Blogs on polyamory, non-monagomy and open relationships.

In the 21stcentury, all varieties of consensual nonmonogamy have become trendy.  From Cosmopolitanto The New York Timesto The Guardianarticles and exposés about polyamory abound.    Over and over, I read about the best ways and even the right way to do nonmonogamy and polyamorous relationships.

As a sex & intimacy coach and a psychologist therapist who works with individuals, couples and polyamorous groups, I have spent the past 30+ years helping people to find, construct, create and maintain all sorts of relationship combinations and structures including polyamorous relationships.   As I person who practices polyamory and has practiced ethical nonmonogamy in one form or another since I was 17 and on occasion, unethical nonmonogamy (otherwise known as cheating), I have an insiders view of nonmonogamy as well and I can tell you unequivocally: There is no one true way to practice polyamory or nonmonogamy of any kind.    Each relationship is as individual as a lip print because each individual is unique.

When I was 17, I had no language to talk about polyamorous relationships.  My first polycule (all the people in relationship with one or more members of the group), was made up of 3 permanent members and a fourth rotating membership depending upon who I was dating at the time.    We didn’t know we were creating a polycule.  We didn’t even know we were practicing consensual nonmonogamy. Initially, we reluctantly formed a triad because the both women did not wish to give up their relationships with the solo man.   The relationship between the women grew strong though not often sexual.  We formed a polyfidelitous triad at first and then, I was encouraged to bring in a second male to the polycule.  The other woman in the relationship was more comfortable when I had another man to relate to besides her live-in partner.  I was the person allowed to be involved sexually with others and encouraged to bring appropriate dates/partners home.  

polyamorous relationships

If D had been asked to describe the structure of our relationship, she would have said that she was J’s primary partner and I was his secondary partner.    Chances are, J and I would have agreed.  To her, it was important that it was clear that she was the person to whom J gave priority.  Her needs and wants came before mine.   We all accepted that this was necessary in order for the triad to function well.    At that time, I would have described my relationship with the two of them as my primary relationship and any other polyamorous relationships as secondary as I prioritise time with them over dating others.

Later in life, I took the role of the secondary a number of times and found this difficult at times and wholly fulfilling at others.  For me, having a hierarchy highlighted how time and responsibilities were prioritised. It had nothing to do with how much love and commitment existed in my relationships.  

polyamorous relationships

The other factor in how my polyamorous relationships were structured, was and remains my involvement in power exchange/ authority transfer relationships.  These are by nature hierarchical.  In all power exchange dynamics, someone is leading and someone is following.  Someone commands and the other obeys.  Someone holds the authority and/or power and the other surrenders authority and/or power. 

You cannot take the hierarchy out of power exchange dynamics.  When people are in power exchange dynamics and also in polyamorous relationships, there will always be hierarchy.    The amount and strength of the hierarchy may vary but it will always be there.  For some people, this is not a problem at all.  For others, hierarchy is seen as inherently either problematic or even bad.

It is currently popular in polyamorous circles to criticise anyone who sees their relationships as hierarchical or who organises their relationships in a hierarchical manner. People frequently say things like ‘Love has no hierarchy’ and ‘All polyamorous relationships should be equal.’    Many polyamorous people become vexed at the mention of prioritising one relationship over another.  Using the terms ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ can get a person excluded from some polyamorous groups.

Yet almost all relationships are organised in hierarchies.  We may not openly admit it but we all prioritise our relationships and our time.  We cannot help but do this.  I may love equally but I cannot honestly say that I would give equal weight to the needs of the partner I see four times a year and the husband who shares my bills, my home and looks after me when I am ill even if both relationships involve a lifetime commitment.  The responsibilities in each relationship are different.  If my husband and my lover both expressed a need for me to be with them on a particular day, it is likely that I would prioritise my husband as long as the needs were equivalent.     

Let’s consider an example:

My husband is having surgery on 4thDecember.

My lover is moving house on 4thDecember and would like my help.

My priority would be my husband.

If it were my husband who was moving house (assuming I was not) and my lover who was having surgery, I would negotiate to be with my lover if possible as having surgery is a weightier need.  

But what if we are looking at simply choosing who to spend holidays with:

Both my husband and my lover want to spend my birthday with me.  If they don’t agree to do it all of us together, I would see my husband as having priority – even if we were not in a power exchange dynamic – because my responsibility to him is higher.  This gets even more complicated when we have more than one or two polyamorous relationships.

Part of the reason that it has become de rigueur to insist that all relationships should be equal is that jealousy can be such an intense issue around perceived inequality.    Quite a few of my clients have brought in problems with managing the division of holidays, time, activities and often social media posting because one or more partners are unhappy unless everything is ‘completely equal’.    In reality, it is often not only impossible to divide things completely equally but not desirable either.  Partners who do not live with each other don’t often want an equal share of the dull stuff.  They don’t want to split household chores, or other monotonous tasks like budgeting, car maintenance, errands for work.  They want an equal share of the fun stuff – holidays, nights out, attending work ‘do’s, date nights and weekends, birthdays, Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year’s/Easters, summertime, winter breaks etc.   

