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Can polyamorous hierarchies be ethical? Part 2: Influence and control

June 11, 2016

This is part two of a three-part series inspired by the question Can a hierarchy ever be ethical in polyamory? As I said in Part 1, I have come to the conclusion that this is the wrong question to ask. To get to the right questions, we need to drill down deeper. Part 1 talked about how we define hierarchy, how hierarchies reflect power dynamics within relationships, and why they’re so hard to talk about. In this instalment, we’re going to look closer at some of those power dynamics.

Influence and Control

Any healthy relationship involves a certain amount of influence. While it’s not a good idea to rest your hopes for a relationship on your partner changing, or to make your partner into a project, good partnerships do change the people in them. You may learn new habits, new skills, new hobbies, new ways of communicating. But you also have to learn to prioritize another person’s happiness as well as your own. That means allowing your partner to influence you: it means paying attention to what your partner’s experience is, what their needs are, and working with them to help them get their needs met, along with yours. It means sometimes not doing something you want to do, and sometimes doing something you don’t really want to do, in order to make the relationship work for both of you. It means give and take.

In a healthy relationship, this give and take is negotiated and consensual. Boundaries are respected, bottom lines are recognized and not pushed. You may have to give up pizza on Friday because you’ve had it three date nights in a row and your partner’s craving Thai, you may have to move to a city that’s not your first choice (or even on your list), you might have to take a lower-paying job to make more time with the kids—you may have to make big sacrifices or small ones. But you won’t have to give up friends, family, economic or emotional security, self-worth, self-expression, or any of the things that are important to making you you. And this influence is reciprocal: your partner listens to you and seeks compromise just as much as you do. You both prioritize each other’s happiness and well-being.

The other side of this coin is control. Control is what happens when the give and take stops being consensual and reciprocal, when you stop respecting a partner’s boundaries, when you make your own happiness and meeting your own needs more important than valuing your partner’s agency. It may involve emotional blackmail tactics like threats, shame, gaslighting, withdrawal of affection or resources, or, in extreme cases, physical or sexual abuse. It’s important to recognize that an ongoing pattern of coercive control is the definition of intimate partner abuse—and those tactics I’m talking about are part the power and control wheel that’s used to pinpoint abusive behaviours. However, these coercive tactics are used all the time in both monogamous and polyamorous relationships without rising to the level of abuse.

In poly relationships, control can also manifest through hierarchical agreements where partners give each other the power to make unilateral decisions over other relationships.

You might ask how such agreements might qualify as control if they’re negotiated. That’s because of who’s missing from the negotiating process: the other affected partners. Usually, in hierarchical agreements, the rules are presented to secondary partners as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, without an opportunity to shape their creation—either in the beginning, or in the future. (This discussion makes up the bulk of chapter 10 in More Than Two.)

In a poly relationship, intimate influence may affect the choices you make about how you interact with other people. It may mean that you don’t date someone you want to date, or you limit the amount of time you can commit, or you put the brakes on a relationship that’s growing too fast and big…because of the way it might affect your other partners, or because of concerns they have. It might even affect your decision whether to be poly at all.

Or, you might make all those same choices because you have a partner who’s exerting control over your other relationships—whether as part of a negotiated power hierarchy, or as part of a pattern of coercive control.

It can often be difficult to tell the difference between the two from outside a relationship—especially if you’re affected by the choices being made.

Let’s give an example. In her memoir The Husband Swap, Louisa Leontiades describes her metamour, Elena, giving an ultimatum to Louisa’s husband, Gilles, who was also Elena’s boyfriend: It’s her or me. Elena made it clear that she could no longer remain in a relationship with Gilles as long as he was in a relationship with Louisa. I won’t spoil the book by telling you what he chose…or how Elena responded. But while I was working with Louisa on the companion guide to the memoir, Lessons in Love and Life to My Younger Self, the two of us had a discussion about whether Elena’s actions constituted a veto of Louisa.

An outside observer who did not know Elena would in fact not be in a position to say whether her actions were a veto or not. Why? Because the difference comes down to expectation and intent. Elena had every right to set boundaries concerning what kind of a relationship she was willing to be involved in—up to and including who she was willing to be metamours with. But in giving Gilles an ultimatum, was she prepared for the possibility that he might say no—thus leaving her in the position of having to make good on her promise to end her relationship with him? Or was she working from an expectation that he would say yes—thus making the ultimatum dangerous for only Louisa, and not for Elena? What would her response be if Gilles said no? Would she be angry? Consider his choice a betrayal? Use shame and guilt to try to get him to do what she wanted? Or would she accept his decision—and leave the relationship?

