Some thoughts on Hierarchy vs Couples Privilege

The subject of hierarchy comes up often in poly discussion groups. People generally fall into the camps of “hierarchy is fine” or “hierarchy is evil” and usually those who fall into the former are at the top of the pyramid, and those in the latter have been burned by being at the bottom.

I think where the confusion and/or disagreement about hierarchy sometimes happens is where hierarchy intersects with privilege. When I separate the two concepts from each other, then it’s much easier to point to reasons why hierarchy is bad all around, but privilege is sometimes unavoidable.

But, in that intersection, it’s easy to paint them both as harbingers of relationship toxicity.

There are certain things one might take for granted in a situation where partners have shared homes, resources, offspring, and relationship longevity.  For example, the expectation to for the couple to attend family holiday dinners, or visit family living out of state, or attend family weddings or funerals.

Those are inherent privileges that can be pretty circumstantial depending on how “out” one of the people in the couple is to their family. The social expectations of the mononormative culture, especially at gatherings where the older generations are in attendance, make for some these uncomfortable situations where someone’s partner(s) might have to remain “hidden” without it necessarily be the preference for anybody within the relationship. It just can’t be helped without causing major disruptions in the extended family dynamic (or with employers).

I understand having circumstantial, or unearned privileges that I can’t help having. Like the color of my skin or my parents’ socioeconomic status. The thing is, I’m aware that my experience isn’t the experience of everyone else who does not share these traits with me. I’m aware of my privilege and can therefore take action to feel MORE empathy and show more compassion for those who do not have them. I can take into account that their experiences are different than mine and not make assumptions about how they feel or react to things based on how I would feel or react to them.

The lack of this awareness is where couples’ privilege becomes toxic. When the couple isn’t even aware of how their privilege manifests or how it affects those who DON’T have the automatic +1 to your cousin’s wedding, or who don’t have you around to make us a cup of hot tea when we’re at home with a sore throat.

At the same time, as the non-nested partner, I also don’t have to do the boring and stressful stuff, like spend my limited time with him cleaning the cat box or renewing my DMV registration or paying taxes or vacuuming. Every time we’re together it’s a vacation from responsibilities for him, so I get to be the partner he never gets snippy with nor tunes out with headphones and a podcast.

There are certain privileges I have in my role in his life as well, and being aware of them helps me have empathy for the times when his nested partner might feel like she’s not getting quality time with him, for example.

But all of that is separate from hierarchy, because to me, hierarchy implies rank. She does not outrank any of his other partners, nor we her. She cannot (nor would she attempt to) pull rank and affect either of our plans with him. None of us can (or would). He runs his own relationships, his own calendar, and his own emotions. We’re each responsible for our own.

In our polycule, we’re all child-free, so when it comes to the managing of hierarchy and privilege around children, I draw from a different experience. When my late husband and I got together, he was recently divorced and had an 8 year old daughter, an ex-wife and co-parent who would sometimes pull “rank” when it came to my husband’s time for their daughter’s recitals and open houses.  He also had an aging mother who lived with us. If that wasn’t boot camp for polyamory, I don’t know what is.

But the point is – there was hierarchy. The kid came first. I felt his ex-wife liked to use the kid as a way to position herself above me, but the reality was that it was the KID who had priority, not her.

Even in a monogamous marriage, the kid came first, so I don’t see any reason why that wouldn’t hold true in a poly relationship. When my husband’s mom became ill, her needs were elevated as well. We learn to balance all these multiple priorities all the time – at work, with family, and in relationships.

I believe hierarchy in extenuating circumstances, like children or illness or major accident is part of life. I just don’t feel comfortable with it being part of the standard operating procedure when you’re in multiple, committed, romantic relationships.



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A Walk in the Desert: On taking things at the pace of the slowest person

There’s a saying I’ve been hearing from people in poly circles over the past couple of months, in regards to opening up a relationship: “It’s best to take it at the pace of the slowest person.”

Last night I heard it in a sightly different way, “to take it at the pace of the slowest camel.”

This sort of makes sense, when everyone’s got a similar end-game in mind, right? Like, if there are two people who want to open up their relationship, but one person is struggling with the nuts and bolts of opening up a bit more than the other, then you take it at the pace of the person who’s taking a little longer to figure it all out. They still have the end-goal of opening up, so you know they’ll get there eventually.

But what do you do when one of the people in the relationship doesn’t really want to open up?

That’s when I’ve heard of situations where taking it at the pace of the slowest person can backfire, ’cause they are in control of the pace, and without the motivation to ever reach that goal, they can slow it down to a full stop.

Metaphor Time!

Imagine you’re in a group of people heading out of the desert toward a source of cold water. There’s plenty of warm canteen water, but the promise of pools of cool water sounds so good.

Now, you don’t want to leave anybody behind, so you all agree to keep pace with the slowest walker. Some of you can run, and some of you can walk briskly and you could get to that ice cold water source within the day if left to your own devices….

…but this one person in your group has a broken ankle and every step they take is excruciatingly painful. They keep wanting to stop and take breaks. You try to carry them, but not for long before it wears you out, and they feel guilty and like a burden to you.

At one point, they sit down on the ground and ask….”can’t we just stay here and wait until nightfall when it’s cooler?”

And maybe you agree. But then that night they say, “Now that it’s cooler – do we really need to get out of the desert? It’s nice here. Look at all the stars…., and the water in the canteen has cooled down so it’s totally drinkable. Why isn’t this water good enough?”

