Veto Power

Chris Eppstein
May 24, 2016 · 3 min read

Originally Posted: August 18, 2015

It is not uncommon for primary relationships to have a negotiated power to veto each other’s other relationships. If veto power is invoked on a relationship, then it has to end — no questions asked.

I personally find the veto power to be one of the most damaging and disrespectful practices in open relationships. I can find no ethical basis for ever giving someone who is not in a relationship a power over that relationship.

But, of course, the veto is simply an illusion of power and it only exists when someone consents to giving that control away and since that consent can be withdrawn at any time. It is a safety blanket that couples use to paper over their insecurity; a shortcut for having to do the hard work of communication and growing through a challenge.

I’ve heard a number of stories where veto power was invoked and the primary partner simply declined to break up as agreed. Now the primary relationship is under strain because a broken agreement is the equivalent of cheating in the poly world and it may very well be a deal breaker that ends the relationship.

A lot of couples, having read about the veto power and seeing the criticism of it, decide to not have a veto power. And yet, some of those relationships have an established dynamic where one person will express discomfort and the other person quickly acts to remove the discomfort by breaking up. If you find yourself repeating this pattern, you need to be honest with yourself and your partners. You have an implicit veto but you’re just not calling it that.

It’s also a horrible way to dump someone in a way where you don’t have to fully own the situation. You can say “It’s not my decision, I want to keep seeing you but my primary vetoed. Sorry.” And if the person being broken up with buys the premise, then they’re left feeling resentful of your primary relationship and cheaply discarded when things got hard.

Alternatives to a Veto Power

Communication. Tell your loved one what problems you’re having. Tell them your concerns. If the concerns are valid, maybe they’ll agree that the relationship needs to end. But if they don’t, then you need to work through other solutions.

Keep Working on It

If the root of your issue is a personality clash, I contend this is not a veto-worthy situation. This is a time for you to grow as a person. To learn how to interact respectfully with someone you don’t like. Just as if you have an in-law that you don’t mesh with, you need to accept that you just don’t get to decide. Be a grown up and work through your frustrations.

Siloed Relationships

Some people decide to basically keep their relationships separate. The metamours don’t have a friendship and may not have even clear paths of communication short of an emergency contact number. The most extreme case of this arrangement is called “Don’t ask; Don’t tell” (DADT).

End Your Relationship

You cannot choose who your partner sees, but you can choose who you see. If your partner is in a relationship that you can’t support for one reason or another (drugs abuse, physical or emotional abuse, etc), then you can choose to end your relationship. The mere threat of this is enough for some people to end their other relationship, but do not use this as an idle threat to control your partner.

Vetting Process

A kind of veto power that I’m not against is a vetting process early on before strong feelings have developed. Often during that phase, one of partners will bring up whatever concerns they have about the potential relationship. People who prefer to avoid siloed relationships will instead choose to let their partners have a say in whether the relationship should start. I think this is a good compromise for avoiding problematic relationship dynamics. I encourage you to be open about this process with people who you are considering starting a relationship with; they need to have a say in whether they want to be “vetted” in the first place.

In Closing

One of the fundamental tenets of polyamory is that every person has the agency to decide who they form relationships with. In a polyamorous relationship we need to fully respect our partner as a person who is capable of choosing what is best for their own life and be supportive of them in that. This isn’t necessarily something that comes easily for a lot of newly opened relationships. There is no substitute for clear and honest communication and I highly suggest you avoid giving anyone a veto power over your relationships.

Chris Eppstein

Written by

Loves love. Hates hate. Has a kick-ass family. Writes code. Leads stylesheet tech @LinkedIn. Helped make @SassCSS, @compass. @Caltech grad. Polyamorous.

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