A post by the blogger SexGeek last month on polynormativity created quite a stir in my poly circles, with some of the discussion focusing on the ethics of hierarchical poly relationships. I find that these discussions often get derailed by a lack of clarity about what we actually mean when we talk about a poly hierarchy. So I want to propose a definition. It’s based on how I most commonly observe hierarchies playing out in poly relationships. I shared this on a Facebook poly list, and it initiated a lot of discussion—some of it controversial, all of it thought-provoking. While I'm still pondering, and I appreciate and respect the concerns and input that have been offered there, I still pretty much hold my initial position. So I offer this as what resonates most and rings true for me, while I also consider the input of others.
I worked pretty hard to get this down to something short, succinct, and more-or-less in plain language. So here is my best definition so far of a poly hierarchy:
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.
One classic hallmark of such power is the veto. But it doesn’t always have to include a veto, and it can manifest in many smaller ways, such as restrictions on how much time a person can spend with their partners, qualifications of potential partners, 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 whether and how they can have sex—the possibilities are pretty endless.
In this definition, I have tried to remove any assumptions of intent, purpose or duration. I see a hierarchy as a means to an end, not an end in itself: so, while some have argued that my definition is about power and control, I don’t see it that way. I think people choose to exercise power over other relationships as a way to get what they want out of their own relationships. For example, some people see poly hierarchies as a way to ensure existing commitments are met, preserve existing relationships, or provide a feeling of safety and security. Other people choose different means to achieve the same ends.
Here’s why I use the word in this specific way:
A hierarchy (when it refers to people and not, say, computer programs or classification of organisms) is, by definition, about 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 (outside organizational structures), we only use the word when speaking of poly relationships. We don't use them, for example, when speaking about a couple with children, or relationships among siblings, or commitments within an extended-family network, even when such networks may include a complex web of 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 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 can’t have unprotected intercourse with anyone but me unless I agree to it.
The second example (from real life) is hierarchical because the speaker is making decisions for their partner's relationships in which the other partners 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 if they can meet them and how they can do so. 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 I think they should give up, including time with other partners. 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 off to daycare in the morning. I trust that 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.
In the first example, 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 second example is based on a real-life case, but is not exact.
A poly hierarchy is not about honouring pre-existing commitments, or being judicious about what kinds of new commitments you can enter while making sure you have the resources to honour all your commitments, old and new. There are all kinds of commitments that influence how much time and energy someone has to devote to relationships. My mortgage, my business, my personal health, and my cat all represent commitments that require a substantial amount of time and energy that is then not available for relationships, yet we don’t say my partners are in a hierarchy with these commitments. That’s because my staff, my clients, my cat and my yoga teacher don’t expect to dictate the terms on which I can engage with my partners, just to ensure I have time for them (though my cat may express an opinion sometimes). Likewise, the fact that a partner expects me to keep commitments to them doesn’t mean they’re in a hierarchy with my other partners; it becomes a hierarchy when they begin telling me how I should conduct my relationships with my other partners—and I allow them to—in order for that partner to feel secure that I will meet their needs.
A poly hierarchy is not about prioritization. Again, we all have competing priorities in our lives, whether we’re mono, poly, or have no intimate relationships at all. Dividing my time on a day-to-day basis, for example, I usually prioritize my clients over my partners, because my clients pay my mortgage and (most of) my partners don’t, and without a roof over my head I’m not in much of a position to conduct relationships at all. I have to make my sick cat a priority because she can’t take care of herself; my partners, on the other hand, will not literally die if I leave them to their own devices for a few days. But again, my clients expect and trust me to meet my obligations to them in the way I see fit: as long as the outcome is what we agreed to, it doesn’t matter when or how I work or what else I choose not to do to make that time. These aren’t hierarchies, and similar prioritization among partners’ needs is also not a hierarchy. This is just being a responsible, accountable grown-up.
A poly hierarchy is also not about accepting the fact that relationships will take different forms and allowing them to do so. When I explore new connections, I remain open to the directions they can grow in and the level of intensity and connection they can reach. Some connections may be better suited for interconnected, life-partner-type relationships, while others may be better suited for less interdependent relationships with fewer expectations. What makes a poly hierarchy is when the form a relationship can take is prescribed at the outset (“I can only have secondary partners”), more specifically, when it is prescribed at the outset (or, for that matter, at any point during the relationship) by another partner who is not in the relationship (“You can only have secondary partners. I want to be your only primary”). If relationships are allowed to unfold naturally, it’s not a poly hierarchy when, with the consent and participation of those in them, they end up in different shapes.
The difference concerns personal agency: who makes decisions for whom. The key elements of a poly hierarchy are:
- Authority: 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).
- Asymmetry: Your partner’s 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 defining elements of a poly hierarchy (they can exist within a poly hierarchy, of course, but they don't define it as such--having these things doesn't mean you are in a 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 personal limits on the kinds of relationships you will build or stay in, such as refusing to stay with a partner who consistently breaks agreements.
- Allowing relationships to develop and grow in different directions and take the form that best works for the people in them, even when some of those relationships are more or less closely connected than others.
These are also the kinds of things people who practise genuinely hierarchical poly say they are doing, when they engage in conversations about whether and why it is helpful or necessary to have control over their other partner’s romantic relationships. This is why I think it’s actually quite necessary to establish a clear definition of poly hierarchy, because this slippery shifting of definitions frequently derails any attempt at discussing whether hierarchical poly (as I am defining it here) is a good idea.
Posing the question, “why does one partner need authority over their partner’s other relationships in order to ensure that partner meets their commitments?” is not the same as asking “why do you need to have different kinds of relationships or give them different levels of time or energy?” And yet people who practise hierarchical poly will argue that not having a hierarchy (as defined here) means making a new partner equal to a co-parent or spouse. It doesn’t: it means making a new partner equal to her own partner within her own relationship (thanks joreth for that eloquent turn of phrase). And we need to be able to discuss the costs and benefits hierarchical power dynamics within poly relationships without consistently being drawn off by this straw man.