How does the person who is doing the errands, caretaking and the other mundane stuff feel about equally splitting the fun time but not the responsibilities and the other things that often form the day to day pattern of a committed long term relationship? Usually not so happy, in my experience. I frequently hear ‘Why should I give up half of my holiday time with my wife/husband/significant other to their other lover when that lover isn’t paying part of the bills or sharing taking my person to medical appointments or looking after the dog?’

When a dominant/submissive or power exchange dynamic is added into the mix, this becomes even more complex.  By its nature, a power exchange dynamic is hierarchal.  Therefore the person who is in the dominant position is the one who ultimately has the control over all the relationships the person in the submissive position forms if the power exchange/ authority transfer relationship is a full time (24/7) relationship.  In this case, the only person with agency is the one in the dominant position.  

I have written about this model of non-monogamy and polyamorous relationships before and called it the loaner model or in my case, the time share model of non-monogamy.  I am in a 24/7 power exchange /authority transfer relationship with my husband who is my owner.  As my owner, he is the one who has the agency and authority to control any other sexual, BDSM, or romantic relationship that I have because I have surrendered authority for all aspects of my life to him.  I am in two other relationships at the present time.   My husband says I am a time share because each of my other partners have a number of weeks per year with me.  They are literally granted a share of my time based on their desires and my husband’s agreement to grant these desires.  Should it no longer suit my husband for me to have a relationship with someone or for me to spend that amount of time per year with someone, he has the right to change or end any agreement.

Some people who practice polyamory have been horrified by my description of the non-monogamy that we practice because the hierarchy is extremely clear.  There is very definitely inequality between my relationships. There is no inequality in how I feel about my other partners.  I love all of them.  There is inequality in how much time I spend, whose needs get priority, and where my responsibilities lie.      All parties consent to this arrangement and on that basis, why should anyone be judgemental? 

In addition, when I break down how they divide their time, decide who gets what priority in any given situation, hierarchies are illuminated even in the relationships of the people I have met who are most adamant that there should be no hierarchies in polyamory.    Though this surprises them, it doesn’t surprise me in the least.  It is nigh on impossible to divide time equally between a number of people even with the best will in the world.  Life doesn’t present us with equal challenges.    We have a wide variety of blessings and challenges and though our love is infinite our time and energy are finite.  Ultimately, we have to make choices.  If we are hell bent on creating total equality, we will end up spending an inordinate amount of time working to do this.   And we spend an inordinate amount of energy judging people for having hierarchies in their non-monogamous relationships.  

In my experience, a better way to expend the energy and spend the time is on creating rich loving relationships that meet as many needs as possible, looking at where needs intersect and how we can balance our relationships in ways that responsibilities, needs and wants are as in balance in each individual relationship.  The less time we spend comparing within our relationships, the better.   Increasing our communication skills, including our negotiation skills is a better use of our time.    Learning how to identify our own needs and differentiate them from wants is paramount as well to creating balanced relationships.  

polyamorous relationships
handsome young muscular man with two women in bedroom

Why is it fashionable to trash hierarchies where ever they are found?  Perhaps looking to larger mainstream culture and politics may give us answers.    Hierarchies are often seen as binary: Rich/poor, good/bad though they actually run primary, secondary, tertiary.  There are many levels not just two.  If we are able to keep this in mind and also recognise that there are multiple hierarchies in any given set of relationships – different priorities at different times for different events, activities, contexts, then maybe the reality of the hierarchies in our lives will no longer be seen as negative.      Instead we can look at them as simple structures that enable us to order our lives and relationships so that it is easier to find and maintain balance.

Polyamorous relationships come in an infinite number of configurations. For more about how different open relationships might look including an owner loaner relationship, you can find one of my articles hereand a seriesof podcastshere.

D/s relationships are ones in which dominance and submission are the primary feature.  D/s relationships are authority transfer based relationships because the submissive gives authority over part or all of their lives to the dominant.  Full time authority transfer based relationships are Master (Mistress)/slave or Owner/property or Daddy/boi/girl or Mommy/boi/girl.  

Some D/s relationships involve bondage and discipline or sadism and masochism but others do not.  The feature of the relationship which turns both parties on is the power exchange (authority transfer). One person is in charge and the other agrees to submit to their rule.  Submission can be part time, sexually only for example, or it can be full time (e.g. in all aspects of the relationship).  D/s relationships often have clear structures, with rituals, rules and expectations all spelled out.  Many people who engage in them gain pleasure from all of these aspects.  The submissives enjoy giving up control and being led by someone else.  The dominants enjoy the control over their partners, having someone do as they desire. This is a simplistic description of what both parties might get out of the relationship.  For more on these relationships, listen to this seriesof podcastsfrom Sex SpokenHereand D is for Dominant from the A to Z of Sex ®podcast.

owner loaner

D/s relationships can be very straightforward or very complex.  Some include significant role play as well as the exchange of power.  There are marriages that work on these principles as well as long term living together relationships.  However, it can be difficult to maintain these roles when living with someone full time especially if the person who is in the submissive role is dominant in the outside world (at work, within the household, the main bread winner).   As a result, in some relationships, the D/s aspects become watered down which often leads to dissatisfaction on the part of both parties.   

