Buckle in, folks. This has been a long time coming and it’s gonna be a long one.
Hierarchy is the subject du jour in current polyamorous discourse – mainly how it’s evil and we should avoid it. Polyamory educators I used to respect and admire have spoken out as being against hierarchical structures in general and on principle. And, okay – as with any information providers, I draw from the many pieces of their work I find useful and don’t worry too much about the rest.
But I’ve been feeling for quite a while that a major piece of the picture is missing from the conversation around hierarchy in polyamory. It has become somewhere between unfashionable and downright shun-worthy to tell “enlightened” polyamorous folks that you practice a hierarchical structure. The voices of people who have been hurt by hierarchy or power structures carelessly wielded have been amplified, which is a good and useful thing without a doubt. But the cost of this that the perspectives of people who are very happy within a hierarchical structure are drowned out, shouted down or ignored. I am here to provide one such perspective.
Firstly, what do we mean by hierarchy?
The dictionary defines hierarchy as ‘a system in which members of an organization or society are ranked according to relative status or authority.’ In polyamory, though, it’s more specific – polyamorous hierarchy refers to a structure in which one relationship, or one partner, is “Primary” and other relationships are “secondary,” “tertiary,” “non-primary,” or some other similar designation. Exactly what these words mean will vary between people who use them. Sometimes it’s as simple as “my Primary is the person I own property and raise children with,” and sometimes there are elaborate systems of rules with pages-long documents outlining them all.
My own structure falls somewhere between the two. Mr CK and I are Primary partners and we do have a written relationship agreement, although it’s quite short and I can’t remember the last time we actually needed to refer to it. We have a system of guidelines for acceptable behaviour and some hard-and-fast rules. Every rule or guideline we agree to abide by is thoroughly negotiated, everything applies absolutely equally to both of us (read more about why that’s important to us here,) and almost everything is open for renegotiation if necessary.
Why is hierarchy supposedly bad?
Like so many things, it’s bad when it’s misused and it can be wielded to cause harm. Some Primary couples certainly have a habit of running roughshod over secondary/non-primary partners’ feelings, needs and boundaries and asserting power in inappropriate ways. We’ll tackle the specifics later in “Towards Ethical Hierarchy.”
There are many examples of this – veto (also discussed later,) one partner in the Primary couple unilaterally closing down the relationship, messing secondaries around with plans and so on. These things happen. They’re shitty and they’re totally not okay. They’re examples of power imbalances used to deliberately cause harm or to get what one person wants at the expense of hurting someone (or someones) else. This is not ethical hierarchical polyamory.
The things is, non-hierarchical systems can also be abused. Relationship Anarchy (which I am not well qualified to talk about but you can read a basic definition here) is a perfectly fine ideology in theory, but how does it play out in practice? Often, like this:
“I’m a relationship anarchist which means I do what I want, when I want. If my partners are upset because I broke my commitments to them, that’s their fault for expecting me to keep my commitments.“
“I don’t have to consider your sexual health because I don’t believe in rules. By insisting on knowing my sexual health status you’re oppressing me.”
“Lies and cheating don’t exist in relationship anarchy.”
(Yes, I know, Not All Relationship Anarchists etc.)
Any healthy person must see that these statements do not make for happy, healthy and harmonious relationships. Instead they bash people over the head with ideological purity instead of allowing for the fact that people, real people, have needs and boundaries and deserve to have their intimate partners take those things seriously.
Throwing your partner’s feelings under the bus in the name of being The Most Polyamorous, having The Fewest Rules or being The Least Hierarchical is not actually ethical.
A major problem I have with so much of the current discourse around hierarchy is it seems to forget this one fundamental truth:
Not Getting What You Want Does Not Necessarily Mean Someone Else Did Something Wrong.
Say it again for those in the back: not getting what you want does not necessarily mean someone else did something wrong.
Take this hypothetical scenario: you got into a non-primary relationship with a married man, knowing he’d never leave his wife for you or offer you a nesting relationship… then, two years down the line, you decide you want to live with him (either with or without his wife.) If he repeats what he said earlier, “my wife and I do not want anyone else living with us, now or ever, and I have no interest in leaving my wife,” he’s not doing something wrong (and neither, it bears stating, is the wife in this hypothetical.) He’s stating their boundaries.