But by mid afternoon, that heat is bearing down on you and you’re beginning to resent the “slowest person” in the group.

Now you’re in a really shitty position. You gotta drink. Like, this canteen water is great to have, and it’s absolutely meeting your basic needs, but it’s unsatisfying and no longer sufficient for you. You’re still not much closer to that cold water source than you were a day ago; and you had estimated that the pace of the slowest person wasn’t going to hold you back for THAT long.

Extrapolate this into a relationship that’s now lasted over a year.

This is why partners who are being “held back” start getting frustrated and passive aggressive and saying things that are unkind.

If you are the slowest person in the group you do, in some ways, have control over the pace: but you also have a responsibility to keep trying to make progress, so that everyone in the caravan feels like their goals are achievable.

And if you dig down and find that your goal is to sabotage the expedition; then perhaps it’s only fair to let your partner go on their own. This is not because you are a bad person, or because you aren’t deserving of them. This is simply a case where your goal and your partner’s goals are in opposition.

And a relationship formed by someone who “won” and someone who “lost” is never as strong as a relationship between two people who both got what they wanted together.

That doesn’t mean they have to want the same thing. You don’t have to want to be poly just like your partner does. All your goal needs to be focused on is achieving acceptance.

That’s why you have to WANT to be okay with your partner being polyamorous. When that is your goal, then the caravan keeps making progress.

Holding out for them to want to be monogamous is probably not going to work.

Non Sequitur – A Birthday Request

My birthday is coming this week. I’ll be 39.

Save the date for next year. There will be a celebration.

But for this year, it’s pretty low key. Back in my 20s I set the standard that I only celebrate the Zeros and the Fives with parties, but the rest of the birthdays pass by with small-scale celebrations.

It’s been a really strange week. On Thursday night I got an email from a coworker whose recently former ex boyfriend had been found dead in his apartment. He’d been battling addiction and losing, which had prompted their breakup – but she was torn up about ending their romantic relationship and trying to remain his friend. Over the past year, she’s come to me for counsel more than once because she knows I’ve been in a similar situation.

And now her experience is that much more similar.

Then I found a couple of new podcasts for my commute. One is RISK! – a storytelling podcast. The other is the Savage Lovecast which people have been telling me about for years.

Both of the episodes I listened to this week featured a story about a young widow and the struggle to reconnect with your sexuality – stories that resonated with me deeply. Then I read a post in one of the facebook groups I participate in and another young widow shared her story, which also had similarities to mine.

And then yesterday, I saw the article from a young widow who wrote an open letter to the people criticizing Patton Oswalt for announcing his engagement so “soon” after his beloved wife passed away (like, nearly 2 years ago).

It just seems like that subject keeps trying to pound its way into my head, and all in the course of the six days after I signed escrow papers to begin the process of transferring ownership of my home, where my own widowing took place.

I’m not like, devastated. In fact, I have found all of the stories I’ve heard this week to be uplifting and generally comforting. It does feel nice when we realize we’re not alone, even three and a half years after it happened.

Hearing their stories doesn’t just remind me of what I’ve lost. It shines a great big light on what I have gained, as well as makes apparent what I’d had all along. It reminds me to appreciate everything I have every day that I have it.

Well. That wasn’t the post I was planning to write.

Honestly, I thought this was going to be the post where I asked people to donate $3, $9, or $39 to one or more of a list of charitable organizations I would like to benefit from my 39th birthday.

I guess that post got away from me.

A few weeks ago, I asked my friends to share with me some of the charitable organizations that they feel are doing good work in marginalized communities – specifically for LGBTQ+ and POC. I wanted the recommendations to come from those who have, or continue to benefit from the services these organizations provide. As someone who works in the nonprofit sector, I know better than to trust the website or the PR….

….I trust the people that are being helped.

In addition, yesterday someone had posted a video to an IndieGogo campaign that I thought was worth funding, and doesn’t have much time left.

So below are the links to the organizations that were recommended to me by the very people these groups exist to support. And if you are the type of person that is inclined to give gifts for people’s birthdays, then I would ask that you consider making a contribution to one or more of these organizations for my birthday.

You don’t have to tell me if you did or didn’t – but if you do, I would love to share my appreciation publicly in a future post.

The Relational Center The Relational Center exists to promote the essential importance of relationships. When we value our connections with others and with the environment, we create the necessary conditions for health and sustainability. So our work promotes personal, interpersonal, and social practices that help people build strong, resilient relationships. Our programs provide healing support, a space for community building, and tools for leadership.

Los Angeles LGBT Center Since 1969 the Los Angeles LGBT Center has cared for, championed, and celebrated LGBT individuals and families in Los Angeles and beyond.

Lambda Legal Lambda Legal, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is a national organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and everyone living with HIV through impact litigation, education and public policy work.

Trevor Project The Trevor Project is the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) young people ages 13-24.

And the IndieGoGo Campaign that only has a few days left:
Woke Girls Woke Girls is a new line of fashion dolls and chapter books that celebrate the power of today’s American girls. Through empowering representation of girls from marginalized identities and stories which finally portray them as the magical heroes that they are- Woke Girls shows girls that even when the world is unfair, they have the power to love themselves, stand up for what is right, and build a better world.

I will be making a personal contribution to each of these causes myself. I hope you will consider joining me.