Advice – I need help with non-hierarchical polyamory.

“Here’s my situation: I’m a bisexual cis-woman in my mid 20s who started dating a queer cis-man several years older than me. We’ve been together for a few years now. I had never heard of polyamory until I met him. He introduced me to The Ethical Slut and it changed my world. I’ve always been poly, but not ethically. I cheated on my partners in monogamy before him (shamefully) and realized that when I was cheated on I found it sexy and easy to forgive. So my identification as polyamorous is unwavering.

His proposal of non-hierarchical poly seemed ideal to me. The idea of keeping my own agency and him keeping his agency sounds like how unconditional love should be. I don’t want to control him in any way by “vetoing” something or someone. And I wouldn’t want him to do that to me. He has over a decade of poly experience and he’s my first.

We’ve recently hit a rough spot that is making me question my ability to be non-hierarchical. I started dating this girl a year ago and then I introduced her to him and they started dating. We were briefly a triad until I decided I wanted us to break up with her as we would comment regularly on how she wasn’t a good match. So when I broke up with her, I thought he was too. Turns out he didn’t. It was bad communication on our part. They’re still together today and it hurts me so much. It hurts to hear them have sex and it hurts when he wants her to spend the night (we live together) and I don’t like spending time with her. I think she’s an energy-drainer. And then I don’t get to sleep in my own bed or I have to spend the night elsewhere. It has become a real problem in our relationship because technically he’s not doing anything wrong. This is what we agreed on. But the more time he spends with her, the more it feels like he doesn’t care about how it makes me feel. He also mentions that he’s not really that into her, just that he benefits slightly from her kind words and sex. He doesn’t want to be her boyfriend. So it makes me feel like “why are you choosing time with someone you’re not really into over me?” It just doesn’t make any sense to me. He has tried to explain it but it doesn’t stop it from hurting each time.

At the same time, he deserves all the love and sex in the world! He doesn’t have many people in his life and I DO NOT want to deprive him of someone who is sweet to him. Why can’t these feelings of love and compersion overpower my feelings of hurt and insecurity?

Am I not cut out for non-hierarchical poly? Do I just need to continue working through the pain until eventually hopefully it won’t bother me anymore? Should I consider being hierarchical? If I end up doing that, I’ll for sure lose him. I can’t believe I’m turning to the internet but I honestly don’t know where to turn. Not many people I know are poly and don’t understand my relationship. I’m hoping people with experience can give me guidance on what to do or maybe how can look at this differently. Thanks!”

– Nicki, /r/polyamory.

Dear Nicki,

I am really sorry to hear that you are having a lot of difficulty with his other relationship. Your ongoing struggles make a lot of sense, and here are the three reasons why.

First is that you are completely brand new to polyamory which has its own weight. First steps to poly are rife with mistakes. There is a lot of monogamy conditioning and programming that you have to take apart and deconstruct in order for you to start thinking about the kind of relationships you want to have. So allow yourself some breathing room and forgiveness. The feelings you feel are legitimate and not unfounded. You asked why your feelings of love and compersion is not enough to “overpower” the feelings of hurt and insecurity. I will ask you in return, why should it? It isn’t like love and compersion stand directly opposite hurt and insecurity. You can feel both of those feelings without one cancelling the other out. Love, compersion, hurt, and insecurity can all exist side by side. So maybe reframing your mind to accept those hurt and insecurity while continuing to celebrate your love and compersion would be a good place to start for you.

Some of those monogamy conditioning that you’ll have to unlearn is in owning your own shit. Your partner is not necessarily choosing her over you when he chooses to spend time with her. His time isn’t automatically designed with any of his partner as a priority. If he truly is non-hierarchical, then his time is fairly and independently allotted by himself. Please take some time to recognize that the source of this specific feeling is coming from you in the form of projected exclusivity, not necessarily anything he is doing. So acknowledge that this is your emotional labor to own, and decide only if then this ongoing emotional labor is something you consent to.

In addition to all of this, you’ve only been ethically non-monogamous / polyamorous for a couple years at most whereas you’ve been monogamous (albeit flawed) for twenty plus years. So you should not start from the place of expecting perfection even if you closely identify with polyamory now that you’ve embraced it. Different people love differently. And your natural version of polyamory will take some time to establish as you explore it more and more. It is way too early for you to say you need to be non-hierarchical in your approach in the same way that it would be way too early for me (with absolutely no experience riding a motorbike) to commit to a new Harley-Davidson. It’ll take time. So be patient.

Photo by Olenka Sergienko on

That leads me to my second point. You have your own personal history with your partner’s other partner which continues to add to your ongoing emotional labor.

