Other people's relationship rules; on breaking them.
You probably think this post is about sex and cheating. You probably think "don't be involved in other people breaking the rules of their relationships" is a pretty straightforward statement, and a good rule to live by. I'd like to disabuse you of that notion. You need to think a lot more broadly about rules that might exist in a relationship, and the myriad factors that might affect your decisions and lead to those rules being broken. It's rarely safe to deal in absolutes, so let me start by thoroughly stepping outside that box. My take on this whole concept is a work in progress, but more often than not my reaction to such situations is going to be "She knows more about her relationship than I do. I'm going to let her make those decisions and she is responsible for the consequences. I may impose honest communication requirements on her as a condition of my participation.".
[note: I'm going to use gendered terms here and talk about a hypothetical girl and her boyfriend, because almost all of the people I play with are female, and almost all of them have other male partners. Everything I'm saying here applies to other relationship combinations as well.]
First and foremost, we need to explore what "rules" might mean. How are they stated? Are we talking about him just saying "don't do X", or her also saying "I won't do X"? What happens if the "rules" are broken? There are big differences in "we will break up if you do X" and "we will fight if you do X" and "I will complain to my friends if you do X" and "you owe me Y if you do X". The second and third ones are the most common. The fourth one gets tricky, especially if the she isn't actually willing to Y when she does X, but at that point it degenerates to one of the other three cases. The first one is actually the easiest, because then they both have a simple way out of the relationship, although in reality the first one rarely exists without being surrounded by the second one. The possibility to renegotiate actually changes the nature of rules significantly, as does her willingness to communicate about them to her partner or to me.
Another factor that plays a key role here is initiation and intent. There is a difference in her asking me for sex and me asking her for sex, if we both know she's in a sexually exclusive relationship. That difference, and the difference in impact, changes as the importance/significance of the rule changes. There is, hopefully obviously, another difference in me asking, depending on whether I know or not. For the sake of this discussion, let's assume I know at least something about her rules (communication problems are covered later).
There is also the consideration of timing. How is the situation different if what I am doing with her is ongoing, but a new relationship or new relationship rule comes into play for her that would require us to change our behavior? I have, multiple times in the past, permanently shared a room and a bed with a monogamous girl with whom I was, completely or to some significant degree, not intimate. If she entered a new relationship and her partner tried to create or enforce a "no living with another guy" or "no just-sleeping with another guy" rule, is that different than if she asked to move into my house or room with me after their relationship and rules already exist?
Plenty of people will try to break this down into a discussion about how she should deal with the rules she doesn't want to follow, within her existing relationship. That's a wonderful conversation to have, and I'm no stranger to giving tough relationship advice, but it's moot in this context. No matter what I say to her, and what she says to her partner, their relationship might still exist with the rules unchanged afterwards. If the nature of the relationship changes, great, but for the sake of this discussion let's assume that it doesn't. So if your response to this whole post is "tell her she should renegotiate or break up", that's unhelpful, because when the renegotiation fails and they don't break up (which is, by far, the most likely outcome in my experience) we are right back where we started and I've still got the same decisions to make.
Just to ensure most of you have left behind the "breaking her relationship rules is always bad" idea, let's start with something relatively "innocent". If I have a female friend and her boyfriend tells her "never talk to other guys", I have absolutely no problem talking to her if she wants to talk to me. I'll talk to her. I'll aid and abet her in talking to other guys. I'll probably commit lies of omission by not going out of my way to tell her boyfriend about our conversation. If he catches us talking, or someone snitches on her, I'll defend our actions to him. If someone else insults her for talking to me, I'll defend her to them, as much as I'll defend my own choices in discussions about this post. All of that also applies to "never be alone with other guys" or "never be out in public with other guys" or "never ride in another guy's car", which I am happy to bundle together into a category about which I'll have no second thoughts and can't think of any exceptions to, in every permutation of all of the considerations mentioned above.
If you wouldn't talk to her, and/or you think less of me for my willingness to do so, then we have a fundamental difference in values and priorities regarding freedom, friendship, and relationships. You can keep reading, but I don't think there's much to gain for either of us in discussing anything I'm going to cover below if we can't agree on the above. If you want to debate me on any of this, it may prove more productive to limit our conversation to the earliest point on which we disagree.
Now that that's out of the way, for anyone still reading, let's talk about deciding which rules are OK to break and which aren't, and in what situations that line moves. At the other end of the spectrum (you know, because relationship rules lie on a number line, in a monotonically increasing order... right...) we have the rules "don't fall in love with other people" and "don't engage in [some degree of] sexual activity with other people". These rules, and the breaking of them, are very different, including different practical and emotional results and different concerns in the decision making process.
