Advice – How can I manage a transition from a secondary relationship to a co-primary relationship?

“I am a woman who has been married to my husband for many years and has been dating my boyfriend for a little over a year. We are (at least theoretically) non-hierarchical; they are both life-partner level people for me. While I’m not open to seeing others, they are both free to have relationships with others but neither has anything serious right now.

Before quarantine, I spent maybe 60% of my time with my husband and 40% with my boyfriend, but it has now become clear how much of my boyfriend time was related to other things – primarily my own work/travel (we live in opposite suburbs of a big city, I have to travel to his side often and would always stay with him then) and my husband being busy with a lot of hobbies. This whole situation also just really highlighted that while our situation felt pretty equitable on the surface, it favored my husband in many underlying ways. Some of these are just part of the situation and will never change (marriage brings a lot of legal benefits!) but I do want to change what I can.

The most obvious thing to me is to set up an actual schedule to split time between them. My boyfriend is moving soon and wants me to help set up, so I think that’ll make me feel like I’m a real resident of his place.

Has anyone else done this? Can you tell me about it? What were the things that really made things feel more equal? Any speed bumps along the way I can keep an eye out for?”

Listen Y’all on /r/polyamory.

Photo by Helena Lopes on Pexels.com

Dear Listen Y’all,

It sounds like you are making some strides to ensure that your theoretically non-hierarchical polyamorous relationship is becoming a more practical one! It is so good to hear that you’re using this particular time of immense stress to recognize and amend what appears unbalanced in your own relationships.

I did post a write-up of ethical practice of hierarchical polyamorous relationships about four months ago as well as two advice posts about hierarchies – one from five months ago and the other from six months ago – that might be worth a gander for you. As you can see, recognizing and deconstructing hierarchies is a pretty common problem in non-hierarchical polyamory. It is also something I am constantly and personally vigilant about in my own personal practice of non-hierarchical polyamory.

In this post, I won’t spend too much time defining what hierarchies are. You deserve better than Poly 101. Instead, I’ll dedicate most of this post to outline a process you can implement to even your relationships out a bit more.

Photo by lehandross on Pexels.com

The first step is to recognize and identify what hierarchies and privileges each of your relationship experiences.

Some descriptive hierarchies are natural developments of any healthy long-term relationships. As you mentioned, your marriage to your husband brings a lot of inherent privileges that you both get to enjoy through the legal protection of marriage. Also, since you’ve been together for many years before, you two have had an opportunity to forge a strong connection over the years that is physically represented in the home you two quarantine together. These types of advantages naturally develop over time and for good reason. Think of it this way. Through the years of connection you’ve built with your husband, you two have been able to develop a fundamental and sound level of trust that has stood the test of time over and over again. So of course that trust has manifested in various privileges you two enjoy and share together.

In the past month, you have had an opportunity to see how the percentage of time spent (60% husband / 40% boyfriend) wasn’t ultimately as equitable as you’d like it to be. But time alone isn’t a great indicator of a specific hierarchy. I assume that you generally approach your relationships with the type of mindfulness in experienced polyfolks. That means you implicitly determined or explicitly declared the number of days per week / month you’d be spending with one or both partners.

There are also inherent and unique privileges that you get to enjoy with your boyfriend of one year as well. New Relationship Energy goes without saying. But I believe that there is something much more intricate about the way NRE plays out in new relationships. When you connect with someone new, you get to reforge and rediscover various aspects about yourself in the context of the relationship with this new person. That is not something that you can often get to do when you are in an old relationship.

Once you have figured out what kind of hierarchies and privileges you have, the next step is to determine what you want to do about them.

You implied that you currently live with your husband, but not with your boyfriend. For you, what does it mean to nest with a partner? If it is a specific hierarchy that only applies to your relationship with your husband, what kind of space can you and your boyfriend create so that you two can continue to expand and grow in your relationship together? If there are mutual friends who have had years of opportunity to connect with your husband, do you want those same folks to connect with your boyfriend as well?

Think about the advantages you currently enjoy with your boyfriend that you don’t get to enjoy with your husband. Living in a space away from your husband could allow for you two to build something anew. But it could also be an opportunity for you two to grow apart. How will you continue to be engaged with your husband and ensure that your respective insecurities do not cause too much harm to your marriage?

Photo by Jessica Gaudioso on Pexels.com

Third step of the process is to communicate your findings, intentions, and plans.

Your partners both deserve to know what level of emotional, physical, financial, and sexual engagement to expect from each of their respective relationships with you. Be open and vulnerable with them about what you discovered. Share what conclusions you’ve arrived to based on those findings. And verbally commit to a plan to de-escalate some aspects of your relationships with each of your partners while escalating others.

In specific, the verbal commitment to your plan will also hold yourself accountable to follow through on your intentions. Doing so will also give an opportunity for each of your partners to help you actualize those plans. Each of your partner should be able to see what you saw, arrive to the same conclusions, and support your personal as well as your relational growth.