A solution to managing this dissatisfaction is to make sure that there is specific time set aside for D/s.  As long as this is a substantial enough amount of time and it is ringfenced so that the rest of life does not intrude, this will work for many relationships.

Owner Loaner

One solution to this situation is to consider opening up the relationship. A couple can agree to engage in D/s play with other partners and not each other or with other partners and still engage with each other.  Deciding who will do what with whom can require some intricate negotiation.  When done properly, this is a great solution that increases everybody’s enjoyment and fulfilment.  

One issue that arises is the need for a person to have agency and autonomy to create and manage multiple relationships.  When one is in a hierarchical relationship, the person who is in the dominant role is the one who is in charge.  If that person is giving authority over what relationships their partner can form, then the submissive does not have the agency to form additional relationships or continue them.   Non-monogamous relationships for people in hierarchical relationships can look different depending up on if their hierarchical relationship is full time or part time. Non-monogamy in part-time D/s relationships can run the gamut from simple dating through to relationship anarchy to polyamorous arrangements.  

Myra and Robin were involved in a D/s relationship for 10 years before they moved in together.  Both are high powered business women, running their own companies for over a decade each. They met at a Women in Business event and the connection was instant.   They quickly discovered that they lived in the same state.  Their first date highlighted their desires.  Myra quickly took control and Robin revelled in her submission.  They talk each day and meet each weekend to spend time together.  Their relationship grows and deepens and finally they decide to move in together.  

At first things work well.  Weekends are the time that they set aside for the D/s side of their relationship. During the week they look like any other couple living together.    Robin sometimes finds it difficult giving up control on the weekend, especially on weeks where she is travelling for work.   But things are still working and they are both still happy together. After 6 months living together, Myra decides to take a sabbatical.  She is working on a book and needs the time to write.  They agree that Robin will be the main bread winner for those 6 months.   This is when the D/s relationship truly begins to break down.

The women came to see me when Robin found it too difficult to submit to Myra. They were both upset by this change and were motivated to look at how they could make sure their relationship would survive and thrive.  After 4 coaching sessions, Robin raised the issue of opening the relationship.  She proposed that they both seek to create a D/s relationship with someone else.  At first Myra was resistant to this idea, concerned that they would lose one of the best facets of their relationship.  After some negotiation, they decided to choose partners for each other and were clear about the limitations.  They decided to restrict the relationship to D/s in the bedroom. After a few false starts, they found situations which suited both of them.   After a month of exploring new D/s relationships, they told me the spark had come back between them and they left coaching.  In this situation, they were each involved in negotiation and setting the limits of other relationships.

In relationship anarchy, relationships are not bound by rules set by society or culture but are only bound by rules set by the people involved. In relationship anarchy, hierarchy between relationships is avoided.  This can cause issues when a relationship is hierarchical depending upon whether that relationship includes control over other relationships.     However, if this is not the case, then relationship anarchy starts with putting yourself first and then being very deliberate about your relationships – making conscious choices about them at all time.

In full time D/s relationships, the person in charge is also often in charge of whether there are other relationships as well.    Because of this, the person who is in the submissive role does not have the agency to begin, continue, or end relationships with others.  All relationships are had with the permission of the dominant.  One dominant woman I know talks of being an owner and therefore loaning out property rather than her slaves having separate autonomous relationships with others.    

In the ‘Owner Loaner’ Model, the owner sets the rules for the other relationships that their property might have.  The owner may do all of the negotiation, be an integral part of the negotiation or give the property the details about what is acceptable and allow them to do the negotiation.    No matter how the negotiation is organised, the owner is the one who is giving permission, not the property.    Morloki describes this as a ‘Time Share Model’ where the other interested parties can ‘request regular rental weeks during the year.  Chosen family rentals can be had with special terms’.  

If other relationships are not included in the hierarchal relationship, then the other relationships are negotiated directly and terms are agreed between the participants only.  Each relationship has rules about other relationships, whether it is hierarchical or not.  

For some this raises issues about consent.  In this type of relationship organisation, the owner gains the consent of the property to loan them to others and the parameters of any loan (and therefore any other relationship), are negotiated between owner and property.  The owner then restricts the terms of any loan to those the property has consented to as part of their relationship agreement (owner loaner model). Property can still withdraw consent at any time and this is made clear to any other playmate or partner during negotiations.  Property cannot agree to extend the terms of a loan relationship.  This is negotiated with the owner.

