What is Commitment Without Entanglement?

I’ve been thinking about commitment a lot recently. What it is, what it means, and how I can ethically incorporate it into my life in a way that aligns with my needs, my values, and my partners’ needs and values.

As a polyamorous person and an ethical slut, commitment matters a lot to me. Does that surprise you? Many people assume that true commitment is impossible in a non-monogamous context. Of course, I don’t agree.

What is commitment, anyway?

Oxford Languages suggests the definition of commitment as “the state or quality of being dedicated to a cause, activity, etc”. I think this is actually a pretty okay definition.

We all think we know what commitment means in a relationship, especially as it relates to mononormative culture. People often equate commitment with things like getting married, living together, and raising children together. Our society also strongly equates commitment with exclusivity. (Hands up every polyamorous person who has been asked “when are you going to commit to one person?”)

As a non-monogamous person, I suggest we look at commitment a different way. Instead of asking “what does society tell me a committed relationship looks like?”, ask yourself “what does commitment mean to me?”

Here are five things commitment means to me.

  • Commitment means I will prioritise you highly. This does not necessarily mean I will always put you first, and I will not necessarily prioritise you to the detriment of other important things in my life. But I will always consider you and strive to behave in ways that honour our connection.
  • Commitment means I will attempt to work through problems that arise in our relationship, engaging in good faith and seeking solutions that work for everyone involved.
  • Commitment means that I honour the ways in which you, I, and our relationship will grow and change. I want to grow along with you, not away from you.
  • Commitment means I want you to be in my life for as long as it is a happy and healthy choice for both of us. Ideally that means “for life,” but I accept things change. If our relationship is no longer good for one or both of us, I will let you go.
  • Commitment means that your happiness matters to me. To the best of my ability, and to the extent it doesn’t harm me or anyone else to do so, I will behave in ways that faciliate your happiness.

Your answers may be different. But I encourage you to think about what commitment is to you and maybe write down a “commitment manifesto” like the one I’ve shared above.

What is entanglement?

When I talk about entanglement in a relationship, I’m broadly referring to what is often known within polyamorous communities as “the relationship escalator.” Coined by writer Amy Gahran, the relationship escalator is described thus:

The default set of societal expectations for intimate relationships. Partners follow a progressive set of steps, each with visible markers, toward a clear goal.

The goal at the top of the Escalator is to achieve a permanently monogamous (sexually and romantically exclusive between two people), cohabitating marriage — legally sanctioned if possible. In many cases, buying a house and having kids is also part of the goal. Partners are expected to remain together at the top of the Escalator until death.

The Escalator is the standard by which most people gauge whether a developing intimate relationship is significant, “serious,” good, healthy, committed or worth pursuing or continuing.” (Source.)

The relationship escalator isn’t inherently bad, if it’s something you genuinely want (as opposed to something you’re following because of social, cultural, or familial pressure). But holding up the escalator model as the pinnacle of relationship achievement is deeply damaging to many people.

On or off the escalator?

Even though I strongly identify as non-monogamous, I’ve always valued having a core, deeply entangled relationship in my life. This is what Mr CK and I have. We live together, we share bills and cats and household chores, we are at least somewhat financially entangled. We’re each other’s next of kin at the hospital. We make big decisions together, and we hope to be together for life.

I also do not want all my relationships – or indeed any others – to be this entangled. The beauty of non-monogamy is that relationships don’t have to be all or nothing. If you have great sex but don’t have romantic feelings for one another, you can have a great friends-with-benefits arrangement. If you love each other but don’t want to live together, you can enjoy the connection for what it is without pushing for it to be more. When you have a need one partner can’t or won’t meet, you can get it fulfilled elsewhere.

This means you get to choose whether each relationship is on or off the escalator. It means you get to choose what level of commitment you want, and what that means for you and your partner(s).

You can even decide to take certain steps on the escalator but skip others, if you want to. For example, “we want to live together but no kids,” or “we want to get married, but monogamy isn’t part of our arrangement.”

Commitment without entanglement

When you try to define commitment without the trappings of heteronormative, mononormative, escalator-driven relationships, it gets complicated fast. It also gets really, really diverse.

Here are five things I’ve learned about how to do commitment without entanglement.