Some parts of this is going to feel so wildly out of your comfort zone. We live in a society at a time where vulnerability is often seen as weakness. To that I say, why build trust if you aren’t willing to utilize that trust as a bridge to connect with others about the issues you feel vulnerable about? The discomfort in sharing in a vulnerable space is not because being vulnerable is bad. It’s because we aren’t used to often diving deep even with all the right diving equipments in hand.

All that remains is to follow through and mind the disconnects.

I believe that love need not be a zero sum game. You don’t necessarily need to de-escalate the entirety of your relationship with your husband to make sure that your boyfriend is standing on an fair and equitable playing level with your husband. But some aspects of your connections will have to change in order to make room for your boyfriend to represent the level of entanglement you want his relationship with you to represent. That means pre-emptive discussions about how this new realization impacts the long-term vision of your connection with your husband.

You asked about speed bumps to look out for. Some disconnects will be inevitable. Keep a close eye on your husband’s level of security in his relationship with you as these aspects of his marriage with you keep changing. Saying is one thing and doing is another. So be mindful about reconnecting when you anticipate or experience an emotional or sexual gaps. Also, pay a close attention to your boyfriend’s emotional involvement as you get more enmeshed. If you don’t already do so, do a weekly or a monthly check in with your boyfriend as you get more and more settled in the new space you two have created.

Things will be difficult. And sometimes your motives will be foggy. The kindest things you can do when you aren’t sure why you keep forging forward is to remind yourself that you are doing this for all the right reasons. Hope for the best, that logic will prevail.

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.

I want to hear your thoughts and feedback! Please feel free to send me your questions and comments at teatimetomato@gmail.com. If you liked my advice for this post, please follow me on Facebook and Twitter. You can also subscribe below to get alerted when my next advice column is published!

Advice – Prioritization in polyamorous relationships.

“I’ve been in a polyamorous relationship for almost 5 years. I was part of a hierarchical relationship as a secondary for the first year of that relationship. Initially it was fine. I wasn’t looking for anything serious. But the relationship evolved into much more and my partners primary relationship evolved too in a different, less romantic partnership. Hierarchical isn’t practiced anymore. There were times during that first year that were bumpy. It was my first poly relationship. I was interested in trying it out. I had to reframe my mind a bit from a monogamous mindset. But I realized I liked it because I felt freedom. I wasn’t suffocating. My custody arrangements have changed so that I now have my kids 80% of the time. This isn’t ideal for someone who wants to date multiple people. So I haven’t had the opportunity to form any solid relationships outside my current partners. So with that background in mind, I have this innate desire to feel like I’m prioritized in some way. Even though we aren’t hierarchical. Is this a monogamous mindset? Should I be working on that? Are there ways to feel that way, things that can be done to accomplish that within a polyamorous relationship? My partner does a lot of behind the scenes prioritization of me that I don’t see or hear…but sometimes I feel insecure when it “feels” like I’m not in certain situations. I know I could “understand” this more if I had more opportunities to date other people. So I’m trying to explore that feeling before broaching this more with my partner. Thoughts, advice?”

Runner Chick 0601 on /r/polyamory.

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on Pexels.com

Dear Runner Chick 0601,

Let’s first talk about priorities.

My advice to you greatly depends on how you personally define priority in your non-hierarchical polyamorous relationship. In general, priority is defined as a form of lenient privilege that one partner has over other partner(s). These priorities can be temporary (i.e. “I live with my nesting partner. So until you move in next month, I am going to continue to prioritize eating dinner at my home with my nesting partner over driving two hours into the city to eat dinners with you.”), implicit (i.e. “Janet is performing at the concert I want to attend. So I’m just going to go alone and meet Janet there after her performance.”), and/or exclusive (i.e. “Peter is the only person I consent to be fluid bonded / barrier-free with.”).

Priority is frequently used in the context of scarcity of resources in polyamorous relationships: time, space, and energy.

Priority of time means that one partner gets dibs on scheduling their plans with the shared partner, often in the absence of any other plans. Depending on how stringent this priority is, it can even be placed to override existing plans with other people.

Priority of space means that one partner gets dibs on a particular activity, a specific physical space, or even emotional commitment. In an earlier example, choosing to go see Janet at her concert would be considered an implicit prioritization of space. This type of prioritization can frequently be found in kink spaces or meetups in parallel polyamorous contexts.

Priority of energy is prioritization in the emotional, physical, financial, or sexual reserves available. So a priority of emotional energy could look a lot like, “I am currently going through a breakup with my other partner. So I need a little more of your emotional support while I get myself together.”

Not all priorities are inherently unhealthy.

There are bound to be implicit, descriptive hierarchies built into any long-term relationships that stand the test of time. Requesting priority, if done appropriately and respectfully, can sound a lot like communicating your needs, setting expectations, and assessing your followup scenarios.

Photo by Abby Kihano on Pexels.com

It sounds like your polyamorous relationship with your partner has gone through a lot of changes in the past five years. It sounds like the space you occupied in his life grew a lot in the first year as his relationship priorities shifted through his deepening connection to you. And I can see that you’re struggling with the varying degrees of that descriptive hierarchy and different levels of prioritization in his other relationship that make you feel insecure in your relationship with him.