Jeff and Cindy are in a full time Owner/property relationship.  At the beginning of their relationship, they negotiated the possibility of other partners – intimate partners, emotionally intimate partners, play only partners – as part of their long term relationship.  A few years into their relationship, Cindy met Larissa.  Jeff negotiated with Larissa to loan Cindy to her for a full BDSM relationship including sexual contact.  Jeff prefers an owner loaner model and that relationship worked well for two years until Cindy felt that Larissa was no longer meeting her needs as agreed to at the beginning of the relationship. She spoke with Jeff about this in detail and Jeff ended the relationship as he felt that this was simply causing stress for Cindy (his property).  In this case, Cindy spoke with Larissa first and said that she wanted to end the relationship.  When Larissa didn’t take this well, Jeff stepped in to make sure it was ended properly and with as little rancour as possible.  Three years later, Cindy’s first love got in touch with her.  She asked Jeff if she could see Bob and also if she could see where a relationship with Bob might go.  Jeff agreed to the date and when it went well, he agreed to loan Cindy to Bob for an emotionally and sexually intimate relationship for an indefinite period of time.  Two years later, the relationship continues.  

In some M/s or O/p relationships, the dominant partner will introduce other people into the relationship on specific occasions.  When this is the case, it will have been agreed between the parties when they set out the terms of their relationship.  Josh likes to bring people home to have sex with Jeremy, his long term slave.  The people he brings home are really clear as to who is in charge and what the rule are.

Some people become polyamorous because they discover an interest in dominance and submission and want to enter authority transfer or D/s relationships but their partners have little interest in exploring with them.  They choose to open their relationships.  In my experience many of these relationships are poly monogamous relationships.  For more on poly monogamy see my article here.  These relationships can work well however couples need to communicate well and negotiate extremely well in order for them to do so.  Coaching helps couples learn the communication and negotiation skills needed to create exciting and well-functioning poly monogamous relationships.

It is currently trendy to avoid hierarchy when it comes to relationships, particularly in the non-monogamous community.  Hierarchical relationships can be extremely exciting and satisfying whether they are part time (D/s) or full time (M/s, O/p).  For people who have multiple relationships that include one or more hierarchical relationships, the relationships can look like ordinary polyamorous relationships where all relationships are separately agreed and negotiated and maybe even equal when it comes to time and attention or they can be owner loaner relationships where the Master/Owner/Dominant is loaning out the slave/property/submissive to the people with whom they have other relationships. Consent and negotiating boundaries is more complex when D/s and non-monogamy are mixed and more time may be needed to get relationships off the ground, but these relationships can be very exciting and fulfilling in the short and long term.

Want to learn more about the DS in BDSM, non-monogamy and combining the two? Sign up for a discovery session with me hereor email loribeth@drloribethbisbey.com

One of the things I have noticed over the past number of years is how often a simple relationship mistake can bring drama with a capital D that lasts for ages.

Often these mistakes fall into a few obvious categories.

1 It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission.

This quote originally came from Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper who was a US naval officer and an early computer programmer.  She said this in an interview with Chips Ahoy when she asked the magazine why they didn’t just go ahead and print and they said they were trying to get permission.

The problem with asking for forgiveness instead of getting permission in a relationship (especially in non-monogamous relationships) is that when you make the conscious choice to do this, you are admitting that you are doing something behind your partner’s back.  In essence you are lying because omitting is also lying.  Dishonesty is the number one cause of relationship breakdown.

By avoiding talking with your partner about something you know they are likely to find difficult, you also assume your partner’s feelings, thoughts and reactions.  You make it impossible for them to grow because you are not having the difficult conversation with them.

You also avoid having to hear someone say ‘no’ and then abide by that ‘no’ because you have agreed to do so.  In non-monogamous relationships this is particularly damaging.  Most people in non-monogamous relationships have agreements about how other relationships are started and conducted, what types of sex are permissible and what types of relationships are permissible.  If you ignore these agreements, you are essentially saying that they are not important and therefore you diminish the importance of your commitment and your relationship.

Jeffrey and Cindy are married and identify as polyamorous. The one rule they have about choosing other partners is that they need to talk with each other before sleeping with someone else and that in some circumstances, the other partner can say ‘No, I don’t want you to sleep with that person.’.  Margaret kept pursuing Jeffrey over a period of two years.  Margaret’s son and Jeffrey and Cindy’s son were great friends and in the same class at school.   Jeffrey finally decided he wanted to sleep with Margaret but he knew that Cindy would say no.  Cindy would not like that Margaret was someone at the school and was the mother of one of their son’s friends.  She would be concerned that if there were relationship problems between Jeffrey and Margaret, everyone at school would hear about it and also that their son’s friendship would be disrupted.    Jeffrey decides not to ask Cindy and starts a relationship with Margaret that goes on for 6 months.  Cindy found out because everyone at school knew and there was a large scene between Jeffrey and Margaret.  Cindy ended her marriage as a result of this messy affair in part because of the drama it brought to her son’s life and to her life.

2 Pressure to try ‘new’ things.

People who are non-monogamous often feel a need to try anything.  There can be considerable social pressure to try the newest activity, relationship style or type of relationship rules out there.  Pressure can be applied before an idea is thought through and discussed.  For example, in some circles, women are expected to try sexual activity with other women.    People are sometimes pressured to be friends with each other’s metamours (the partners of your partner).

