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.
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.
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.
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.