Create milestones that matter to you

Every serious relationship has meaningful milestones. What these look like and what they mean to you both/all will be different in each relationship. A few common milestones that don’t necessarily imply entanglement include the first kiss, the first time you say “I love you,” the first time you have sex, and the first night you spend together.

Unromantic milestones matter, too. In my relationship with The Artist, I remember feeling like our relationship had turned a corner the first time we navigated a (non-relational) crisis together. It wasn’t fun at the time, but in the long run it cemented our bond even further. I felt similarly after the first time they saw me in the middle of a major mental health crisis and didn’t run away.

What relationship milestones feel significant to you and your partner(s)? Think about both things you’ve already done (“the first overnight we spent together felt really significant to me”) and things you’d like to do someday (“I really want to introduce you to my best friends.”)

Have each other’s backs

For me, one of the biggest signs of commitment is when someone is by my side through difficult times. I enjoy the sex-with-no-expectations brand of relationship with some people. But I want to know that my inner circle people are there for me.

If you’re around when you want a hot shag but then disappear when I’m sobbing on the sofa because my depression is so bad, I won’t see the relationship as a committed one and will adjust my expectations accordingly.

Having each other’s backs isn’t the same as expecting the other person to drop everything to care for you in every crisis. But it does mean stepping up when you can, being there for the bad times as well as the good, and going out of your way for the other person at least some of the time.

Ask, don’t assume

When was the last time you asked your partner what love and commitment means to them? It’s easy to assume other people define these things in the same ways that we do. But assumptions are the fast-track to hurt feelings and miscommunications.

If you’re not sure what your partner needs or wants, ask them! If you’re not sure how they’re feeling, don’t try to guess. Just talk about it.

Learning each other’s love languages can be useful here. People often make the mistake of assuming that everyone gives and receives love the way they do. The love language framework isn’t perfect. But it gives you a way to explore and communicate your needs to your partner and to understand theirs.

Asking isn’t unromantic! Asking someone what they need or want is actually a huge sign of love and respect. Mononormative culture holds that we should be able to read our partner’s mind. This is bullshit. Don’t try. Seriously, I cannot emphasise this enough – just fucking ask.

Stand up for the relationship

When I was with my ex, one of the things that stopped me ever feeling safe was the fact that his wife had veto power. Even after years together, she could have told him to dump me at any time and he would have complied. Even though it was only ever hypothetical, we talked about the possibility at length. One of the things that really hurt was the knowledge that, if push came to shove, he would not stand up for our relationship.

I won’t date anyone with a veto arrangement any more. I believe that longer-term and more entangled partners should absolutely get a say and be able to voice concerns. But I cannot be in a situation where my relationship could be unilaterally ended by someone who isn’t even in it.

If you want to show commitment to your non-entangled partner, that means being willing to stand up for your relationship if you ever need to. This might mean telling your spouse or nesting partner that no, they don’t get to slam a veto down. It might mean speaking up when your friends or family (if you’re out to them) dismiss your non-entangled relationship as not real, not serious, or not important.

Keep the promises you make (and don’t make ones you can’t keep)

To my ex, promises made to me were always breakable if anything better came up (or his wife just had a bad day). This prevented me from ever feeling truly important to him.

In general, if you make a promise or commit to a plan with your partner, you should do everything you can to honour it. Emergencies happen, of course. Part of being in a long-term relationship means being flexible enough to roll with the punches when crises arise. But breaking promises or cancelling plans for minor reasons impedes building a true sense of commitment in a relationship, in my opinion.

The other piece of this is not making promises you can’t keep. My ex used to tell me that we – me, him, and his wife – would all live together and I’d be an equal co-primary someday. I eventually realised this was never going to actually happen. If I’d known that earlier, I could have adjusted my expectations accordingly. Instead, by promising something he never intended to actually follow through on, he deprived me of the ability to make an informed and consensual choice about how much I wanted to commit to that relationship.

If your non-entangled partner is asking for something, it can seem kinder to say “yes, someday” then just keep pushing it off into the distance. But if the real answer is “no, never” or “probably not,” it’s actually much better to tell them that. Hearing “no” to something you want is never fun. But it’s much better than being strung out on a false promise and then being let down again and again.

What does commitment without entanglement mean to you?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments. I’m so curious how other non-monogamous people handle this.

