Everything I Got Wrong About Hierarchical Polyamory

I’ve been thinking about this for a very long time now, and writing this post on and off for a couple of few weeks months as new thoughts occur to me. I’ve had this blog for six and a half years now (!) and, perhaps unsurprisingly, I don’t feel the same way about some subjects as I did at the beginning of my sex writing journey. One of those subjects is hierarchical polyamory.

I’m not saying I got everything wrong, necessarily. I still stand by my original assertion that a complete lack of any kind of agreements or structure in relationships sounds incredibly stressful to me. But I was definitely coming at many aspects of the subject from a place of unaddressed trauma, deep unhealed wounds, and a hell of a lot of anger that coloured my perception. I definitely got a lot wrong.

I’m a few years older now and I’ve had a fucktonne of therapy, got to know myself a lot better, and spent countless hours deconstructing and reimagining basically everything I thought I knew about sex, relationships, love, and – yes – polyamory.

So what did I get wrong, and what do I believe now?

There’s Such a Thing as Too Much Control

When I first started out in polyamory, way back in the Dark Ages of early 2009, it seemed that virtually everyone in the polyamorous community was operating in the primary/secondary structure. Under this system, one partner (very occasionally more than one, such as in the case of “co-primaries”) is designated as “primary”, and all others are “secondary.” The primary partner typically has some level of control over their partner’s external relationships, and may be afforded certain privileges that secondaries are not. Back in the day, some even went as far as to designate some partners as “tertiary” – what we might now call a comet partnership or friend-with-benefits. I rarely see “tertiary” used any more, though the primary/secondary structure is still used by some.

My nesting partner, Mr C&K, and I stopped using the term “primary” to describe our relationship a few years ago, but not because our importance to each other had lessened. We simply found that it no longer conveyed the reality of how we wanted to operate in our polyamorous dynamic. (And he got there before I did!) Specifically, we no longer wanted to operate under a lot of rules that stressed us out, likely disenfranchised our other partners, and didn’t even achieve what they were designed to achieve. (More on this last point later…)

At one time, I believed that it was appropriate for a primary partner or spouse to set pretty much any rules and restrictions they wanted on their partner’s external relationships. That is largely because my first (and for a long time, only) exposures to polyamory were almost entirely to this type of dynamic. When proponents of non-hierarchical versions of polyamory did show up in our community media landscape, they were generally in the “fuck my partners’ needs, I do what I want” school of thought that is now sometimes called Relationship Libertarianism. Not exactly a glowing recommendation.

My long-term ex and his wife had a lot of rules, many of them subject to arbitrary changes, and a veto agreement[*]. Pretty much everyone I dated had a list of rules and limitations, ranging from “I have to love my primary the most” to “I’m only allowed to see you once a month.” And so, thinking this was how it was done and being the inexperienced newbies in our polyamorous network, my “primary” boyfriend at the time and I followed suit.

I carried this belief forward, operating on the basic assumption that a primary or spouse would – should – always get final say on any aspect of an external relationship. If they say no, it’s no. If they say yes, they can revoke that permission at any time and for any reason. I do not believe that any more. In fact, I now think that that kind of dynamic is likely to be deeply harmful to everyone involved. I also think that veto, specifically, is inherently abusive in almost all situations, whether it’s actually used or simply held over someone’s head as a potential threat.

I now believe that it is entirely possible for a partner to have too much control over their partner’s external relationships, and that this is something we must take care to avoid. It is this control that ultimately defines how hierarchical a relationship is, or if it is hierarchical at all (more on that shortly.)

[*] Veto: when someone can order their partner to end or deescalate another relationship at any time and expect that they will comply. Veto is usually a clumsy tool used to access a sense of security and safety – “if this all gets too much I have a kill-switch.” It is also generally considered extremely cruel, deeply unethical, and highly unlikely to achieve the desired effect of managing jealousy and building security.

Considering Your Partner’s Feelings and Needs is Not Control

With that said, it’s important to draw a clear distinction between considering your partner’s (or partners’) feelings and needs in the decisions you make, and allowing them to control your actions. Nothing we do exists in a vacuum, and part of loving people is considering them in the things we do and the ways that we operate in the world. This is one of the reasons I believe that relationship agreements and personal/interpersonal boundaries are so important: they allow us to show up consistently for one another and balance independence/autonomy with interdependence/mutual care in all of our relationships and as members of a polycule, network, or community.

This line isn’t always easy to draw, though. What seems like arbitrary control can actually be a good-faith attempt to get a need met, and what seems like an effort to care for a partner emotionally can actually be the result of control.

