Hierarchies – The Good, the Bad, and the Toxic

You gotta be cruel to be kind, in the right measure.

Cruel to be kind, it’s a very good sign.

Cruel to be kind, means that I love you, baby.

You’ve gotta be cruel to be kind.

–Nick Lowe, “Cruel to be Kind”

Welcome back, my Polyam Peeps! I wanted to say first, thank you for all the support this project has gotten in the last two weeks. Our Facebook page has over 800 followers and there’s been 850 unique views on the website as of the time of this publication. If you haven’t done so yet, please like, share, and comment! This site is for YOUR benefit, so help me make it better!

Anyway, let’s talk hierarchies, shall we? Now, I will start this piece by saying that what I’m about to discuss is still very controversial in the polyam community. It’s the “Does pineapple go on pizza” debate, if I may add some levity. Regardless, I would argue it’s one of the most important components in the polyam journey, so just know that what I’m about to say may and will probably differ from other individuals in the field.

I think we as a society, particularly American society, are obsessed with competition. I believe it’s probably waned in the last thirty or forty years, but there’s still this drive to be better than everyone else. “Who’s your best friend?” ,”What’s your favorite movie?”, I often ask my elementary-age nieces and nephews “Which subject do you like the best?” The very nature of our political and economic systems are designed around something being better than everything else. It’s no wonder than that we want to rank absolutely everything.

So, for polyam people, how do we rank our partners? I should probably take a step back and ask “Should we rank our partners?” It’s that broader question that seems to have the polyam community divided. While I will be the first to say that “The heart wants what the heart wants” and this means that, through time, you will just naturally love and care for some people more than others, what is the appropriate way for this to manifest itself in your relationships?

I remember last spring I went to go catch coffee with Bunny. This was pre-vaccine, so, if we wanted to spend any time together, we had to do it out in the open air to make sure we weren’t risking spreading Covid. So, we’re sitting there on a bench, sipping our respective coffees, talking about polyam, and she mentioned to me “I don’t consider myself to be poly”. I asked her why and she answered “Because [my nesting partner] and I have a child together, and because of that, the needs and priorities of him and my child will always have to supersede my other partners.”

Now, as the “other guy” in this relationship, one would think that would sound like a kick to the gut. No one wants to hear from the woman they love that they’re a consolation prize. The truth is, once I was able to process what she was saying, I was actually elated. This was a good thing that showed an immense amount of maturity on her part. Putting me “number two” in this situation was the right thing to do.

“But how can you be okay with being a side-piece” you may ask yourself. Well, first off, I’m not really a “side-piece”, and second, not all forms of hierarchies are bad. I’ll repeat that because this is where the arguments start:

“Not all forms of hierarchies are bad”

A large part of the disagreement in the poly community, much like many things in life, come from terminology. Nobody likes a pedant until they need someone to point out the minor variations in word choice to resolve misunderstandings, so as a pedant myself, let me say: “YOU”RE WELCOME!!!” Let’s begin then by describing some terms, such as “hierarchy”.

Webster’s defines hierarchy as “a system in which people or things are placed in a series of levels with difference importance or status”. I tend to agree with that definition because it’s factual and nonjudgmental. While some in the poly community will shout from the top of their lungs that hierarchies are bad, I would argue, in all walks of life, they’re inevitable. Time and energy are finite resources, and we have to make decisions from time to time about where that time and energy should be directed. Right now, I’m writing this blog instead of unloading the dish washer. While that’s a very basic example, it’s an example of hierarchy nonetheless.

Now, when it comes to interpersonal relationships, it’s very unpopular to “rank” people in our lives. Parents aren’t asked which of their children they love the most, and nobody wants to have to pick between two friends, but the reality of it is that, much like we decide which household chores to do first, we make these decisions all the time, even if only on a subconscious level.

Let’s take my relationship with Panda as an example. As my nesting partner we share a home, which means we are co-responsible for daily and weekly housekeeping duties. We have to decide who will go grocery shopping, who will clean up after the cats, who will vacuum the carpets. More importantly, our finances are heavily intertwined. Both our names are on the deed to the home and our mortgage. Many of our savings accounts are in joint names, and because of this, we are the beneficiaries of each other’s life insurance policies. In other words, we are heavily entangled in each other’s lives, speaking not from a romantic standpoint, but from a practical one.

