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.

The thing about not feeling “enough”

The most frequent statement I read from people trying to transition into polyamorous relationships for their partner is the sense that they feel like they are “not enough.”

Whenever I see that line, my heart sort of aches for them. I understand that feeling and where it comes from, but somehow it doesn’t affect me and I had a difficult time articulating why.

And I finally figured out the answer:

The trick is in realizing that not being “everything” is still enough.

Rules are Condoms: An Imperfect Metaphor

I used to love rules. Rules, when my life was very completely out of my control, helped me make sense of things. I had rules for who I’d date and what I’d do with them and when. I had rules for who could do what to me and under which circumstances. I had rules about rules, and I was really great about closing loopholes in rules so that I would know exactly what to expect from whom and when.

I clung to the fantasy of a 24/7 D/s relationship. The idea of someone else making the decisions for me and absolving me of the need to willingly take care of myself appealed to me in the wake of my husband’s unexpected death and the realization that I’d lost my entire identity in that relationship.

And you know what? I don’t fault myself for that. It was my coping mechanism, and it worked for a while.

I didn’t know who I was, or who I wanted to be. All I knew was that there was too much stuff for me to carry by myself. I felt I would never be unearthed from beneath its heavy burden. As such, I was attracted to the “fixer” types. The “daddy” types of nurturers who wanted to help me get better. The ones who would set the rules down with the intention of moving me past my hangups and phobias.

And over time, they started having results.

I stopped being afraid of making decisions for myself, and graduated to just not liking it. I started to realize that I was entrusting some pretty important (and some not so important) decisions into the hands of people who weren’t particularly good at taking care of themselves, much less others. I began to understand that our dynamics had shifted – because I’d gone from the bird with a broken wing who needed a cage to be transported safely from point A to point B, to a fully-healed bird ready to take flight – were it not for the owner who kept clipping my wings.

The rules no longer felt like they were being set to help me. They felt like they were being set to control me, and I no longer wanted to be under that 24/7 type of control.

The rules were condoms.

The rules I put on myself and those I allowed to be put on me were an imperfect attempt to protect myself from ….whatever was out there. Just like condoms, the only way to truly be safe is abstinence; and I wasn’t willing to be kink-abstinent anymore.

Now I’m in a relationship with only one rule: Honesty. Everything else between us is more of a request. We’ve got a 24/7 love and trust dynamic. The D/s part is significantly more fluid.

I see people talk about setting “rules” for their partners to follow …especially when they’re opening up to some form of non-monogamy for the first time. Things like “My partner can sleep with whomever, but no emotions,” or “no sleepovers,” or “not in our home,” or “anything goes but kink is only with me,” or “I’m the only one they can use this term of endearment with.”

It’s a condom. These rules are meant to control your exposure to potential harm, but they’re not foolproof. Try to make a rule that your partner will never develop feelings for a sexual partner and be prepared to find yourself on the business end of a Klingon pain stick.

If you want to feel the full spectrum of sensation in your relationship once adequate trust has been established, then it might be time to assess the value of loosening up some of the rigidity of those relationship rules.

It might be time to explore the flexibility of allowing your partner to take flight, and see how they still come back to you – again, and again.

And if they don’t?

If you’d be happy with the bird in the cage whose wings you gotta keep clipping, then you do you.

I wouldn’t be, neither as owner nor bird.

Derwood

Chatting with my partner the other day about TV shows, as we do – and I mentioned Bewitched. He crinkled up his nose. He didn’t care for it much. I thought about it. I generally love shows about kick-ass supernatural stuff. If its got magic or time travel – I’m in! Especially with a female heroine.

But he was right on with the nose crinkling. There was something about Bewitched that always did rub me the wrong way…

…and that was Darren.

Darren knew Samantha was a witch when he married her. He forces her to suppress who she is – to the point of being ANGRY with her whenever she uses her magic. Now, the idea of not wanting people to find out I can understand. Major Nelson and Major Healey over on I Dream of Jeannie didn’t want Jeannie to expose her magic to the other muggles, but I don’t recall they ever forbade her from using it when nobody was watching.

But Darren…he was actively witch-shaming his own wife, AND THEN HIS DAUGHTER!

Jackhole.

Guess what? It’s time for a SURPRISE METAPHOR!

I see a lot of folk over on the polyamory discussion forums (not here, elsewhere) complain that their partners struggle with them being poly. Now, when it’s the case of a previously monogamous couple opening up, I get it. That’s a transition that I can’t even imagine taking on.

But I’m seeing it from folk who were openly polyamorous BEFORE they get into these relationships – and then the people that they’re dating start asking them to change.

DON’T BE A DARREN. I guess that’s what I’m trying to say.

Of course, unless you’re old enough to have watched Bewitched either in its first run or on re-runs on Nick at Night, you haven’t the foggiest clue what I’m talking about.

But that’s okay. If you’re that young, then there’s time for you to figure all this shit out later.

Another post-GRUE Post: Part 2 – Ownership of time

In the first part of this post, I shared my epiphany on thinking in terms of needs of a relationship instead of talking about the needs of a person.

But then I had to go to work, because I’m a responsible adult and stuff, who fills my time with all manner of things that are important to me.

Key word: my time.

