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Can polyamorous hierarchies be ethical? Part 1: The tower and the village

June 10, 2016

Awhile back, Tikva Wolf, creator of the excellent webcomic Kimchi Cuddles, posted a query on her Facebook page: Can hierarchical relationships ever be ethical? I’ve been chewing on a response to that question for some time, because the answer is not simple. I mean, we spend probably a solid 50 pages in More Than Two trying to tease apart how to make relationship agreements ethical—and we still don’t really answer that question. I finally realized, that’s because it’s the wrong question. If we’re concerned about treating our partners ethically, then the right questions are not Can a hierarchy be ethical? or Is this a hierarchy?

But in order to define the right questions, we need to talk about hierarchy. And that’s a long enough discussion that I am going to break it into three parts. When we get to part three, I’ll talk about the questions we really need to be asking.

Defining Hierarchy

It seems to me that basically every discussion of hierarchy in polyamorous relationships eventually circles back to a discussion of what people mean by the word “hierarchy”—and then stays there, unable to reach escape velocity from the gravity of that never-ending semantic debate. I do not want to continue that debate here. Rather, I want to try to shed some light on why we keep having it. I don’t actually think it’s because people have different definitions and we can’t all agree. I think something a little more subtle is afoot.

I originally penned the definition of hierarchy that would eventually become Chapter 11 of More Than Two in a post here back in early 2013. In that post—and later in More Than Two—I focused on the power structures that you often see in poly relationships that are defined as hierarchical, especially those where the terms “primary” and “secondary” are preferred. Specifically, I said there:

A poly hierarchy exists when at least one person holds more power over a partner’s other relationships than is held by the people within those relationships.

Essential elements of a poly hierarchy defined this way are authority, where a person (the “primary”) has the ability to make rules about a relationship that they’re not in, and asymmetry, meaning that others don’t have the same authority over the primary relationship.

In More Than Two, cartoonist Tatiana Gill helped us portray this visually, where power from within one “primary” relationship was used to restrict the levels of connection and commitment permissible within another, relationship:


Such hierarchies are typically expressed through rules that may be more or less complex: things like limits on money or time spent together, sex acts that can be engaged in, and even feelings that can be expressed may all be included. Vetoes—which we define as one partner being able to unilaterally end another relationship without discussion—are common in such hierarchies, but are neither universal nor their defining feature.

Now, we know this isn’t how everyone uses the word. We acknowledged as much in More Than Two. It is, however, one of two prominent definitions used among poly people. So let’s talk about the other definition.

Many people claim that a hierarchy is any poly situation in which one relationship gets more time, energy, priority, commitment, sex, or other resources than another relationship.

So what’s wrong with that definition?

Well nothing, specifically. Except that it’s useless. For starters, that’s basically all relationships. This is the position advanced by people (including us) who argue against use of the word hierarchy in this sense.

Did I say it’s useless? I didn’t mean completely useless. It has a use, but it’s not the one you think. To the people who promote this definition, the usefulness doesn’t have to do with communicating an idea. It has to do with obscuring another one.

Things are about to get a little abstract here, but bear with me, because I’m about to talk about something that happens all. the. fucking. time. in poly communities—and it has a name.

The Tower and the Village

About a decade ago, neuroethicist Nicholas Shackel coined what he called the motte and bailey doctrine. The name refers to a kind of castle that was popular in Western Europe in the early medieval period. The motte is a hill topped by a fortified keep and often surrounded by a ditch or moat. The bailey is basically the rest of the castle: a bit of land containing the rest of the buildings and surrounded by a fence or wall (and possibly another moat). To make this a bit easier to follow, I’m going to refer to the motte as the “tower” and the bailey as the “village,” as shown in the following image:


Now the tower, being on a hill and fortified as it is, is much easier to defend than the village. So when the village is attacked and the walls are about to be breached, everyone can run to the tower, bar the doors, and dump boilng oil on top of the attackers (or whatever other horrific defence strategies were employed in the 12th century). But no one really wants to live in the tower very long—ultimately, they need the village. So the tower is only defended until the attackers have been beaten back or have moved on, at which point everyone reoccupies the village.

The motte and bailey doctrine describes how this same tactic can be used in an argument. You have two positions: one (the tower) is easy to defend, but ultimately not the one you really care about. The other (the village) is a lot harder to defend, but it’s also the thing that matters to you. So in an argument, you defend the village—until you can’t, at which point you retreat to the tower, and defend that. Once the pressure has lifted, you can relax and head back out to your village.

A good example comes up sometimes when trying to converse with people who believe strongly in astrology. If you don’t, and say as much, there’s a response that some people will bring out: “Well, you can’t deny that the moon and the sun have some influence in our lives! Just look at the tides and the seasons.” And, well, sure. No one can deny that. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a thing, circadian rhythms are a thing. As for the moon…that’s out of my wheelhouse, so I won’t comment, but I wouldn’t find it all that surprising to learn that there’s empirical data supporting some effects of the moon on our mood, emotions or hormonal cycles. So that’s the tower: some celestial bodies affect our lives in some ways. That’s relatively easy to defend.