This was essentially what Bunny was communicating with me in the car that spring day as we sipped our coffee. Her decision to place the needs of her child and nesting partner above mine wasn’t rooted in love, but rather, the intricate life they built and the difficulty involved in untangling that life. Let’s be honest: If Bunny were to ask me to move out of my home, and find a new place with her in a far away town, I would tell her it wasn’t feasible, and any honest polyam soul would think long and hard before committing to such a drastic change. It may sound romantic, but it’s incredibly complicated, not to mention unfair to our respective partners that we both love. Something like that would need the buy-in of all four parties for the relationships to sustain themselves and a significant amount of planning time. Of course, all of that ignores the very obvious fact of “I am not an easy person to live with” and Panda and I just have this chemistry that makes our cohabitation the perfect fit for both of us.

When we talk about hierarchies, it’s important to remember that there’s two very specific kinds: Prescriptive and Descriptive. Because prescriptive hierarchy is the one that most polyam people rally against and tends to be the most problematic, we’ll cover that one first.

The best analogy I can use to describe prescriptive hierarchy is with a sports reference, so if you’re not a sports fan, I apologize. Imagine that you’ve got this hot-shot quarterback that you’ve signed to a multi-year contract that is costing the franchise tens of millions of dollars. After the first game of the season, the player gets injured and the back-up has to step-in. The back-up then begins to play out of his mind, leading the team to ten straight wins and they lock-up a playoff spot. The starting QB is now healed from his injury and the coach says to the back-up, “I don’t care how good a player you are, we’re paying this guy ten million a year and we promised him the starting job, so you have to ride the bench”

That’s prescriptive hierarchy in a nutshell. It’s saying “regardless of who you are as a person or what effect you have had on me, I have made a commitment to someone else, and I will honor that commitment even though it’s in neither our own best interests. ” Take that line and put it in a sappy Hallmark Rom-Com and it sounds quite romantic. In the real world, especially the polyam community, it doesn’t make any sense since the foundation of polyam is both autonomy and free love, and by placing arbitrary restrictions on your relationships, you’re limiting both.

Descriptive hierarchy is a bit more complicated, but when I stated earlier “Hierarchy is a good thing” this is what I was referring to. Freedoms come with responsibilities. If you’re not owning up to those responsibilities, then you’re not exercising your freedoms, you’re just being selfish. Descriptive hierarchy recognizes those responsibilities in a way that attempts to limit autonomy as little as possible.

I don’t tell my partners which one I love more, because the truth is, I don’t love any of them more, I just love them differently. However, because of descriptive hierarchy, I know that each one of them will be treated differently based upon circumstances. Panda is my nesting partner, which means all major life decisions (where to live, what job I have, how to spend our joint finances) have to go through her. In exchange for that, because we don’t have kids, and the fact that we live together, her time with me needs to be more flexible. Vixen and Bunny both have small kids at home and Foxy lives out of state. Making arrangements with them can be difficult, so Panda gives me more leeway on changing plans with her than my non-nesting partners. Descriptive hierarchy isn’t about playing favorites, but rather, it’s about recognizing unique life circumstances and adapting your time and energy in a way that best suits all parties.

Before I close out this piece, I would also like to add that, as mentioned above, terminology can often throw a monkey-wrench into our conversations. Much like “Hierarchy” is often used to refer to “Prescriptive Hierarchy”, the terms “Primary” and “Secondary” can be used to describe those of greater importance in a prescriptive hierarchy structure. I have heard them used to refer to nesting partners and non-nesting partners respectively, however, because of their negative connotation, I tend to shy away from their use.

In the end, we all have to make decisions about our relationships. Opening your heart to love also means opening your heart to pain. It’s a package deal. Placing the needs of one partner above another isn’t a bad thing. What matters is the reason you’re doing it. Like everything in life, the “what” matters. The “why” matters even more.

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