Reunion

Have you ever just fallen into someone and held onto them as if you would drown if you let go? That’s how it felt to me when I saw my secondary partner[1] for the first time in sixteen months this last weekend. Throughout the 30 hours or so we spent together, I had to keep touching them just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.

The last year has not been kind to many people, including us. We’ve survived many things in the four and a half years we’ve been together, from a terrifying car accident to my mental breakdown in 2019. But a pandemic that separated us for almost a year and a half was a different beast entirely.

Of course, our relationship wasn’t on hold during all this time. We couldn’t see each other physically, but we kept in touch with Skype calls and sexting and app-controlled sex toys and online theatre and movie dates. But it’s not the same. Sometimes I wanted to hug them so badly it hurt. Often, actually.

Even so, I went into our reunion not really knowing how it would go. So much has changed in the last year. Life is not the same. I am not the same. I’ve changed not just my hair and my body, but also my career and my relationship with myself in the past year. In some ways, I am far better. My self-esteem and my relationship to my work are both hugely improved. But in other ways, I am carrying the inevitable scars of the last year. I am jumpy and scared of things I was never scared of before. I don’t always know how to people any more, after almost a year in such isolation.

So no, I wasn’t sure if we would still fit. Because when people and circumstances change, relationships do, too. I think it’s fair to say they were more sure than I was, but I think they also had their doubts. How could we not, after all this time?

The doubt dissolved the moment I saw them, the moment we clung to each other and I buried my face in their shoulder and I remembered all the ways we fit together. Every time I looked at them, I wanted to laugh and cry all at the same time. Because yes, it still works. The love is still there. Our connection was tested but never severed. Our hearts and our bodies remember each other, and that matters more than days or months or distance.

Sometimes, in the sea of everything changing, you just need something that still feels right. You just need someone who will hold you as though they felt every damn second of all the months you were apart.

__________________________________________________

[1] We use “secondary” as a descriptive term, not as any kind of pejorative, and we love each other deeply and fiercely despite not being on the relationship escalator with each other.

A Love Letter to the Art of Sexting

I don’t know if anyone has done any actual studies on this, but my totally unscientific hypothesis is that people have been sexting more than ever over the last year. With much of the world forced into lockdown (fuck you COVID), we’ve had to resort to virtual methods for everything from our work to our friendships… so why not our sex lives, too?

I’ve said before that I believe that sexting can, in and of itself, constitute a real sexual relationship. It’s one of the first ways that Mr CK and I connected before we ever had physical sex. And it’s certainly one of the ways that The Artist and I have kept our connection alive over the last year of not being able to see each other (again: fuck you, COVID.)

It probably isn’t a surprise to anyone that I am a very wordy person. I am a writer, after all. Words of affirmation are my primary love language. And I fucking love sexting.

I won’t say that it’s as good as in-person sex. It’s not. Nothing can beat the touch and smell and warmth of a lover’s body against mine. But when we can’t have that, for reasons of distance or illness or the plague, it’s the next best thing.

There’s an art to good sexting, though. I’m lucky in that my current partners are amazing at it. But I’ve certainly had more than my fair share of bad sexting in the past. The worst sexting tends to be overly dick-focused, one-sided, and

No, good sexting isn’t as simple as typing a bunch of increasingly flowery euphemisms. Like good physical sex, it’s a conversation, a dance, a push and pull between two (or more) people who are deeply attuned to one another. It involves listening and responding. A good sexter can make me drip without ever touching me. A truly great sexter can make me submit with just words.

At its best, sexting can be a way to explore fantasies and even discover new ones. Many times over the years, a partner has said something to me in a sexting session that has left me like “well I didn’t know I was into that, but oof!” Sexting can build a connection, maintain it over distance and time, and be a deeply intimate bonding experience.

Thanks to technology, virtual sexual connections are easier than ever. We no longer have to stick with just words on a screen (though that can be fun, too.) We can now trade pictures, video chat, and even control a lover’s sex toy over tens or hundreds or thousands of miles.

It’s been hard to be a slut over the last year. So many of the things I love, from regular dates with my secondary partner to outings to sex clubs and dungeons, have been impossible.

(Yes, I know perspective is important and not being able to slut it up on the regular is a very trivial concern compared to *waves wildly at everything.* I’m still allowed to miss it.)