The village, of course, is the idea that there’s some complex system through which dozens of celestial bodies affect our lives in intricate ways that can be predicted by mathematical formulas—right down to who’s the best partner for us or what day is a good day to sign a contract. If you want to convince me of that, well…you need to have more evidence than pointing out the tides and seasons.

The motte and bailey doctrine is an indispensable part of the way poly communities talk about hierarchy and whether it’s an ethical way to structure your relationships.

In this version of the argument, the hierarchy-means-everyone’s-a-special-snowflake argument is the tower. It’s easy to defend, because this is true of, well basically every relationship on the planet. No two relationships—even those prescribed by rigid gender and social roles—are or can ever be exactly the same, and no sane person would argue that they should be. The counterpart to this argument is the notion that “egalitarian” polyamory entails an expectation that all the relationships be the same. As we say in More Than Two, “Expecting the same level of commitment and entwinement from each [of your relationships] would be high-order foolishness.”

The fact that this form of hierarchy exists in every human being’s relationship life does not, as one might expect, make it a useless concept, though. In fact it’s a very useful concept indeed—because it doesn’t actually exist to communicate an idea. It exists to protect the village.

The village is the definition of hierarchy I gave at the beginning: where certain partners expect to be able to control other relationships that their partners are in. It’s usually clear that this is what’s really going on because people don’t tend to stay in the tower very long. Once someone has defended their tower—getting everyone to agree to the obvious statement that yes, all relationships need and consume different resources and have different priorities—you can often see them creeping back out onto the village.

An example of this is when people start talking about the idea of “respecting” the primary (or marital, or nesting, or parental, or whatever you call it) relationship. With the possible exception of some relationship anarchists, most people will accept at face value the idea that you should respect a partner’s other relationships, in that it’s a good idea to support your partner in keeping their commitments and doing things that support the health of their relationship life, and also in that most people understand that long-established, entwined relationships (particularly with children) tend to involve more time, energy and priority than newer or less entwined relationships (tower).

But are members of a couple saying that “respect” means not voicing criticism of abusive or manipulative behaviour? Not advocating for your own needs in a relationship? Not expressing your own feelings of love or attachment? Never asking for your relationship to take some priority some of the time? Then that’s a power hierarchy: the village. Watch what happens when you challenge this. Does the couple retreat to the tower? Do they say things like “Well you wouldn’t give someone the keys to your house on the first date!” “We’ve been together 10 years, we just have more sweat equity!” “You can’t expect everyone to be equal.” And the classic “We have to put our children first.”

The thing is that none of these statements are wrong. That’s why someone is saying them—because they’re the tower, easy to defend. But it’s not about these things, not really. It’s about the village: how much control someone has over what happens a relationship they’re not in.

Defining egalitarian polyamory as “everyone gets the same” and hierarchical polyamory as “every relationship is different” makes non-hierarchical poly seem easy to dismiss, and people who try to practise it, impractical ideologues. This conversational trick is devastatingly effective at shutting down discussions about the ethical implications of power dynamics in poly networks.

Lest I be accused of being too hard on primary partners, let me point out that secondary (or satellite, or peripheral, or whatever you like to call them) partners can also employ rhetorical tricks to confuse discussions of the power dynamics in poly networks.

A common one is to look at any unequal distribution of resources and call it a hierarchy. Since the idea of hierarchical relationship networks has, over the last few years, become increasingly frowned on in at least some poly subcultures, an accusation of having a hierarchical relationship is often a criticism—and can really sting if it comes from someone you love, especially if you’re actively working to avoid the power imbalances that we describe in More Than Two as hierarchies. Sometimes the accusations are true, but sometimes they point to other kinds of problems, which I’ll discuss later in this series.

Unfortunately, I do think that in many instances where I’ve seen these tactics used, the driving force behind them is just straight up intellectual dishonesty. But very often, I think it’s more innocent than that, and comes from a genuine confusion over what power within healthy relationships looks like—and from the fact that very often it can be hard to tell, from outside a relationship, exactly what the power dynamic is within it.

That’s what Part 2 is about.

  1. Cevanne permalink
    June 9, 2016 10:11 pm

    “A common one is to look at any unequal distribution of resources and call it a hierarchy.” This here. I think this is quite common. Also, confusing Couple Privilege (as in the things that aren’t under the control of the couple that are allotted to them by society and culture) and things like time and resources that *are* under their control.

    • June 10, 2016 8:57 am

      People can “check” their couple privileged and deconstruction it, so that what remains is an open space for true egalitarian relating. It takes vigilance.

