Are hierarchical relationships bad?

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/u/kjones139 asks on /r/polyamory…

“I have had another connection end while describing the hierarchical polyamory my wife and I practice. Apparently the new in thing is relationship anarchy. I am committed to my wife. We share finances. We have a home together. We take care of each other when we are sick. We ask the most from each other while other relationships are more related to fun. I keep getting flack from relationship anarchists, but at 6am when her car breaks down my wife can call me and I will be there. When I get home and want to quit my job my partner is there for me. Am I missing something here?”

I personally practice non-hierarchical polyamory. To me, that means that while I distinguish a strict boundary between people I consider to be friends and people I consider partners, there are no explicit or prescriptive hierarchies that strictly forbid one partner from reaching a threshold that another has already crossed with very limited exceptions. In short, friends are friends, but all partners operate on fair playing field.

This being said, I do not believe that there are anything inherently unethical about hierarchical relationships, as long as everyone knows about and consents to those hierarchies in place. Properly done, hierarchical polyamorous relationships can and are just as fair and ethical as non-hierarchical polyamorous relationships.

Many forms of hierarchies are natural and very often organically develop over time. For example, the longer you are engaged with one person, the more people in their lives you’ll get to meet. That level of openness and broader acceptance of your relationship is gradual but definitive. Some hierarchies are more forceful and driven. A good example of an ethical, driven hierarchy is financial enmeshment. As you get more and more enmeshed with your partner, it might make a lot of sense to gather all of your financials into one place for more sensible budgeting.

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Challenges of hierarchical polyamory

The challenge in the most ethical practice of hierarchical polyamorous relationships come in:

  1. Inflexibility of hierarchies,
  2. General miscommunication around priorities, and
  3. Social stigma around that label.

Here is an example of an inflexible hierarchy: marriage.

Marriages are natural hierarchies that develop over time, but are deeply inflexible due to legality. It is a state-recognized status & symbol and family/friend-recognized status of a relationship. Outside of getting a divorce (which can be costly), it is a hierarchy and a threshold that a lot of polyfolks in this mononormative society will have to address.

Then there is the miscommunication around priorities of different partners. When designating someone as a primary partner over another secondary partner, it is often doneso for the sake of appeasing one partner’s insecurity over another (potential or realistic). And while your enmeshed, nesting partner will have more opportunities to be prioritized, asserting strict priority when comparing different needs makes this part of hierarchical polyamory unethical.

How you balance one partner’s need over another partner’s wants is a very critical aspect and a learned skill in polyamory. A very practical application of this hierarchy is in celebrating which partner you’re going to celebrate which holidays and events with. Unless we possess the Time-Turner, it is impossible for us to be in two places at the same time. What happens if you are invited to an event and you can only bring a plus one? Does your wife always get the first say because she is your primary partner?

But the biggest challenge most hierarchical polyfolks face is in the perceived stigma of being in hierarchical polyamorous relationships. It is a big price of admission due to a lot of really negative past experiences surrounding dating explicitly hierarchical polyfolks. It is now a major price of admission to be classified as someone’s secondary partner as hierarchical relationships are no longer the current trend of polyamorous relationships. And because fewer and fewer people settle for relationships that do not work for them, the stigma is going to grow and grow.

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Ethical practice of hierarchical polyamory

With all this being said, I do think that there are ethical ways to practice and improve on hierarchical polyamorous relationships.

First is to do your best to analyze and assess existing hierarchies. Why are they here? Who are these hierarchies for? Do these hierarchies have to be exclusive to one person? This step is really important because it is a necessary prep work that allows us to forge a more sound connections with not just each other but with ourselves as well. Recognize that the flaw in hierarchies isn’t that they exist, but that they externally bar another from crossing that threshold for reasons completely unrelated to their respective relationships.

After revisiting those hierarchies, communicate those hierarchies with those affected parties as impeccably as you can. If there is a specific threshold a particular relationship cannot cross, it’ll be so much more hurtful to hit that glass ceiling with your head when you come upon it. So do your best to mindfully explain what those hierarchies are, why they’re there, and why they have to stay there. Ideally, these discussions about hierarchies would take place prior to seriously engaging with anyone on a romantic level. If you are already romantically entangled, today is a better day to have these discussions than tomorrow.

Last step is ongoing maintenance and regular check-in on those hierarchies and boundaries. Like any other personal boundaries, hierarchies need to be self-enforceable. And just because a hierarchy threshold has not been exercised does not mean that they do not exist. So for example, if the specific hierarchy/privilege in your primary relationship states that you are not allowed to any more than two overnight stays a week with secondary partners and you haven’t done any overnights lately with any secondary partners, that does not mean that you don’t need that space. That space might not be for current relationships, but they might be for future ones. Expanding and shrinking hierarchical arrangements need to be approached with incredible caution.

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Comparative Relationship Anarchy

I do want to come back to the main post’s points about relationship anarchists.

I do agree that RA seems to be a more trendy relationship pattern among polyfolks these days. However, there is nothing common in between one person who practices relationship anarchy from another aside from the overarching aspiration and vision to approach each of their relationships without any preset rules. One person’s practice of RA might not look at all like another person’s practice of RA. So when you are receiving negative press from folks who identify with RA, please do not lump all RAfolks into one bucket.

And I’ll also make a point about recognized subtle hierarchies. Some call them “sneaki-archies” or dishonest egalitarianism. Even if you might not recognize a specific hierarchy internal in your marriage to your wife, others could recognize it from a distance that there is a built-in hierarchy to your marriage that you or your wife might be in denial about. I think it’s important to realize that your version of reality might be a little different from your former paramours versions of reality. Instead of pointing fingers outward, maybe you should take some time to look at the common denominator and see if there really is truth to the hierarchies others see in your relationship style.

4 thoughts on “Are hierarchical relationships bad?

  1. Pingback: Advice – Difficult visit with partner and metamour. – Tea Time with Tomato

  2. Pingback: Advice – How can I manage a transition from a secondary relationship to a co-primary relationship? – Tea Time with Tomato

  3. Pingback: Advice – Can my marriage be salvaged? – Tea Time with Tomato

  4. Pingback: Advice – My polyamorous wife is uncomfortable with me dating others. – Tea Time with Tomato

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