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.
Everything in my life lately is a metaphor for dating and relationships.
I was recruited for a new job. I went on one interview. Then another. Then another. Between the second and third interviews I had trouble getting their attention to schedule a time (the third interview was at their request).
And then I heard nothing.
I reached out to the recruiter and asked if they had any insight. They said I should definitely hear by the next week. I followed up with the CEO of the organization. She confirmed they’d be in touch the following week.
And then I heard nothing.
Friday was my personal deadline to hear back from them before I withdrew my interest. My mom said, “If they call you a week later and offer you the job you’ll take it, though….” and I said, “No. I won’t.”
See, ’cause they way they treat you when you’re dating is supposed to be the BEST you’ll ever get with them. Once we settle into our routine, I’ll know what they’re really like, but in the beginning, I’m supposed to feel like they’ve as much interest in keeping tabs on me as I am in keeping tabs on them.
If someone I was dating had sent such mixed signals, they never would have made it to the third date. And, now having ghosted me for the second time…
I know my value enough to know that an employer who doesn’t contact me after two weeks after promising the world is an employer who makes empty promises, same as I would if some guy on OK Cupid showed tons of interest at first and then disappeared without so much of a “nice to meet you.”
A few months ago, when I thought I might lose access to my alternate Facebook account because they would not accept “Phi” as a name I am known by, there were hundreds of comments in the polyamory discussion groups lamenting the potential loss of my participation.
In the end, I was able to modify my name and continue participating. Everything was fine until a week or so ago, when someone posted something that I felt went against one of the group rules (no derisive comments against any relationship style, including monogamy). Despite my, and several other members’ protests, the group administrators allowed the post to remain unmodified.
I questioned whether or not to stay in the group and several people suggested it would be a shame to lose my voice in the group because I’ve helped so many people.
But I felt that with that post, the group administrators had taken a stand that said “your voice in this forum is not respected.”
I left the group and started my own, because a relationship in which there are agreements that are not upheld by those who set them is not a relationship that deserves my emotional labor.
Selling My House
I listed the house at a lower price, hoping to inspire multiple offers and incite a bidding war. I did get multiple offers, but they weren’t much higher than my original asking price. Meanwhile, the job thing fell through and I no longer had the pressing motivation to move beyond wanting a shorter commute to my existing job. But, hey – I’ve been making that commute for ten years. Another few months won’t kill me.
So I say I’m going to wait before countering, and the buyer’s agent says “Well, the buyer is on a strict timeline….”
Yeah…well, I’m not, champ. So if you’re on a strict timeline, that’s good for you, but I’m not going to take a hit on the sale of my house to accommodate your timeline.
The buyer threatened to pull their offer.
It’s been a week. They increased it. I’m countering today.
I know that the value of my house and my stress-level in packing up and moving out of there is incompatible with that of a buyer who is motivated to get me out, but no so much that he’s willing to pay a reasonable price. The fact that he made an offer isn’t enough doesn’t mean I have to accept it if I’m perfectly comfortable staying where I’m at. Same with the dating world, where the fact that someone shows more than a passing interest in you does not mean you have to drop everything to be with them, lest you find yourself all alone.
I’d rather live in my house than sell it to the wrong buyer.
And I’d rather be alone than in a relationship with the wrong partner.
My Current Employer
I’d told them I was interviewing and I might be leaving them soon. They freaked out a little and begged me to stay. I was honest with them – told them I wasn’t going to turn down the other position if it was offered to me, but that if it wasn’t – we could have a conversation about what it would take to stop looking.
Now that I’ve decided that other job isn’t in my best interest, it’s time to decide what to do with this one. I briefly spoke with my CFO about my concerns. She validated them and told me she agreed with me on many of them. She felt that what our organization is going through are growing pains and lots of organizations go through this, but that if we stick it out together, we’ll stand on the other side of this troubling time having grown both personally and professionally from the experience.
I told her we were in the “couples counseling” phase of our relationship. I was going to have to air my grievances, and they were going to have to validate and address them if we’re going to move forward – but that I have every intention of feeling fulfilled, appreciated, and acknolwedged for my contributions to my workplace, and if that’s not something that can happen here, I will seek it elsewhere.
Ever since I told people that I had given my employer a heads up that I was interviewing for another position, I’ve been counseled that it was a bad idea. Thing is, my employer needed to know that I was unhappy to the point of being willing to leave. I know my value as an employee …I know they wouldn’t be pleased to see me go. And now that they know I’m willing to walk away, I’m in the power seat during these negotiations. I can name my price (as long as it’s reasonable) and they will likely give it to me.
