ABC, its easy as 123..
Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month seven bloggers ALBJ, Delightfully Queer, An Open Book, More Than Nuclear, Post Modern Sleaze, Rarely Wears Lipstick, and The Boy With The Inked Skin will write about their views on one of them. This month we’re talking about “labels and hierarchies”.
When you’re monogamous, labels and hierarchies aren’t necessarily something you need to consider. The labels are often culturally set and the hierarchy is a given “us vs them”. Your partner is the one person you commit to sticking with above all others. Whilst this is certainly not always easy in practise (particularly in the cases of conflicts between a partner and best friend, or partner and family!) we tend to find that the assumption, and its outcomes, serve monogamy very well indeed. Why? Because we have a common understanding of what monogamy means.
When you’re non-monagamous, however, this can become vastly more complex and what’s complex to define on paper can quickly become impossible to define in practise. It is probably safe to say that “labels and hierarchies*” is the trickiest most fraught subject out there and I have a few theories as to why…
The Party Line
We’ve spoken before about the many ways you can interpret ethical non-monogamy; from the disputed “dont-ask-don’t-tell” through swinging, open relationships, polyamory, and everything in-between. Most people understand the more physically driven forms, but one question that comes up time and time again as soon as you bring love into the equation is “but who do you (love/support/)want most”? Sure, it’s not always that blunt, but that’s the gist. That way of thinking is, of course, inherently monogamous. It defies the statements “my friends”, “my family” and “my children” exactly as much as “my partners” yet the idea that we can romantically-love and need 2+ people equally is a unique struggle. Even if we can accept that it’s possible to truly and wholly love more than one person, we wonder how we can physically commit to them in the same way that you can a single person. Again, though; friends, family and children set the precedent – of course it’s possible to love two people the same!
…Or that’s what I’d like to write.
The Nuanced Reality
Realistically we don’t love or commit to any two people the same way. We can’t. Love is a complex product of personality, shared experience, and biochemistry, it knows no boundaries whilst commitments are sometimes unilateral, legally restricted, or not always suitable or possible.
We may love people equally, we can’t love them the same.
If you’ve known your partner for much less time than your metamour has, your relationship may be as strong but the roots won’t be as deep. If you don’t live with your partner but your metamour does, your relationship might miss some of the more day-to-day entanglements… These differences don’t need to mean it’s any more or less important a relationship – just that there’s some practical differences. It’s clear that if these two relationships are important and sustaining in the present they should, absolutely, be afforded the same respect – but isn’t it also fair to distinguish between them somehow?
Additionally, sometimes the relationships aren’t equal either. Sometimes there is a deliberate hierarchy that is agreed upon and needed in both cases. Maybe both partners in the relationship have other more involved relationships, maybe one partner is looking for more freedom, lighter levels of commitment, or to focus more on a career. Isn’t is fair that these relationships too are afforded respect for exactly what they are – no more, no less? Again though, how to distinguish between them?
ABC, As Easy As 123?
Commonly poly folk speak of “Primary” “Secondary” and “Tertiary” partners. There are as many ways to define these as there are combinations of letters in the English language but broadly speaking I think most people would agree the following more-or-less encapsulates it:
- Primary partners: committed, usually live together, have shared assets and may be married and/or have children
- Secondary partners: committed, don’t usually live together or have shared assets, unlikely to be married or have children.
- Tertiary partners: less committed, more casual. Possibly adopting a more ‘FWB’ style arrangement.
My personal opinion is that every. single. argument. ever conducted in poly arises not from a particular dislike of those hierarchies or their implications, but a dissonance between either
a) The way they feel experientially and the situation evoked by the actual term used
b) The projection that primary and secondary relationships’ version of “commitment” must be different, and the reality that they aren’t
a) A Rose By Any Other Name..?
I’ve repeatedly said I dislike the term secondary. Whilst I am entirely happy with the definition proposed above the actual word, meaning “coming after, less important than, or resulting from someone or something else that is primary”, doesn’t accurately describe who and what I am to my partner and therefore I reject it. This gets messy when, by rejecting the word, it seems as if I am rejecting the definition. Of course, I could just accept the word but then I would need to either be satisfied that many people would misunderstand my situation, (by being mislead by the words common usage), or laboriously re-define the word for this context at every available opportunity. None of which are ideal. Hence conflict.
b) Committed vs committed
As defined above, the key difference between primary and secondary relationships is shared real-world assets, and the key difference between tertiary relationships and others is a casual informality. The problem arises when people impose an assumption that the commitment of a partner towards a secondary relationship is less than the commitment towards a primary relationship, thereby creating a primary, secondary, tertiary commitment scale that doesn’t exist. Again, a monogamous default and slightly loaded terminology leads us astray.
To me, the relationship between primary, secondary and tertiary relationships is not linear and not governed by a single quality (i.e. commitment). The only way I can think to explain is to suggest a race in which there was a fraction of a second between the gold and silver medalists and 10 seconds between the silver and the bronze, and the runners were racing on different track surfaces!
(very) Long story short, people want to be known. People need to be understood and above all seen as valid. When you adopt an uncommon stance in anything it’s natural to want to make sure that isn’t misunderstood or undersold.
Secondaries (who, lets face it, practically own the “labels and hierarchies” argument) just want the world to know that they are loved, that they’re not settling for less or being taken advantage of. Like any other relationship movement, they just want their love to be recognised and seen as equal.
To the naysayers: shutting us out and dismissing us allows some to hold on to the trappings of a monogamous mindset. I know this. Just understand; as a lack of comprehension of astrophysics doesn’t mean the moon isn’t shrinking, a reluctance to comprehend the breadth of love doesn’t mean I am not loved and supported with the same devotion as any monogamous or primary person. To think any differently, to dismiss me and my partners’ feelings as ‘immature’ ‘less than’ or ‘delusional’ is grossly narcissistic.
To non-secondary poly folk: remember, it’s secondaries who break the model. Secondaries who turn monogamy into poly. Secondaries who bear the brunt of the anger and pity, and secondaries who need this argument to be understood. Forgive us if we get ragy about it, sometimes.. :)
*autocorrect keeps trying to change hierarchies to “earaches” – I’m inclined to agree…