Advice – Labels in Hierarchical Relationships

/u/littlemsreverie on /r/polyamory writes…

“… For background, I’ve been practicing poly for a decade now and my preferred structure is generally two equal primaries, open, and an assortment of more casual relationships of different types. At this moment, I have two (monoromantic) primaries who are also domestic partners, a committed secondary, and the aforementioned assortment of others who are not relevant to this post.

Now, the secondary is a recent addition and this has caused a number of issues with one of the primaries, mostly based around definitions of what a secondary relationship means.

My definition of secondary is the same emotional commitment as my primaries, but differentiation comes from the secondary not being a domestic partner and getting much less of my time in total. I still use the term boyfriend and similar endearments for my primaries and secondary because I love them all the same, but the physical and time commitments remain different. This primary is upset at sharing the “boyfriend” title with my secondary and doesn’t believe that my secondary relationship is anything less than a primary because of my emotional investment. The dedicated time and domestic differences don’t mean anything to him in that regard. So to him, I’m actively ignoring and disrespecting his definitions when I call my secondary my boyfriend, and I’m being selfish and intentionally hurtful towards him by doing it.

… I want to know how other pairs and groups have dealt with unmatched titles/labels and the sense of hurt that occurs when your definitions conflict with your partners’. I also want to know any recommendations anyone has for building my primary back up and making him feel like I’m as invested in him as I am, because explaining why my terms are used with my definitions to structure my relationships isn’t helping right now and I’m not about to change how I define things. My labels are how I explain my poly structures to, well, everyone, as well as orient my own brain and feelings. Healthy examples from your groups and communities would be helpful!”

Dear littlemsreverie,

Let’s first sit down and think about where that pain and hurt feelings come from. Preferably over tea.

Photo by Valeria Boltneva on

Are we good? Good.

So the way I understand your current predicament, one of your primary partners is struggling with sharing the same label with your secondary partner. Those feelings appear to be deeply rooted in mild insecurity regarding his place in your life and partly rooted in his monogamous social conditioning that he has to be explicitly and outwardly special and unique. I also suspect that a significant source of his pain and misunderstanding comes from the power of the label itself.

It would be your insecure primary’s responsibility here to become more secure in his relationship with you through the help of your reassurances. It would also be his responsibility here to unlearn some of those social conditioning that only exclusivity (in the label) makes him special. However, it is both of your responsibility here to flesh out a more thorough definition of the shared label “boyfriend” together and determine if the boyfriend/girlfriend label still works for both of you.

Photo by Elia Clerici on

Words have powers. Their power comes from the trust of the language we use. For example, humanity didn’t really “see” the color blue until the word blue emerged. Giving and assigning words to an idea or a concept gives it meaning. As such, so do labels. Labels themselves have different meanings to different people as well. So for example, my version of “boyfriend” might come with an entirely different set of expectations and baggage than your version of “boyfriend” even if they are the same word.

In a hierarchical polyamorous relationship, the explicit hierarchies lend themselves to a large power imbalance between different relationships. His discomfort in sharing the same label when he is a primary while his metamour is a secondary is very much a justified reason for being upset. It might be wise to rvisit this label again and reassess whether both you and your primary boyfriend both agree best fits your relationship as it stands today. I’ve also heard other polyfolks use the term partner to varying success. Serious boyfriend might also be a label that successfully distinguishes your level of emotional and physical enmeshment with your primary boyfriend here.

Good luck!

Tea Time with Tomato is an informative relationship and sex advice column for both monogamous and polyamorous folks. By submitting your post, you agree to let me use your story in part or in full. You also agree to let me edit or elaborate for clarity.

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