3 Believing that opening up your relationship and becoming non-monogamous will resolve all relationship issues

It is trendy to be non-monogamous.   It doesn’t suit everyone.    Non-monogamy requires LOTS of good communication.   I have seen many couples whose relationships have become sexually stagnant or who have been having difficulty with desire latch on to the idea that opening their relationship up will solve all their relationship issues.   If you already cannot communicate well with each other and don’t have the communication skills to resolve your existing relationship problems, opening up your relationship will only make things more complex.  Before deciding to open up, why not work with a coach or take a class to improve your communication skills including negotiation and conflict management?

The idea that opening up will solve things is like the idea that moving will solve issues that you are having.  It never words because where ever you go, there you are.  You take the issues with you.  And with opening up your relationship, you take your relationship issues with you and also bring them into new relationships thus creating lots of drama in many cases.

4  Misunderstanding what making all relationships equal means.

Non-hierarchical polyamory is also trendy now.  People get extremely upset when someone talks about having primary relationships and will shame people who don’t agree that all their relationships should be non-hierarchical.  Leaving aside people who are in authority transfer based relationships which by their nature are hierarchical, there are a number of issues with trying to make all relationships ‘equal’.  Equal is identical in mathematical value, of the same quantity or number.    Seeing all relationships as of equal importance or all people as of equal value is acceptable (though often problematic. After all, my one night stand is not of equal importance as my marriage, nor is it of equal value).  Better yet is looking at all people as being of equal value.  In reality, a relationship in which I am financially supporting someone is not equal to one in which I see someone once a year.  I have responsibilities in the first relationship that I do not have in the second relationship.    Which usually means that I need to give more time to the first relationship.  Many people just the ‘equality’ of a relationship with how much time is spent together.  Once making relationships equal becomes the focus, counting becomes a focus as well. Counting leads to disaster.

What do I mean by counting? Counting is when you compare relationships and look at how much time, how many holidays, how many photos posted on Facebook and then make assumptions about the value of the relationships based on the numbers you come up with.  Arly gets angry with Marco regularly because they post more pictures of themselves with Annie than they do of themselves with Arly.  To Arly, this means that Marco values their relationship with Annie more than they value their relationship with Arly.  In fact, Annie takes the photos and Marco simply shares them. To Marco, this means nothing.  They love Annie and they love Arly.    Arly also insists that Marco spend the same number of days with him that they spend with Annie.  Arly says that if Marco doesn’t agree to this, Marco is being hierarchical.  It isn’t practical for them to spend the same number of days with each one as Arly lives 1000 km away and Annie lives in the same house.   Quality over quantity is a maxim that needs to be adopted often in non-monogamous relationships styles.  Scheduling time is one of the most difficult things to manage as time is finite and we all have many demands on our time beyond our relationships.

5  This is the ‘right’ way to be polyamorous.

The ‘right’ way changes depending on the trends.  As I said earlier, non-hierarchical polyamory is trendy now so hierarchical relationships are seen as ‘wrong’.    Except that some polyamorous people are in authority transfer based relationships and these are hierarchical and as a result, the way they do polyamory is usually hierarchical because the dominant in that hierarchical relationship holds the agency and decides what other relationships the submissive will be allowed to be in, what the submissive can do in those relationships and how much time the submissive can give to those relationships.  Of course YMMV.  In some cases, the submissive may have agency to carve out time for a specific other relationship and this may be kept sacrosanct.  There are no right ways only the right way for you.  Figuring out what is right for you takes looking at all the possibilities, examining what feels right for you in any given situation and final discussing possibilities with partners and negotiating until parameters are agreed upon and clear.

6  We shouldn’t have to work on our relationships ongoing.

Once we have negotiated and agreed a contract of sorts or a set of rules, that should be OK going forward. Polyamory should be fun and spending time working on relationships is not fun.

All relationships require work.  Work doesn’t have to be arduous.  Work could just be a good conversation.  Work could be time spent each week checking in with a partner as to how they are feeling and making sure there are no issues that are brewing.  Relationships require attention no matter what type of relationship they are.  Relationships are more fun when there aren’t any unexamined issues around casting negative shadows over the enjoyable bits.

Are you in a non-monogamous relationship?  Are you creating one?  If you would like help creating a workable structure, sign up for a free 30 minute discovery session here and why not work through my online course here?

 

 

 

I have written about polyamorous D/s relationships in the past.  Recently, in a mentoring session with the head of the leather household, House of Trei, Choc Trei, polyamory in a full Master/slave or Owner/property authority transfer based relationship came up as part of a discussion of their House tour.  The discussion raised new points and led to me re-examining the many types relationship style that people who are in an authority based relationship might adopt.

As a refresher, authority transfer based relationships are ones in which one person is definitely the leader and the other is the follower.