An underlying element of all these questions is this: Did Elena feel entitled to have Gilles choose her? Healthy relationships are ones in which we can express our needs and desires, but it’s when we feel entitled to have our partners do what we want that things go off the rails. Entitlement makes us feel like it’s okay to overrule our partners’ agency (and that of their partners). If we’re part of a socially sanctioned couple, this is especially dangerous, because we’ve got lots of societal messages feeding that sense of entitlement. And the most damaging parts of hierarchical setups tend to come about when we enshrine entitlement into our relationship agreements.

Back to the Tower

At this point, I really hope you’ve read Part 1, because we’re going back now to our tower and village.

If you can manage to get away from the tower argument of “hierarchy means unequal distribution of resources” and start discussing the real issues (usually this happens when you stop trying to discuss “hierarchies” and instead get into specific kinds of rules, or arrangements such as vetoes), the new tower argument becomes the question of influence. I want to be able to ask for what I want, express my concerns about my metamours to my partners, tell my partners how their other relationships are affecting me, and so on. This is a relatively easy position to defend, because in healthy relationships, partners can influence each other.

Once the tower of intimate influence is defended, however, we see the village once again reoccupied. The village is things that a person feels entitled to control in their partner’s relationship, or rules and structures that are put in place to ensure that one person’s needs are always favoured in the case of resource conflict.

Tower: I want to be able to tell my partner how I feel about a potential new partner and have them consider my feelings in their decision.
Village: I expect my partner not to get involved with a person I’m not comfortable with them being with.

Tower: I want my partner to be available to me during emergencies or when I am struggling emotionally.
Village: I expect my partner to be willing to cancel plans with other partners in order to be with me whenever I’m having a hard time.

Tower: I have a lifetime commitment with my partner, and I want to feel like they will make choices that honour that commitment.
Village: I don’t want other partners to express desires for commitment from my partner, because I fear it will undermine their commitment to me.

At the same time, I think a lot of people, when they say “I need hierarchy” (or “I need veto”), are really saying “I’m afraid I won’t be able to influence my partner.” It’s not that they specifically want control: it’s that they want influence, and they either haven’t been taught healthy ways to have or use it (especially in poly situations), or they have only been in crappy relationships in the past where they didn’t have influence—so they don’t know what it feels like.

Now, it is a fact that for most people most of the time (but with many exceptions), longer-established, more committed or more entwined partners are likely to have more influence on a pivot partner than newer, less committed or less entwined partners. And that influence is going to affect what happens in other relationships. Sometimes, it may mean not starting a new relationship, or even ending an existing one—even when no pre-established structures are in place to ensure that certain partners are always favoured, even when there’s no control.

Going back to the diagram from More Than Two that I shared in Part 1:

More Than Two p. 182, illustration © Tatiana Gill 2014. All rights reserved.

More Than Two p. 182, illustration © Tatiana Gill 2014. All rights reserved.

As explained in the book, the arrow coming from the left and making the circles on the right is power from within the relationship on the left, affecting the level of intensity and commitment in the relationship on the right. But what we don’t really talk about in More Than Two is the fact that the power arrow can come from influence or it can come from control. And if you are the person on the right, your experience of the pivot’s decision may be very much the same regardless.

As a result, as I mentioned in Part 1, in any situation in which there is an unequal distribution of resources—or influence—the person with less may be inclined to look at the situation and say “This is a hierarchy.” And this is where I think the questions of What is a hierarchy? and Are hierarchies ethical? are not the right questions. Because what the person on the right is saying is really “I feel disempowered.” And that matters—and is what we really need to pay attention to.

That will be the subject of Part 3.

  1. June 11, 2016 8:20 am

    Clear. Crisp. No digression or distraction. Love it.

    • Elenor permalink
      June 11, 2016 1:52 pm

      How about you stop trying to nonconsentually copy edit them and just read and appreciate?

      • Bhramari Dasi permalink
        June 12, 2016 5:05 am

        That was my statement of appreciation. You have a problem with that? Hilarious.

      • June 18, 2016 7:02 am

        It looks like a compliment to me.

        What’s the point of having a comment system turned on if you don’t want feedback or discussion?

      • Eve permalink
        June 18, 2016 2:23 pm

        Hi MH, since Elenor is just a commenter and doesn’t run this blog (or know me or Franklin, to my knowledge), she has no control over whether comments are turned on or off.

  2. opensheart permalink
    June 11, 2016 4:40 pm

    “It’s not that they specifically want control: it’s that they want influence, and they either haven’t been taught healthy ways to have or use it (especially in poly situations), or they have been in crappy relationships in the past where they didn’t have influence—so they don’t know what it feels like.”

    There are other possibilities. A person can be relationally disadvantaged. Where all they have ever seen is people relating badly.

