Hierarchy is just an assumption

Hierarchy is something that gets mentioned a lot when introducing people to polyamorous relationships. I remember very clearly speaking with one non-poly friend, telling her when I had met Boyfriend, and telling her that I thought he was really special. She got very serious and wanted to know, “That’s great, but Husband is still the most important, right?”

The answer to that is always, “It’s complicated.”

I understood her to mean she cared about me, about Husband, about our marriage and our life together, and for that reason she didn’t want to see me screw it all up because of some crush. She was operating within a framework where interests outside the marriage = threats, and her comment was intended to bring me back to safe ground.

Maybe the answer was more like: Of course, yes Husband is the most important. But he’s the most important for all kinds of reasons beyond his socially acceptable title of Husband. And that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for others to also be as important, regardless of title.

Hierarchy is deeply problematic, yet it is assumed in many poly relationships, especially when some of the people involved are married. Even though it is a relationship style practiced by those looking to break free of social expectations and remove themselves from the norm, there is a tendency to fall back on accepted modes of organizing their lives.

Hierarchy can resolve issues in advance by dictating things like “the marriage partner’s wishes always come first” – sure it can – but this type of solution can only be unsatisfying over time, even insulting. Is there really a reason to make sure a rule, rather than just communicate on a case by case situation and see what makes the most sense in order to get the most needs and desires met, regardless of title? If both Husband and Boyfriend want me to do something at the same time, shouldn’t I get to choose based on the situation which thing I want to do, whether I want to fill either need at all? If the rule was, Husband always comes first no matter what, wouldn’t Boyfriend end up feeling like a second class citizen in the relationship? I can’t imagine that ever feeling fair or right.

There are plenty of people who are fine with applying labels such as “primary” and “secondary” partner to their relationship roles, and I have no issue with that, so long as it’s conscious and voluntary. What I have a problem with is the assumption. It’s hard to describe or even explain in polite conversation, but sometimes I feel something unnamably wrong when someone refers to Boyfriend as my “secondary” partner – as though they are belittling the relationship because we aren’t married, something that always upset me before Husband and I were married and someone referred to him as “just” a boyfriend. Our relationship isn’t any less real, I want to say. Words either inflate or trivialize, and I wish they would just describe without doing either of those other things. But it seems awkward to correct people or go down this rabbit hole, so I usually don’t. Maybe I should.

How do you gently correct a well meaning person when they speak this way? Is it even my place or job to do so? Sometimes it’s better to just sigh and smile and move on, is this one of those times?

How do others handle the idea of hierarchy in their poly relationships?

Husband, and the relationship escalator

When I met Husband, I fell in love with him rather quickly. He was so patient, kind, caring, thoughtful and brilliant! He was unlike many of the other people I had dated, and I really didn’t have any desire to date other people during the beginning of that relationship. I think we were both consumed with NRE to the point where our friends wanted to all barf whenever we showed up together. I can’t really remember a lot about that year, other than we went everywhere, did everything together, and it wasn’t suffocating – it was wonderful. We spent all that time together because we chose to and we enjoyed it. We positioned ourselves as being up for anything, and open to anything. Nothing was forbidden between us. But, like many in the beginnings of an intense young relationship, we found ourselves on the Relationship Escalator.

For those unfamiliar with this term: The relationship escalator refers to the socially acceptable, expected escalation of a relationship, through ordered stages such as: meet-cute, casual dating, have sex, “going steady” and monogamous commitment (usually the point where you “claim” and label each other and start using terms like “boyfriend” and doing annoying stuff like assuming you should bring them with you wherever you go), moving in together and marriage, being a lifelong commitment. Some people consider buying a home and having children the end “goal” of the relationship, the end of the escalator, at which point you devote your lives to your kids, brainwash and indoctrinate them into whatever values you were raised with, and forget what fun sex was like.

If you do these steps out of order, you are officially “off the escalator” and there are usually real social consequences. If there aren’t, you will still be questioned about your choices. This social conditioning is deep. It covers everything from whether it’s ok to have sex on the first date (or whether it’s ok to wait a year before having sex!) to when you “should” move in with a partner, to whether you should freak out because you’ve been dating someone for a couple years and he/she hasn’t proposed yet.

I am sad to say that I found myself caught on the relationship escalator. I got really existential about what it “meant” if we moved in together before we got engaged. I got bent out of shape because we hadn’t decided whether to get married within a certain number of years together. I wondered if I had done something wrong, if I had somehow been the wrong kind of woman and broken too many rules and therefore would never get married and never have a family and and and


I want to cry when I think about how much pain and confusion I could have saved myself if I had been more familiar with the concept of the escalator – and had accepted that it is completely voluntary and needn’t apply to me. My marriage isn’t doomed because it took us several years to decide to do it, just as it isn’t doomed because we had sex on the first date!

All these rules are there because we’re afraid, I guess. And the escalator I’ve outlined above works really really well, for lots of people. Many happy marriages, happy homes and happy kids are produced. But I could never stand the idea that all these things, in this order, must be destiny, and I would be a failure of a human being if I didn’t hit all the steps at the right time.