Of course, that will mean having to continue to prove that I will be worth whatever it is I ask for. In this case, it’s not so much about the pay rate as it is about the authority and autonomy over my department, and a seat a the table during the executive meetings.
But I’ll take a little more money, too.
Yes, on the surface – all of these situations are easily compared to some of the broader aspects of dating and relationship building. But there’s a deeper connection they all have that is what dating and relationship building really boils down to:
I finally learned to set my own value rather than allow others to set it for me.
Whatever happens with this house or this job or the next one, I know my worth. Since reaching this epiphany, I’ve noticed I spend far less time pining for the attention of those who would not give it enthusiastically, and more time cultivating relationships (be they romantic, platonic, or professional) with people who value me as highly as I value them.
The most painful part of my monthly waxing isn’t the part where she’s ripping the hair out my most sensitive places. It’s having to maintain a conversation with her for the two hours I spend on her table.
Yes, two hours. She’s meticulous. She’s “tweezers to the ass crack” meticulous. This is why I put up with her.
Anyway, so she knows about the kink and the poly. The kink, ’cause…well, I’m naked and spread eagle on her table once a month. Sometimes there are bruises. And the poly, ’cause I hate lying and unless we’re talking about a situation where my relationship dynamic is going to harm my career or cause my grandmother a heart attack, I tend to not keep it a secret.
In case you’re reading this and you’ve not been following along, the tl;dr of my relationship is that I am not polyamorous, but my boyfriend is. And it works out just fine.
Anyway, so she knows. She’s known all along. And last year there were a couple of sessions where she asked a lot of questions and I had the patience to explain it to her. She asked all the regular questions: “don’t you get jealous?” (not about sex) “doesn’t it bother you he’s with someone else?” (no.) “Don’t you want to get married though?” (negative.) And my favorite, “I’m just afraid you’re going to get hurt.” (yeah, ’cause monogamous men have never hurt me)
Eventually the novelty of the thing wore off and we didn’t really talk about it anymore. Or, when we’d talk about my relationship she’d ask about what we’ve done for fun or what our plans are for holidays and she knows when I talk about my metamours (who I am good friends with) that they are also my partner’s partners.
So I was a little surprised last night when she started using phrases like “on the side.”
Like, “couldn’t you have a guy on the side, too?”
1) We’ve talked about this before. I could have another relationship if I wanted to. I don’t want to. It’s not how I’m wired. I accept this about me. My partner accepts this about me. It is not a cause for concern for anybody else.
2) “Too?” The phrasing makes it seem as though she believes that either I or one of my metamours holds “on the side” status in his mind. That’s not how it works in our relationship. None of us are “on the side.” I don’t like what “on the side” implies, and I really don’t like what “too” implies.
But I didn’t correct her. Not then, because we’ve been through this before and she just doesn’t get it. She really just doesn’t get it and it’s not worth my energy to keep explaining.
Then she decided to throw a hypothetical situation at me. “I know you say you don’t want to get married again, and that’s fine…” (oh, I’m so glad you approve of my life choices), “But let’s say you change your mind and you marry him…would you still let him have other girls on the side?”
on the side??
At this point, I kind of lost my patience.
“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “That’s like asking if I’d ‘let him’ have blue eyes.”
“No, but you know what I mean,” she said.
“No, you don’t understand what I mean. He is poly. It is who he is. I accept that about him. I didn’t get involved with him so that I could change him.”
“So you would be okay with him having other girls on the side.”
“None of us are ‘on the side’,” I corrected her again.
She’s not gonna get it. She’ll never get it.
But maybe you might.
When talking about polystuff, I’ve often heard (or read) that “time is finite; love is not.” When someone has multiple partners, the amount of time they can spend with any particular one is going to have limitations, because there is time they want and should spend with another one.
However, time is not a useful measuring tool for love. My partner does not love me less when he’s loving someone else. He doesn’t love his other partners less when he’s spending time with me. His love for all of us does not diminish when he’s spending time alone on the toilet.
Time is measurable. Love is immeasurable.
Now that I’ve said that three different times at least three different ways, onto the metaphor.
In a recent comment on a FetLife post in response to my post about the Poly Cookbook, I said:
Time is definitely a finite resource in any relationship, and time in a poly relationship is precious. We’re used to applying value to scarcity. Precious metals. Supply and demand.