      • Bhramari Dasi permalink
        June 10, 2016 9:18 am

        *deconstruct* (I wish there was a way to edit one’s own comments. I’m terrible at proofreading my own writing.)

  2. Susan permalink
    June 9, 2016 10:53 pm

    I teach. In every classroom the ideal is that given the same time, resouces, energy, patience, etc that all children will be equally successful. This is a is very false, but people have this idea that equal materials in will equal all outcomes.
    All relationships are different and the amount of materials each part of a poly relationship set needs is going to be, from a resource standpoint, unequal. The point isn’t about resouces but about being able to acknowledge that to make X work sometime A gets less reaouces and P get more.
    This works ONLY if there is good communication. Unfortunately, thw over-culture we live in doesn’t teach these skills and the relationship commincation portrayed in the media (which bombards us all the time even if we don’t want it to) is so ridiculously bad that it leaks into our lives.
    I have been poly my entire life, I am 51. I have been and or am part of a number of different relationships-one of which has been going on for 34 years come September. What I have learned is that relationships grow and change. The problems I have experienced is typically because of holding on to some aspect (of the past, or imagined future) to the point where things start to become strained or break.
    What does this long winded essay have to do with the topic? I’m nit sure, but I think it has to do with the fact that poly is now a commonish term and we want non-poly people to understand us better so we are trying to fit explanations of our life to others and this gets carried over into out intimate networks.

    Really not sure that this comment is really on topic or not but the article, which I really liked, brought up these thoughts which I have tried to convey.

  3. Lucy permalink
    June 10, 2016 12:22 am

    I think that I’ve found poly harder because cultural messages about relationships often assume that manipulation and asserting power are normal parts of relationships – and many people don’t have the skills to talk about relationships without resorting to those tactics. A lot of poly discussions about relationships include anxiety and even fear so while it’s not surprising that people resort to rhetorical tricks, it’s really harmful to all involved.

    • Edward Kevin OHara permalink
      June 10, 2016 5:48 am

      I agree with Lucy on this – when one feels something really important is threatened, like ones self image, or a treasured relationship then it is often difficult to be cool calm and collected – just the time when help might be required to accept what has or is happening – Also this sort of pressure on a person can easily trigger an old, unresolved hurt, so one might not be reacting to today’s situation but a wound from yesterday

  4. Bhramari Dasi permalink
    June 10, 2016 5:39 am

    I would LOVE to share this, but there are just too many – distracting – words!! I say this with all love for the position being presented here and the people who have the balls to do it.

    First you take us one click away from the point, by referring to “motte and bailey”. That’s where my brain started wanting me to stop reading. WITHIN that you take us even another click further away, by bringing up astrology and conversation around that. AT that point my brain got more annoyed. Then you tangle all this stuff together, to the extent my brain starts to hurt and I actually did stop reading, leaping over paragraphs to get back to the main point.

    I recommend and even request taking out everything from “Things are about to be a little abstract….”, only extracting and keeping that which truly references non-monogamy. I skim and leap over the next few paragraphs, so most truly relevant points within them get unnoticed and unread. It’s a lot of extraneous information….and just…..too many words!

    Think about it. The people we need to read and understand this point the MOST, likely do not have the brainwave bandwidth to take in all that other stuff. They are not geeks like some of us. They want/need clear, crisp easy to process information. I became annoyed and impatient and *I* totally agree with you. I get dragged through the prickly shrubbery nearly every time I do. So…please, please….pair this down to something more resistant people will actually completely read! The side references are totally unnecessary to make your point, and in my view – even as someone rabid about this issue – all that reference is highly distracting from a point that needs to hit home.

    Take out the “motte and bailey”, and astrology references and you have a great article! And….thanks for addressing how basically every discussion about hierarchy in poly relationships is derailed by “but….there are always hierarchies in life!” I make it a point to use the term “poly-hierarchy” and then pointedly and assertively secure it’s definition as “an imbalance of power in decision-making that directly affects those who are less empowered by intentional design or unmindful action”. That sets the tone and helps hold focus on the issue.

    • June 10, 2016 6:36 am

      A couple clarifications. I would LOVE to share this *broadly*. Also, I don’t get dragged through the prickly shrubbery *every* time I defend or reference “your” writing (though that happens sometimes too), but nearly every time I try to clarify what we mean by “hierarchy” in a non-monogamous relating context, and/or assert that poly-hierarchy is unethical.

    • June 10, 2016 9:55 am

      With respect, you could always write your own article using the kind of language you prefer. I enjoy the abstractness, and as a writer myself, I know that we all do best with the style that feels natural.

      • Bhramari Dasi permalink
        June 11, 2016 6:43 am

        Miri, I understand. I’m a writer too….and I have written my own pieces….numerous ones in fact. That said, Franklin and Eve’s writing have gained a larger audience and for the most part it’s a handy reference to send people to. Since they generally do such a good job, there is no logic in inventing a wheel that already exists. It just gluts the “airwaves”.

