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Inherent Hierarchy

There’s nothing wrong with hierarchy in polyamorous relationships so long as everyone knows it’s there.

Hierarchy, or acknowledging that some of your partners have a primary or more entangled place in your life, sometimes gets a bad name in polyamorous circles. This is because of two of several different possible outcomes of hierarchy that are hurtful: when a ‘ceiling’ on a secondary relationship is weaponized by their partner, or by the primary partner metamour; or when it isn’t acknowledged out loud and is ‘found out’ later - a practice some people call ‘sneakiarchy’. The latter of those two is, I think, a function of the bad name for hierarchy created by that minority of people who weaponize their hierarchies to cause pain.

Most hierarchies are tools for explaining where relationships are now - descriptive hierarchies. They indicate that the partner who you have 15 years of entanglement and a long ride up the relationship escalator with has more of your time and attention than the person you met a year ago. These descriptions might be linked to expectations that this imbalance will remain, or will go away: and if it’s the former, it becomes a prescriptive hierarchy - rules of how important to you or entangled a relationship can become.

Prescriptive hierarchies are the ones that can be weaponized the most easily, and thereby have become the ones with the worst reputation, and the ones most prone to sneakiarchy. When there is a distinct difference in the “rank” of the partners, the primary partner can more easily make demands that infringe on the quality and timing of the relationship of the secondary partner with the hinge. I absolutely don’t believe that most people in relationships with prescriptive hierarchies do this. 12 years of watching my own and my friends’ relationships tells me that this does happen - but a minority of the time. Because they can be used this way, people are loath to admit (to others they’re starting to see, and to themselves) that they have a prescriptive hierarchy. They give themselves mental loopholes, they keep saying things like “well, my feelings aren’t hierarchical, so neither is this relationship” to themselves or their partners. This gives you ‘sneakiarchy’ - and that hurts as much as weaponizing the prescription, when you hit an unexpected ceiling.

There’s a middle area that isn’t either sneakiarchy or descriptive hierarchy, that I like to call inherent hierarchy. It’s when some details of a situation are disclosed ahead of time that create a hierarchy. There are statements like “my feelings have no hierarchy but I will not live with anyone beyond who I currently do;” that indicate a ceiling and limits on the relationship, while simultaneously avoiding the concept of a hierarchy. Examples of inherent hierarchy:

  • Living with a limited number of people who have already been reached

  • Having hit polysaturation for “serious relationships” but “happy to casually date”

  • Long-term marriages with a history of short term additional partners

  • A prefered and acknowledged shape of polycule that there are limited “spaces” left in

  • “Oh, nesting partner and I would be open to a shared co-primary, but a partner of only one of ours isn’t going to move in or pass x ceiling on the relationship escalator.”

All of these are perfectly fine, if they are acknowledged, and said out loud in a real conversation. When they become apparent only when bumped against, or someone opens with “Oh, I’m open to whatever develops here, there are a lot of potential outcomes” and then it becomes apparent that either the partner you’ve begun seeing or your meta have expectations that limit those outcomes in ways you should have been informed of.

Examining our assumptions and making sure we’re being honest with ourselves and our partners about if there is a descriptive hierarchy or a rule or prescription in play, and not just paying lipservice to a lack of hierarchy because it feels “simpler” is the difference between healthy and unhealthy hierarchy, and honesty and sneakiarchy.

There is nothing wrong with being non-hierarchical, with being hierarchical, with having inherent hierarchy and using it descriptively, with following a relationship anarchy model that can land several ways. The only thing that’s wrong is dishonesty - and that’s why the situation of sneakiarchy is the thing to avoid, and why self-examination is so important to polyamory.

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