What would be wrong is if he’d said “you can probably live with us in a couple of years” at the beginning of your relationship, knowing full well this was never going to happen or was tremendously unlikely. Lying or omitting important information to get someone hooked in (also known as the “bait and switch”) is never okay.
But the extreme end of anti-hierarchy discourse posits that people in nesting relationships MUST be willing to give other partners the same relationship trappings if they want it. The irony here is it seems the only way to be non-hierarchical (and therefore Good) is to not be allowed to maintain any boundaries, even over things as basic as who gets to live in your space.
Defending your boundaries, reasserting your position, and not giving somebody something you never promised to give (even if they really really want it) is always okay.
Take another scenario I’ve actually been in from all three positions, at various times in my life: Ann might want to do sexual acts with their partner Bob, that is currently a boundary or limit for Bob’s Primary partner Cara. This does not mean that Cara is doing something wrong in having that boundary. Nor does it mean Bob is doing something wrong in taking Cara’s boundaries into consideration and placing limits on what sexual activities they will and won’t engage in.
What would be wrong is if Cara changed the rules on a whim, didn’t communicate the agreements clearly to Ann, or was totally unwilling to enter any kind of dialogue about it at any stage. What would also be wrong is if, at the beginning of that relationship, Ann was told “we don’t really have any rules” only to have the bait-and-switch pulled on them once they were invested. See the difference?
Boundaries and Choice
This is what it boils down to, really. Primaries (particularly wives or female nesting partners, because misogyny likes to position women as the No-Fun, Good-Time-Ruiners) are absolutely vilified in the mainstream polyamorous again and again and again for daring to have, set and maintain boundaries. And I do not like it.
Mr CK and I agreed a long time ago that nobody else will move into our shared home. This was a condition of moving in with him for me, and one that worked well for him too as he prefers to live with only one person. This is a boundary we get to set around this shared space that we alone own and inhabit, and we’re not harming anyone by having it. Someone might really really really want to live with us, and in that instance I am sorry that this is going to be hard for them to hear, but… the answer is no and it is always going to be no.
Yes, it’s a rule. It’s a rule that if either of us broke it, our relationship would almost certainly end.
We have also agreed since the beginning that we will not engage in sexual activities with a new person until the other has had a chance to meet that person (a Skype meeting is acceptable if there’s distance involved.) This is because we both have baggage around being lied to, kept in the dark, or deliberately kept from meeting a metamour in order that direct metamour-to-metamour communication be rendered impossible. This a boundary we get to set around our relationship and our bodies. If someone doesn’t want to date me because they don’t want to meet my partner, that’s their choice, but the answer is that they don’t get to date me.
Yes, this is also a rule. It’s a rule that if either of us broke it, it would be considered cheating.
Yes, we have rules, and we expect of each other that they will be kept. Anyone who tries to make us break them will receive a firm and resounding “no.” I can’t believe any of this is up for debate, but the number of times I’ve been told that if a secondary wants me to break a rule/agreement made with my Primary that I should do it is frankly ridiculous. It takes a shocking level of arrogance and entitlement to think you can change an existing relationship’s rules because “but I wanna!”
Crucially, non-Primary partners get to set boundaries and expect them to be respected too! In all the relationships I’m in where I am a secondary partner, for example, I have been crystal clear from the beginning that none of those partners will exert any kind of control over what I do with my body outside of our relationship. (More about this under “Towards Ethical Hierarchy.”) I have set boundaries around my time, my availability and the sexual acts that are and are not available. All of my partners get to set similar boundaries for themselves too, and those boundaries are as valid and important as mine or my Primary partner’s and must be respected.
At the end of the day, my Primary partner is my Primary partner because he chooses to be, just as I am his because I choose to be. He does not control me and I do not control him. We make mutual agreements that work for both of us, and we both stick to them out of choice every day because we love each other, prioritise each other’s happiness, and value our relationship. If you want to view making and keeping agreements as controlling each other then I think we have very different definitions of what control is.
“No Rules” is a rule.
A rule to not make or follow rules… is still a rule.
An expectation to be able to do whatever you want without any responsibility to your partners… is still an expectation.
An agreement to have no agreements is… still an agreement and still one that you get to opt in or out of.
I simply could not live this way. Because:
Structurelessness is a special kind of hell.
