Consent is something of a hot button word right now, with many social justice advocates trying to establish a culture of consent whereby force, control, and coercion are reduced or removed entirely from interpersonal relationships. There are many articles available talking about how to define consent, but the one that I tend to point people toward and to use for my own definition of the term is this one:
Consent is about me: my body, my mind, and my choices. My consent is required to access the things that I own. You do not need my consent to act, because I do not own your body, your mind, or your choices. However, if your behavior crosses into my personal space, then you need my consent.
Many people talk about rules, relationship hierarchy, and privilege as they associate to how a couple treats incoming new partners. It may be viewed as unethical or unfair for a couple to go seeking a “unicorn” or to tell new partners that they can never have the same kind of power within the relationship as those in the original couple do. I disagree with this perspective on the matter. So long as the people entering the relationship are clear up front about the structure they have agreed to, the responsibility for accepting the associated risks or not then falls to the new party interested in becoming involved. It seems to be the case that certain types of structures and hierarchies are almost always doomed to result in hurt feelings and loss at the expense of the newcomer, and that is a conversation to be had, but I do not necessarily think this constitutes unethical behavior on the part of a couple to try it out.
First, I would like to establish that all of my discussion here rests on the assumption that a couple has clearly and explicitly communicated their structure, rule set, and expectations before getting involved with another person. If the couple is lying, not communicating clearly, or saying one thing and doing another, then I do believe there is an ethical breach going on, if not an outright violation of the consent of the person getting involved with them. I am also making the assumption that the consequences of saying “no” for anybody involved aren’t being unnecessarily increased. See here for further reading on how coercion might sneak into something that looks consensual.
Each individual within a couple has their own consent to manage, as does the newcomer. The “couple” as an entity does not make decisions without the individuals in it. Just as the incoming person has a right to their consent, so does each individual in a couple. Nobody owes anybody any kind of intimacy they do not want to give.
One example that is often used when referencing a privilege denied to a “third” is that of having children. If each member of a couple decides that they agree not to have a child with anyone else, they have a right not to have a child with someone else. This is no different from anybody deciding to have a child with anybody else, even within a couple. If another partner wants a child, nobody “owes” a child to that partner. If a person wishes to find someone to have a child with, they are responsible for communicating this up front and choosing to prioritize partners who share that goal, rather than trying to force or guilt someone else into having a child they don’t want to have. If someone isn’t getting what they want out of a relationship, they should either decide if they can live with what they are getting, or leave. While leaving a relationship can be difficult and painful, so long as nobody is forcing a partner to stay, the decision to stay in a relationship is always up to each partner. A couple is not being unethical by each person within it choosing not to have children with any new partner.
While it might feel icky for those who lean more toward independence and autonomy hearing a couple always speaking in terms of “we,” one always has a choice to avoid dating people who have such a high level of entanglement with another. It isn’t your job to change them if that is something they like and choose for themselves. They are perfectly able to choose this level of entanglement with each other, to engage in certain behaviors only with each other, and to never make decisions independently if that is something they both desire. You can simply make yourself unavailable as a potential partner for the person or couple if that doesn’t work for you. If the couple’s inability to find willing or compatible partners becomes a major problem for them, it is up to them to restructure their strategy as they see fit to find more of what they might be looking for.
One of the arguments I sometimes hear for discussions of couple privilege is that the “third” is told “you knew what you were getting into,” when their requests for more are denied and that this invalidates the feelings and desires that they might have for more going forward. Hopefully, everyone’s feelings in a given situation are honored, but this can be difficult. Requesting more and expecting more are two different things. Any person should always be able to make requests in relationships, but every person also has the right to say no. In a situation where someone develops desires outside of what they were told to expect, they still own these desires. This may be a learning opportunity. Perhaps the new person has different desires than they were aware they might have, or perhaps they aren’t able to channel those desires in the way they thought they would be able to. It might be painful to acknowledge that with this new information a person has suddenly become incompatible with one or more of their partners. It’s probably painful for all involved, but it doesn’t mean anyone has done anything wrong. So long as nobody was pulling an intentional “bait and switch,” and all boundaries were communicated up front, it doesn’t mean that the couple is doing anything wrong by maintaining their boundaries, and it doesn’t mean the newcomer is doing something wrong if they choose to leave to pursue something more in line with what they actually want.
