As many of my writing pieces do, this one germinated from a seed planted in a conversation with Laura. I started my first polyamorous relationship almost 10 years ago and back then the idea of hierarchical polyamory was still somewhat in vogue, while non-hierarchical polyamory was starting to gain a foothold in my local and online communities. The concept of non-hierarchical polyamory had appealed to me from the beginning, maybe because one of my core values has always been equity in relationships or perhaps because couple’s privilege has always also felt like a self-imposed artificial limitation on me as a part of that couple. But, having participated in a number of different polycule setups, some of which were decidedly hierarchical and some of which were not at all I think I have a slightly more nuanced perspective today than I did initially.
Before we proceed, let’s define in simple terms what hierarchical polyamory (HP) and non-hierarchical polyamory (NHP) actually are. When a person practices HP they hold one or more of their relationships as more important than the rest. As an example, a couple who came to polyamory together and decided to live together and focus the majority of their time and emotional energy on one another might consider each other as primary partners, while their other polyamorous partners would be secondary. The explicit nature of the ranking of priorities and one relationship being placed higher on that priority scale is a notable feature of hierarchical relationships; the 'primary' partnership might have the ability to make rules about the secondary ones. Everyone "knows where they stand" and where in the pecking order they are. By contrast NHP would not have such a ranking system and instead every relationship would be considered equally important. An important aspect of NHP is that one relationship should not limit the potential of another; each relationship makes its own rules, and priorities are more fluid over time.
When I went to my first polyamory-themed munch I had seen a roughly equal number of people who professed to practice HP and NHP. Over the years HP has fallen out of favor and now it’s a nearly universal experience that when going to a munch or a potluck with other polyamorists you will hear a discussion of how hierarchies are toxic and how of course people practice NHP as the more ethical version of polyamory. However, when asked “what is wrong with hierarchies?” the almost-universal answer goes like this: “I was in a relationship with this person who had a primary partner with whom they lived. It went well for the first few dates but then as things started to escalate slightly we had a big adventure planned. The day of the adventure my partner called/texted and informed me that they were unable to go out on this date because of something that happened to their primary partner/my metamour.” The thing that’s usually happened to the metamour in this scenario can most accurately be summed up as they stubbed their emotional toe on some household furniture and demanded that the partner stay home to soothe the ache. It is an unfair situation to the secondary partner and a clear display of couple’s privilege.
This problem, while nearly universal, seems fairly superficial. Is it possible that HP got thrown out with the bath water because of this one (admittedly common) issue? If so, what are we missing? The purpose of this essay is to examine how hierarchies go wrong as well as what features they have that non-hierarchical polyamory doesn't, and hopefully learn something useful from the comparison.
What Hierarchies Have to Offer
I have to admit, I have developed a particular affinity for HP over the years: I like being a secondary. As a secondary I know that my relationship with my partner has fairly clear emotional and logistical boundaries. Their primary or primaries are their main focus so it isn’t on me to worry about how my partner will make car payments or having to attend their niece’s recital. Moreover, if a person with one or more primary partners chooses to spend their time with me I know that it is a very deliberate choice and not a default. These relationships tend to be fun and full of passion. The moment a secondary partnership stops being fun it is easier to dissolve logistically and doesn’t leave both parties entangled in a messy aftermath of an involved partnership. It sounds exactly like the polyamory promised to us by the early practitioners of this relationship style: uncomplicated, clearly defined, fun.
Hierarchies also can shield secondaries from the negative parts of the primary relationship. If I am a secondary and my metamour lost their job, the stress of dealing with that situation is muted by the fact that it’s not directly my business. Sure my partner might be stressed and might not have the bandwidth to see me as often as a result of this but at least I am not suddenly in the middle of a really difficult situation that must be dealt with logistically. I would postulate that a well practiced hierarchical system serves the secondary partner as much if not more than it serves the primary partners.