    A person can be relationally disabled, like with Asperger’s or high functioning autism.

    Or their moral/etical compass can be pegged to follow a cultural or religious relational script.

    • Eve permalink
      June 11, 2016 10:35 pm

      Yes, although I would consider all of those to fall under “haven’t been taught healthy ways to have or use it.”

      • October 1, 2016 5:14 pm

        It might seem nit-picky, but I think one of the issues here is the difference between “haven’t been taught” vs. “haven’t learned” or “aren’t able to employ.” Someone on the Autism spectrum may very well have been taught these skills — possibly many times! — but that doesn’t mean they have *learned* them. Or they might have learned them but be unable to effectively employ them for any number of reasons. I could imagine some situations in which all the knowledge in the world doesn’t make it possible to use it effectively.

        I don’t know if this is true for Opensheart, but for me I feel a bit uncomfortable with the statement about “haven’t been taught healthy ways….” I think at least in part it’s because there’s a tinge of judgement, or the presumption that ALL that is required is education. I think that many situations are far more complex than that.

      • Sophie permalink
        May 12, 2018 8:10 am

        So you think a person on the autism spectrum who is capable enough of coping to get into a relationship doesn’t have the ability and motivation to learn to communicate?

        Also, you really think that we are going to have a harder time loosening our ties the social norms that we never intuitively understood anyway?

        You think it will be harder for us a relationship model based on clear, explicit communication, without the unspoken assumptions that neurotypical people seem to just magically get?

        You think the effort required to intellectually understand our own and other’s emotions, a skill we’ve been honing our whole lives for survival reasons, isn’t something we’re used to?

        You think a relationship model where we don’t have to be someone’s only partner and so allows us to have more time and space for recovering from interacting with the world can’t be benefitial?

        You seem to think a lot of things, all of them show me you probably talk for and over aspies a lot more than with them.

  3. lynelle permalink
    June 12, 2016 4:26 am

    to me, the negotiations in any dyad-or-more are reflective of compromises we might choose to make in our intimate relationships to balance needs as we can. to me, compromise resonates more than “intimate influence”. maybe because to me, influence has too many different flavors, and some are manipulative. (i work a lot with people experiencing domestic violence, so i might be a little (over?)sensitive to abuse of influence.)
    to me, the “story” i attach to influence matters. if i am making a correlation that how much a partner is influenced by me, and how willing a partner is to change, shift, and adjust for me is reflective of how much they value me, and how important i am to them, i think that can *sometimes* be an accurate correlation. yet in many (most?) cases, not adjusting to each others’ preferences may be more reflective of some core incompatibility, and some boundaries that don’t mesh. those differences might or might not be deal breakers. and those differences might have no correlation at all to how much we love and value a partner, and vice versa. even when love is deep and valuing each other is real, there can be some core differences that are not resolvable.

    and to me, the “flavor” of influence expectations also matters. if i come from a perspective/expectation that i will have influence on my partner, that seems very different to me than a broader perspective, that during the course of life, the ideas, values, perspectives, insights, and wisdom that other people live and share will sometimes have an influence on me, and vice versa.

    to me, the former reflects a flavor of expecting to have influence *over* a partner and is often used manipulatively; and to me, that flavor doesn’t seem reflective of mostly accepting and loving each other for who we are ~ partly accomplished by screening for overall core compatibility. to me, the latter reflects a flavor of acknowledging that people will be influenced *by* each other in life. to me, that flavor of influence is less likely to be manipulative.
    i love the insight that the power arrow might reflect influence or control, and it will look and feel the same from the outside looking in.

    in conversations with other moms recently, talking about kids growing up and sometimes pushing us away in painful ways, as strategies kids might use for claiming their own sense of autonomy and self, it seemed like they’re sometimes pushing away to claim things they already have ~ in our circle, we’ve already given and supported so much space and autonomy. they *already* have their separate-from-us identity, and they *already* have their autonomy. they might not realize that yet though. and as moms discussed how it can hurt to be so pushed away from, as we’re working hard to do our end and let go gracefully, while also struggling with letting go, it seems like “relevance” might be the main issue ~ we know we’ve influenced our kids (for better and/or for worse), and we know it’s time and “right” for us to have less influence in their lives now that they are in their late teens and early 20’s, and other people will have more importance and influence in their lives and hearts now. and that’s as it should be, even though it’s hard and it’s uncomfortable. yet it’s time to accept that our influence is less now; yet it’s hard to also feel like we might not be relevant in their lives anymore.

