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Guest post: Polyamory and Hierarchy

This entry is a guest blog by my sweetie Eve on the subject of hierarchy in poly relationships. It's a topic that's common in poly circles, but 'hierarchy' is rarely defined. Eve proposes a definition for the term:

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.


Mar. 11th, 2013 03:52 pm (UTC)
YES! This is beautifully expressed. I can see why Franklin is so impressed with you! :)

I wonder if it's worth expanding on the difference between boundaries and rules, and rules vs. agreements, as relevant to hierarchies... I think your examples touch on this, but it's not expressed explicitly.

Boundary: A limit I play on my self and my own body.
Rule: A limit or requirement I place on someone else. (IMO implicitly suggests a power structure)
Agreement: An action or inaction decided upon between two or more people that is expected to be honoured. (Does not imply power structure)

I love that you mentioned your relationship with your cat! With beautiful synchronicity, I've also been writing about poly, hierarchies and cat ownership on my own livejournal blog, seeking alternative terms to primary and secondary for non-hierarchical relationships. http://emanix.livejournal.com/27389.html
Mar. 21st, 2013 02:50 am (UTC)
This is a bit of a sidetrack, but you mention expanding on the difference between boundaries & rules (which I am quite invested in, as you probably already know). In your definition of a Rule, you suggest that it implies a power structure, and I agree. However, I would like to see, or participate in, a discussion, involving people who feel similarly to me about boundaries vs. rules, where the discussion addresses the following counter:

How can it be a "rule", using the definition of an implied power structure, if both parties in the couple have the same power over each other?

In other words, the counter argument is that if Alice and Bob both have veto power for each other, then neither Alice nor Bob can have "power" over the other because they both have the same "power", thereby being equal. Or, to make it less obvious and objectionable, if Alice and Bob have both agreed not to have overnight sleepovers with any other partner because Alice doesn't want Bob to spend a night away from her and Bob doesn't want Alice to spend a night away from him, then there is no unequal distribution of power because they both have the same rights as each other and they both have agreed to the same restrictions as each other.

I don't actually ask this to play Devil's Advocate (that position has come to irritate me quite a bit recently), but because I suspect that you and I, and also probably Eve, the original poster, have very similar positions on this subject. I'm asking because I'm struggling with language to express my position and I'm hoping to hear how others who may share this position might express themselves.

I very recently had a situation in my real life where I thought I was expressing a boundary ("I only feel comfortable having partners who do X"), and someone thought I was making a mutual rule ("I promise never to have other partners who do X and I want you to promise the same"). We kept getting tripped up on the language, where I insisted that I never made that rule and he insisted on using the word "agreement", but still behaved as though it was some iron-clad rule that doing other than the stated "agreement" was tantamount to a betrayal of the relationship.

I am struggling to find better ways to express myself so that it is more clear that I am expressing my preferences for my own behaviour, that may or may not change depending on a variety of circumstances and may or may not have exceptions, rather than presenting a list of behaviours that I promise to do or not do. Because, apparently, simply saying "I don't like having rules in a relationship where you tell me what I can or can't do" isn't always effective.

The key point for this other person was that the "agreement" was "all [my] idea" so it didn't matter that we didn't use the word "rule" or that we agreed not to impose on each other. His way of hearing that conversation translated into what was effectively me promising to a certain set of behaviours and that set had to be maintained. It didn't "count" as a rule because he didn't come up with that "rule" for me, I supposedly came up with it for myself when I previously discussed my personal boundaries. Therefore, he didn't have any implied power over me. But I have to say that, from the inside, I can't see the difference between his reaction to this so-called equitable "agreement" and any other past partners' reactions to the more blatant and obvious "rules", but I'm lacking the clarity to express why.

So, maybe the comments thread here isn't the appropriate place for this discussion, or maybe it is. But I just wanted to express my interest in hearing your thoughts on the matter, since your comment twigged a signal in my head about it.
Mar. 24th, 2013 06:21 pm (UTC)
I'm not convinced that if two people have the same power, that isn't a rule. If I have a veto, I hove power over you; the fact that you may also have veto doesn't change the fact that I still have power over you. I can alter your behavior at my command; that's power.

I think the hangup comes because almost all power structures we see tend to be one-way, so we assume that if it isn't one-way it isn't power. I don't think that's true.

In the specific case of veto, there's an added element that if I have a veto, I have power over you and I also have power over any of your partners as well-and THAT power IS one-way.
Mar. 25th, 2013 04:10 am (UTC)
I'm inclined to agree - I'm not convinced that having it go both ways isn't a rule either, but that's the argument I've been given. I think with veto power, it's pretty clear to see how it's a rule and how it is a power structure over the third parties, but I think other examples can be less clear (at least, to others - to me it all seems obviously the same thing, just different in degree). For instance, the "no overnight" rule I gave as an example. I seem to be failing at making it clear that "I promise not to sleep overnight at someone else's house" IS a "rule", as defined above, even when the person making the promise is the one who came up with it and even when they use the word "agreement" instead of "rule". I also seem to be failing at describing why something as "trivial" as overnight sleepovers is an inherently unfair power structure.