Where Hierarchies Go Wrong
Aside from the emotional toe stabbing example given above I think hierarchies become actually problematic in a couple of other scenarios that are not talked about as much. The first of these is a reshaping problem. Say Adam is dating Ben (secondary partnership) and Ben is married to Clarice (primary partnership). Suddenly (at least suddenly to Adam), Clarice breaks up with Ben and files for divorce. Ben just lost a primary partner and so he leans on Adam for support. Since Ben is used to having a primary partner and because Adam is available, Ben promotes Adam to a primary. In the better case Ben actually has this conversation with Adam and Adam agrees to this change. In the worse case it happens implicitly. Now the parameters of the relationship between them are entirely different than what had initially attracted Adam to Ben and the added responsibility for Ben’s well being has caused Adam to take on a whole lot of stress in a relationship that started out as fun and non-committal. Adam pulls away, Ben feels hurt and abandoned, the relationship dissolves.
What was the failure here? I would call it automatic promotion of a secondary to a primary. If you are a secondary waiting out a primary relationship to dissolve so you can be promoted to primary, chances are the castle is built on sand. If you are in a primary relationship and it dissolves, your secondary might not be interested in or able to fill the void that was just left in your life
The second way that hierarchical polycules can go wrong is failure to recognize that a secondary relationship is escalating and renegotiate agreements. Diane is married to Eva (primary relationship). Diane is also dating Francis (secondary relationship). Initially the setup is typical and seemingly stable: Diane and Francis go on dates twice a month and exchange flirty texts in between while Diane and Eva happily cohabitate along with their three cats and five dogs. However after about six months the frequency of dates between Diane and Francis increase. Francis now spends two nights a week with Diane in her and Eva’s guest bedroom. Francis has introduced Diane to their parents and has gone to two weddings with her. Increasingly Diane thinks of Francis as a “very important person” in her life but due to the nature of her agreements with Eva she dares not call Francis her primary. Francis feels similarly about Diane, and possibly even thinks of Diane as a primary having no other partners at the moment. Eva sees the relationship between her wife and her metamour blossoming. Perhaps she even really likes Francis but the insistence that she is the primary and Francis is the secondary rings false when she is the one taking care of the household and working out bills with Diane while Francis gets to enjoy going on all the dates and having a claim on lots of Diane’s time. Resentment grows and Eva feels no choice but to ask Diane “am I still your primary partner, because it really doesn’t feel like it?” Some hierarchical relationships opt to address this by allowing for co-primary partners, usually along with all entangling finances and other logistics, but sometimes that isn't feasible for one reason or another - and sometimes the parties wait long enough to discuss it that the resentment that has built up damages the relationships first.
I would call this problem secondary escalation. The idea of a secondary relationship is that it only rides the relationship escalator to the 14th floor while the primary relationships are not so limited. Of course practitioners of NHP would at this point raise their hands and say “aha! We do not have this problem in non-hierarchical polyamory!” and perhaps they are right. But please read on for that discussion in the next section.
The last situation I want to describe is a variant on the one above: George is dating Henry (primary relationship) and Henry is dating Ivan (secondary relationship). Ivan has no other relationships while George and Henry both has additional secondary partners (Jason and Kevin respectively). Ivan is new to polyamory and explicitly views Henry as his primary while Henry openly says that Ivan is a secondary (and a newest secondary at that). Over time as Ivan and Henry get closer and their relationship grows, Ivan gets more and more invested in the relationship. He sees everything that Henry and George have built and he wants a slice of it, but Henry is firm in his boundaries: he says that their relationship is strictly secondary and that he and George are not looking to form a triad or to bring Ivan in under any other setup directly into their household. Ivan grows resentful and the relationship dissolves.
I would call this problem a primary-secondary mismatch. Here different expectations of the relationship exist between what is supposed to be a secondary partnership and they cannot be resolved unless some boundary is renegotiated which not all of the parties are willing to do.
Does NHP Prevent These Issues?
Automatic promotion of a secondary, our first problem from above, is nominally side-stepped by NHP. In this case since relationship boundaries are a little more fluid than in HP it is technically not only allowed but encouraged for Adam and Ben to explore what it’s like to be more involved with each other after Clarice leaves Ben. However without careful communication the result is likely the same. If Adam came into the relationship assuming a few dates a month, no logistical support for his partner, and only medium amounts of emotional labor (“we will be in relationship while it is fun”), then getting rapidly close to Ben after his breakup is likely to still introduce the same problem. The issue here was not hierarchy but expectations and boundaries. In fact I would argue that HP if done properly would handle this better. Since in HP promotion of a secondary to a primary is a very explicit well negotiated event, Adam would have had plenty of opportunity to spot the automatic promotion ahead of time and help Ben enforce his own boundaries. In time, Ben might find another candidate for a primary partner and the secondary relationship between Adam and Ben might be preserved.