If she is falling in love with me (or with someone else, but in a situation where I have some important influential role to play in her decision making process) while she is in an emotionally committed and monogamous relationship, I'm going to have some very tough advice for her. I am not going to tell her not to follow her heart. I am going to insist that she tell her current partner how she feels. As soon as she is honest with him, I'll be ok with pursuing a relationship with her. If he doesn't want to be with her because she wants to be with me, he can break up with her, or she can break up with him, or they can even maintain some turbulent "maybe we can work this out" sort of arrangement. My only requirement is that he be informed and that she be honest with both of us about what's going on. If she can't do that, then we will remain friends, and our relationship won't progress in the direction she wants it to.
Another consideration that has some weight is how rules change in the telling. It's like a game of telephone. Her boyfriend wants to establish the rule "don't become physically intimate with other people" but what he says is "don't sleep with other guys". The message that reaches her brain is "don't spend the night with other guys", but what she says to me is "I can't have sex with you". At every step of that process, some information was lost, and in some cases gained. To some people, the original rule would seem mostly intact at this point, but to someone for whom bedroom (or elsewhere) play time means a lot more than intercourse, almost everything has been lost. If she appears willing to do things other than having sex with me, and what she's told me is that she can't have sex with me, I have no way of knowing that what we are doing will appear to her boyfriend to be breaking their relationship rules. I will always make an effort to suss out the real rules, as far as my potential partner knows them. I apologize in advance if it appears that I don't trust her, when in truth what I distrust is the reliability of information transfer from her boyfriend's brain to her mouth. I cannot control how successfully things are communicated from her boyfriend to her, and can't take responsibility with those parts of the communication process fail, but I can do my damnedest to make sure that any obvious intent behind his words gets to me. The best example of this is a girl who gave to me her sole intimate relationship rule as "my panties stay on", when what she really meant was "no activities leading significantly toward orgasm for either of us, and no penetration". It only took a few questions for me to narrow that down and illustrate some of the relevant differences to her, and I'd probably have had a bit more fun immediately if I hadn't, but now I've got a stronger, if slightly more constrained, relationship with her and can look forward to playing again in the future.
The final major consideration for me is long term practical consequences. Everything above is about dealing with interpersonal consequences, emotions, feelings, etc. All of that is also related to decisions that can be changed on a moments' notice (you can stop sleeping with someone at any time). Separate from all of that is another category that includes objective matters that can't be conveniently dismissed. I've had trouble writing some of the guiding rules for this category, so I'm going to fall back to examples here. I will never get a girl pregnant if her other partner(s) don't want that. I will not enter into important legally binding contracts, including business partnerships or marriage, with a girl who I have a relationship with, who is also in another relationship, if there are significant unresolved issues related to conflicts between those relationships. I won't allow the two of us to expose a third party to life changing legal consequences that they haven't consented to (getting a ticket because we were naked in your car, not particularly life changing). I won't expose a third party to STD risk (except kissing diseases) without their knowledge. I'll probably add more items to that list over time, and I hope to be able to distill out broader and more effective base rules for this category in the future.
Now, all that having been said, we come to the most divisive part of this subject. We lost a few people at the beginning with the "don't talk" rule, and a few more will have breezed through all of this with no qualms about ever respecting others' rules, but most people reading this article will have, at this point, put roughly the same selection of things above into the "ok" and "not ok" boxes. Where that consistency is going to break down is with regards to physical activities, particularly intimacy. Some of you are going to say that breaking almost any rules about physical intimacy is bad. Some of you are going to say that it's not. Plenty of you are going to draw the line somewhere in the middle.
As I said above, it's impossible to put all of this in a strict order. Some people place more importance on certain aspects than others. So I'm going to throw these out there in a rough order that approximates the priorities of most of my social circles in terms of relationship exclusivity.
Some activities may seem intimate to one person, but not to another. Some examples of this would include living in the same house (but not the same room or bed), celebrating holidays together, or participating in therapeutic/medical things like exercise, yoga, massage, meditation, etc.
Some activities can be intimate, but might not be explicit or obscene. Hand holding, hugging, kissing, massage, being naked in each others' company.
Some activities can be intimate, explicit, and potentially obscene, but might not be sexual. This category includes a wide range of fetish and kink activity, far more than I could enumerate here.
And, finally, there are sexual activities. These can range from erogenous sensation play while fully clothed to orgasm-inducing stimulation to penetration of various sorts to more depraved acts.
I'm going to end this writing in somewhat of an anti-climactic manner. I explicitly can't draw a bright line dividing all of those activities by acceptability like I did with some of the items at the extremes earlier in this post. For every act that I just described I have both broken and repeatedly chosen not to break someone's relationship rules under different circumstances. Every factor I mentioned above comes into play in how I make decisions about physical intimacy, and every situation is different. If you've read this far, I hope that you understand, even if you don't agree. I'm happy to discuss any part of this post, and the consequences thereof.