Some people value fluidity, ever-changing situations and no certainty. That’s valid. I am not one of those people. I am a person who – while a certain degree of flexibility is essential – values structure, a level of predictability, and Knowing Where The Fuck I Stand. That includes knowing where I am in the hierarchy with each person I’m involved with.
I need to know that the person I share my home with will prioritise me consistently. I need to know whom I can rely upon in a crisis (all my partners, I hope, but it is right and expected that a Primary will put more time and effort in than a non-primary.) I need to know to what degree my relationship with someone can grow and the point at which it can go no further. I need to know exactly what’s allowed and what isn’t in order to be sure I’m not trampling on any boundaries or breaking any consent.
I would go mad in a system with no rules. I could not function in a system where I am not allowed to admit that there is a single person who, when it all comes down to brass tacks, I am likely to prioritise over all else.
Towards Ethical Hierarchy
Despite what some people would like to believe, hierarchical polyamory isn’t going anywhere. It works too well for so many of us. So instead of shaming people out of having hierarchical structures (or worse, shaming them into pretending not to have hierarchy while still practising it, which tends to lead to head-fuckery all around,) let’s look at how we can make our hierarchical relationships happy, considerate and ethical.
Don’t restrict your non-primary’s freedom. The only person apart from myself who gets a say in whether I go to sex parties, have lots of casual sex or start new relationships is my Primary. (I was once in a situation where my secondary tried to forbid me from going to sex parties with my Primary. Yeah, no.) If a non-Primary partner has concerns about these things, of course I will listen to their concerns and talk things over with them, reassure them where I can and consider if their reservations have merit. But putting their foot down and saying “no?” Not a chance. And I wouldn’t expect to have that power over them either.
You do not get to forbid your secondary from having their own Primary. Ever. I can’t believe this needs stating, but this was a reality I lived with for four years before I realised how fucked up it was. If your secondary doesn’t have a Primary and is happy with the situation (maybe their job, child, pet or hobby is their Primary partner, maybe they just like a lot of their own space,) then obviously this isn’t a problem. But if they don’t have a Primary and want one (which includes not wanting one previously but changing their mind and deciding that now they do,) you have no business being anything but supportive. “You’re my secondary but you don’t get to have a Primary of your own” is some bullshit and it should not fly.
Don’t use veto. One example of hierarchy being used to the detriment of the people involved is through an agreement commonly called ‘veto power,’ wherein one member of the Primary couple has the power to order the other to end an outside relationship with the reasonable expectation that they will obey. If you veto someone your partner loves, you’ll hurt them both but it will also bite you in the ass when they resent you for it down the line.
Use your words, not a kill switch. Talk about what you’re feeling and why. Listen to each other. But please don’t do this, it won’t go well.
I’m actually in favour of the ‘screening veto’ at least in theory. We don’t practice it in an “I forbid you to date this person case closed” sort of way, but Mr CK and I certainly give an awful lot of weight to each other’s opinions on the people we’re looking at getting involved with. If he’s interested in someone who would make me utterly miserable for whatever reason, it’s better to raise it at the beginning before anyone is invested. My metamour The Minstrel and I had a discussion about veto not long after I got together with The Artist, our shared partner, and I was worried I might fall in love and then find myself suddenly vetoed. They said this:
“I think I had the veto the first time you and I met? Like, if I had had an, “erk” reaction then, I’d have said, “I’m sorry, love, I can’t with her” to The Artist. But once I’d given my consent for the two of you to be together? That’s it. No veto from then on. Your relationship may not be a [Primary] relationship but it is a real and valid thing in itself, and I neither want nor should have the power to make it end at my whim.”
Preach. (Did I mention my metamour is pretty great? They are.)
Be upfront about the rules, agreements, boundaries and what you can offer. As discussed above, it’s really not okay to pull a bait-and-switch, where you hide the truth about yourself/your relationships/your hierarchy/what you can offer until after someone is already emotionally invested.
Anyone who wants to date me will know right at the beginning that I have a Primary partner I’m very happy with and will not leave for anyone, that living with me or having kids with me is permanently and non-negotiably off the table, and what I can and cannot offer in terms of time commitments. If that doesn’t work for them, that’s their right. It’s also their right to be told the truth and make an informed choice. (And if you think no-one will date me with these stipulations, you’re so wrong – I’ve found multiple wonderful people it works really well for, many of whom are in similar situations with their own Primary relationships.)