Our next problem, the secondary escalation, is theoretically not a problem in NHP. The agreement that everyone signed onto at the start is that these promotions do happen and that’s not only allowable but desirable. However I would argue that the situation I describe above would still result in Eva feeling neglected and Diane and Francis would need to keep a very realistic eye on the state of their relationship in order to not wind up in that situation. At the end of the day Eva wouldn’t care whether she was called a primary or an anchor partner (more on this below) if it still stood that she hadn’t been out to dinner with Diane for the past three months while Diane and Francis have a standing dinner date every Friday night.
The last problem, the primary-secondary mismatch, I think is even more prevalent to NHP than HP. Entirely too often polycules who practice NHP will add a new-to-non-monogamy partner and promise them that in time and with effort the new partner would be allowed into the inner sanctum, just to have the person find out that the house is full and there is no more room for anyone else to be added. With some research, communication, and honesty it might be better for Ivan to know that what Henry is promising as possible is in fact not. Setting expectations and sticking to boundaries might save Ivan the heartache. While the relationship model itself is not the problem, the expectations that remain open in NHP make this problem more common than it actually is in the more-firmly-set expectations of a hierarchical polycule.
Primary vs Anchor Partners
One other aspect that I want to point out in the HP vs NHP debate is the idea of primary vs anchor partners. Insofar as the term primary has become a dogwhistle for hierarchy (and therefore couple’s privilege), the term has taken on a lot of negative meaning. However, there still exists the need to describe the difference between your partner with whom you live, have kids, and mortgage payments, and the partner who you see once a month at a restaurant and a hotel room after, even if both feel equally emotionally important. This is where the terms “anchor partner” and “nesting partner” have entered the vernacular. The distinction between a primary partner and an anchor partner is in theory that a primary takes priority emotionally as well as in terms of commitments made (and sometimes gets rule-making authority around other relationships), while an anchor partner describes the commitment while allowing emotional expression to not be limited.
In practice I think that the distinction is not as clear cut as we’d like to sell it. Ending a relationship with a partner with whom you live, sleep most nights, and share financial and/or parental responsibilities is going to take a very strong emotional toll while ending a relationship with a partner with whom none of these things are factors may or may not be hard. There is a built in weight assigned to that relationship and trying to paper over it with labels will not make that weight disappear.
What Does This All Mean?
At this point in this post you might be asking yourself “so if hierarchies have problem and NHP has those same problems and possibly worse, what is the point? Is everything just awful?” and you would be right to raise that question. I did not start writing this post to show that NHP does not work. I still practice it and lean that way in most of my relationships. I also did not write this to convince you that HP is great or terrible. I believe it can work and has something to offer or at least teach us about how to communicate about our relationships and what can go wrong.
The point is that there is no silver bullet in the form of a relationship framework that solves relationship problems. The real silver bullet is honest and open communication within whatever framework you choose to use. Whether you practice HP and honestly and frequently evaluate and communicate to everyone involved where each relationship is and where it is headed while relying on labels such as primary or secondary or if you feel more comfortable doing that without using those labels and with the looser emotional boundaries of NHP, the problems and solutions are remarkably similar. If you know what you got yourself into when you engaged with a polycule and if you know where your personal boundaries and limitations lie and are not afraid to stick to them then you are more likely to do better in your relationships than if you blindly follow the philosophy of HP or NHP only to find their sharp corners. And maybe it is possible that understanding the strengths and weaknesses of both frameworks would make you a better communicator, even if only one of them appeals to you in practice.
In other words don’t get scared by the hierarchy label or assume that non-hierarchy is being practiced ethically and in good faith. Instead, try to understand what is actually going on in the polycule, communicate honestly, and enjoy all the benefits that come with ethical non-monogamy.
Corwin is a polyamorist of nearly a decade, friend of the Ready for Polyamory Podcast, rigger, photographer, and owner of Upline Studio, CT's premier rope space. Follow him & the studio on Instagram @corwinrope and @uplinestudio.