If I’ve learnt anything from the past couple of years of exploring non-monogamy, it’s this: don’t mess with other people’s relationships.
When I write about polyamory, I try to be pretty objective as I generally don’t think there’s one right way to have relationships. However, an area of non-monogamy where I can’t be impartial is veto power. I believe, at best, it’s an unpleasant hangover from mononormativity, and, at worst, it has the potential to cause trauma.
So, what is veto power in polyamory and non-monogamous relationships? Why do some people use it, and is there any way to avoid it? Here’s my take on the dreaded veto and why we should do better.
Please note: none of this information and advice relates to abuse. If you suspect or know that your partner is experiencing emotional, psychological, physical and/or sexual abuse in one of their other relationships, I recommend seeking professional help about how you can support them.
Veto is Latin for “I forbid”, and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines veto as “an authoritative prohibition” (noun) or “to refuse to admit or approve” (verb).
The concept of veto power originated in Ancient Rome as a tool to manage state affairs and moderate or restrict the level of control wielded by the state’s high officials and institutions.
It’s still used in governments today, for example, with processes allowing both the President of the United States and US state governors the option to try and veto any proposed legislation after it has passed through both houses of Congress.
Veto power in polyamory and non-monogamy
Veto power is mainly used by couples who see each other as their primary partners (a hierarchial dyad relationship). One or both partners will have the option to forbid or block the other from dating or continuing their relationship with a specific person.
Reasons for exercising this power are usually attributed to a secondary partner being perceived a disrespectful, a creator of disharmony or a threat to the primary status of the pre-existing relationship. However, a new partner could also establish themselves as the primary partner and veto a pre-existing partner. So, it isn’t always about who has been seeing who the longest.
Some people in non-monogamous/polyamorous relationships see veto power as necessary when there is some structural investment in the primary relationship, such as owning a house or having a child together. They view outside partners as a potential risk that could disrupt or dissolve the primary partnership and therefore want the right to block any secondary relationships.
While the term usually refers to the permanent blocking of a secondary partner, it is often used when discussing partial or temporary controls, which I have detailed below.
Types of veto power in polyamory and non-monogamy
Partial veto is where one primary partner (PP) attempts to curtail the other PP’s relationship with a secondary partner (SP). For example, demanding that they only have sex but stop developing an emotional connection with their partner. Alternatively, allowing them to continue their emotional connection but demanding that they stop having sex.
This type of veto power is usually exercised when one PP feels threatened by the other PP’s relationship in an attempt to make them feel secure. However, partial veto could also be used for different reasons, such as one PP attempting to exert control over the other PP’s perceived lack of safe sex practices.
Temporary veto is where one PP will ask the other PP to stop seeing or contacting their SP for a certain period (weeks, months, etc.). Often, a PP will request this ‘break’ so the primary couple can work on their relationship by blocking out the other connection.
This type of veto can also occur when the primary partnership is long-distance. One PP may request that the other PP temporarily cease their secondary relationships while they are visiting them.
Permanent veto is where one PP asks another PP to stop seeing their SP forever. This complete blocking is typically what people mean when they refer to veto power in non-monogamy.
As described above, people can have a whole range of reasons for wanting to exert control over their partner’s other relationships.
Why I feel veto power is the wrong approach to non-monogamy
I believe if you would ever consider blocking your partner from having a relationship with someone else, you shouldn’t be non-monogamous. Don’t bring other people into your dynamic, please, because it’s utterly unfair to them.
No one deserves to be treated as disposable. People do not exist to supplement your primary relationship. New partners are not toys that can be packed away and then brought out to play whenever suits you. Partners are people with feelings, wants and needs, and they deserve respect.
Being in a relationship where someone external holds power to block you whenever they feel like it is terrifying. It creates this anxiety-inducing dynamic, where the secondary partner is afraid of upsetting their metamour (their partner’s partner). They fear being suddenly shut out from seeing the person that they love. It prevents everyone from building balanced, healthy relationships.
We all aim to date good people with good intentions – but life is messy. Love is messy. Emotions are messy. Things don’t always run smoothly. We all make questionable choices in our dating life from time to time, and we need the space to do this. Dictating who our partners can and cannot form connections with denies them this opportunity to learn and grow, to fail so they can succeed.
None of this is easy, though. We’ve all watched friends follow their hearts even when we could see the car crash relationship coming. Being non-monogamous means you have to allow your partners the space to do precisely this as well.
It’s also worth pointing out that veto rarely works in the long run. There’s no positive outcome from exerting any control, including veto power, over a relationship that doesn’t involve you. Once people form connections, they don’t like to be told by others to let them go – because they shouldn’t have to. Unfortunately, this can result in cheating or the primary partnerships ending instead of the secondary.