But you run the risk of inflating the value of time and thinking that it’s indicative of love. Think of the diamond trade, I guess.
I wanted to follow that metaphor through a little more, but to do so I had to go do a little research on why people say diamonds have inflated value, and test if the metaphor holds water like a measuring cup (which time is not).
Ooh. A metaphor within a metaphor. It’s a metametaphor.
I found a blog titled “Diamonds are Bullshit” that did a decent job of explaining the whole thing in plain English, though I can’t speak to its accuracy because there’s a clear bias against the diamond trade right there in the title.
The bottom line is that diamonds are sold at a retail price, but are bought back at a wholesale price far below it. Sold as a premium, bought back as a discount, they are not the investment you think they are – not like gold or silver which has a very calculable market price and can be bought or sold based on that price (that blog makes this comparison very clearly). According to the blog, the “scarcity” of diamonds is manufactured because all the world’s diamond mines are owned and/or controlled by one company.
Kinda like how a person’s time is really owned and controlled by themselves.
Yes, diamonds do have some value, but when the apocalypse comes access to food and water will be a more valuable resource than a shiny rock.
Similarly, in relationships, time does carry some value. Like I said, it’s precious because it’s finite. But how many monogamous relationships do you know where the couple has nothing but time together and they still can’t stand each other? Time does not equal love.
So, what does? What’s the “food and water” of love? I think that’s probably a pretty personal thing. Different people, based on their personal experiences, history, and preferences show and receive love in different ways. You’ve probably also heard about those “love languages” …
But I think the food and water of love is somewhere in the realm of mutual respect, consideration, and (in the case of romantic love) desire (or at least attraction). I haven’t put as much thought into that as I did the diamond thing, so don’t quote me on that.
I think I’ve followed that thought through to the end now.
First, I’ll establish my credentials:
I’m a monogamous (or mono-amorous) person in a relationship with a polyamorous man. My monogamy is my choice, not necessarily his preference just as his polyamory is his choice, not necessarily my preference. We’ve been at it for just over a year now and it’s going really swell.
I have, prior to this relationship, attempted to date in the polyamorous way two (or three, depending on how you define it) times. All those other attempts were total successes if you measure success by learning from your utter failures.
That’s it. There are no degrees, no fancy letters after my name to indicate that I am in any professional way qualified to offer advice. I’m just a monogamous woman in a happy poly relationship with very few major hiccups.
I read a lot. Talk a lot, too, to other people in situations similar to mine. Usually the biggest issue I can identify is that the mono person is applying monogamous concepts to their poly relationship and it’s backfiring.
I call that cooking poly ingredients with a monogamous cookbook. The example I’ve given most often is the difference between traditional pasta noodles and healthy (gluten free) zoodles, or zucchini noodles.
If you boil skinny strips of zucchini the way you would boil spaghetti, you’re gonna end up with a soggy, mushy, mess. It’s not gonna taste good, look good, or be at all satisfying.
But, if you take those zoodles, and roast them in the oven (or saute them in a pan) with olive oil, you are gonna LOVE it! Unless you really hate vegetables.
And if you really hate vegetables, you really oughtn’t try to date poly….er…i mean, to cook zoodles.
OK, so that metaphor is out of the way.
Here are some common issues that I’ve seen come up when people try to cook poly ingredients with the mono cookbook:
1. You’re trying to experience the future of your relationship.*
You may have read/heard the concept of the “relationship escalator.” It’s kind of like the idea that there are benchmarks for your relationship that mean it’s “leveling up,” or “succeeding.” You date. You kiss. You fuck. You meet the parents. Move in together. Get joint bank accounts. Spawn. Get a life insurance policy. Buy a house. Invest in an RV. Move to Boca.
Things don’t seem to work that way in poly relationships. I think it’s best not to expect them to work that way at all. What I’ve seen from most smooth-running poly relationships is that the relationship is taking place right now. Every day that shit is working out well is a GREAT FUCKING DAY.
Especially for the poly person. You and me? The monogamuggles? We’ve got it easy. One relationship. One sexual partner. One birthday/anniversary to remember. One potential date to your cousin’s wedding.
They’re in a constant state of juggling. Now, that’s on them. Life choices and all. They wanna do it, and you love and accept them for who they are, so…if they wanna juggle they get to juggle. But all that juggling means that they probably do not have the wherewithal to think about where they might be in three years time in terms of your relationship.
