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Definitions: Polyamorous Hierarchy

A post by the blogger SexGeek last month on polynormativity has created quite a stir in my poly circles, with some of the discussion focusing on whether hierarchical poly relationships can ever be ethical. I have lots to say about hierarchical poly relationships, but first I want to clear up one thing: just what exactly I’m talking about when I talk about a poly hierarchy. I’m going to propose a definition here, which I will use and refer back to for subsequent posts. This definition is based on how I most commonly observe hierarchies playing out in poly relationships, but the key here to remember is simply that this is the definition I am using. That is, if you disagree with something I say about hierarchies, but the definition you’re using to ground your disagreement isn’t the same one I’m using, then you’re not actually disagreeing with me. Or if you are, you’re not actually addressing the core of our disagreement head-on, because you’re grounding your argument in a definition that’s different from mine.

I worked hard to get this down to something short, succinct, and more-or-less in plain language. So here is my best definition of a poly hierarchy:

A poly hierarchy is when one person wields more control over their partner’s other relationships than is held by the people within those relationships.

The classic hallmark of such control is “veto” power: the power to require your partner to end another relationship when they would not otherwise agree to. But it manifests in many smaller ways, such as restrictions on how much time a person can spend with their partners, qualifications of potential partners (including, often, ways they must serve the primary couple), where a person can go with a partner or how much money they can spend, whether someone can spend the night with their partners, or even the positions they can have sex in.

Now, I believe most people in exactly this form of hierarchical relationship will howl with disagreement at this definition. They’ll insist hierarchy is in fact something else–reasonable negotiation between adults, for example. In fact, this is what people in hierarchical poly relationships often fall back to when confronted in stark terms with the reality of what they’re doing: they backpedal until they have arrived a a definition that is not hierarchy at all. So let me address a few salient points.

A hierarchy (when it refers to people and not, say, computer programs) is, by definition, about an unequal distribution of power. It refers to rank: first, second, third, etc. (hence the terms “primary” and “secondary”). We speak of hierarchies, for example, in companies and in the military. Generally speaking, though, in interpersonal relationships, we only ever use the word when speaking of poly relationships. We don’t use them, for example, when speaking about a couple with children, or siblings, or an extended-family network, even when such networks may include a complex web of commitments, priorities and interdependencies. So with the phrase “poly hierarchy,” I am referring to a specific structure concerning three or more adults in a romantic network. A poly hierarchy does not concern the distribution of power among other players in a person’s life, which could range from employers to landlords to parents or children. It refers to the distribution of power among romantically connected adults.

A poly hierarchy is also not a set of boundaries. A boundary is a statement about what you need and what you will accept. In a negotiation between grown-ups, an adult states their boundaries and trusts their partner to honour them–and does not, generally, stay in a relationship where their clearly defined boundaries are consistently crossed. A hierarchy, on the other hand, dictates another person’s behaviour with regard to the other person or the other person’s other partners. Examples:

Not hierarchy: To protect my sexual health, I choose not to have unprotected intercourse with anyone who has unbarriered sex with anyone else. If you choose to have unbarriered sex with someone other than me, I may use condoms with you, or even refrain from having intercourse with you at all. However, because I know you value the ability to have unbarriered sex with me, I trust you to check in with me about my comfort level before you choose to have unbarriered sex with someone else.

Hierarchy: I don’t want to have to use condoms with you or stop having sex with you, so you are not permitted to have unprotected intercourse with anyone but me unless I agree to it.

The second example is hierarchical because the speaker is making decisions for their partner’s relationships in which the other partners–the invisible third parties–have a lesser say.

A poly hierarchy is also not the same as providing information to your partner about what your needs are in the relationship. In a negotiation between adults, each person expresses their needs in the relationship and trusts the other to decide what the best way to meet them is. For example, if I need more of a partner’s time, it is for me to say I need more of their time, and for them to say whether they can give it to me, and what other activities they will take that time from. It is not for me to decide, for example, that they must take a lower-paying job or cancel their poker night or stop visiting their mom or whatever it is think they should give up. They must be free to decide whether they can give me what I’m asking for, and how they will do that. Example:

Not hierarchy: I’m being asked to work longer hours and I can no longer take the kids to daycare every day. I need you to help me figure out a solution to make sure they get dressed and ready and off to daycare in the morning. I hope you and your partners will be open to adjusting your own schedules to help me accommodate these new circumstances.

Hierarchy: I’m being asked to work longer hours and I can no longer take the kids to daycare every day. You can’t spend the night with your partners anymore, because you have to start taking the kids to daycare.

Some would say this is a subtle difference, but I disagree. I think people say it’s subtle or hard to understand, or simply an issue of semantics, because they don’t want to confront the truth of what they’re really doing. In the first examples, the speaker is making statements about their needs and approaching their partner as an equal to work with them to solve a problem. They are leaving their partner’s own choices in their partner’s hands not making any statements about the behaviour of third parties (e.g. their partner’s other partners).

The key elements of a poly hierarchy are:

  • The ability to make rules or place limits on what can happen in relationships that are not yours (i.e. your partner’s other relationships).
  • Non-reciprocity: Your partners other partners may not place the same restrictions on your relationship that you can place on theirs.

If it doesn’t have these elements, it’s not a hierarchy. It’s something else.

Additionally, the following are not elements of a poly hierarchy:

  • Expressing your needs in a relationship regarding your partner’s behaviour toward you.
  • Making agreements with your partner concerning your own behaviour in relation to them or commitments you share (such as children) and trusting your partner to keep such agreements with you.
  • Letting your partner make their own decisions regarding how they will honour your needs and meet your shared commitments while building the kind of life they want for themselves.
  • Setting healthy limits on the kinds of relationships you will build or stay in, such as refusing to stay with a partner who consistently breaks agreements.

These are examples of how adults with mutual agency in a relationship relate to one another. These are also the kinds of things people who practise hierarchical poly say they are doing, when pressed to defend their practices. However, the key difference concerns personal agency: who makes decisions for whom.

The underlying premise of the hierarchical approach seems to be that they do not believe their partners can be trusted to keep agreements or honour their relationships when left to their own devices or allowed to make their own decisions–that unless strict rules are enforced, chaos will take over and all hell will break loose.

I guess, generally, I have a higher opinion of people than that. I certainly don’t understand why someone would choose to be in a relationship with someone they felt that way about.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. More on this–I expect, much more–later.

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