Maybe the first place to start is to consider if this is a problem that needs fixin’. Are there aspects of your relationship with your partner that make you feel not as prioritized? And what about those experiences make you feel less secure in your relationship? Is that insecurity causing you any significant distress? Is that cause of insecurity something that you can address on your own or do you need to recruit help from your partner?

If you aren’t already familiar with the Five Love Languages, I also wrote about it in a previous column here. And based on what you’ve shared, it sounds like one of your primary love languages is in quality time. But due to your childrearing responsibilities, your time is already stretched thin. So take advantage of the quality one-on-one times you can find together and try to come into your experiences fully present together.

Photo by Matheus Bertelli on Pexels.com

I also want to talk a little bit about monogamy conditioning. I think a LOT of polyamorous folks get wrapped up in disentangling themselves from ALL of monogamy-related mindsets, as if it is the worst thing in the world. From what I have seen and experienced, ability to do monogamous or polyamorous relationships lie on a spectrum; there are many ambiamorous folks who can do one or the other by embracing that there are pros and cons to both ends of the spectrum.

That change in perspective could really benefit you as you assess your insecurities around prioritization. That innate desire to feel prioritized in your relationship is sound; it could come from your fears of abandonment, personal needs that are not being met, or even from how you are mentally comparing yourself to the relationship he has with his other partner. Take some time to consider each of those points and feel it out to see if they apply to you.

Last thing I’ll leave you off with is that there is always going to be a lot of that “behind the scenes prioritization” for any hinge partner. Part of what makes being a hinge partner so difficult is in managing and prioritizing each of their relationships in an appropriate and respectful way also while communicating appropriately – not too much and not too little. Since he is managing his relationship with you and his relationship with his other partner, those are two incredibly fine lines to toe.

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.

I want to hear your thoughts and feedback! Please feel free to send me your questions and comments at teatimetomato@gmail.com. If you liked my advice for this post, please follow me on Facebook and Twitter. You can also subscribe below to get alerted when my next advice column is published!

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.

Photo by Scott Webb on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Ravi Kant on Pexels.com

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.

Advice – How do I minimize hierarchy?

“tea cup” by Penrox Ko is licensed under CC0 1.0 

/u/Kase_maschine writes on /r/polyamory…

“I’m wondering for those who ventured into poly by “opening up” a mono marriage, how do you work with being poly yet minimize the hierarchy that can come with having a spouse/nesting partner?

We are not planning to enmesh living situations or finances with other partners, and are dating separately. I feel like this in itself already sets up a primary-secondary nature to all other partnerships. It hasn’t been a problem yet, but what are some discussions we could be having, boundaries or agreements to make, etc that could get me more cognizant of hierarchies that are present in this sort of relationship and ways to realistically minimize them?”

Dear Kase Maschine,

First step might be to recognize that there will always be some sort of hierarchy baked into each of your relationships. I talked a bit in a previous column about the difference between prescriptive and descriptive hierarchies. There are inherent prescriptive hierarchies built into modern marriage. Recognize that some of those are necessary part of that arrangement. Some non-hierarchical poly couples have considered just getting a divorce to make sure that everyone stands on even ground. So that could be an option for you as well, to further deconstruct your personal hierarchies. But I do recognize that getting a divorce to make your relationships more equal might be a very extreme option. So here is what I’ve arrived to.

In my own personal pursuit of non-hierarchical polyamory, I have decided to do my best to deconstruct explicit hierarchies to my best abilities, pursue fairness instead of equality, and leave the door open for further enmeshment with any and all of my partners.

Deconstructing explicit hierarchies means a complete rejection of rules designed to only protect the “primary” relationship. That means looking at all boundaries and agreements and doing a deep dive to determine the intention and purpose for each of those boundaries and agreements. Pursuing fairness instead of equality was a conscious and intentional development of mine.

I had to recognize that even despite my best efforts, I could not deconstruct all of my internal and external hierarchies. So instead of getting frustrated at what I could not accomplish, I strove for respectful and fair levels of enmeshment across different relationships. Different relationships feel differently for me. So I had to accept that my brand new relationships do not have to be as intimate and enmeshed, and that my old relationships do not have to be as passionate and sexual.

Lastly, I consciously left that door open for more enmeshment with each of my partner down the road. There is a minor but important difference between “not planning to enmesh” and “open to enmesh.” Former is a lack of conversation about enmeshment with others with a hint at an exclusive hierarchy to be enmeshed to your current spouse. Latter is a presence of a conversation about enmeshment not just with your spouse but also with your partners. Having an ongoing conversation with your partner about expectations regarding enmeshment would be a good start.

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I do feel that some level of enmeshment hierarchy is sensible. For example, if you are already completely enmeshed with your partner financially, then deciding to be financially enmeshed to your metamour could be a a very discomforting conjecture for you. If you do have such hierarchies or enmeshment, the best thing you can do is to communicate those hierarchies as early as reasonable so that everyone can make the most informed decisions regarding their respective emotional investments.

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.

I want to hear your thoughts and feedback! Please feel free to send me your questions and comments at teatimetomato@gmail.com. If you liked my advice for this post, please follow me on Facebook and Twitter. You can also subscribe below to get alerted when my next advice column is published!