Let’s take a hypothetical example: your partner has a dramatic emotional meltdown every time you go out on a date. Eventually, you cancel all your dates and break up with your other partner(s) because this behaviour is just too stressful to deal with.

In this hypothetical example, control is taking on the slightly more subtle form of emotional manipulation. But it’s still control, even if it doesn’t look like slamming down a veto and saying “I forbid you to go on dates.” It’s very possible – even probable – that the person having the emotional meltdowns is doing so due to some unmet need, deep fear or insecurity, trauma, or some combination thereof. They deserve to have these needs and feelings addressed and cared for, and in a healthy non-monogamous relationship it is actually very possible to achieve that without them needing or being permitted to control their partner’s other relationships.

What might caring for your partner’s feelings look like in this situation, without allowing yourself to be manipulated or your other relationship(s) to be controlled? It might look like some of the following[**]:

  • Providing verbal affection and reassurance to your partner before/after a date
  • At a separate time, talking and processing with your partner to help them get to the bottom of their difficult feelings and work through them
  • Consistently telling your partner the truth (it can be tempting to falsely downplay other connections to make an insecure partner feel better. Don’t. This will bite you later when they realise you’ve been hiding the truth from them.)
  • Sticking to any relationship agreements the two of you have made
  • Planning a nice date or some one-to-one quality time with your partner to ensure they feel loved and special
  • Giving your partner plenty of affection, positive reinforcement, and focused time consistently and regularly. Ironically, this can be particularly important for nested couples (i.e. don’t rely on “we live together so you see me all the time” to carry your relationship in lieu of quality time together.)
  • Going to therapy with your partner to work through the worries and insecurities that are coming up for them
  • If you live and/or coparent together, making sure that your partner also has free time away from the home, children, and other responsibilities to do the things that matter to them (whether that’s going on their own dates, seeing their friends, doing hobbies, or just playing video games)

Considering how your actions impact your partner and caring for them emotionally isn’t a sign of being controlled. It’s a sign of being a good partner. Knowing the difference isn’t always easy, and the former can slip in via the backdoor of the latter. But with good communication, love, compassion, emotional intelligence, and strong personal boundaries on both sides, you can take care of each other without controlling each other.

[**] All of this is assuming that you and your partner have both consented to a polyamorous/non-monogamous relationship. Poly-under-duress is a whole different thing and not something you should either tolerate or do to another person.

If Control is Necessary to Get Your Needs Met, Something Has Gone Wrong

It’s fair to say that a few years ago, I was desperate for any semblance of a sense of control I could get my hands on. After years with my abuser, I’d felt so utterly out of control for so long that I just needed predictability and stability more than anything. So, because that was the model I’d seen and emulated for so long, I thought the way to get those things was to place a lot of rules and restrictions on external relationships outside of my nesting partnership.

The problem is that polyamory does not work like that. Neither does security. I still value stability and security in relationships highly, but those things come from having partners who value your relationship and honour their commitments to you, not partners who will capitulate to any arbitrary restrictions you set.

Security comes from knowing and feeling deeply that your partners love and value you. It does not come from partners who will agree not to have sex with anyone else in the Reverse Pile Driver position[***] because that’s our position, damnit! And it certainly doesn’t come from being able to unilaterally force your partner to break up with someone else they love.

I never did the veto thing personally, but I’ve known a lot of people who do and have. It never leaves anything but pain and destruction in its wake. In fact, the most common outcome I’ve seen when a veto is slammed down is that the primary couple breaks up over it – maybe immediately, or maybe after months or years of the simmering resentment it causes.

Looking back with the knowledge and (relative) wisdom I have now, I think one of the reasons I was formerly so (relatively) uncritically in favour of hierarchical dynamics is that I’d fallen into a really unhealthy pattern of believing that strict rules were the only way I could get my needs met. Because that’s what I’d witnessed again and again.

After coming out of an abusive relationship, and other dynamics that don’t rise to the level of abuse but were certainly neglectful and unkind, I had absolutely no idea how to go about getting my needs met in a relationship. Talking to those partners hadn’t worked. Begging them to please listen to me and give a damn about my feelings hadn’t worked. Eventually becoming unbalanced and hysterical and “crazy” because I felt so profoundly unheard and gaslit hadn’t worked. And no, trying to set rules hadn’t worked either. Nothing would have worked, because those partners did not love me and want to treat me well.

It has taken years of self-work, and of building a secure base in a safe and stable relationship, to truly internalise these two important messages that I now take forward into all my relationships:

  1. My feelings and needs in any given relationship, and my partner’s needs and feelings, are equally important and deserve to be equally heard and honoured
  2. If a partner loves me, they will make a good faith effort to meet my needs in a relationship as long as doing so doesn’t harm them or anyone else. If they don’t love or care about me, no amount of rules and restrictions can compel them to do so.

