The Somerville files: a dyadic approach to legislating on polyamorous domestic partnerships

The city of Somerville, Massachussets, has recently been in the news. It appears to be the first city in America, and possibly in the world, to have made legal provisions for polyamorous domestic partnerships – what most Europeans would call “civil unions”.

This story is fascinating, one of the less expected outgrowth of the SARS-COV-2 situation. The new regulation appears to have been rushed through because Somerville had no provision for civil partnerships at all, even for monogamous couples. As COVID hit town, the city council moved to make sure that non-married people in de facto couples could access each other’s health insurance. As the council was drafting the ordinance, a councilor called J.T. Scott suggested that it could be made more inclusive by tweaking the language to include polyamorous live-in partners: for example, replacing “both partners” with “all partners” as appropriate. The move went through.

This is great news for poly people everywhere, and Mr. Scott earned himself plenty of kudos; but I won’t be discussing the Somerville story in this post. I have a more urgent concern: I have come across a brilliant analysis of how to write effective legislation to implement polyamorous domestic partnership. We owe it to a longtime polyamory activist that goes by the nom de plûme Infinity_8p. I read it in the PolyAmory Researchers mailing list,  which is members-only. Infinity_8p graciously granted  me the permission to reproduce it.  In a nutshell, the author thinks that polyamorous partnership are best implemented as multiple dyadic partnerships, and not as a single multiparty partnership.

It is evident from the legislative history and the final result that little or no deep thought was given to the task of finding the best way to extend domestic partnership to the poly community. Nevertheless, it appears to me that under Somerville’s ordinance, users can correctly create accurate legal representations of their own polycules by 1) limiting each domestic partnership to two participants, and 2) executing as many domestic partnerships as needed in order to correctly represent their polycule. Thus a “N” polycule or a triangular polycule would execute three domestic partnerships and a “V” polycule would execute two. Attempting to use a single domestic partnership to cover the entire polycule is inappropriate, as it would result in unwanted effects. Suppose we have an “N” polycule: A-B-C-D, where A is directly linked to B but not to C or D. With multiple DPs, only B can make life-or-death decisions on A’s behalf if A is hospitalized, which precisely follows A’s preference. Under a blanket DP, C and/or D could make those life-or-death decisions about A, regardless of A’s wishes. Furthermore, consider the termination provision of Somerville’s ordinance. If any participant in a DP dies, the DP is terminated immediately and its participants may not create another DP for 90 days afterward. Under a blanket DP, the rest of the polycule is left without any legal representation if a single member happens to die. With multiple DPs, the death of a single member only affects the DPs linking the deceased member to specific other members of that polycule, and all DPs between living members of the polycules remain fully intact, without interruption.

Infinity_8p thinks that the Somerville ordinance is compatible with both models. If Alice is a partner of Bea who is a partner of Connor, who in turn is a partner of Alice, and the three of them share the same address, they could:

  1. Implement one single partnership involving the three of them;
  2. Implement three partnerships involving, respectively, Alice and Bea, Bea and Connor, and Connor and Alice.

Infinity_8p thinks that the second solution is more robust and in the end more appropriate. I tend to concur (network scientist here!). Full analysis in this guest post.

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