Some of my thoughts of hierarchy and polyamory

As I think I’ve mentioned before, I’m a member of a private, local, poly facebook group. It has almost 600 members now, and though a lot of the poly people I know are members, it does not contain all of them (nor does it contain the partners or ex-partners of everyone), and is predominantly heterosexual and bisexual, so it is still but a sampling of the poly population in this city.

A few days ago, or more than a few days ago (time is very relative for me right now), there was a discussion about hierarchy in polyamory. Hierarchy generally refers to the practice of having usually one, but sometimes more than one, partner that one tends to hold above others. New partners are “secondary,” and in a lot of hierarchical relationships, there is no option given to advance from a secondary role to a primary one. Often these relationships have rules, which is another point of contention. Some people like this, some people understand it but don’t do it, and some people think it is a fundamentally unethical and unhealthy way to conduct polyamorous relationships.

This was my contribution to the thread:

I have lots of thoughts and feelings on this, but I have to be at work in 27 minutes and that includes a 12 minute walk. Hierarchy is something I think about a lot, because I am someone whose primary love language is to want to provide a home and safe space for others. I’ve done less entangled relationships and greatly enjoyed them, and those relationships I think are consistent with what we refer to as “Secondary” relationships. I cared for those people deeply, but for compatibility or general life goal reasons, we decided not to aim for building an enmeshed life together, and for me, that limits the full range of my ability and desire to love and express my love for someone.

I do however have two partners that I am working toward making a home for, and I refer to them as my “Primary” partners. I enjoy planning for a joint future, and I’m hoping that someday the three of us can raise children together. There’s a lot to work out and it remains to be seen how stable this configuration will be, and yes, sometimes I see signs of the traits that are why people think monogamy and hierarchical poly are fundamentally unhealthy, but I’m hoping over time we will work past them on own them and figure out how to make them less destructive forces in our lives.

We have a small handful of rules (in sum: safer sex rules and also an agreement that we will always tell each other that a new sexual or romantic connection/interaction has happened with someone, but there is no rule as to how much detail must be provided), but I’m not sure they are really rules. They are areas of behavior conduct that we realized we might not fundamentally, instinctually agree upon, so we sat down and came up with some guidelines that worked for all of us, so we would know what would not upset our partners in certain areas without having to call up everyone and go “So, I want to have sex with this person, and they were last tested on __, do I need to use a condom? Is oral sex without a barrier ok?”

So I see our triad (romantic V technically, I guess) as not quite a rules based organization, but an enmeshment based one. And I fully recognize that enmeshment can be healthy, and it can be unhealthy. My goal is not to restrict my partner’s lives but to create a safe space where they can grow as individuals and feel loved and supported, and one of my partners says often that I have helped him develop the confidence to pursue other people.

I don’t believe that everyone necessarily needs a primary, enmeshed, romantic life partner. But I do think it is nice to have people in your life who have been there for a while, who know a lot about you and who you can count on when things go rough, and also when things are awesome and you need to celebrate. Those people don’t have to be your romantic partners, if you have any, but I’ve never developed close platonic relationships, so I’ve chosen to conflate the two.

What is marriage?

Ember, Catalyst, and I all have different views about what marriage is and what it means, and though I know this, I’m still surprised to learn new little nuances about their views.

My view on marriage is a very divided one. There’s legal marriage, there’s social marriage, and then there’s the actual relationship, and they can be packaged together or they can be separated out. For me, legal marriage holds very little emotional weight in and of itself, and I think of it really as just a contract that in our society comes along with a lot of benefits that we have learned to expect from long term romantic partners (or from the process of ending something we expected would be long term). Ember aligns with me here, whereas Catalyst puts a lot of weight on the marriage contract, and honestly, on contracts and laws and things like that in general. He’s the sort of person who pretty much always reads the document before he signs it.

I have a bit of trouble talking about the difference between social marriage and the relationship, and I think that’s because to me, being married is a social role, and the biggest (only?) difference between a marriage and a long term committed relationship that has not been labelled a marriage, is the set of labels that they’re using. Whether they announce to people that they are married or not, there are certain relationships where based on the way they act toward each other, and the way they integrate their partner into their lives, and how they expect those around them to think about their partner, people effectively consider them married.

And that is why, to me, marrying more than one person seems feasible, because it’s all about the relationship, the commitment, and the social declaration. The legal marriage contract does not mean a lot to me, except as a tidy package of useful benefits. And many of the benefits I care about (but unfortunately not all of them), we can draw up our own contracts for anyway, without getting legally married.

That is also why for me, if two people are legally married, but between them they have decided the relationship is over, and especially if they have also publicly declared that their marriage is over, then it doesn’t really mean much to me that they’re still legally married.

Nobody wins in Polyamory

There are no winners or losers in polyamory, at least, there shouldn’t be. Relationships aren’t games.

But it’s hard not to try keeping score. It’s hard not to look at certain situations and identify people who clearly seem to be benefiting more from a relationship than the other participants.

You can take a look at things from my, Ember, or Catalyst’s perspectives, and see ways in which we might seem to have advantages over one or both of the other two, but I don’t know that you can really say who is getting the most benefit out of this relationship. It would be easy to say that I do, given that I have two “primary” partners, but the situation has so many nuances and complexities.

And when one of us suffers, when one of us is feeling like their needs aren’t being met sufficiently, we’re all affected.

Ember recently came and went for a brief weekend visit, and on the last night we had some unexpectedly heavy conversation initiated by Catalyst. I’m left feeling a bit shaken, but the only option that makes sense to me is to keep going on. This year will be full of many important steps for us; lots of test phases that will give us some real information about whether or not this can be sustainable.

Times like this I admit I have trouble explaining why we’re putting ourselves through this, except to say that I still believe that it has so much potential to go very well for all three of us.