These are consensual relationships in which the person who is in the subordinate role, surrenders part or all of their autonomy by surrendering authority over part or all of themselves and their lives to the one who is in the dominant role so that the dominant is the one who makes the decisions or has the final say.

There are a number of different flavours of authority transfer based consensual relationships  The most common are:

D/s (Dominant/submissive) In D/s relationships, the submissive gives the Dominant partner limited authority over themselves and over their lives.   They negotiate the areas of service and of authority transfer.

M/s (Master/slave)  In M/s relationships, the slave surrenders authority over themselves and their lives to the Master.  This is a full transfer of authority as opposed to in D/s.

O/p (Owner/property) In O/p relationships, the Owner has full authority over the property just as in M/s.

However, as with most definitions, these tend to evolve so YMMV.

How does this intersect with non-monogamy?

Many people who practice non-monogamy, particularly those who identify as practicing polyamory dislike the idea of hierarchical relationships.  They eschew the previous common polyamorous structure that had one relationship identified as a primary relationship and others as secondary, tertiary and so on.    They feel that no relationship should be more important than another, no person taking precedence over another, all relationships be seen as and treated as equal.

In practice, equal is truly the wrong term.

While relationships may be treated equally in mind and heart – be equal in value, in day to day life, equal is very difficult if not impossible to achieve.  Equal means to be the be the same in degree, size or quantity.   Attempting to create equality of time alone can be a challenge.

When one of the relationships is a hierarchical one as all authority transfer based relationships are, equal becomes difficult at best and impossible at worst.

If the authority transfer based relationship is a D/s one, it is possible to create equal other polyamorous relationships as both parties retain at least some agency.  However, if it is an M/s or O/p relationship, equal other relationships are not truly possible.

Why is this so?  In surrendering authority, the submissive also surrenders agency.  Some agency is usually returned except in the most restrictive and micro-managed M/s relationships where the Master controls every aspect of the slave’s live.    But even though the subordinate regains some agency, the ultimate decision maker is person in charge.  They can allow the subordinate to have other romantic and/or sexual relationships and they also have the authority to end these relationships.

Full polyamory requires full agency.

As the slave does not have the agency to create the relationship without permission, to define the parameters of the relationship, or to choose if the relationship is to continue or to end, then it is not polyamory as such.

Therefore what is it? It is consensual non-monogamy that is taking its form from the hierarchical authority transfer based relationship.

Choc Trei calls this ‘loaning’ as the Owner/Master/Mistress is the party with the agency to begin the second relationship, negotiate it’s parameters and to end it.    In discussing this, she used the example of a car.  Two people can purchase a car together, share the use of it, the maintenance of it and both names are on the title (registration document).    This is polyamory – with two people each having a relationship with a separate third person.  In the car analogy, both people have agency to use the vehicle as they see fit as they both own part of it.  In the polyamory example, the separate relationships can take any form as all parties have agency over the relationship (which is the car).

However, when there is an M/s or O/p relationship, the car analogy becomes one person (the M/O) purchases the car, takes responsibility for maintenance of it, uses it and that person’s name is on the title (registration document). The owner of the car can choose to lend it to another person.  The owner would define the terms of the loan.  For example, don’t take the car over state lines, don’t use cheap petrol, wash the car every week.  In addition, the owner could end the loan for any reason.  For example, the person who borrows the car uses the wrong petrol or simply the owner has need of the car.   More or less agency can be awarded when making a loan of property, but the final decision point is always the Owner.

The Owner sets the tone for all other relationships that their property has whether these relationships are sexual, romantic and sexual, friendships, business or family relationships. The Owner can award more or less agency to their property to create and maintain relationships but the owner has the final say.

People often believe that this relationship structure is overly complicated.

In my experience, it depends wholly on the tone set by the dominant partner.  Some Owners love to micro manage and sometimes that means that any other relationships can become complicated as permissions and negotiations happen on a regular basis.   Other Owners give significant agency and freedom to their property which tends to mean that other relationships are less complicated.

Jarrod and Seth are in an authority transfer based relationship. Jarrod sees himself as a benevolent Owner.  Seth has always been able to have casual sexual liaisons with minimal interference.  Jarrod requires Seth to ask first and to make clever choices.   ‘Clever choices’ means to choose people who won’t bring any drama into their relationship.  Jarrod does not ask to meet most of the people Seth becomes involved with as he feels no need.   

When Seth meets Angelo, the connection is extremely intense. Seth asks Jarrod for permission to have sex with Angelo and Jarrod grants this.   Seth realises that he wants an actual relationship with Angelo and brings this to Jarrod.    Jarrod sits down with Seth to discuss what kind of relationship he would like to have with Angelo and after this discussion, asks to meet Angelo so they can negotiate the terms of the relationship and discuss the rules. 

