Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month, the PMM bloggers will write about their views on one of them. Links to all posts will be found at http://www.polymeansmany.com . This month, our topic is “Hierarchy”.
The concept of hierarchy within non-monogamous relationships tends to be a Marmite-type issue: either people love it, or they hate it. Those in the hate camp often claim that relationship hierarchy is about fear, control, and ‘monogamists doing poly by monogamy’s rules’1. Those in the love camp state that hierarchy is about practicality, honesty and allowing different types of connection to exist between people that might not otherwise be possible2.
The dictionary definition of hierarchy is ‘a system in which people or things are placed in a series of levels with different importance or status’3. In terms of relationships, this seems a sensible and pragmatic thing to do. We poly writers often talk about the need to find balance in the many demands on our lives – how can we do this without involving some level of ranking by order of importance?
Hierarchy is all about couple privilege, vetos and rules right?
Many people feel that relationship hierarchy is a form of couple privilege, which is a ‘culturally entrenched priority, and measure of value, given to couples by society, both in public perception of them, and [their] legal status’5. They state that hierarchy reinforces the differences in status and value of the respective relationships.
As many non-monogamous folks often begin their journey from within a monogamous couple and open up, the primary/secondary concept is often first used as a tool to reinforce the primacy of the couple, and the lesser importance of other partners, as the couple ‘test’ the non-monogamous waters7. People often dislike the terms primary/secondary because they say it reinforces a disparity in status and importance, and reduces connections to unhelpful labels.
Some folks believe that hierarchy sucks because veto rights are an inherent part of this type of relationship structure. Some go as far as saying that a hierarchy only exists where a veto is present, where others (myself included) think you can have hierarchy without a veto5. Others believe that a hierarchy exists where ‘at least one person holds more power over a partner’s other relationships than is held by the people within those relationships’4 including, but not necessarily a veto.
Is there anything wrong with that? Provided everyone knows where they stand, I don’t think so. Sure the secondary partners are potentially going to be discarded without notice and heartbroken, but that can happen in any relationship with a veto, hell, any relationship can end suddenly, period. Whilst I neither defend nor attack having a veto, I understand that those new to non-monogamy tend to have a ton of rules in place at first, and it’s all about fear, and trying to control an uncontrollable situation8.
Or is it about practicality, and adaption?
The paragraphs above paint a pretty damning account of hierarchy, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. For many people, hierarchy isn’t about fear, control or power over other relationships. Hierarchy can be a simple reflection of practical arrangements and differences in types of relationship, which doesn’t necessarily relate to ranking the level of feeling one has for a person.
What if instead of ‘primary’ meaning a person has control over the other relationships, primary means ‘first’, in terms of resources like time, energy and money. Maybe the people within that relationship co-habit, maybe they co-parent children, or run a business. Is it wrong for the people within that relationship to say what things they put first? Surely if someone wants to date a person, it’s better to know their circumstances and what they can reasonably and consistently give in terms of time and energy? If they had to treat everyone as equal, they simply couldn’t enter into the number or type of connections they want.
Whilst hierarchy tends to mirror couple privilege, and often reflects that relationship being quite advanced on the relationship escalator, it is possible to have a hierarchy without couple privilege, according to Aggie Sex of SoloPoly5. People can have several meaningful and loving connections that they never want to ride the escalator with10, or do things that would give rise to couple privilege. They might choose to use the terms secondary, casual or partner, and be using it simply to describe the level of life involvement that relationship has for the people involved. Are they wrong to do so?
Several people I know are solo poly folk, and their connections are often of the regular, long term, casual, loving. They may consider themselves their primary, and anything else secondary. A person’s job, child or sick relative may be their primary in terms of life involvement and commitment. Many folks (especially in the kink world) have connections where regular relationship descriptors like parter, girlfriend, boyfriend, lover may not fit, and the connection itself can often be somewhat hard to define and fluid. Is it wrong to talk about these relationships in hierarchical terms, whether we are speaking about the level of involvement in a person’s life, or whether we talk about how important that connection is to a person? Some would say that these things are closer to relationship anarchy than hierarchical polyamory9, but that’s something only the people involved can say for sure.
Another aspect of hierarchy that is often overlooked is its fluidity. A person may consider themselves to have x primaries, x secondary/casual partners, friends, a job, family as well as their own needs. The demands on that person from those relationships and commitments will vary over time, and a degree of flexibility is required from everyone to keep things healthy and happy. Most of us do this without even considering it : going out less when we’re busy with work, making more time for a friend who’s going through a tough patch right now, dropping everything to look after a sick loved one. You may be with your primary partner on a routine shopping trip when a secondary partner calls to say they are ill/boiler broke/lost their job – and I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t drop what they were doing and support their loved one. Hierarchy doesn’t have to be a fixed structure, it can be fluid and adaptive to people’s needs. Your secondary partner may become a primary in terms of resources in times of need. Sure, sometimes there will be a conflict, and you’ll have to either choose between people who need you, or give less time to each, but that’s a personal decision to make at that time, and based on the individual circumstances.
On reflection, the question of hierarchy isn’t so straightforward as it originally seemed. Whether you are against the idea of a veto, whether you’re a relationship anarchist or whether you’re a primary yourself, ultimately, I believe we all need to take a step back, take our ego out of the equation and do as we would have done to us. What this boils down to is: do what works for you and the people in your relationships. So long as you do this fairly and consensually, nothing else matters. Go forth and love.
Feel free to comment below with your opinions. What is your take on hierarchy?