        In our local poly group we’ve tried organizing a book discussion around “More Than Two”. As a poly educator, I often refer people to the “More Than Two” blog. In both cases a number of people have said they find the numerous analogies distracting and confusing, and – paraphrasing here but still accurate in the sentiment – a contribution to the reading just being too dense. So I offer my critique as constructive. In general I think they do great at presenting an approach that I am passionate about, and deconstructing common limiting constructs people set up in the name of polyamory.

        As the article stands, feedback is that it’s too long, too abstract and doesn’t seem to ever get to the point of the title, which whether or not poly-hierarchies ethical. As an individual I can get around that. As someone attempting to promote More Than Two as an excellent resource, if I encounter rejection of the material I refer people to, it’s not the perspective that shuts them down, it’s the density of the reading. It would be unfair of me to not share that…and by that I mean unfair to everyone, because the nuggets of every point raised are essential perspectives that I think every non-monogamously practicing person should consider.

      • Michael Steele permalink
        September 17, 2016 9:50 am

        I support keeping the analogies in. I’m “relationship dense,” and the motte and bailey concept, and comparison to astrology, clarified things for me in a way that allowed the article to have meaning for me. I’ll willingly admit that I would have missed the point of this section without those examples.
        Granted, some people don’t want to expend the intellectual effort to tie all these concepts together, nor to wait for subsequent articles to get to the actual point. I submit that these people are not the target audience, and Bhramari, perhaps it would be better for your friends if you DID write a synopsis for them, with a link to this article as a resource for those with the bandwidth to spare. 🙂

    • June 13, 2016 8:50 am

      I really loved the analogies! I say keep ’em in. 🙂

  5. Edward Kevin OHara permalink
    June 10, 2016 5:40 am

    Im looking at a poly lifestyle as an alternative to a second monogamous relationship – the first mono was with Marjie and it was passionate and committed – 40 years till death intervened

    Problems that I can see looming for me in the (possibly) new poly scene are firstly the time necessary for communication to keep the relationships good – and secondly that my new partners wont really understand their deeper motivations and urges. (Ive had a bit of this with my current partner)

    I have had to get to grips with my murky depths over the years and have just started a second round of personal growth work in anticipation of what comes next for me – is personal growth work a pre-qual for poly or can one just have a go? – flippant, OK, but I feel this point has hidden depths

    From the piece on Castle and Village by Eve it would seem that overt & hidden motivations are rife, with all the attendant manipulations and deceits – I know that sorting through my muck pile for the occasional gem and turfing out all the dross takes one of Hemmingway’s sure fire crap detectors plus a well insulated pitchfork. It also takes lots of time and energy

    • June 11, 2016 7:19 am

      Hi Edward. I hear you. Generally speaking, if one is going to engage in non-monogamous relating, it’s good to be prepared for lots of “AFGOs”, tend to feel juiced by the exercise of self-discovery and personal growth, and have a tendency to enjoy complex relationship dynamics (which is not the same as perpetual drama and high maintenance relationships…which I have virtually no bandwidth for).

      For me the biggest discovery I needed to make was “what do I truly want in relationships?” – and – “what am I actually available for?” I’ve discovered that the answer to both of those questions largely depends on how strong a draw holds for me. So my greatest time spent has been engaging with myself around those things. I know I’m not into daily texting, let alone several times a day texting. I’m not into set schedules. I don’t want to “join” someone else’s relationships, or have people “join” mine. I function as an independent,self-sovereign person. I greedily hold on passionately to my autonomous choices in what I do with my own heart and body. I’m not into rabidly, sloppily “falling in love”, but prefer a slower emotional evolution in relationships. I keep my head attached to my heart. I detest slobbery NRE, but find conscious/mindful (of everyone it’s going to impact) NRE lovely. Over time (big emphasis on that), I *might* become interested in a daily phone call, and in creating a rather regular, agreed upon schedule. OR….I might prefer to see someone only occasionally. I’m not into “shoulding” on others….on myself…or having others “should” on me. And…I could go on.

      Now that I am clear within myself about how I actually function best for my own happiness, I can be true to myself with others, and clear with them about what my truth is. Now that I have most – if not all – of that sorted out, I honestly don’t find non-monogamous relating all that – unwantedly – time consuming. The time that is does take up, is time I am glad is being spent the way it is. A big part of being securely in such a place is that it is clear to me and everyone else that my only “primary” is me, and that all of my time, energy and attention is mine for *me*, and that any of those personal resources I choose to share with others are mine and only mine to offer as I genuinely feel moved to do so.

  6. spicy permalink
    June 10, 2016 6:46 am

    When you say, “Lest I be accused of being too hard on primary partners, let me point out that secondary (or satellite, or peripheral, or whatever you like to call them) partners can also employ rhetorical tricks to confuse discussions of the power dynamics in poly networks,” are you really calling out secondary partners? Or people who are partnered in non-hierarchical relationships who employ “you’re being primaries!” to manipulate their partner into spending more resources on them when distribution among partners becomes unequal? It seems to be the latter, but your mention of secondaries might mean I misinterpreted that.

