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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?

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