Ultimately, you cannot compel your partner to treat you well with giant lists of “thou shalt not”s. A partner who wants to love you and honour your relationship will do so. A partner who doesn’t will find a way to loophole their way around any rules you set down or agreements you make, anyway… if they don’t just flagrantly break them.

Next time you think about making a restrictive rule, ask yourself what purpose it is intended to serve. If it’s intended to address an unmet need or eliminate an insecurity, ask yourself if there aren’t better ways to get those things.

There’s a reason I now have a print on my office wall that reads I am the one thing in life I can control.

[***] Actually a thing, though I am not convinced it is physically possible.

Legislating Your Way Around Difficult Feelings Doesn’t Work

Another common reason people give for having exhaustive lists of rules is “because I’d feel too jealous [sad/scared/lonely/insert difficult emotion here] if my partner did that thing.”

And I get it, I really do. None of us want to feel those types of feelings! They suck! Jealousy, in particular, can feel like the absolute worst. It’s visceral, physical, painful, often overwhelming in its intensity. But here’s the thing: you can’t actually legislate yourself (or your partners) out of feeling things you don’t want to feel. It’s also healthy, normal, and human to feel difficult feelings sometimes. Yes, including that j-word that so many polyamorous folks are so terrified of.

If you’re using the most strict and stringent form of hierarchy to avoid difficult feelings, I’d also challenge you to consider this: are you in fact outsourcing the experience of difficult feelings to someone else?

What do I mean by that? For example, let’s say you have made a rule that says your partner cannot say “I love you” to anyone else, because that privilege is reserved for you alone. In creating a sense of security for yourself by keeping expressions of love exclusive to you, you have potentially created a situation in which your partner feels forced to repress their emotions and your metamour(s) feel unloved and undervalued because the person they’re dating cannot express love to them. All so that you don’t have to confront the insecurity behind the fear behind the rule. Is that fair? I don’t think it is.

It’s also not fair to you, by the way! Tremendous personal growth can come from confronting and deconstructing difficult feelings. And trying to legislate them away, then police the keeping of those rules, will actually just stress you out and drive you mad. Forbidding someone from expressing something also doesn’t stop them from feeling it, but that’s a whole other conversation.

I’m not saying that you can never object to something in a partner’s other relationship, of course. If you see a legitimate issue in how your partner is being treated or if you are being directly negatively impacted, you should raise it. That saying about not setting yourself on fire to keep someone else warm applies here. But I am saying that outsourcing feeling bad (“Your other partner must feel unloved so that I can feel secure”) is deeply unfair. In other words, don’t set your partners or metamours on fire to keep yourself warm.

Priority and Hierarchy Are Not Synonymous

The more I think about it, the more I realise that this is probably the crux of the issue. I think this is one of the key things that our community most often misunderstands and mixes up when it comes to this issue. It’s likely the reason we have been having the same “hierarchy: good or bad?” circular debate in the community for at least a decade. It’s also the reason I think that’s the wrong question to be asking.

When I used to say that I needed hierarchy, what I actually meant was that I needed to be secure in the fact that I was (and would remain) a priority to my partner.

When people advocate for an anti-hierarchy stance, it can sound like (and occasionally even is) another way of saying “you have to treat any new partner exactly the same as your spouse right out of the gate.” Which is, objectively, utterly ridiculous. In my experience, very few people actually believe this is a reasonable, sensible, or even possible thing to attempt. But relationships looking different from one another – based on their longevity, level of seriousness or entanglement, all kinds of factors from geographical distance to childrearing, and just what the people in them want – isn’t hierarchy. (We’ll delve into this in more depth in the next section.)

When we don’t deconstruct and understand the difference between priority and hierarchy, a non-hierarchical approach can also sound like “placing a high priority on your existing relationship(s) is bad.” There is, unfortunately, a vocal subsection of the polyamory community that has successfully pushed this narrative to the point that people believe taking their existing partners into consideration when making decisions is Bad, Actually. I do not believe this. I think this is ridiculous. Relationships need to be given a consistent level of priority in order to survive and thrive.

But hierarchy isn’t about priority. We all have different priorities in our lives. If you have children, they are likely your number one priority much of the time. People with jobs or businesses sometimes have to prioritise our work over everything else, because if we don’t keep our employers and clients happy, we get fired or don’t get paid. There are times when our number one priority might be a sick family member, a friend going through a crisis, a pet, a university programme, our own physical or mental health, a time-sensitive project, or any of a vast array of other things. But prioritising any of those things at a given time would never lead us to say “I am in a hierarchical relationship with [this aspect of my life.]”