And, finally, I seem to be failing at making some people understand the distinction between why "I prefer not to sleep over at other people's houses" is a boundary that may or may not change depending on circumstance & is up to the speaker to change or not change, and why "I will not sleep over at other people's houses" can be a rule that changing without pre-negotiation can be seen as a betrayal within the relationship.
Mar. 25th, 2013 04:46 am (UTC)
I talked this over with my sweetie J after your original post, because I could see where the issue was, but I was with you in struggling to find the right words to describe it.

I actually think that your last paragraph is the crux of it -- talking about YOUR OWN preferences and boundaries is different from making a promise/agreement that you WILL NOT change your mind about that thing without consulting with the other person, and that even broaching the subject could be a dealbreaker. "But I thought we agreed 'no overnights'!!" If it's not subject to negotiation, it goes from an agreement to a rule, IMO.

I do think that there's something in-between, though, that says "Here is what you can reasonably expect from me, here are my normal patterns of behavior, and if I decide to change that, I will choose to inform you first, so that you can be aware that my boundary has shifted."

It's hard to get out of the "I promise" trap, though. Even "I will make a good-faith effort to..." is a promise, because it sets an expectation.

I don't necessarily think that all agreements are rules, or that agreements are bad (I live very happily by the agreements that my beloveds and I have made with each other, and I would not choose a partner who felt the way that you do about it -- but that's okay, it just means that you and I are incompatible partners.) But I do think that agreements have a sneaky way of turning into rules when no one is looking, and I also think that your original example, of you stating a personal boundary (after saying that you choose not to engage in relationships that have rules), and then later changing that boundary and getting a wounded "But we had an AGREEMENT!" in response, is a fault in communication on the part of the listener.

However, I think we're *trained* to hear boundaries as commitments that aren't going to change (hell, most of us aren't incredibly fond of change, I admit to being a fan of stability!), and I think that it's our obligation, if we are going to choose to deliberately sidestep that paradigm, to communicate it very clearly.

I think you *did* communicate it, at least if the words in your example are accurate, and the listener either failed to understand them or didn't *want* to understand them . . . but I also think, as you do, that we need some kind of language of direct acknowledgement of "I am saying this, are you hearing me?" "I am hearing you saying this, and repeating it back."

(I know that's not magic, I'm saying -- there needs to be a structure around the whole concept of "Let's be 100% crystal-clear here, when I set my personal boundaries, I am not *agreeing on them with you*, I am *communicating about them with you*, and they are subject to change without notice, because they are MY boundaries. Gotcha?"

What do you think is a fair way to both communicate reasonable expectations (personal boundaries) without turning them into an unintentional iron-clad agreement . . . and also to make agreements that are fair, balanced, flexible, and genuinely negotiable (not just "You agree to this or I walk," because that's a coerced agreement)?

-- A <3
Mar. 25th, 2013 03:52 pm (UTC)
I, also, don't think that all agreements are rules or that agreements are bad. The part where I'm having trouble is when people are using the words differently - i.e. everyone is saying "sure, no rules, we'll just have agreements" but then the behaviour around them more closely resembles "rules". As you said, "agreements have a sneaky way of turning into rules when no one is looking," and "stating a personal boundary... and then later changing that boundary and getting a wounded "But we had an AGREEMENT!" in response". We can all argue semantics all day long, but in the end, the emotional response indicated a rules-based mindset, regardless of what word we used to describe the "no sleepovers" conversation.

I agree with you, it's not a bad thing to be able to have some sort of expectation of stability in one's partners' behaviour. The specific actions, the motivations behind having the expectations, and the reaction to change is what make individual situations healthy or unhealthy, or even desired vs. not desired.

I think I really like your statement "Let's be 100% crystal-clear here, when I set my personal boundaries, I am not *agreeing on them with you*, I am *communicating about them with you*, and they are subject to change without notice, because they are MY boundaries. Gotcha?" What had happened to me was a conversation that I thought was about boundaries. I stated what my preferences were and he said it sounded fair and that he had similar preferences. Over time, we had more nuanced conversations where I thought I indicated my discomfort with rules, specifically surrounding one of those situations I had stated back in the beginning as one of my boundaries. The specific phrase used during the conflict was very similar to "agreeing on them with you". Apparently, his impression of that conversation was that I stated what I would be agreeing to, which apparently makes any deviation from that agreement even more heinous because I was the one who came up with it in the first place. I'll use the sleepover example again, even though it wasn't the boundary we had conflict over.

More than a decade ago, in one of my first poly relationships, before I really developed my dislike for "rules", I had a partner that requested the no sleepover rule in the form of "always come home at night and sleep at home". Since I had no other partners at the time, it seemed trivial enough to agree to. But then I went back to college and had to spend a lot of time in the lab working on projects. One night, I was cramming to finish a project in the lab and lost track of the time and ended up staying there until the first morning class came in. I had broken the rule completely unintentionally and in a way that I could not have pre-notified him that I was going to change it.