There is another aspect to this type of situation that sometimes also plays out, and that is within the couple. Sometimes two individuals may make agreements as a couple, but over time one of the members finds that these agreements feel restrictive, especially if they find themselves wanting more with a new partner than what they had previously agreed to. In the situations described above, each individual in the established couple still wanted to maintain the agreements that they had made with each other. In the situation I am now describing, one of the individuals in the couple has changed their mind. Just as in the prior situation, where the couple did not owe a “third” anything that they did not want to give, the members of the couple here do not owe each other anything, nor does the “third” owe anything to either of the individuals in the couple.
To go back to the example of children, if Susie, the female in a couple, decides with her new partner, Joe, that she would like to become pregnant by him, she does not owe her original partner, Mark, in the form of not having a child with anyone else. Joe does not owe Mark in the form of not impregnating Susie. If Mark and Susie previously had an agreement not to have children with anyone else, then it is the responsibility of Susie in this instance to make it clear that she no longer wishes to abide by that agreement. If she is deprived of the ability to choose here because of prior agreements she made, then her consent is not being respected. It may hurt Mark’s feelings that her desires have changed, but he does not have the right to control her body or her choices. He can choose to leave the relationship if her choices make him unhappy, as he does not owe her intimacy either. If Susie chooses not to move forward having a child with Joe to preserve her relationship with Mark, she is not necessarily being coerced.
Coercion only exists when our choices and behaviors are an attempt to control the actions of another. Coercion can happen at any step. If Susie didn’t really want a child by Joe, then Joe would be coercive if he engaged in behaviors intended to make her or Mark feel guilty about this choice. If Susie does want a child with Joe, then Mark would be coercive if he tried to shame or guilt her for this desire or choice. If Susie and/or Joe lie to Mark or allow him to think the child is his, then she and Joe are being coercive by not giving Mark information that would almost assuredly be relevant to his choice whether to stay in the relationship or not. If Mark leaves the relationship, Susie and Joe would each be being coercive if they tried to guilt Mark into staying.
However, Susie is not being coercive to Mark by choosing with her body to have a child with another consenting adult. Joe is not being coercive to Mark by impregnating her. Mark is not being coercive to either of the other two if he leaves. I recommend this article for further reading on how to tell coercion apart from valid exercises of autonomy.
These are my choices. You are not entitled to control over them, you are not victimized by them.
Those are your choices. I am not entitled to control over them, I am not victimized by them.
For these types of situations, I think that an idea from the kink and power exchange community is useful. For any healthy power exchange, even while playing with consensual nonconsent, there is an overarching level at which someone can always opt out. I suggest that we look at all rules and agreements as a form of role playing in this vein. With healthy power exchange, ideally, the power dynamics are explicitly negotiated with necessary safe words in place. Rules and agreements need to be negotiated in much the same way. Rules and agreements are their own type of role playing because we can never fully and truly give up our ability to make decisions, set boundaries, or leave the relationship and also still maintain healthy consent. If we take the view on consent outlined above, then there truly can be no inherent level at which anyone owes anyone else intimacy or control over their choices and emotional states.
Just like with consensual power exchange, doing it properly requires an ability to speak up about your limits and to set and enforce boundaries around activities you do not wish to engage, no matter how upset it might make someone else or no matter how badly they might want to do it. Agreeing to something that you don’t want to do in the hopes that someone will change their mind is deceptive, and deprives them of the ability to make an informed decision themselves. The things you agree to are your responsibility. If you say one thing when you mean another, you own the negative feelings created when your partner listens to what you said rather than what you hoped they’d guess.
While it might be hurtful to you when a partner decides that the agreements they made with you no longer work for them, they always have that right to opt out or renegotiate, just like you always have the right to say you no longer wish to continue the relationship under the new paradigm. It seems that many of these types of structures are created to give the illusion that someone has security, that they will never lose a partner, that their life will always look predictable in certain ways, and that within certain parameters we can expect to get something out of someone else just for being in a relationship with them.
In truth, we are not guaranteed these things. We could not be guaranteed these things without violating the consent of others. So while we can never be safe from being hurt, we can keep these things in mind and adjust our own expectations accordingly. By always being aware that the fellow human being you relate to is an autonomous individual, we can respect their decisions and take responsibility for our own. Within such a framework, it becomes much more likely that the relationships we engage in are mutually beneficial, and not a coercive structure where someone is only staying out of a sense of duty or obligation. While this can be a scary reality to face, it is incredibly important to own our fears, rather than attempting to use them to dictate or control the behavior of others.