You’re lucky if you can get them to plan a week in advance.
For the polyfolk who are reading along and dating and/or considering dating a fine, upstanding monogamuggle (or anybody else, really) – remember that the other side of this equation is that your juggling skills should be advanced enough that you can handle your number of balls without constantly dropping them. If you’re oversaturated with partners and someone keeps getting hurt because you are not effectively juggling, you should..uh….look into that. Just sayin’.
Bottom line, my mono friend? Try not to get ahead of your relationship. I know it sucks that your partner doesn’t live with you and possibly never will. It is nice to wake up next to their smiling face, and their relationship choices mean that’s always gonna be limited to ‘not every night’. All the more reason to enjoy every opportunity where waking up together is an option and not worry so much about whether they’ll relocate in three years when you graduate from college and get a big job in the city. The day for that question will come…in three years.
2. The nature of their other relationships may (and likely will) change.
So, when you sign on they have one, or two other partners and a couple play partners here and there and a casual one-off they see once in a while, and you decide that’s a set up you can live with.
Yeah. Umm….there’s no guarantee that any of those relationships won’t change over time. In fact, it’s pretty darned certain at some point, they will. The casual person might become more. The metamour you’re used to might move away. The once-in-a-while person may move into town and become a hell of a lot more frequent. The point is, you gotta work on keeping your focus on your relationship with your partner independently of who else might be on their leader board.
That might mean being hit with the realization that you were not the final piece of the puzzle or the one thing they didn’t have that they needed to make them feel complete.
Oh man, that ego takes a HIT when that happens. And all those insecurities bubble up and make you feel like you don’t matter and the little demons in your head start lining you up side by side with all those metamours and compare you to them….
It’s hell. Seriously.
But if you can maintain focus on YOUR relationship with YOUR PARTNER, you can usually (hopefully) overcome a lot of those brain goblins that get in the way.
That being said, if you end up feeling like you’re not getting the love, attention, or time you need in order to be happy, it’s always your option to walk away. After all, your relationship qualifies as one of the ones that may change.
3. Your parents probably won’t get it.
Substitute parents for boss, friends, psychologist, hairdresser, manicurist, or that loud-mouthed lady who waxes your legs. Someone in your life will probably not get it. We’re used to people being happy for us when we’re in relationships; but when we’re in poly relationships a non-zero portion of the people who would normally be happy for you are now in a constant state of hoping it all goes away because the idea of it makes them uncomfortable.
They call it being “worried” about you, but really? They’re waiting until they get to say “I always thought you deserved more.”
It’s a weird feeling, and a little bit isolating. You end up feeling like your friends aren’t really your friends, or that your family isn’t all that supportive, and the next thing you know, you’re hanging out with a lot more poly people ’cause at least they get it; but then they keep forgetting (or not understanding) that you’re NOT poly and you still feel a little isolated.
So. Yeah. When that happens, shoot me a message. We’ll start a support group.
4. Expressions of love aren’t all-consuming and can’t really be weighed or measured
They don’t wanna be your “everything.” In fact, some of them might be a little confused/on edge about the notion of being responsible for all your happiness. That’s not how they’re wired and they don’t always put in as much effort into understanding your wiring as you do theirs.
It’s a common thing I see, where the mono person bends over backwards and a half to make room for and accept the poly person’s life choices and proclivities, but the poly person doesn’t take into account that having a monogamous partner also takes a bit of acceptance on their part.
So, when you say things like “I only want to be with you,” and “I don’t know what I’d be without you,” and “I want to spend the rest of my life with you and only you and nobody else but you,” they’re like….gasping for air.
You gotta learn how to translate your proclamations of all-consuming love into terms that show you understand that they are their own people who have responsibilities and commitments in excess of the ones they’ve made with you.
They love you. Probably. I mean, I hope so. But, yeah – assuming that they do, in fact, love you – then you are gonna have to learn to trust that and not let things like “they didn’t text me back for three hours” translate in your head that they don’t love you as much as you love them. You can’t measure love.
And time isn’t indicative of love.
Now, as far as the “they have to understand the way you’re wired” thing, try to remember when you talk about how you love or why you didn’t do anything on Saturday night, that their polyamory is their choice, and your monogamy is yourchoice. They are not to feel responsible for you being lonely when they’re out with their other partner. You are not to make them feel responsible for it.
I mean, you can and they might but that’s gonna end badly and be kind of unhealthy. Try to stay away from that.
