & chlamydia (what I refer to as The Big Four) and also HSV +1&2. If I have not had any new partners in the last 6 months, and my ongoing, regular partners have not had any new partners, then I might skip a testing period. But if I am considering taking a new partner then I will get tested right before so that my tests are the most current possible. Then I also prefer to get tested about 2 weeks after I take on a new sexual partner.
I prefer to see the actual tests results on paper for my partners before we have genital contact or fluid transfer for the first time, and 2 weeks after any ongoing partners take on a new sexual partner. I also prefer to keep an open dialog with all potential partners and ongoing partners about our sexual history, our current STD test results, our interests in potential new partners, etc.
I tend to use condoms only for birth control, and I tend to prefer having sex with men who have had vasectomies so that I don’t have to use condoms for birth control. I don’t consider condoms alone to be sufficient protection in the absence of discussing sexual history, STI testing, and sexual patterns so I don’t generally have even barriered sex with people I’m not comfortable having unbarriered sex with.
I prefer to choose sexual partners who have similar STI risk profiles as me - people who prefer to get tested regularly, only have sex with partners who get tested regularly, who openly and frequently discuss sexual risk and history and behaviour, who tend to have a relatively stable number of partners, who have had vasectomies, and who have paper test results that they are willing to share with me.
We do not make “agreements” to do these things, these are just things that I tend to do and I prefer to date people who also tend to do these things. Should either of us make choices that differ from anything we discussed that our partners can expect from us, then we talk to each other about the different choices we have made (or want to make), and we each evaluate the new situation and make our respective choices based on the new information.
I have found this to be the most statistically likely to prevent me from unwanted consequences for sex and to also be the most respectful of everyone’s agency. This allows everyone to be in charge of themselves, to have complete autonomy over their body, mind, emotions, and choices, and to still respect the risk we might place on our partners through our decisions.
**Added** I received a comment on my Facebook post of this article and I like my response to it that I'm adding it here. The comment was about a person who responds negatively to agreements being broken, not because they're "rules" but because they believe their partners should find them safe enough to come to them and renegotiate any agreements that aren't working instead of just breaking them, because their own personal integrity requires them to keep any agreements they make and so only make agreements that they can keep, and because many times people will break an agreement and then dismiss this person's upset feelings as if they are not responsible for breaking their trust.
Here is my response:
And that's exactly why I don't make agreements. I basically treat them as promises, and I don't make promises that I can't keep. For most things, since I can't tell the future, I can't guarantee that I can keep an agreement or a promise. And, yeah, when trust is broken, it's understandable that someone would be upset and want that broken trust to be acknowledged.
For most reasonable people, things like "we both agree to pay half the rent" and then a few months in, having a conversation that goes "honey, I don't think I can make my share anymore, can we change this agreement?" are conversations that are had and people don't generally flip out about one person "betraying" them if they can't make their share anymore.
Those are expectations and agreements about how two people are going to treat *each other*. You will pay for half our our shared expenses, and I will pay for half our our shared expenses, and that is how we will help each other survive.
But most of the abuse that I see comes from "agreements" between two people about what one person will do *with their own body, mind, emotions, and time*. When someone makes an "agreement" about what they will do with their own body, time, mind, and emotions, and then they change their mind about that, whether it's something talked about before or after the fact, the other person they made that agreement with takes that as a personal betrayal, even though it was the first person's sole property, so to speak, to do with what they will, "agreement" notwithstanding.
The casual way that people mix these two types of "agreements" up under the same label of "agreements" is the danger, and, in my experience, most people are not savvy enough to separate these two things out when discussing their relationship arrangements.
I make "agreements" all the time, where I "agree" to come pick someone up from work because their car is non-operable and they need a ride somewhere, or where I "agree" to call them before I show up at their house to give them some notice, or where I "agree" with them on where to go for dinner so that we find a place that we both want to go.
These are not generally the sorts of "agreements" that get people into trouble. I mean, they *can* ... lots of people do things like agree to pick someone up and then totally flake out on them and leave them hanging. But when it comes to people asking "what kinds of agreements do you make in your relationships", this is not generally what they're asking about.
Usually, they're asking about having sex with other people, falling in love with other people, spending time with other people, and spending money on other people. These are things that are better handled by discussing *boundaries*, because these are things that only one person can *own* and stake a claim to (excepting money, in states with shared property marriage laws).
I will make agreements with someone on how I will treat *that person* and how I want that person to treat me. This is discussing our boundaries. I say what my boundaries are, they say what their boundaries are, and we agree to respect each other's boundaries. Then, if for some reason, one of us feels that we can not abide by that particular agreement anymore, we discuss it.
But I will not make agreements with someone on how I will treat *my body, time, mind, emotions, or money* with respect to other people. My time away from my partners is my own time and I will not make agreements with my partners on how I will spend that time away from them. My body is my own, and I will not make agreements with my partners on what I will & won't do with my own body, etc.
It is the lack of awareness of that division (or the deliberate blurring of that division) that I see causing problems (and becoming abusive, in many cases).
It's one thing to get angry because a partner had sex with me without telling me that they recently had unprotected sex with a new partner without trading test results - that is a violation of my ability to consent. That is a "betrayal".
It's quite another thing to get angry just because they had sex with someone else, even if it was unprotected and without trading test results, and even if it goes contrary to their preferences. That is not a violation of my ability to consent. That has nothing at all to do with me. That has to do with *their* body, and I am not entitled to control of their body. That is not a "betrayal" of me.
And I will not be punished anymore for things that I do with my body, my time, my mind, my emotions, and my money just because somebody else had an expectation of the things I would or ought to do with my stuff. They are not entitled to those things, even if they have reasonable expectations of what I would do with those things.
What I do with the things that are mine are not a "betrayal" of someone else. But as soon as you say the word "agreement", people take any deviation as one.
So I don't make "agreements". I state the kinds of things I am *likely* to do and try to only date people who are likely to do similar sorts of things.