It appears that there was a bit of a miscommunication at the end of your triad-phase where you ended things with your girlfriend expecting that the other leg of that triad will be ending as well. That is a pretty major disconnect, but not one that seems too unaligned with the way that your partner appears to be doing his own relationships. There is a lot of pain from the breakup and the subsequent miscommunication that has not yet been resolved, and constantly get retriggered when you have to be okay and accept his other relationship with your now-ex. You were not given proper opportunity to grieve the end of your relationship or enough time to adjust to this new reality where they continue dating. Instead, your partner is asking for you to continue to this emotional labor from a place of deep dispassion.

And I realize that there are two distinct possibilities here.

First is that your partner really is straight up telling you how disengaged he feels with your ex / metamour and he is not really into her. That would make him a terrible hinge partner by badmouthing his partner and your ex / metamour. It’s one thing to talk so negatively about their partners, but it is another thing entirely to continue to vent negatively to someone who has negative history with that person while that person is still grieving over the end of that relationship. In this possibility, it is also likely that he is telling the same thing about his relationship with you to his other partner and your ex / metamour. What a nightmare! This kind of behavior would make me rethink what his previous decade of poly experience has been like, and if he was the common denominator on why they all previously failed.

The other possibility is that you are projecting your own negative feelings onto their relationship through confirmation bias. Things didn’t work out between you and your ex / metamour for very valid reasons. And the ensuing miscommunication further exacerbated that disconnect you still feel to this day. There are a lot of pain here that you definitely do not have enough resources to resolve on your own. You said you don’t know many poly folks to process these feelings with. Online is great for that, but can be very limiting. Meeting and engaging with your local poly community can help even if you aren’t going there to meet new partners. Otherwise, unpacking these pain and hurt within the confines of a safe poly-friendly therapist’s office would be recommended. At least they can help you navigate through these turbulent times.

Like I said above, it’ll take time. So be patient.

Photo by Dmitry Zvolskiy on

The core issue at hand is not about non-hierarchical polyamory. Nicki, you are being asked to do so much more than you can reasonably handle. You even said in a later comment that he even invites you to bed while he is in the bed with your ex / metamour. That is so fucked up. So I think it is proper time for you to establish some better boundaries and renegotiate your agreements with your partner.

First is to create and maintain your own space. You mentioned that you currently live with your partner. But at no point do you have to feel obligated to share your own bed with her (or anyone else for that matter). If he wants to find a space to maintain his relationship with your ex / metamour, he can rent a hotel room, find an AirBnB, or figure out an arrangement at her family’s house. Or he can provide you with a space that you can stay while he is having sex with your ex / metamour. You have a right to your own space in your own home. And you absolutely do not need to consent to your ex / metamour sleeping in your own home. Your home is your own personal place that you pay to live in. A proper boundary in this regard would read, “I will not nest with partners who unilaterally share my space and bed without proper reconciliation.” Any partner who disregards that boundary is not worthy of your time or energy.

Second is to revisit and renegotiate your existing agreements. Things have changed. You are no longer in a triad and you are entitled to re-discuss and better formulate a set of agreements that work for both of you. You also now have a better visibility into the kind of polyamorous relationship you would like to have – hierarchy or not. Do not allow him to weaponize his poly experience to beat you into submission. You are a person with real feelings too. And shouldn’t it be in his best interest to compassionately approach his other relationships in a way that makes sure that all of his partners are content?

Last is to think about and develop a contingency / back up plan. If your partner holds that the agreements that you made when you first jumped into polyamory, then you’ll need to figure out what to do with what you’ve got. That means making some really difficult decision to either de-escalate your relationship with your partner, move out to a space you can call your own (so that he may continue to explore his respective relationships in his own respective space), or even break up. Whatever it is, you need to communicate the urgency and importance of maintaining your own space so that you can continue to exist in his world. In absence of compassion will come rushing in desperation.

Photo by Andy Vu on

I know this column is running long, but I have to say one or two words about non-hierarchical polyamory. As a person who practices non-hierarchical polyamory, I am always astounded to hear in how many different aspects that insistence on lack of hierarchy can be misconstrued to mean “I do what I want.” A relationship is nothing but a commitment for an ongoing connection between two or more people. And there is no relationship if only one person gets the say-so in how that relationship is structured, conditioned, and realized. Nothing about the way he has structured his current relationship with you and your ex / metamour appear to be coming from a place of compassion, but rather from a sole place of authentically realizing his own polyamorous relationships. Those are completely independent ideologies.

You asked if you are not cut out for non-hierarchical poly. I honestly don’t have an answer for you. It is much too early in this journey for you to even know that. What I can answer for you is that you need more time. You are in no way depriving him from his other relationship by establishing your own boundaries over the space you own. It is merely time for him to respect your space.

Like I said earlier, the core issue at hand isn’t whether or not you can do non-hierarchical polyamorous relationship.

It isn’t even about whether or not you can do polyamorous relationships.

It is about whether or not you can do a relationship with him.

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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