Updated: Nov 29, 2021
Hierarchy is one of the concepts in polyamory that stirs up strong feelings in conversation every time it comes up. There’s a contingent of polyamorists on a mission to abolish hierarchy in all forms because they’re convinced it’s unethical to rank interpersonal relationships in any way - some people would say this is the foundational trait of relationship anarchy. Some people say that responsibilities and commitments will always form a certain degree of descriptive hierarchy in terms of time, resources and availability shared within relationships, and so decrying hierarchy as a whole as unethical is naive and unnecessary. Still others think that hierarchy is the definitional underpinning of the structure of their relationships, and that acknowledging that is fundamental to having an open and honest relationship with them - and so openness and honesty, (and therefore ethical behavior) which are the real basis of polyamory, can only be met by acknowledging that hierarchy in their life.
Wherever you personally fall on this spectrum, it’s pretty necessary to acknowledge that not matching up with one or more of your partners on your thoughts about hierarchy can cause issues with insecurity and jealousy. One person very firmly believing hierarchies are unethical trying to be with someone who is in a hierarchical relationship is going to be in for a bad time - who is in for the worse time is hard to say; it mostly depends on what entanglement of relationship they try to have. If they start out in what would appear to be a “primary,” high-entanglement relationship and one of them decides that actually, hierarchies are no good and she doesn’t believe in them anymore, all future relationships are of equal importance and will be treated as such - the formerly “primary” hierarchical partner can feel rejected and awful about that, and feel a lot of jealousy and insecurity around new relationships. Not being super explicit about your feelings on hierarchy, regardless of what they are, can lead to a sense of the hierarchy having “snuck up” on a partner with different feelings about it. The unflattering popular term “sneakiarchy” for descriptive hierarchies people don’t want to acknowledge exist is a good indicator that this is a common issue.
Hierarchy brings with it a whole slew of possible jealousy triggers (and our culture is rife with them). On the one side, structural issues that remind partners “lower in the pecking order” that they can’t have certain things more entangled partners may have. On the other, more entangled partners may be reminded that they aren’t footloose and fancy-free as a newer partner who doesn’t have household responsibilities, or coparenting or scheduling obligations that a previously existing or more entangled/primary partner might have. There’s enough worries for anybody, if they’re looking for them or inclined that way.
This isn’t to encourage you to find jealousy or anxieties - exactly the opposite. It’s pointing out the universality of these feelings to let you know you aren’t alone so that when you sit with them, you can regard them as either an incompatibility in the relationship, or if not, then maybe just a blip. We always talk about examining your feelings in this blog and other similar polyamory advice, but once you’ve done that a time or two and can see where it’s coming from - like in this case, a different opinion on hierarchy - you get to decide if that’s enough of a big deal to change anything. If you talk to your partner and it isn’t (it’s not a boundary for either of you; it doesn’t actually affect the day to day function of your relationship - you just each view it through a different lens, and some days one or both of you has a wibble because of that difference in perception) then you might have to go “Ah. This is an anxious hiccup. I recognize this anxious hiccup and will allow it to pass over me.” We all have some emotional reaction we do this with in our lives; they’re just different for each of us.
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