One of the key principles of Open Fidelity is to do with promises, and I want to look at this in more detail here.

There are three main aspects:

  • keeping the promises you make
  • avoiding making promises that you don’t think you will be able to keep
  • renegotiating your promises rather than breaking them

All three are essential.First of all, if you break a promise you’ll be hurting someone, whether it’s just by inconveniencing them or more seriously by shaking their faith in your trustworthiness. Promises between partners are particularly important because they have chosen to rely on each other more than on other people. If your long-term partner, who you’ve chosen to spend your life with, turns out to be someone you can’t trust to keep their promises, you are going to be pretty upset.

But if anyone says that you should keep every promise, whatever it was and however long ago you made it, they are being very unrealistic. A promise is a prediction of the future. It expresses an intention that you will do something or not do something. None of us can accurately predict the future, though. Circumstances change, and even if you fully intended at the time to do whatever it was, it can become impossible.

Acting honourably involves keeping your promises as far as you can. But when a promise becomes difficult to keep, what can someone do then? They can break the promise and make the excuse that it would have been too difficult to keep it. Or, better, they can renegotiate the promise: say that they are finding it difficult to keep and suggesting an alternative.

But that isn’t all. Someone who promises the world but keeps renegotiating out of their commitments just annoys everyone they deal with, even if they don’t, strictly speaking, break their promises. This situation can be avoided by not makeing promises you don’t think you will be able to keep.

Promising monogamy

This might all seem obvious. But one very common promise is to be monogamous, and we all know how often that is made and broken. It is a promise implied (and sometimes explicitly stated) in the marriage vows, and it is also often implied when two people start to go out with each other and act as a couple.

I have always found it hard to understand how people can promise to love and have sex with only one person for the rest of their lives. Only around half of the people who make this promise go on to break it according to various surveys, so why promise it?

When I was quite young I decided that I was never going to get married, and I think it was because of this issue. Why make a promise I know I probably won’t be able to keep, and thereby risk my own happiness and that of the person I promise monogamy to? I seem to be unusual in this: most people who are lucky enough to find someone they love, who loves them and whom they are legally allowed to marry seem to manage to get married. Why not just swallow my qualms and do the same?

Well, I for one don’t want to ignore my reservations. I don’t believe I should make a promise I don’t mean to keep, and I don’t think I should try to kid myself that I can definitely be monogamous forever, however wonderful my partner is.

The reason that some people get married or otherwise promise to be monogamous, I suspect, is that it is conventionally required if you want to be with the person you love, get the rights that come with legal marriage and have your relationship sanctioned by society.

But those of us who want to commit to a long-term relationship don’t have to go along with this implied requirement. You can avoid legal marriage, either by not having any kind of ceremony by having a commitment ceremony. Or, if you want to get married and your marriage vows include the word faithfulness, you can make sure it is clear in the ceremony what you mean by this and whether it includes monogamy.

A promise of faithfulness could mean that:

  • you will always take your loved ones’ interests into account in your decisions
  • you will be honest with them
  • you will put them first
  • you will tell them whenever you have difficulty keeping any agreements you have with them
  • you will renegotiate rather than breaking promises
  • you will listen to them, communicate with them, be tolerant and accepting, and to try your best to act lovingly.

All these are things that you can make an effort to do. But promising not to fall in love with someone else, not to be attracted to anyone else, not to fall out of love, never to stop finding your partner sexually attractive – these are things you can’t control, so any such promise

For all those readers who find monogamy difficult: will you join me in refusing to promise it? To do so will be not an admission of weakness but a statement of integrity.

One Response to “Promises”

  1. Hum…I can see the point of a lot of this, and this is mostly how my husband and I manage (he’s poly, I’m mono). The catch is always that bit about how it’s ok to renegotiate promises simply because you find it’s difficult to keep them.

    I just can’t agree that finding something difficult is sufficient reason to go back on your word. If you’re breaking down mentally or physically, and I mean really, life-threateningly breaking to pieces, then sure, it’s ok to unilaterally decide that the promise can’t be kept and to demand renegotiation.

    In any other case, I’d say that you can explain your difficulty to your partner(s) and ask to renegotiate, but if any one of them says no, then, well, suck it up: what has been promised must be performed.

    The way I see it, renegotiating just because something is inconvenient or painful is a clear statement that you place your own happiness above your partners’ and that your word of honor is worth less to you than getting what you want.

    At least that’s the standard I apply to myself. If I say I’m ok with my husband dating someone and we let that person into our lives, then even if I later find I really don’t get along with her, I have no right to go back and demand that my husband renegotiate her presence in our lives. I can request my husband and her to renegotiate with me, but if they say no, then I have to keep my word and live with her being in my life, like it or not, no matter how painful and inconvenient I find it.

    It’s a matter of ethics, the way I look at it: maximizing my own happiness at other peoples’ expense is just not ethical. I’m in charge of my own feelings. My first task is to keep my word and my second task is to manage my own feelings so that I accept the situation and don’t let myself feel angry or resentful towards the other people in the situation just because they don’t want to do what I would find most pleasant.

    I gave my word, now it’s my own responsibility to live with the situation that I created for myself, and it’s also my responsibility not to take out my pain on my husband.

    I expect the same kind of consideration from my husband and his girlfriends. That sometimes leads to friction, because my husband, like you in this post, seems to take the position that whenever something is difficult, he shouldn’t have to follow through, and I shouldn’t have any right to demand that keep his word. In a really tight place, he tends to just say he felt pressured to promise in the first place, and so his promise doesn’t count. Huh? In what way is a grown man not responsible for what comes out of his own mouth? If he promises something he isn’t keen on just to shut me up and stop negotiation, then that’s his problem, not mine. The promise still holds.

    How do you see it?