I could also never stand the idea that any relationship that doesn’t end in marriage, kids and mortgage is a failure. Say I spent 6 months dating an awesome, interesting person, and it turned out we didn’t want the same things, so we hugged and said goodbye, but they taught me a lot about human nature and I had tons of fun with them – this is a failure? I don’t buy it. I’m just too logical. It all depends on what your goals are in any given interaction.

Back to Husband. We were on that escalator, without really questioning it. We married and lived together and were mostly happy. Somewhere, though, I felt like I had given up a lot of things about myself and my life that I missed. I missed dating a lot. I missed meeting new people and the excitement of that. I missed the romance that brings with it. And at some point I realized, I was kind of letting myself go. I wasn’t trying so hard. I wasn’t dressing as nice, I wasn’t going out of my way to be romantic myself, even as I grumped that he wasn’t as thoughtful or romantic for me anymore. Typical complaints of a marriage, or any LTR, maybe, but they felt huge to me. I had been pondering if I wanted children, but something inside me rebelled, said, you aren’t done here yet, you haven’t really explored everything yet.

I was reading a little about polyamory back then. This was several years ago. As I read I recognized a lot about these other relationship styles that reminded me of my own philosophies to dating in the past. I realized there was another way to be married and be happy. And I realized that there was this relationship escalator thing, and I had a choice. I was on it, but I could get back off. I could step back and think about what direction to take. I wouldn’t be the first or last to do it. And to my relief, I realized it didn’t mean I had to break up a wonderful marriage or destroy anything I loved – I could build new things right beside what I already had.

Studying the concept of the escalator and really thinking about it, examining my own steps along the way – this really saved me. It saved my marriage, saved me from making big choices for the wrong reasons.

There is more written now, more blogs, more books, that there was a few years ago when I was seeking answers, and I am so truly happy about that. And very much enjoying our loving, meandering path away from the escalator.

A big part of curbing the tyranny of the escalator is simply to acknowledge that it exists, that it is a matter of choice, and that there are other valid choices. Ultimately substance, not structure, should be what determines the success or value of any intimate relationship.

— solopoly, “Riding the relationship escalator (or not)”

What is polyamory?

Here’s a dictionary definition, from Wikipedia:
“Polyamory (from Greek πολύ poly, “many, several”, and Latin amor, “love”) is the practice, desire, or acceptance of intimate relationships that are not exclusive with respect to other sexual or intimate relationships, with knowledge and consent of everyone involved. It may or may not include polysexuality (attraction towards multiple genders and/or sexes).”

For me, the definition that resonates most is this one: “Consensual, ethical, responsible non-monogamy.”

Seems simple and to the point, but within that definition is contained a lot of rules, effort and work for anyone involved.

For something to be ethical, it must be consensual. For something to be ethical and consensual, it must be discussed, honestly, openly and among equals. Those involved must know what they are getting into, agree to it freely, without coercion of any kind, without emotional blackmail or fear of reprisals.

Polyamory is something I’ve always felt made logical sense, since before I ever heard the term. When I was young, I recall being confused by television plots that hinged on someone getting suicidally or homicidally upset by their boyfriend or girlfriend dating someone else behind their back. Why not just talk about it? I wondered.

In college, I always dated multiple people. I would go on dates and quite early on (like maybe before the main course arrived but after the salad?) I’d ask, So, how many people are you dating right now? It seemed to me a matter of basic respect that I would not assume they didn’t have other stuff going on, just as it was a matter of basic respect that they should tell me honestly if I asked. Often, this question seemed to take people back. Some friends applauded my blunt approach and others cautioned me not to ask questions like that because it would “send the wrong message” but it always worked for me. I believed (and still do) that it sends the accurate message that I value blunt honestly above pretty much all else; that I wouldn’t make assumptions but that you shouldn’t, either.

I can’t recall when I first learned the term “polyamory” but it was probably some time in college. I was involved in BDSM, sex education, assorted sex-positive clubs, parties, communities etc. Still, I didn’t start really identifying as such for some time, because it was so hard for me to understand why a “poly” life needed identifying, why most people wouldn’t just admit that they had emotional needs that went beyond whatever one person they were dating, why so many insist on denying that about themselves and their partners, and why so few people seem to take the time to have open discussions with their partners about what they want, what boundaries they will agree to, what they want out of their relationships.

To me, “poly” is a kind of shorthand for a type of highly conscious relationship-building. It indicates a high standard of honestly, forthrightness, a willingness to communicate a lot, and an ability to look at oneself in relation to others with an occasionally cold, analytical gaze.

It is also, despite several years of semi-incidental monogamy in my past, pretty much the only way I understand how to have relationships.

(How two highly conservative, monogamous, married, straight hetero parents produced me, I have no idea. It probably has something to do with all the fantasy and sci-fi books they left all over the house.)