    • June 10, 2016 9:17 am

      Obviously I’m not Franklin or Eve, so I’m not attempting to answer for them. My own experience as a poly activist, educator and relationship coach, is that a number of people confuse 2 things.

      First,they confuse “egalitarian” with “looks and functions exactly the same”, where a partner’s personal resources of time, energy and attention are expected to be distributed like some sort of evenly measured allotment. Egalitarian means that everyone has equal power in decisions that directly affect them and their relationship with a given person. It doesn’t mean they get to have the exact same “goodies” that partner offers to others. It’s up to the partner to decide what they truly want to authentically offer, and the spaciousness for them to have self-sovereignty to act on that is key.

      Second, they confuse a lover/partner’s chosen path with a given “other love” to be poly-hierarchy if the other lover is getting a greater share of that person’s personal resources than others are. This isn’t poly-hierarchy, unless someone other than that person is demanding it be so. When it comes from the person’s own genuine feelings, it’s simply how they personally choose to engage with another.

      As a staunch advocate of personal autonomy in relationship choices, I’m exposed to conversation around this topic a lot. Eve is pointing out a flawed phenomenon that I too often see.

    • Eve permalink
      June 10, 2016 9:57 pm

      Yes, I think you’re right, spicy—that’s probably a more accurate description of what I was trying to say. Thanks.

      • June 11, 2016 6:58 am

        I know we’re on the same wavelength, Eve. 🙂 Two of my biggest challenges and frustrations are explaining these two perspectives. I’m VERY appreciative of you “calling out” the almost guaranteed turn of events, of discussion of poly-hierarchy devolving into a derailing debate about what we mean by “hierarchy”. So for clarity I always use “poly-hierarchy”, and parenthetically define is it as “An imbalance of power in decision-making that directly affects others outside of one’s immediate relationship with a given partner.” Then if I have to, I give examples. I sometimes trouble over the definition I offer being a bit to abstract and vague (I’ve found many people need this concept more clearly spelled out)…and sometimes I make it a little longer to accommodate that concern.

  7. Another Lucy permalink
    June 10, 2016 7:58 am

    I aim to avoid hierarchy in my relationships, and I don’t use hierarchical language for them. It’s common amongst hierachical poly people I know to say (or for me to observe) that they use the term “primary” descriptively rather than prescriptively. I suspect that’s another way of describing the motte and bailey doctrine (which was a new metaphor to me here — thank you). And I can see, now, how it’s not really a new piece of information to say “someone takes up more of my time and energy than others do” in a descriptive way. Nevertheless, I’ve seen instances of people I know in hierarchical relationships who haven’t (that I’ve observed) treated others poorly in the name of their hierarchies. Granted, with people I’m not dating, I know there’s only so much I can see from the outside. Still, I hold out hope that some people who use hierarchical language descriptively *aren’t* actually falling back on the motte and bailey doctrine. Which would make me want to ask them: if that’s true, why do you need the word “primary” at all? What’s the point of using it? And I’m not sure I know the answer, but I do wonder if part of it is just that poly communities (and individuals) pressure people SO HARD to use hierarchical terms. Even as a cultural shift seems to be happening in the other direction, we’re still definitely at a point where a lot of newly poly people are introduced to polyamory via a model of primary/secondary relationships. I think More Than Two is one of the major driving forces that’s helping to change that, but even for people who (in a vacuum) wouldn’t be sure about using hierarchical terms ALSO probably still feel pressure to use them when talking about relationships to other poly people who use hierarchical terms, and also monogamous people who ask questions and are struggling to understand polyamory.

    I guess the point of my ramble is to ask to what extent some people who use hierarchical language in a way that they’d call “descriptive” are using it mostly to satisfy community expectations, and also because they don’t have alternative language options. (Personally, I love “anchor partner,” as per the Polyamory Weekly article, but I haven’t seen it catch on yet in a widespread sense.) I want to believe there are some people out there who use hierarchical words but never do fall back on “respecting” and “protecting” the primary relationship in negative terms. Even if that’s a minority of people.

    I could (and would) definitely argue that those people should consider using different language for their relationships, since the hierarchical language is so fraught — but I want to stop short of insisting to anybody on a personal level that they use or don’t use any particular label.

    I’m very eager to read part 2 of this article when it comes out!

    • June 10, 2016 4:26 pm

      On the internet no one knows you’re sekritly a dysfunctional relationship nightmare… but that said, I think I’m one of your “good” descriptive hierarchists.