Be flexible. Mr CK and I were once both out on a date on the same night and had agreed to both be home by 11pm. When he phoned me and said his partner had had a medical emergency and may need to go to the hospital, meaning he might be home later than planned, I didn’t say “you said 11pm so you have to stick to that.” I said “take as long as you need and I hope she’s okay.” This is flexibility. This is kindness where it’s needed. This is also not the same as rocking up at 3am when you agreed 11pm and going “oh sorry we were so busy having sex we lost track of time.” Keep your commitments wherever humanly possible, and give flexibility when it’s warranted. Yes, you can have both.
Don’t wield rules capriciously. Just because you could demand your Primary partner cancel a date at a moment’s notice (Note: me and Mr CK actually have an agreement that we CAN’T do this unless there’s an emergency, because it’s dickish) does not mean that you should. “Because I’m your Primary and I said so” is not good enough. Make agreements that work for you and stick to them. Don’t pull rank in a situation that really doesn’t call for it just because you can.
If your Primary fucks up, it’s (probably) not their secondary’s fault. If your husband stayed out until 2am when he agreed to be back by midnight because he lost track of time, that’s on HIM. It’s not on the partner he was with and it’s not her fault (unless she knew the agreement and deliberately and willingly flouted it with him – then you’re totally okay to go ahead and be pissed at them both because they’ve both behaved like assholes.) Similarly, if your wife lies to her hot co-worker and says that you’re cool with their fling when actually you know nothing about it, that’s HER fault – it’s not on the dude who was being lied to as well. I know it’s tempting to blame a third party when your partner fucks up and hurts you, but they’re an adult and responsible for themselves.
The bottom line to consider when making rules: does this agreement infringe upon anyone’s reasonably-assumed rights in this relationship?
Dating me does not give you a right to live with me, to meet my biological family, or to do every sex act you can possibly think of with me (three things I do not and will never offer to non-Primary partners.)
What it does give you is the right to open and honest communication from me, kindness and support and respect, to be told the truth, to get a place at the negotiating table on things that affect you directly, and to know what the deal is from the beginning and all the way along.
Therefore, “I will never allow you to move in with me” is a valid boundary to hold in a secondary relationship. “I will lie to you randomly and switch the rules at a moment’s notice because my Primary said so” is not.
“Oh, but Amy! You’re only defending hierarchy because you’re top of the heap!”
Right, except in all the instances where I’m not.
Yes, I come first with Mr CK, as he does with me. But my metamour The Minstrel comes first with my partner The Artist. Fondlebeast and Twistergirl prioritise each other over me. Evil Genius’s wife, other serious partners and children are way higher in the hierarchy than I am. ALL OF THESE ARE GOOD THINGS and it would be absurdity of the highest order to try to pretend these relationships were all equal.
I don’t feel oppressed or diminished in any way in these relationships. I went into them all with eyes open, knowing what the scenario was, and I’m happy with the way things are. If that ever changes, I am allowed to open a discussion to see if there is a mutually agreeable way to get everyone’s needs met. I am allowed to leave the relationships. I am not allowed to trample all over their Primary partner(s) to get what I want.
Say it again: I am happy being a secondary and I would much, much rather this was openly acknowledged than that we lived some kind of lie where no-one is more important than anyone else in a romantic relationship. We’re so saturated with stories of mistreated unicorns, that we forget:
Being secondary is not necessarily and intrinsically a miserable place.
I created the hashtag #HappySecondary on Twitter and asked people to weigh in with their experiences of being a happy non-Primary in a hierarchical arrangement, because I couldn’t believe the experience was unique to me. I got some amazing quotes and I’d like to share just some of them.
“I’m a #HappySecondary in an LDR. Solopoly with no desire to build a home with anyone, don’t want what his wife has. Every visit is vacation!”
“Being R’s #HappySecondary is great! I get to plot with their Primary and things.”
“Very #HappySecondary in 2 relationships here.”
“Being a #HappySecondary gives me space when I need it but contact when I do. Helps that our schedules let us get together 2-3x per week.”
Stop assuming we’re all miserable if we’re secondaries. Stop assuming we’re all treating our partners badly if we’re in a Primary couple and practice hierarchy. Lots of us are very happy where we are, and our experiences are valid too.
If you enjoyed this piece, please consider supporting me on Patreon or buying me a virtual coffee. Every single donation, even $1, really helps keep the site going.