So, please, take my advice: don’t mess with other people’s relationships.
What to do instead of veto
Firstly, don’t give this power to your partner. When monogamous couples first transition to non-monogamy by ‘opening up‘ their relationship, they’ll often promise each other the option of veto power as a way of showing their commitment to this primary relationship.
This practice is very much informed by mononormativity – how society structures itself around the couple, who are assumed to be romantically and sexually exclusive. Stepping outside of this can be pretty scary, and newly non-monogamous partners will often rush to keep some similar structures (hierarchy, rules and veto power, for example) in place so that they can feel secure.
However, opening up your relationship while also trying to protect it all cost is a tricky dynamic to navigate – and adding something like veto power to that mix is the wrong way to go. Instead, work on your communication style. Find a couples therapist who understands non-monogamy. Build your tool kit individually and as a couple so that when you hit a tricky situation with a new partner, you won’t be tempted to reach for a veto. Instead, you’ll be able to work through this situation and be stronger for it while also enabling other relationships to continue.
We need to trust that all our partners are on their journies, mastering what they need to learn from their own experiences. If that involves dating someone unpleasant, then I’m sorry, but there is a lesson they need to learn there. You blocking them from doing so isn’t going to help them in the long run.
Supporting a partner as they go through a period of upheaval without involving yourself in the drama itself is difficult but necessary. Although it’s a different situation, I recommend listening to the How to Support Your Partner Through a Breakupepisode of the Multiamory podcast. It has some helpful advice on giving support and space while also advocating for own needs.
If your primary partner asks you to end a secondary relationship, don’t do it. Find another way to work around it, as suggested above. You always have a choice, so make it an ethical one. You decided to bring your secondary partner into your life, so don’t give another partner the power to shut them out. Only the people in the relationship should decide when it ends.
Ugh. I am so incredibly sorry if this has happened to you. I had a metamour temporarily veto me, right when I was in the throes of new relationship energy, and I’m still working my way through that trauma a few years later. It’s an incredibly painful experience, and few people understand how different it feels to being dumped.
Firstly, get yourself some support: friends who understand non-monogamy or emergency therapy (I recommend Better Help). Being vetoed can be an isolating experience, so talk to people who can appreciate the dynamics of your situation.
Secondly, it’s important to remember that this is something that your partner agreed to. While it’s easy to focus your negative feelings towards the metamour who asked for it, it’s still something your partner allowed to happen. They aren’t the victim here, even if they want to portray themselves that way.
Thirdly, remember that your feelings matter, and your relationship was valid even though it wasn’t a primary partnership. You don’t deserve to be treated in this way – no one does. The only power you have is to take care of yourself, so you must place yourself at the centre of every decision you make moving forward.
How to avoid getting vetoed
Always talk about veto right from the start with any new partners. I like the 6 Question You Must Ask Your New Partner episode of Multimory because it includes asking if they have veto power as an option in any of their relationships.
A red flag for me is when a new partner has never discussed it with their other partners. They’ll often have never thought about it but will say something like, “I’m sure we’d never do this.” They are probably the people most likely to allow you to be vetoed without a second glance.
Trust the people who have discussed it, who know where both they and their partners stand on this and have no qualms communicating with you about it. If you don’t like their position on veto power, don’t date them.
What if my new metamour is rude to me?
I understand how hard this is. I had a new metamour say some unkind things about me when I first opened up a marriage, and I was so shocked, I shut down any contact with them. I was new to non-monogamy and had no idea how to handle this situation and no one around me to give any advice. However, I didn’t stop my partner from seeing them.
When you hold the power of being the pre-established partner, you can easily be tempted to reach for veto. It feels simpler to get rid of this metamour and ask your partner to find someone new. However, that is not your choice to make.
Try talking to your metamour about it. Did they realise how they came across? Do they make an effort to hear you and to try and heal the connection with you? Remember that they are almost definitely feeling as awkward and insecure about the situation as you. Try being vulnerable and let them know how you feel.
Make sure your hinge partner (who connects you and your metamour) is aware of what happened. However, don’t task them with fixing this situation – even if they offer. It’s important that you attempt to try and heal this situation with your metamour directly.
We’re never going to love everyone our partners’ date, so you have to learn how to control the only thing you can: yourself. Discover how to have boundaries, work out how much contact you want to have with your metamour and be open to that changing over time. They may not be the monster you currently think they are – and you may become less insecure about their presence in your life as time goes by.