Try to remember that neither way is “better” or “worse”. Neither way is more “evolved” than the other.
The evolution is in accepting each others’ different outlooks and still managing to build a relationship around them.
I’ve only got those four for now, ’cause this post is long enough and I’ve already posted two others today.
*Update: Since posting this, I realized that it’s centered more around my experience as an unmarried, non-nesting partner of a polyamorous person. Your results may vary, and definitely if you’re married to your partner and/or transitioning from a long-term monogamous dynamic to a poly one. I haven’t done that, so I don’t have anything concrete to say on how to manage it.
If you’re interested in any of my other poly-related writings, the easiest way is to follow this link to the polystuff section of my public blog
The other day, I read the words “I deserve to be surrounded by people who appreciate me…” and saw a writing in which someone wrote a letter to her partner’s partners. Two different writings that I’ve since lost track of.
So, with the full disclosure of where this particular writing is coming from, understand that it’s from reading a sentence that began with “I deserve” and reading another post addressing the author’s metamours.
My metamours kick ass.
I don’t know that I could do this type of relationship if they didn’t. For context: I’m not poly, but my partner (and his partners) are.
We’re each very different people. That makes sense, though, doesn’t it? I mean, why would someone get a three-scoop sundae with all three scoops being the same flavor?
But it’s all ice cream in the end, so despite our differences, there are some core similarities in our value systems, our integrity, our honesty, and our kindness and support of one another.
I’ve had people from outside the scene ask me, “Is it like that show “sister wives?”
I gotta answer, “I don’t know, I’ve never watched it.”
(note: upon reading this, H and I agreed not to ever call each other “sister wives.”)
Here’s what I do know. I respect and care deeply for these two friends of mine. These are people who are on my list of people I step up for. There’s a lot of that here on the Fetscape, isn’t there? Lots of “packs” and “houses” and “siblings” and all the profiles state that the people in their headers are the people you’re protective over.
My metamours are quite capable of protecting themselves. In fact, I think they’d probably feel more protective over me if shit ever hit the fan. Of all of us, I’m the least handy with a blade.
But, where I am strong, I share my strength with them. My time, my home, my energy, my heart, and my words will protect them whenever they are needed or requested.
Here’s what I’d write, in my letter to my metamours. I’d probably title it “A letter to my friends,” because that’s what they are, first and foremost.
Dear E & H,
We all love the same man. He’s a lucky man. He’s a good man. I think he deserves our love, don’t you?
When I think about that word ‘deserve’ – it takes me through a series of memories on the journey that brought me to where I am today. My life is not your life. My hardships look different than your hardships and a side by side comparison would have my shit lookin’ easy, for sure. I’m grateful for all the good I had and even more grateful to have survived the bad.
When I think about the word “deserve,” and I look into his eyes – I can honestly say that I feel like I deserve this happiness. Yep. Feelin’ entitled over here. I’m a good person swimming in a positive karmic balance sheet.
When I think about the word “deserve,” and I think about each of you – I feel exactly the same way. I’ve done this thing before, the poly thing with metamours. It wasn’t like this with them. They made me feel threatened. You make me feel safe.
But did you know that when I first started down this road, you both scared the crap out of me? Because I didn’t know. All I had was my past experiences to go on, and those had soured the taste of this lifestyle for me. I had choruses in my head of “these people are not the same people. Their motivations are not the same motivations” on repeat until they pushed those fears away.
I admire each of you for all the ways you are different from me, and feel connected to each of you in all the ways we are alike.
I can look into his eyes and tell him how happy he makes me, but I don’t know that I’ve ever acknowledged (at least to you directly) that you are the reasons I’m happy now. It’s because of you that he’s even in my life. And not just because you’re comfortable with his poly or because you literally introduced us – but also because, as friends and metamours go – y’all are top notch. You’re good people. A testament to his taste, to be sure – but a reason why he feels safe to me. It’s because you feel safe to me.
I’m sure I haven’t always felt 100% safe to either of you. I mean, I know for sure there have been moments when my increasing presence in his life might have been unsettling for either or both of you. I suppose that’s to be expected. I’d feel exactly the same way if the roles had been reversed.
You feel safe to me now. I feel safe in saying something to you now that I wouldn’t have thought possible.
I love you.
And thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
I’m about as happy as I’ve ever been. I think we all deserve to feel that.
(posted with permission from the metamours themselves)