So, fast forward to my more recent conflict, I am now very clear on how I feel about rules (I've written multiple blog posts about it & I speak about it every time the subject comes up), so when I made a statement about a boundary, let's say that I preferred to sleep at home in my own bed every night, I thought it would be clear that it was a boundary statement. Over time, we talked, as people in relationships do, and we got more granular and nuanced about it. When he asked one of his other partners to, say, call him to let him know that she planned to stay out all night, and she said that she didn't think she could agree to that because, let's say, she was also back in school and things just might happen that are beyond her control and she might end up staying in the lab all night long without knowing ahead of time that she would do that, I told him that I agreed with her. I said that I also would not feel comfortable agreeing to a pre-notification rule about staying out all night because there were too many circumstances I could think of where it would be impractical or an imposition to do so. I said that a reasonable effort could be made for pre-notification, out of courtesy, but there were too many legitimate circumstances that could force she and I into breaking that rule unintentionally, so I would not agree to making it a "rule", but that I could agree to try to notify when possible.

Mar. 25th, 2013 03:58 pm (UTC)

So, then, when I happened to, say, stay out all night without pre-notification because I didn't plan to stay out all night, the reaction was to, literally, pull out the original conversation where I said that I didn't want to stay out all night and accuse me of breaking our agreement. In other words, as you said, the agreement on our respective boundaries had a sneaky way of turning into a rule when no one was looking. It turned into an argument on "but you SAID you wouldn't stay out all night" and "you can't just go off and change the agreement on me by yourself now, without my input!" Well, if it's my personal boundary and not a rule, actually, yes I can. But that then leads to an argument about how I'm doing things *to* him, as opposed to doing things for myself that might happen to affect him. I had begun to notice lately in his conflicts with his other relationships that things his partners did or felt seemed to turn into things done *to* him. For example, if his other partner was feeling upset and unstable, she might have an emotional reaction about it, but in their argument, her emotional reaction was always her "punishing" him for something, instead of being something that she was going through herself that happened to affect him. So I suppose that it shouldn't have come as a surprise (although it did) that me accidentally staying out all night without calling was interpreted as me deliberately doing something *to* him instead of something that happened to me.

Right now, I think that the only way I might be able to communicate this to future potential partners is to actually tell this story. But one of the things I'm afraid of is going too far to the other side and getting someone who hears all my careful reiterations of "no rules" and thinks I'm more of a Free Agent type with no expectations or stability desired in my relationships, which also isn't true. Basically, I'm looking for partners who are willing to be committed to the long-term stability and happiness of our relationship, but who are flexible enough to accommodate change without taking the things I do as a personal affront or attack on themselves or a sign that I don't love them or want to end the relationship - to understand that what I do outside of our relationship is not a reflection on them or how I feel about them or the relationship - that what I do isn't *about* them at all - it's about me. That's what gives me such a hard time about "rules" - it makes what I do with other people all about someone who isn't there and isn't a part of it.

I think I'm rambling now, but maybe I'll be able to pull something out of this conversation for future use.
Mar. 25th, 2013 04:20 pm (UTC)
Oh, and to answer your question at the end...

I'm really not sure what is a fair way to both communicate reasonable expectations without turning them into iron-clad agreements and also make agreements that are fair, balanced, flexible, and genuinely negotiable. Personally, I thought I *was* doing that, but obviously there was a failure in there somewhere. I sort of handle my relationships as ongoing drafts-in-progress. We discuss things at the beginning, but over time, things change, and we discover those changes during the conversations we're supposed to be having as partners in a relationship. I sort of went with the assumption that, even if I *had* stated my boundaries in more of a "I want us to agree to do this behaviour" sort of way, the following conversations over the next several years where I modified and clarified my position should have updated the agreement, so to speak. The conversation about his other partner not being willing to agree to pre-notification where I explicitly said that I also couldn't agree to it, *should* have become an addendum, if you will, to whatever "agreements" we had made previously. If our agreements were genuinely negotiable, that kind of conversation should have counted as wanting to change whatever expectations we might have had in the beginning based on the original conversation.

So, I guess your question is actually what I was asking for in my first post to emanix ... what do people who have similar values regarding rules as I do think is a good way to communicate those values so that we're not misunderstood by people who have a rules-based mindset, regardless of what words they use? How can we more clearly indicate that we are sharing the kinds of things we prefer with each other but that if and when we change our positions on the subject, or if/when something happens that is out of our control to make what we said a moot point, we don't want that original conversation being pulled back out and waved in our faces with an accusation of "but you SAID!" because life doesn't work that way. How can we go from "I promise to never..." that leads to "but you SAID and now it's OVER!" to "I prefer it when..." that leads to "ok, things are different now, so let's work together to rearrange the relationship to accommodate"?