It is also generally assumed that priorities are not necessarily entirely fixed. They shift and change according to circumstances. If I’m working on a deadline, that project is my priority until it’s submitted. If I’m on a date with a partner, that partner is my priority for that pocket of time. And if there’s an emergency, dealing with that is likely to supersede doing fun things in the immediate aftermath. None of these things imply hierarchy. They just imply… being a person who is able to manage different pulls on my time and energy along with my own and others’ wants and needs.

What I’m trying to get to here is that hierarchy is not, ultimately, about priority. Hierarchy is about power.

In what I now define as a hierarchical relationship, one partner has a level of control and influence that is not afforded to others outside of that designated “core couple.” An example might be “I need permission from my husband to have a date with my boyfriend, but not the other way around.” It might also imply a situation in which the wants of one person always come before the needs of another, such as “my date with my wife comes before my boyfriend’s medical emergency because my wife is my primary.”

It’s appropriate to give a high level of priority in your life to a person or people with whom you have built a long-term relationship, and to the agreements and commitments you have within those relationships. It’s appropriate not to move your brand new sweetie into your house, not to give your new metamour co-parenting rights to your children, and to make sure the mortgage is paid before splashing out on extravagent dates. Exercising fair and proportionate prioritisation in your life is not the same as automatically disempowering or placing unilateral limitations on anyone else you or your partner dates. In other words, it’s not hierarchy.

Want an example of what this looks like in practice?

“My spouse and I have a standing date night every Thursday, so I’m not usually available on that day, though I can occasionally move things around for really special occasions or emergencies.” = Priority, not hierarchy

“My spouse says I’m only allowed to see you once a week and it has to be while they’re at work.” = Hierarchy

“My nesting partner just got laid off and money for rent is tight, so unfortunately I can’t afford to go on a date to that fancy restaurant right now.” = Priority, not hierarchy

“My nesting partner has a rule that I can’t go to that restaurant with anyone else because sushi is our thing.” = Hierarchy

If I’m dating someone, I want to be treated as a priority to them. Not necessarily the top priority, and certainly not all of the time, but a priority nontheless. And they, of course, will also be a significant priority to me. But if no-one has power over anyone else? That is, by definition, not a hierarchy. And I do not want to be in relationships or polycules where anyone holds or wields power over anyone else.

Different Types of Relationships Aren’t Hierarchy, Either

Another thing that drives me mad about the hierarchy discourse is the assumption that to remove hierarchy is to have all relationships look the same. This is – as we touched upon above – impossible, unrealistic, undesirable to almsot everyone, and would be absolutely maddening to even attempt in practice.

All relationships look different. Even if I were dating identical twin siblings[****], had started dating them both at exactly the same time, and did all the same activities with each of them, the relationships would still be different. Because they are different people.

People want different things out of relationships. Not every relationship is well-suited to nesting, sharing finances, or raising children together, just as every relationship isn’t well-suited to being a casual “we’ll see each other and have sex once in a blue moon” situation. And the same is also true of every single possible place on the vast spectrum in between these two extremes. Connections, dynamics, and desires will be different with every person you are in relationship with. Not only is this normal, it is – in my opinion – one of the most beautiful things about polyamory.

It is my firm belief that one of the biggest sources of misery I see in polyamory is caused by people trying to force relationships into structures they’re not suited to. And this applies both ways: trying to force naturally-casual relationships to be serious, and trying to force naturally-intense relationships to be casual. It’s easy to fall into this trap if you think that removing hierarchy means that your relationships all have to operate in the same way.

I think most of us accept the concept that we have different types of relationships with our friends and family members. For example, you might have the friend you go on wild nights out with, the sibling you binge-watch Netflix with, the friend you tell all your deepest darkest secrets to, and the cousin who rocks up in town once a year at Christmas and whom you don’t talk to much in between. Why, then, is it such a stretch to believe that we also have many different types of relationships with our partners and lovers?

My relationship with one partner isn’t more or less valuable because we do or don’t share a mortgage, have children together, or make joint decisions about what colour to paint the bathroom. It’s just different. Because ultimately, the value of my relationships comes not from the external trappings, but from the people involved and the unique and beautiful ways in which we connect, share time and space and energy, and show up for each other with love.

[****] Which I obviously never would, but you’d be amazed at how often “is it weird to be metamours with your sibling?” comes up as a question in the polyamory groups. I’m making an executive ruling on this: you do you but yes, it’s weird.

