If you opened up your relationship, would you want the ability to tell your partner’s other partners to piss off if you weren’t down with them? Intrigued? Let’s talk about “veto power.”
Veto power within consensually non-monogamous relationships is a hotly debated topic. People within the CNM community have very strong feelings about it. But, what does it mean to have veto power? “In CNM relationships, ‘veto’ indicates an agreement between primary partners in which they can say no to new or other partners,” says Dr. Celina Criss, a certified sex coach specializing in gender, sexuality, and relationship diversity.
Yes, you read that correctly. It’s the ability to tell your partner that they essentially have to break up with their other partner(s) if you don’t like them or the relationship. If that sounds problematic, that’s because it often is.
Whether you love it or hate it, the concept of veto power is one worth exploring and unpacking. As with all things dating-related, it’s complicated and in need of nuanced conversations.
If you’re active in the online dating realm, you’ve probably been hearing more about CNM — aka ethical non-monogamy or ENM — lately. The term “ethical non-monogamy” has seen a 213 percent spike in searches in the last year alone.
Here is everything you should know about veto power within CNM dynamics.
What is ‘veto power’ in the CNM world?
Veto power is essentially the ability to tell your partner’s other partner(s) to take a hike, if you decide the relationship isn’t working for you anymore. It grants partners the ability to determine who their partner can and cannot have relationships with. It exists within hierarchical CNM dynamics, wherein there are two (or more) primary partners and all other partners are considered ‘secondary.’
Joli Hamilton, a qualitative researcher and relationship coach specializing in non-monogamy, tells us veto power is an explicit or implicit agreement that one partner within a primary relationship can require a change to the structure, intensity, or existence of their partner’s other relationships. This can be true of new partners and existing partners. “Sometimes veto power is explicitly granted as a way to reinforce the idea that an existing couple will remain the priority over any new relationships that may come into existence,” she explains.
Veto power is essentially the ability to tell your partner’s other partner(s) to take a hike, if you decide the relationship isn’t working for you anymore.
In order to use veto power in an ethical way (though some would argue it is never ethical), the agreement must be explicit. All partners within the relationship need to understand that the veto power is in place, how it functions for the primary partners, and consent to honoring it. As you may have guessed, this can get quite complicated.
Why would a couple choose to have ‘veto power’ within their relationship structure?
There are a lot of reasons why a couple might choose to enact veto power. Hamilton says that it’s often used as a tool to help couples feel safer when they’re first opening up. Basically, it makes you feel like no matter who else you or your partner might date, you’ll always be the “chosen one.”
“Lots of people want veto power when they are transitioning from a monogamous paradigm to a more expansive relationship structure, in part because they can’t imagine a world where they wouldn’t have a say over what their partner does with their emotions or body,” she explains. This need to be held above all others is born out of ‘compulsory monogamy,’ the socially constructed notion that being monogamous and prioritizing one partner is the “correct” way of existing within a relationship.
And yes, this has problematic implications when you’re practicing CNM because it tries to hold a different way of relating to the monogamous standard. Hamilton says she’s seen plenty of couples use veto power as a means to retain a sense of control, with decidedly mixed results.
What is consensual non-monogamy?
The positives of ‘veto power’
Criss tells us that there can be upsides in using veto power within CNM dynamics. If your relationship is consensually hierarchical, the veto can act as a safeguard for the primary partnership. Depending on the outlined agreement between partners, “this objection can be at the beginning of an additional relationship or later, if that relationship has become problematic,” she says. “One way to think of it is as a safe word for CNM: it indicates there is a problem or concern that needs to be addressed.”
When used in this way, the veto acts as less of a tool of control and more as a way to explore issues that come up with primary partners and their other partners. “It can be quite useful,” Criss adds.
Again, for this dynamic to work – the veto, and what it means within your dynamic, needs to be clearly outlined and agreed to by all parties involved in the relationship. When a person within the primary partnership takes on a secondary or tertiary partner, that partner needs to be fully aware of the existing veto power and consent to it. Otherwise, we’re just getting plain old unethical.
Hierarchical polyamorous and open structures are a highly contentious subject within the CNM community – with some people strongly endorsing hierarchy and others believing it is entirely unethical. Those who oppose it point to “monogamy culture,” wherein the idea of the “primary partnership” is of utmost importance – which goes against the very nature of CNM. There isn’t a total consensus.
The drawbacks of ‘veto power’
Veto power offers primary partners a sense of control within relationships, but Moushumi Ghose, a licensed sex therapist, says that the “control” is usually a band-aid for larger issues. Often, the veto is used as a way to avoid dealing with the myriad uncomfortable feelings that come with opening up a relationship. “Veto power is extremely problematic because it creates a power imbalance, essentially. The biggest threat is that one person can close an open relationship simply because of uncomfortable feelings,” she says. It tries to remove the need to face and work through difficult emotions and dynamics that inevitably come up when you’re involved with multiple partners. This doesn’t solve anything, and instead can build resentment.
How to get started with non-monogamy
Veto power can also be problematic when it is used as a means to control your partner’s behavior. Criss tells us that “using a veto to non-consensually control or threaten your partner is not OK, in fact it runs counter to the general idea of CNM.” CNM specifically emphasizes consent and individual autonomy so, when veto power is used as a way to infringe upon a partner’s autonomy, that’s when it becomes an issue.
“Veto power is extremely problematic because it creates a power imbalance.”
Hamilton agrees, telling us that veto power can lead to hypervigilance within a relationship, often resulting in monitoring your partner’s behavior such as checking their phones or social media and trying to control who they are with and when. “All of these can increase the amount of jealousy we feel, and none of those behaviors lead to more trust in your partner,” she says. “Instead it keeps you locked in a cycle of watchful waiting for your partner to screw up or overstep your comfort.”
What’s more, even if both primary partners agree that veto power is on the table, it often neglects to consider the feelings, wishes, and boundaries of the (very real) human people who aren’t in the primary partnership. “Veto power removes consent, especially when you consider that in CNM there are multiple people involved,” Ghose says. This can turn into a very messy situation, very quickly.
What to do if your partner asks for ‘veto-power’
Navigating these conversations requires empathy and nuance. “If your partner wants a veto and you’re not into it, this is an opportunity to get curious and investigate,” Criss says.
She suggests exploring the following questions: Why are they asking for this? Are you in alignment with your relationship goals, your CNM dynamic, and how you are feeling about each other?
Hamilton tells us that the need for veto can begin to dissipate once you learn to deal with difficult emotions in a healthy way. “Learn to regulate your nervous system and practice holding your body’s sensations and emotions during times of stress,” she says. This can look like adopting grounding and breathing techniques.
You may want to trade in veto power for authentic ways your partner can make you feel secure – and visa versa. “Have conversations about what security looks like and sounds like for you. Ask for those things to be prioritized,” Hamilton says. “Don’t make your partner guess – actually tell them what it looks and sounds like for you to receive their loving attention. Help them co-create a sense of security with you.”
Sometimes these conversations can be scary or confronting. If you find this is the case, you can always employ the help of a qualified, CNM-friendly sex therapist or coach to help you.
Whatever your journey is, we salute you.
Sex & Relationships