Jarrod likes Angelo immediately upon meeting him.  He explains to Angelo that he is happy for him to start a relationship with Seth, his property, with certain rules in place. Rule number 1 is Angelo is always to be available to him (Jarrod) when needed.  Jarrod tells Angelo that he will do his best to respect their time together, but reiterates that if he needs Seth, his need will come before Angelo’s needs or desires.  Jarrod goes on to say that if he becomes concerned about the relationship between Seth and Angelo and his concerns cannot be resolved, he (Jarrod) will end the relationship between them.   The rest of the rules include safe sex only, no group scenes, no cuts or skin breaks of any kind and no permanent marks.  Angelo agrees to these rules and pursues his relationship with Seth. 

After 6 months, the relationship between Angelo and Seth is still going strong.  Angelo tells Seth that he has fallen in love with him.  He becomes uncomfortable with Jarrod having the final say over their relationship.  He wants to their relationship to be completely autonomous and resents that Jarrod has some say over their relationship even though Jarrod doesn’t interfere and never has interfered.  At first, Angelo urges Seth to address this with Jarrod.  Seth refuses and says that Angelo must have this conversation.  Seth tells Angelo that he does not want to change his relationship with Jarrod.    Angelo is upset by this but decides to talk with Jarrod about changing the rules anyway.   The conversation doesn’t go well and the relationship between Seth and Angelo ends.

In that example, the intensity of the relationship between the property and the outside person changed and this lead the relationship ending as the other person would no longer respect the rules set by the Owner.  I see this type of situation in my consulting room regularly either because Owner and property come in to make sense of the drama that has entered their relationship or because the outside person comes because they are not happy having a relationship that is not completely autonomous.  This type of situation can often be avoided if all parties are clear at the outset as to what the relationship possibilities are and what kind of parameters will be put into place.

I often see people who are in an M/s or O/p relationship and want to have other M/s or D/s relationships. In these relationships, the negotiation can be easier as all parties understand authority based relationships. It can also be more complicated while people try to figure out who is ultimately in charge of whom.     Short term encounters are mostly easily managed.  It is the longer term relationships that require the most care and attention to negotiate.

For people whose primary sexual orientation is dominance or submission, it is not unusual for most of their romantic relationships and sexual encounters to have at least an element of dominance/submission.

Though many of my romantic relationships are not D/s, almost all of my sexual relationships involve submission as this is my primary orientation.  My husband and I are in an M/s relationship and so he has the last word on any other relationships that I become involved in. He gives me lots of agency to form relationships and does not micromanage any of these relationships.  He has only a few rules and is laid back as long as these rules are adhered to.  Everyone I become involved with is well aware of the hierarchy before they get involved with me.    People who only want egalitarian polyamorous relationships don’t usually get involved with me because I am in a hierarchical relationship.

The trend to denigrate all hierarchical non-monogamous relationships works to exclude many people who choose authority transfer based relationships as part of their relationship structure.

By their nature, authority based relationships are hierarchical and this does impact upon non-hierarchical relationships that a person has as well.  It doesn’t always mean that the authority based relationship is creating and controlling the hierarchy but often this is the case.

Are you in an authority based relationship and non-monogamous?  If you would like help creating a structure that works well or managing the issues that arise out of the relationship structure, sign up for a 30 minute free discovery session with me on my contact page.  If you want to learn more about authority based relationships, check out my online course here.

People often become confused about the language used around non-monogamy and polyamorous networks of relationships.  I will start with a disclaimer:  Language changes quickly.   New terms are added faster as the internet expands.    These terms and polyamorous definitions are up to date at the time of writing.   However, your mileage may vary.

With that said, here is my list of non-monogamy terms that are essential.

Non-monogamy:

A relationship or relationship style that does not conform to monogamy.   In monogamy, a person has a sexual relationship with only one person at a time. In non-monogamy, a person can have multiple partners at the same time.

Unethical non-monogamy:

This is an updated term for having an affair or cheating. Unethical non-monogamy is when one partner makes a unilateral decision to have a relationship with another person without gaining the agreement or consent of their current partner.  Any time an agreement between two (or more) people is violated (instead of negotiated and changed), it is considered unethical.

Ethical non-monogamy:

Any relationship in which the parties make agreements about having multiple sexual and/or relationship partners.

Polyamory:

People who engage in polyamory have more than one romantic and sexual relationship at a time.  Polyamory is usually assumed to include love rather than simply having multiple sexual relationships at a time.

Polyandry:

A relationship where there is one woman and multiple men.

Polygamy:

A relationship where there is one many and multiple women.

Unicorn:

A single person (often a woman) who is sought by a couple to join them for short term sexual relationship or a long-term relationship.

Fluid bonding:

This is when a couple or a group of people choose to dispense with barrier protection and have sex where fluids are exchanged.  If a couple is fluid bonded, they have usually had multiple clean STI tests and use condoms and other barriers (dental dams) when they have sexual contact with people outside the fluid bond.

Compersion:

Feeling fantastic because of the joy your partner is experiencing with someone else.  It is the opposite of jealousy.  It is when someone else’s excitement and joy brings you excitement and joy.  This is one of the most wonderful parts of being non-monogamous if you are able to experience compersion.  Some people find it hard to experience compersion but it is a skill that can be learned.