    and that led me to think that for me, i am not attached to being able to influence partners; yet i do want to be relevant in their lives. and maybe that’s just semantics, yet it seems like more than just semantics. yet if i try to reflect the difference, for me, it might be this:
    in intimate connectons, i expect we’ll aim to make mutually agreeable compromises as needed to balance preferences and needs. when/if that might not be possible, it’s more likely incompatibility than partners not valuing me. and i know i’ll have an influence in partners’ lives and i know they’ll have an influence in mine. and i’m not invested in maintaining a level of influence; i’m invested in existing commitments being honored on all ends.

    so as we have more partners, and in supporting each dyad to have the fun and benefit of co-planning within their dyads, *around* exisiting commitments so existing relationships are honored, i expect influence to be spread more broadly; yet i wish to remain valuable and relevant. and for me, the yardstick for that is not so much about how much influence i have, or protecting an existing level of influence even as new partners come into their lives. for me, the yardstick for remaining valuable and relevant in their lives is more about whether our existing commitments with each other are honored, and our compromises and dynamics generally reflect cooperation, ease, fun, joy, and sincere appreciation of each other, mostly as we are.

    • Alex Berkman permalink
      June 22, 2016 8:10 pm

      SOLID take on it 🙂

  4. Damen permalink
    June 14, 2016 12:51 pm

    NEED #3!!

  5. Ramona permalink
    July 1, 2016 9:14 pm

    The insight I’m looking for, as a solo poly person, is about the control I have over how much time I spend with each of my two local partners, which is different for each. There is no third party setting rules or boundaries on this– just me and my desires. The one I want to spend less time with is very upset about it. Are his options simply to accept what I’m offering, or leave?

    Is this a power imbalance? He suggests we compromise. But how can I spend more time with someone than I want to simply because either a) he wants to, or b) it’s “fair”? Resenting or dreading the obligation to spend time with someone is untenable! I do love this partner and have had a long and deep relationship with him. Though I’m starting to grow away from him, we still have a loving connection, shared history, friends and community, and great sex.

    I’m looking forward to post #3 and hoping this will be part of the story.

    • July 2, 2016 7:22 am

      Hi Ramona: In my view this is not a power imbalance. It is an imbalance between how each of you feel. This happens. Seriously, how can you “negotiate” or “compromise” genuine feelings. That doesn’t seem rational to me. Just putting those words together is rather eye opening. He wants to your “compromise” your feelings, your truth….which for me would be the same as compromising my integrity.

      Personally, I prefer that lovers offer themselves (meaning their personal resources of time, energy and attention) authentically. That way I know where I stand and I can make choices based on that truth. I’ve been on the receiving end of such truths, as well as the delivery end. It can be uncomfortable and disappointing, but it doesn’t *have* to be the end-all.

      In my experience it requires being really up front and clear that what’s happening is all about your inner truth, not someone’s interference from the outside. “The time I’m choosing to share with you is not based on some sort of poly-hierarchy….It’s based on how I genuinely want to dance between space and togetherness with you. I enjoy spending time with you when I do, and I truly love you. However, I also want to spend time with others, and I need some time to be just with myself as well.”

      To be honest, as someone strongly solo leaning (while also having an equally independence-loving nesting partner), I spend the majority of my time with myself, my interests, my projects, my relaxation. Everyone in relationship with me understands that no one has primary dibs on my time but me. From there I offer up time as I feel authentically drawn to. This hasn’t prevented me from having deeply bonded, sustainable,devoted, loving relationships. In fact, given the kind of personality that attracts me, it’s increased the likelihood of having such relationships with people I strongly resonate with and am attracted to.

      • RamonaDragonfly permalink
        July 4, 2016 12:59 pm

        Well said, clear and succinct, and it rings true. Others in my life have assured me as much! My partner’s pain over it all clouds my thinking. Thanks for writing.

      • July 11, 2016 2:00 pm

        Yer welcome. 🙂

  6. Brian permalink
    September 9, 2016 12:39 pm

    My sweetie and I just read Part 1 & 2 together and are looking forward to part 3. Thanks so much for writing this!

  7. Kestrel permalink
    September 14, 2016 5:10 pm

    Thanks 🙂 Looking forward to Part 3

  8. Cate permalink
    September 20, 2016 1:53 pm

    I’ve been checking for #3 for months! Any word? I can understand how there could be a surprise tricky part.

  9. June 6, 2017 7:17 pm

    Did Part 3 every get published?

  10. Elisabeth permalink
    February 17, 2018 5:39 am

    I’m also still waiting for part three 😦

  11. Maggie permalink
    March 18, 2018 9:56 am

    Did Part 3 of this series get published? I’d really love to read the completion of this series.

    • Eve permalink
      April 9, 2018 10:56 pm

      Unfortunately at this point I think it’s really unlikely that I will ever write part 3. Sorry to disappoint.

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