So, from the last post:

The language I use and the way that I use it is specifically selected to internalize the very big lessons I’ve learned from past unsuccessful attempts at dating poly: that I cannot own someone’s time, nor can they own mine.

During the course of the poly discussion at this weekend’s GRUE in Los Angeles, someone brought up a very familiar topic in the mono/poly dynamic. It was that sense that the partner that’s not dating additional partners would get sad or lonely when their only partner was out on a date with someone else; and that the partner that’s out with someone else feels responsible for this unhappiness.

I’m going to add that this isn’t only a thing that happens in mono/poly relationships. Not too long ago I read a post a friend of mine wrote about feeling lonely when his wife was out on another date and he was home with the cat.

This sharing of his feelings prompted many well-intentioned folk to offer advice on how to “fix” his loneliness. They suggested he find another date for any night that his wife was having a date. The suggested that he not “allow” his wife to spend the night elsewhere, that she should come home to him. Many people offered to keep him company while he sat alone with the cat.

Thing is, he wasn’t asking for help or advice. He was sharing a feeling – a natural, non-life threatening feeling. In a way, he was removing the “photoshop” elements from the relationship and showing that it’s not all rainbows and sunshine, even in the strongest and most open of marriages.

When I am home alone on a Saturday night while my partner is out doing fun things with another partner, that is my choice. Nothing and nobody is stopping me from having a social life if I want one. I can invite people over. I can go to the movies. I can hang out with friends. Hell, if I wanted to, I could go on a date.

I don’t want to.

This isn’t some brand new revelation. I’ve written about it before, and often.

When we were still figuring out how all this was going to work between us, there was plenty of discussion on how I was going to adapt to fulfill the needs of a relationship with a poly partner. There was also a point at which I asked him if he was comfortable having a monogamous partner.

That’s when I became somewhat aware that there was a sense of concern he felt toward my not having a good time when he wasn’t around; or that he might not be “enough” for me to feel happy or fulfilled in the long term.

I realized I wasn’t the only one that had to make some concessions in order to make this relationship work. There was a very real insecurity that he had to overcome on not being “enough” for me. The irony, of course, is that you’ll frequently hear the monogamous partner in a poly relationship complain about not feeling like they’re “enough” to satisfy their partner.

But, a post on the relative meanings of “enough” are for another time. (Plus, I think I maybe already wrote one).

I made a conscious decision not only to remember that I cannot own somebody else’s time; but also to own the responsibility for my own time. He’s not responsible for the nights I fail to make other plans. He’s not responsible for my loneliness. I cannot force him to spend time with me.

He has to want to. And he does.

If and when my loneliness presents itself, is not a problem that needs to be solved. If it does need to be solved, I need to solve it myself, by taking it upon myself to engage in other interests with other people.


Related writings:

Another Post-Grue Post: Part 1 – Addressing the needs of each relationship

I’m a fan of using precise language to break down concepts in my own head. For example, differentiating between “my night” and “the night he spends with me” in relation to my partner and how he divides his time among his partners.

Key word: His time.

Does it mean the same thing if I’m trying to get a point across that Friday night is “my night” and that’s why I don’t go out on Saturdays as much anymore? Probably, to the person I’m talking to, but not to me. The language I use and the way that I use it is specifically selected to internalize the very big lessons I’ve learned from past unsuccessful attempts at dating poly: that I cannot own someone’s time, nor can they own mine. We choose to spend time with each other, and it just so happens that it’s usually on Friday nights.

During this past weekend’s GRUE in Los Angeles, I participated in another discussion – this one on polyamory. I do wish it’d been able to go on longer, but it was toward the end of the day and the circumstances were what they were.

It was very cool to participate in the discussion and have two other mono/poly participants in the room. While a lot of the issues that face polyamorous couples and groups have similar themes, the monogamuggles tend to adapt to them with slight differences – but enough of a difference that it felt good to not be the only one in the room.

During the course of the discussion, I had a bit of an epiphany. It wasn’t groundbreaking or anything, but it was another one of those things where the slight adjustment in language used helped deflate a common struggle I have with the concept of being “needy.”

Often, when you take a hinge partner, for example – the partner that has multiple partners, they’ll talk about what each of their partners needs separately. Partner A needs this, Partner B needs this, Partner C needs this. It sets up this sense that the hinge is the sole provider of any work in the relationship, and that at some point they might resent or burn out on this pressure of having to cater to the needs of all these different partners.

With a slight adjustment in the language, I think it might be easier to alleviate the perceived burden of responsibility.

Relationship A needs this. Relationship B needs this. Relationship C needs this.

P.S. there is no hierarchy implied in my selection of variables.

Anyway, in my own mind, it helps to think of it that way. When the needs of the relationship are addressed then the burden of being “needy” is taken away from one or the other partner specifically. When the needs of the relationship are addressed, it more evenly distributes the responsibility to either party to fulfill those needs.

And, when you’re in a situation where one of your partner’s other relationships needs something that somehow affects you, it might be a little easier to not grow resentful of that need by attributing it in its entirety to your metamour; and remembering that your partner has a vested interest in wanting that relationship to work. Their needs are wrapped up in the relationship’s needs as well.

That’s it on this. I have another point to make that came out of this discussion, but I gotta go to work. To be continued.