“But What If Both Your Partners Were Dying at the Same Time?”

I saw a post in a polyamory group recently that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about, and it was one of the catalysts for revisiting and finally finishing this piece. Paraphrased slightly from memory, it said this: “I love my boyfriend and husband absolutely equally and we don’t have a hierarchy but, if they were both on their deathbeds at the same time, I would be with my husband absolutely no question.”

When monogamous people ask me which of my partners I love the most, they get frustrated when I reject the premise of the question. I don’t believe in talking about who I love “more”. I don’t know how I would even begin to quantify that! They then try to come up with elaborate hypotheticals to “trick” me into answering the original question. If I allow this conversation to go on long enough, it will usually wind up in roughly the same place as the post I referenced above: “If they were both/all dying at the same time, who would you be with?”

Setting aside, for a second, the sheer unlikeliness of this scenario ever occuring in reality. The assumption is that, when all comes down to brass tacks, we want to be placed above and before everyone else in our partners’ lives. And I feel like this is a sad misunderstanding of what polyamory can be when it works at its best.

If an emergency were happening for both me and my metamour at the same time, I would hope that our shared partner would make an effort to support and be there for both of us in whatever ways were possible and made sense. And, partially because we’re polyamorous, we have a big extended support network who can also step in and offer love and care to whoever is going through a crisis.

I don’t want a polycule that’s a competitive power struggle for limited resources. I want a polycule that’s a committed to the health and happiness of all its members. My metamours aren’t my competition for the one and only spot of “Top Dog”. They are my teammates in the quest of making the amazing person we both love happy.

What Do I Still Believe About Hierarchical Polyamory?

Phew, that got long, didn’t it? So after all this, after all the things I no longer believe about hierarchical polyamory, what do I believe now?

I think when we talk about hierarchical polyamory, we have to be very clear what we are talking about. Do I think it is ever okay for someone who is outside of a relationship – including another partner or metamour – to have as much or more control over it than the people within it? No, I do not.

However, I don’t think that means we have to default to absolutely structureless, boundary-free chaos, either. It’s perfectly possible to build relationships and polyamorous networks with structures and agreements that work to meet everyone’s needs without disempowering or disenfranchising any members.

I also think that what some people might term “rules” can be perfectly fine and even healthy, up to a point (I’ve written more about this on a couple of occasions!) However, I also think that anything we could consider a sensible and ethical rule is probably more accurately called a relationship agreement since it should be flexible, adaptable to circumstances, renegotiable if necessary, and open to the input of everyone it affects.

As such, we all have a responsibility to behave with compassion, integrity, and to try to live up to our ethical standards. We also have to accept that we are all human, we make mistakes, and we deserve grace to learn, grow, and become the best possible versions of ourselves.

These days, if someone I’m interested in[*****] says that they have a hierarchical relationship, I’m going to be asking more questions rather than assuming I know what they mean. Does “my wife is my primary” mean that your wife is tremendously important to you, will always be a major priority in your life and that you’re not leaving her for anyone, or does it mean that your wife will be able to control how/if we can have sex or get the final say on whether we can even be in a relationship? Because those two things are wildly different. The first one is fine, even positive. Someone who has a track record of maintaining, nurturing, and honouring a long-term relationship is a huge green flag for dating! (Though I might gently encourage you to reconsider the hierarchical language in this case, as many experienced poly people will be put off by it.) The second is an instant dealbreaker.

So conclusions, if there are any to be drawn from all this? Fundamentally, I now believe two things:

  1. That the actions we take in polyamory impact not only ourselves but usually our partners, often our metamours, and sometimes our wider polycule or network. We all have a responsibility to be kind and thoughtful, to honour our agreements and commitments, to tell the truth, and to give each other space to make mistakes even as we’re doing our best.
  2. That nobody should be controlling a relationship that they are not in.

[*****] Extremely hypothetically, given that I’m very polysaturated with two partners and occasional casual encounters right now!

So Where Does This Leave Us?

This post is five thousand words long and comprises months of thinking and on-and-off writing, and I’m still not entirely sure how to wrap it up properly.

I guess all that remains to say is that I’m glad my thinking on this subject has evolved. It’s actually left me in a much happier and healthier place, better able to have positive relationships with my partners and metamours. It’s also improved my relationship with myself, started to heal some of my trust-based trauma, and allowed me to show up more fully and authentically for the people I love.

And for any incorrect and harmful ideas that appeared in my previous writings on this topic, I’m truly sorry.

My thanks go to Mr C&K for proofreading a draft of this post and offering his insights before publishing!

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