Hierarchical relationships:

This is when relationships are prioritised.  Sometimes people talk about their primary or secondary partner and this suggests they are in a hierarchical relationship.  If you are raising children with someone, you may prioritise that relationship. However, prioritising the relationship does not necessarily mean that you consider someone more important than other partners.  It often refers to how you divide and prioritise your time.  Many people in the poly community now prefer to aim for non-hierarchical relationships – noting that no relationship holds more sway inherently than any other.

When I first entered the world of polyamory, it was common to use the terms primary and secondary relationships.  Now hierarchical language is frowned upon so people often refer to nesting partners to describe the person they live with rather than a primary partner as that is seen as too hierarchical.

Some relationships are by their nature hierarchical.  Relationships in which there is an authority transfer are always hierarchical as the person who holds the authority is at the top of the hierarchy.  This doesn’t always mean that when someone is polyamorous and in a relationship which involves authority transfer that the authority transfer relationship is always given priority and seen as primary in the hierarchical sense.  People can have a number of different types of relationships and keep them all equal. However, it is common for authority transfer relationships to be seen as primary.  I have also noticed that in real life, equality is rare but striving for equality is common.  This is the subject of an upcoming blog.

Solo polyamory:

This is when someone chooses to focus on the individual rather than becoming couple focused.  Many of the people I have met who identify in this way are clear that they prefer their own space and do not want to live with or marry anyone.  They talk about being their own partner first. They enjoy the flexibility and autonomy.

Swinging:

Traditionally this terms refers to couples enjoying sexual encounters with other individuals or couples.  It is usually specific to sexual bonds rather than creating emotional bonds.  Lots of swinging takes place in clubs or at private parties.  Traditionally, swinging is an activity that favours heterosexual couples and bisexual women.  In more modern clubs, bisexual men also engage and in some clubs same sex couples engage as well.  However, same sex couples, queer and non-binary people tend to create their own events and don’t usually call this ‘swinging’.    Some people go to swing clubs to watch rather than to have sex with others.  The couple has sex with each other while watching the activity of the other people at the party or club.  This allows them to engage in voyeurism and exhibitionism.  There are closed swinging groups where people have regular STI tests and agree to only swing with each other.

Polyfidelitous relationship:

A polyamorous relationship in which all of the partners agree to remain faithful to the group.  Some relationships have a process that allows new members to be added and others don’t.  Some of these are relationships in which everyone lives together and others are not. Polyfidelity.

Triad:

A relationship involving three people.

Vee:

A triad where the person at the apex of the V is involved with the other two people but they are not sexually involved with each other.  The person at the apex is also known as the pivot.

Quad:

A relationship involving four people.

Poly/mono relationship:

A relationship where one person is polyamorous and the other is monogamous.

Don’t ask, Don’t Tell:

A relationship in which partners are allowed to have sex with others outside the relationship as long as it is not talked about.

Friends with benefits:

When a person decides to have a sexual relationship (sometimes just once, other times regularly) with a friend and there is no expectation of a romantic relationship developing.  Also known as a fuck buddy.

Intimate network:

This is the network of a person’s romantic and sexual partners and their romantic and sexual partners.

Key party:

From the 1970’s – Originally a wife swapping/swinging event where each couple places their car keys in a bowl when they arrive and then at the end of the night, each woman picks a set of keys from the bowl and then goes home with the man whose keys they are for the night.  There are still key parties held.

Metamour:

The partner of your partner.  Sometimes known as lover-in-law.

Ménage a Trois or Threesome:

French for a triad – though usually this term is used for experiences rather than to describe relationships that last longer involving three people.

Polycule:

A romantic network or a subset of a romantic network.

Molecule:

A romantic network or subset of a romantic network

Monogamish: (term coined by Dan Savage)

A couple in a committed relationship who are monogamous with some agreed exceptions.  For example, kissing a friend may be acceptable.  Some people who are monogamish allow sexual relationships outside the couple but not romantic relationships.

New relationship energy (NRE):

The excitement and quasi obsessiveness that happens when you begin a new relationship. It includes infatuation and also that ‘in love’ feeling and can last a few years.

One Penis Policy (OPP) :

A relationship where the man is allowed sex with multiple female partners and the female partners can have sex with other women but no one is allowed to have sex with another man.

Open relationship:

Any relationship that is not monogamous.  For some this term is only used to describe relationships in which other sexual relationships are allowed but there are no other romantic relationships. In this way it excludes polyamory.

Relationship anarchy:

This is when people are free to engage in any type of relationships that they choose.  People who practice relationship anarchy see any relationship that restricts a person’s ability to express themselves as negative.  Freedom and spontaneity are seen as highly desirable traits.   For many people who practice relationship anarchy, there is not always a clear distinction between partner ad non-partner.

Tribe:

A group of people in a polyamorous network.

There are also a lot of very colloquial terms so as with all relationships, it is important to communicate fully and clearly in order to make sure you and the person or people you are speaking with are understanding each other.

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