      Personally, what I like about hierarchical terminology is that it’s an explicit statement of priority. Sometimes people’s relationship eyes are bigger than their calendar stomachs; I feel more secure in relationships when I know that my partners have really thought about where they want to put their limited energy. When my secondary partner says that his wife/co-parent come first, and makes relationship choices consistent with that, it helps me trust that *my* place in his life will also be exactly what he says it is.

      And: The constraints on our relationship might be natural consequences of our chosen priorities + finite mortal calendars, rather than arbitrary restrictions imposed by our primary partners… but they’re still real, asymmetric constraints, and our relationship would probably look a lot different without them. I don’t always need to reference this bonsai feeling, or the priorities that produce it, when describing our relationship to others – most of the time he’s “my other partner” or “my Thursday” – but sometimes I want to.

      Both “primary” and “anchor” are in common use in my local poly community. As far as I can tell, the choice roughly corresponds to how people prefer to handle the power dynamics that arise when one relationship has a really unequal amount of emotional investment and/or life entanglement. People who use “primary” try to be transparent about the power dynamic, people who use “anchor” try to minimize its existence. I don’t have a good theoretical explanation for why those goals should be mutually opposed, just intuition and a vague handwave at the Tyranny of Structurelessness to suggest that they might be – but even if in theory they are compatible, in practice people seem to have strong opinions about which goal is most important to them.

      • June 11, 2016 8:03 am

        As a life long non-monogamous person, I reject hierarchical terms, mentality and practices. Even when I assess that someone’s poly-hierarchy (intended or by default) will not impact my wants (I never view partners as needs-meeting dispensaries), I’m turned off by the use of the terms “primary” or “anchor” (which suggests being held down and in place to me). So even if someone believes they are using it descriptively, I am suspect there is more underneath that sheep’s clothing. As such, I tend to back away, and focus my attention and energy on people who have applied themselves to enough deconstruction of not only the practice but the term itself, and consciously choose to not use it, because the concept and application of the term as a whole are distasteful to them.

    • Josh permalink
      June 10, 2016 5:25 pm

      Please bear with me, as this article is the first time I’ve been able to have anyone explain what they meant by hierarchical relationship. I always took it to mean what Eve described here as the tower. Thus, when I refer to my wife as my primary it’s descriptive. As far as I can tell, we don’t have any power dynamics that would be considered not egalitarian, it’s just that I live with her, whereas my other partners and I find time for each other whenever we can manage it. I say “primary relationship” because “primary” needs no definition. It communicates that she is special in some way. “Anchor” and “nesting partner” are nice metaphors, but as I’m neither a ship or a bird I feel like they beg a little clarification. But the biggest reason I feel this way is that primary/secondary terminology has been around in print and online for many years (I have only limited experience with organized poly communities), whereas I first encountered “nesting partner” a couple of years ago and “anchor” within the past year. My question to you would be why do you think those terms are less hierarchical?

      • Eve permalink
        June 10, 2016 5:57 pm

        Because of the long history of how those words have been used by poly people. I encourage you to read some of the essays on this site about primary/secondary dynamics, and pick up Franklin’s memoir if you’re so inclined, as I think they’ll help you understand the concerns around these words.

      • Lucy permalink
        June 11, 2016 5:47 am

        Also, the word “primary” and “secondary” have relative importance (and power) baked into them linguistically. Primary means first, or most important. (Think about other ways the word is used.) “Anchor” or “Nesting” partner doesn’t have a linguistic association with ranking items. That’s why I see them as less hierarchical.

        Yes, at this point anchor or nesting partner might require some explanation, but I’m okay with that (new terms often require explanation for a while, which isn’t enough reason for me not to use them). Anyway, honestly? The vast majority of the time, I just call my anchor partner “my partner”. Same with the person I’ve been dating for six months: my partner. I have little need to disambiguate using terminology, especially IRL amongst people who know their names. Others figure out the role of these two people in my life as they get to know me. That’s my angle on it, anyway.

      • June 11, 2016 2:17 pm

        I love this. And…’s not really the terms at issue…..though they often point to actual poly-hierarchy. The core issue is the practice of poly-hierarchy….whether by design, default, habit or unmindfulness.

      • June 11, 2016 7:49 am

        I can answer why “nesting partner” is not hierarchical”, Josh. And feel I speak with reasonable authority (which I’ll get to below.)

        Given what you are describing, “nesting partner” would not be an appropriate term for you anyway. As far as I know poly activist, Michael Rios (who is a dear friend of mine) was the first poly person to dedicatedly use the term “nesting partner”. I know of no one else who was using it at the time. Thus I consider him to be a key player in introducing it to the poly lexicon. I believe it was inspired by the use of the term “nest” in Heinlein’s “Stranger In a Strange Land”.