For many of us slutty types, sexting has been one of the things that has kept us at least somewhat connected with our slutty selves. It’s a reminder that the world is still out there, and brimming with sexy adventures waiting to be had when it’s safe to do so. And I think that’s something to celebrate.

“Give me words that make my mind curl before my toes.”
– Rachel Wolchin

Quote Quest badge, for a post about making amends when you fuck up

I wrote this post as part of Quote Quest, a fun blogging meme by Little Switch Bitch. Each week there’s a new quote for inspiration. Click the logo to see what everyone else is writing this week! Oh, and if you enjoy my work, please consider buying me a coffee.

What Sexual Happiness Means to Me

This week is Sexual Happiness Week! I think that’s a sentiment we can all get behind, no? (If not, why are you reading this blog?) My pals at Lovehoney asked me in an email “what does sexual happiness mean to you?” and, of course, it got me thinking.

My initial reaction was to give my working definition of sex positivity: “supporting the right of all consenting adults to have sex, or not, in whatever ways work best for them, free from stigma or shame”.

And while I stand by that, I think sexual happiness is something a little different. So I started making a list of some of the things that make up “sexual happiness” for me. It’s different for everyone, so your mileage may vary. Why not tell me in the comments what YOUR definition of sexual happiness is?

1. Feeling in harmony with my body

My body and I have… an uneasy relationship. We haven’t always been friends and honestly, we sometimes still aren’t. Feeling good about my body is something I am mostly struggling to access right now, but in order to experience sexual happiness I do at least need to feel comfortable – neutral, if you will – about it.

I can’t have good sex if all I can think about is how much I hate my stomach and how my thighs are too big. But I can get to a happy place sexually if I can turn off all that noise and, if I cannot love how my body looks, at least appreciate it for the things it can do and the sensations it can feel.

2. Having partners I can really trust

You cannot have really good sex without trust. This is something I firmly believe. For me, trust is more complex than just “you’ll do what you say you’re going to do”. Trust means that I know you’ll show up for me if I need you, outside of a purely sexual space. It means I can be vulnerable with you and know that you will hold space for that and not use it to harm me. It means I can rely on you to show up and keep your commitments to me, not because I force you to but because you want to.

My bar for ongoing sexual partners is now much higher. We might or might not fall in Capital L Love with one another, but if I don’t trust you, we have nothing – not even a casual something.

3. A frequency that works

I’m a very highly sexual person much of the time (duh, you all think as you read my sex blog). This means that, much of the time, I’d like to be having quite a lot of sex. Much as I joke about liking my sex like I like my coffee (“hot and several times a day,”) my actual ideal frequency for sex tends to fall around the 4 – 5 times a week mark, a little more when I’m not busy. (LOL, as if there’s ever a time I’m not busy.)

But the key to sexual happiness for me is a frequency of sex that works with where my life is at that time, and works for the relationship I have with that partner. Right now I probably have sex with The Artist about once a month, but that’s… most of the times we see each other. Whereas with Mr CK, it probably averages out to once or twice a week – but we live together and see each other every day unless one of us is away, so we have days when we’re together but don’t have sex much more often. The key to happiness is a frequency that works for everyone.

4. Exploration and new experiences

At my heart, I am a curious creature with a lust for new experiences and plenty of adventure. Sexually, this can mean a lot of things. New partners, yes – sexual variety is one of the reasons I practice consensual non-monogamy. But also trying a new kink act, a new toy (my job as a sex writer blesses me with the ability to do this frequently!), a new position, or a new sex party or club all fall under the umbrella of “variety”.

Basically I want to try shit out. Being with a person for a long period of time and keeping a sexual spark alive comes quite easily to me, as long as there are plenty of adventures to be shared.

5. Plenty of attention given to my pleasure

I nearly wrote “orgasms!” for this one, but, well… I have an orgasm denial fetish. So I’ve amended it to needing a partner to give plenty of attention to my pleasure, in whatever way that looks. It might mean making sure I come, of course. But it might also include teasing me in the way I like, or spanking me in just the right way, or honestly just regularly checking in to make sure I’m having fun and getting what I want out of the scene. Nothing will turn me off faster than a partner who treats me like a sex toy. (Unless that’s a specific roleplay we’ve negotiated… in which case I’m getting something out of it too, so the point still stands).

