Many of us start really learning how to be a grown-up when we go to university or move out of our parents’ homes. When we do that, we acquire certain obligations, and no longer have anyone there as backup for them. Things like getting to class, turning in assignments on time, cleaning the bathroom, or not setting the building on fire. For many of us, those responsibilities also include things like paying rent or tuition or making it to a job to help with those obligations. We have to learn how to prioritize our time to juggle those various responsibilities. For some that means partying all term, then drinking litres of coffee and pulling all-nighters the night before finals. For others it means curbing social time, maybe even taking a break from dating, and committing ourselves to strict discipline. For others it means working two jobs just to pay for rent and food.
The key is that in learning how to be a grown-up, we learn how to make these choices ourselves. We learn what works for us and what doesn’t. And generally speaking, while there are usually people in our lives holding us accountable—a landlord or professors, for example—we don’t usually consider it reasonable for those people to micromanage our lives in order to meet those commitments: determining, for example, whom we can spend our time with, how late we can stay out on dates or whether we will have sex, all in the name of making sure we get good grades or make rent. No matter how overprotective our parents may have been, by the time we’ve been on our own for a couple of years, hopefully we have learned some basic coping skills to scrape through life without having someone else manage—for example—our time, money and relationships.
Somehow, though, a lot of people seem to get this idea that if they’re to allow their partner to have other partners, the only way to ensure their partner honours their commitments is to manage their partner’s other relationships and to have ultimate decision-making authority over what happens within them. Somehow, in the context of multiple relationships, many people assume their partners need to be treated like children. This is where the dynamic of the poly hierarchy can creep in. (This happens in both monogamous and polyamorous relationships, too, of course, with things like finances, scheduling, housework or parenting.)
It’s obvious why we’re inclined to do this. The stakes are high; mistakes can be costly, and learning always involves mistakes—sometimes big ones. Why take the risk of letting them find their own way when it’s so much easier to just do it for them? But doing so breeds resentment among all parties involved, robs your partner of agency, stifles their opportunity to learn and grow, and in extreme cases can lead to some very destructive dynamics. For many people, one of the hardest parts of all committed relationships, I think, can be to accept where our partners are in their growing-up process and to share with them the risks that come with that growth, rather than trying to protect them (and ourselves) from that risk.
Not every adult actually is a grown-up. Some people don’t grow up until their thirties, forties, or ever. The thing is, the solution to not being a grown-up isn’t to hand over control of your life and personal decisions to someone else. It’s to start growing up. And the solution to being in a relationship with someone who is not a grown-up or who makes poor decisions is not to insist on making their decisions for them. It’s to support them in learning how to make good decisions for themselves, have patience for their mistakes, and do what you need to do to take care of yourself and those who depend on you (i.e. children) in the face of their missteps.
And if you don’t have the time, patience or emotional resiliency for that, then it’s also a good idea to make it a habit to only get involved with grown-ups.