        Once exposed to it (and we’re talking more than 10 years ago), I began to embrace it too…out of a strong sense of resonance with the description/definition that Michael assigned to it. That definition is that it is an alternative term for referring to a cohabiting partner, where poly-hierarchy and couple-centrism are NOT in play. I began to use that term specifically and for the same reason. So, as far as I know, Michael introduced it, and both of us are significantly responsible for popularizing the term. At a time Michael and I were extremely prolific contributors to numerous on-line poly discussion groups, especially the largest and major top 10. At that time, it was largely Yahoo groups. The term took off after some time, and now is widely know.

        The very troubling problem is that over time, this term has been widely and wildly distorted and/or hijacked to be just another (cute) word to refer to a “primary” partner. In fact, it’s use was quite intentionally meant to suggest that the kind of ranking order/poly-hierarchy many people practice is NOT the case in that given cohabiting relationship dynamic. Nesting relationships step far outside couple-centrism, limiting constructs and poly-hierarchy.

        What “nesting partner” is intended to convey is:

        “A ‘nesting partner’ is someone you cohabit intimately with, but with who (whom?) you do not engage in common “relationship escalator” behaviors (progression to marriage, blending finances, identifying as a couple, shared-bedroom cohabitation, etc.), poly-hierarchy or couple-centrism. It’s a way of indicating a cohabiting partnership, while also indicating you do not engage in constructs that are often assumed of cohabiting lovers.”

        In the true spirit of “nesting partner”, both Michael (who I am not romantically connected to, just to be clear) and I cohabit with romantic/sexual partners, yet we maintain our own rooms, our own separate finances, do not self-identify as being a part of any “couple” (we are in dyads – among many others – in our network), do not engage in couple-centrism, do not engage in creating limiting constructs (rules or agreements with partners); and strongly resonate with an approach to relating that is significantly in alignment with “RA” and “Solo Poly” values. In essence, we are housemates with people who we just simply *happen* to also be lovers with.

        THAT is what nesting partner was and is intended to mean, regardless of how anyone has decided to conveniently distort it to their own means. 🙂

  8. lalouve permalink
    June 10, 2016 4:23 pm

    I have no problem with my relationships being hierarchal; all my secondaries have been looking for a permanent and often monogamous relationship, but relying on me for sex, companionship, and caring while they’re looking (and sometimes while they wait to be in a position where they’re ready to look). I know they’re leaving, they know they’re leaving, and when they do I’m happy for them and a little sad for me. It’s perhaps more of an open relationship than polyamory, but I do establish long-lasting, loving relationships with my secondaries, that generally last long after the sex has ended.

  9. opensheart permalink
    June 11, 2016 2:53 pm

    If my counts were correct, the original artical was @ 2,036 words.
    including some nice word pictures which at least one poster has said were helpful.

    And if my cuts and pastes are correct, Bhramari Dasi has now posted 10 replies of @ 2,301 words

    But Bhramari Dasi complains “I would LOVE to share this, but there are just too many – distracting – words!! ”


    Do I detect the pot calling the kettle black?

    • Bhramari Dasi permalink
      June 12, 2016 5:11 am

      Look. I’m an activist and educator. Part of that job is passing on useful information. When people offer feedback that the analogies are confusing and distracting – and makes it hard to suss out the actual point, I am going to pass that on to the writer. As a writer I find that kind of feed back helpful. It’s always wonderful when we can make our point without wandering too far around on the map. It’s not the number of words. It’s the distracting analogies. Its more important to me that the message get out, than avoiding nonsense like this right here. And, this will be my only response to you on this topic. I’m unwilling ot distract from the main point over this.

      • opensheart permalink
        June 12, 2016 11:14 am

        Are you saying that the language should be so dense, so filled with highly defined terms with specific meaning, that only insiders should be able to read with understanding?

        As an Aspie who has spend 50 years trying to figure out the world and all this people stuff. I depend on the breadcrumbs. The analogy of Tower and Village is to me a huge leap in understanding myself and what is going on around me. The analogy of Tower and Village is like a ladder hanging down from the angelic clouds. I understand such ladders. I can climb them to some high heights and get a much better picture of what goes on around.

        So critizing them and taking them away feels like someone is deliberatly trying to pull up the ladders.

        And my Aspie mind, without all of the wider input others may get, this lines up with all the other examples in which I feel cast out and excluded because I don’t ‘get’ it like others do.

      • opensheart permalink
        June 12, 2016 11:22 am

        Or said simpler, what seems like a ‘districation’ to a more experienced, relationally advanced person, is the sidetrack where the train slows down enough that I can try to climb onboard.

  10. charcoalhibiscus permalink
    June 15, 2016 12:48 pm

    I like your application of this principle to the topic- I think it’s novel and useful- but I can’t imagine the Motte-and-Bailey wasn’t inspired by Scott Alexander over at Slate Star Codex… and if so, it would be nice to see a nod towards that somewhere 🙂

    Looking forward to reading Part 3.

  11. July 3, 2016 12:50 am

    In my opinion relationship hierarchies already start with “simple” things such as financial commodities and privileges around how someone is settled or embedded within the social frame he is interact. Simple put, we are “born” (or not) with certain privileges (inheritances, financial ability to pay for universities…..or ability to make money or live according to a certain standard).