Today’s post is brought to you by Lovehoney’s Sexual Happiness Week. Check out the great deals on offer. If you buy through any of my affiliate links, I make a small commission.

The Tyranny of “No Rules”: Polyamory, Hierarchy, and Ethics

Buckle in, folks. This has been a long time coming and it’s gonna be a long one.

Hierarchy is a big subject in polyamory discourse right now – 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 did have a written relationship agreement at one point, although it was pretty 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 a small number of 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.

What’s not okay is to change the rules on a whim, fail to communicate the agreements clearly to all parties, or be totally unwilling to enter any kind of dialogue about it at any stage. It’s also not okay to tell incoming partners that !we don’t really have any rules” only to have the bait-and-switch pulled on them once they are invested.

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.

So you could say that 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 new partner 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 kinds of sexual and emotional relationship I am open to. 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 at all. 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 in a previous relationship 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.

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 marrying 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 around 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 with his girlfriend 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 probably not her fault. 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, hang out with my family of origin, or do every sex act you can possibly think of with me.

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 comes first with my secondary partner. 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 polyamorous hierarchy. Lots of us are very happy where we are, and our experiences are valid too.

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I’m Looking for Baggage that Goes with Mine

Roger:I’ve been trying, I’m not lying, no-one’s perfect, I’ve got baggage…”
Mimi:Life’s too short babe, time is flying, I’m looking for baggage that goes with mine!”

(If you don’t know what this quote is from, go and educate yourself immediately. Go on. I’ll wait.)

How often do you see dating site profiles and personals ads staying the owner is looking for someone “low drama” or with “no baggage?” Whenever I see this, I smirk wryly to myself, close the ad and move on to the next one.

Look, I hate unnecessary drama as much as the next person (though not as much as I hate people who use “drama” as a stand in for “has opinions” or “doesn’t tolerate my shit.”) But I’ve got baggage. And, I’m willing to bet, so do most of the people reading this post, to a greater or lesser extent. And you know what else? So, I am sure, do most of the people writing that they want to date someone with “no baggage.”

Unless we’re supremely lucky as well as immensely privileged, very few of us make it to adulthood with little or no baggage. With an estimated one in 4 women and one in 6 men suffering some kind of abuse in their lifetimes, and approximately one in 4 adults suffering from some kind of mental health condition at any one time, the odds of any given person having “baggage” of some description is high to say the least.

When I got together with Mr CK, he knew about some of mine and I knew about some of his, and more came out as we fell in love and learned to trust each other. With every turn, one or the other of us feared that the other would decide our baggage was too much to handle, turn tail and run. So why didn’t we? Lots of reasons, but one of the fundamental ones for me was simply this: he gets me. We can relate to each other’s experience, and we can speak to each other on a level that says, I understand.

I can’t relate to people who’ve had everything easy. I can’t relate to people with no baggage, no trauma, no scars. I relate to survivors, to people who have had difficult times, to people with their own struggles and hang-ups and anxieties and brain weasels.

I keep telling my new sweetie, The Artist, that they’re dating Ms. Trust Issues. They are extremely kind and supportive about this while also not in any way denying or downplaying that my trust issues are, in fact, very real. Because I am more than my baggage and, for now at least, they’ve decided my baggage is not beyond their ability or desire to handle.

There are people with baggage which would absolutely not go with mine. Think about (not an example from my life) this situation: a survivor of childhood abuse due to an alcoholic parent, and someone who struggles with substance dependency issues. These two people should almost certainly not be in a relationship with each other. Their respective baggage clashes in such a way that it will likely just amplify the issues for both people and make them thoroughly unhappy.

I’m learning to recognise the things I simply cannot deal with in another person. Someone with anger management issues, for example, should absolutely not ever be in a relationship with me, the woman who will probably have a panic attack if you yell at her. Having baggage that is incompatible with mine does not make someone a bad person, too fucked up, or any other gross judgement you can think of. It simply means we will not be good for each other and one or both of us may be harmed more if we try to have an intimate relationship.

So, Well Meaning Person On A Dating Site who wants a relationship with as little unnecessary angst and conflict as possible: you’re not actually looking for someone with “no baggage,” unless you’re looking for someone with as little life experience as possible (ugh, I hope not) or a robot.

What you’re looking for is someone whose baggage is compatible with yours.

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