    Within history, the notion of love always used to be to negate these hierarchies, because love seemed to be free (aka Romeo and Julia and other dramas….). The notion of marriage also served to negate hierarchies by spreading the money equally. Which then lead to other problems of financial dependencies and overload of responsibilites.

    So, I am not sure if there are or can be relationships that are truly non hierarchical. I guess the notion and problem is wider than just an emotional context. Also, it depends what people see as hierarchies and what they see as hindrance.

    I guess the philosophy of non-hierarchy can only be valid in a truly Marxist context, which is not present in our society at all.

  12. July 4, 2016 7:26 am

    May I translate this article and follow-ups to Russian and put them online with links and credits?
    It looks very actual to (very small) russian poly community.

    In any case, thank you for your writings.

    • Eve permalink
      October 24, 2016 7:34 pm

      Anton, did I ever respond to this? I have a vague recollection of corresponding with you over email, but I’m not sure. If I didn’t, yes, it’s fine to translate this with a link back to the original. Thank you!

      • October 25, 2016 12:36 am

        Yes, you’ve responded by email, thank you!
        By the way, what about the third part?

  13. Slave Tiff S permalink
    August 11, 2016 6:18 am

    Ok this is by far the most informative article ive found to help me with what im researching. Since you have all spoken so well on the subject of a polyamourour relationship maybe you can help me with my research. There is a particulair poly relationship im around that has intrigued me. I cannot find any real information on this chosen living conditions. The husband and wife have been married for years. She originally served as slave to him her master. Now they both appear to be dominant and have obtained a slave that is of service to the husband but does answer to the wife at time. The husband is the slaves master and she has agreed for him to own her, just him. Yet the wife can and does instruct the slave. They refer to the relationship as polyamourous. I can find very few things to even referrence this as poly. Im guessing if it is the slave is considered the unicorn but this slave is solely responsible for the domestic duties and everything else the primary couple (mainly him ) instructs of her. They are all three middle aged so this is not a situation where theyve brought in a younger third. Does anyone here know where to find some info on their lifestyle.
    Thank you

    • kevin ohara permalink
      August 15, 2016 12:30 am

      I look at relationships from a personal growth perspective. While these three people might have interlocking and mutually supportive personal defects and might live together happily and pleasurably, I wonder where the personal growth is in each of their lives. Dare I mention Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? That the three have reached a mutually supportive plateau in their lives together is good and happy but I submit that senescence ensues if personal growth ceases. Master/save relationships imply personal defects in both master and slave. These relationships, I submit are inherently unstable

  14. September 4, 2016 8:03 pm

    I disagree with two of the fundamental assertions of this essay, though I appreciate where you are coming from and what the purpose of this series appears to be.

    1. You argue that the first definition (hierarchy arising out of natural variations in priority, energy, resources, etc.) is useless because it is too vague and describes *all* relationships. I disagree with the latter part of this statement because I don’t think there’s anything wrong with acknowledging that romantic/sexual relationships are part of a spectrum of human relationships/commitments and not a unique outlier subject to different rules and principles. In fact, it was realizing that very fact which helped me understand *all* my relationships better and work toward healthier ones. So not useless at all.

    2. You argue that people *only* ascribe to definition one out of convenience when their real interest is definition two. This is flatly incorrect, as attested to by my own experience and at least one other commenter here who also described hierarchical relationships that do not entail one relationship restricting/dictating other relationships. I do not have any interest in definition two (I personally find it inherently unethical for reasons I suspect you will outline in the latter installments of this series), but do have a vested interest in definition one (see my first point for why).

    I wish that instead of making an unsound argument for why “hierarchy” in a poly context should be given a very specific, limited, and therefore inaccurate definition (because it leaves out many poly people’s actual experiences of healthy, respectful, but nonetheless clearly hierarchical relationships that develop naturally and consensually out of the preferences and needs of all the people involved), you had instead acknowledged that what you are describing is a specific kind of hierarchy dynamic (which absolutely deserves and needs commentary) because I think literally everything else you’ve said here is completely sensible and compelling, but only in a framework that doesn’t erase my (or anyone else’s) actual experiences.

  15. paula permalink
    July 29, 2017 3:00 am

    I find that open relationships tend to find servants to the partnership. They want to have their boredom and their lust taken care of without paying for it and they want the stability and social perks of couple power. it is okay if you sleep with her if you put us first. You can sleep with him if I can if I am also into men, or you can sleep with her and I get two…but mainly I think this is sort of colonialistic. And if it really is this fair shangri la that some people think it is, with everyone happy (since the singles are kind of like interns on their way to their own happiness) it really requires people who like to talk and talk and talk. Anyway, if it floats your boat, but really, I think most people in this are users. You might be unique!

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