Monday, 1 October 2012


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, our topic is "labels and hierarchy" - visit the other blogs to read the other perspectives on this topic.

A long time ago, I read something macabre that stuck with me: a new mother held her new baby and realised that although her child's father was the love of her life, she would gladly stand on his head to keep her baby from drowning. I love my husband, but yes. I can relate.

We fit the model of primary partners (shared finances, future plans, lifelong commitment etc) but for both of us, she comes first. Her needs are greater, her demands more vociferous and urgent, and our responsibility to her trumps everything else. It isn't that I love her more than him - I don't think I could assess which of them I loved more, when loving one of them just feeds straight back into loving the other.

I know that some polyamorous people are uncomfortable with the term 'secondary' and the concept of hierarchy in relationships. They feel that labelling their relationship as secondary to another makes them feel less important and maybe even disposable. I understand why someone might feel this way. I just hope these people never date anyone with young children.

We can't can't give everyone equal time, energy or affection. Hierarchy is present in nearly all human relationship, whether we give it labels or not. You know which of your friends are your best friends, and which are just casual acquaintances, even if you don't say so. There is a hierarchy implied by family relationships as well, so much so that when this hierarchy diverges from the norm, we point it out by saying something like "my grandmother was like a mother to me" or "she's my favourite aunt". Even monogamous people do it to some extent, by using terms to make the significance of their relationship clear, whether that is "just friends", "dating", "boyfriend/girlfriend", "partner" or "husband/wife".

It's understandable, however, that people are uncomfortable with this hierarchy being overt in their romantic relationships. Not only do we grow up expecting just one 'significant other' but we don't have a model for having more than one when we do. In our other relationships, a hierarchy is so ubiquitous that we barely notice it's there, but in love, its existence glares at us.

The fact that I prioritise my child over my husband, or my husband over my boyfriend, doesn't make either of them unimportant or disposable to me. My daughter needs me just to survive, and my husband's life is so intertwined with mine that all of my decisions affect him. What makes me prioritise others over my boyfriend (and therefore makes our relationship a secondary one) isn't a lack of affection; it's just that as much as I love him, his life is conducted largely separately from mine. My secondary status in his life (and his in mine) isn't a restrictive cage we've imposed on ourselves, it's just a fact. "Secondary" still marks our relationship as one of the most valued and important in both of our lives.

But I think it's also important to remember that some of these things can change. Previously only children might have to share their parents' attention with an even needier newborn. Long distance relationships can relocate. "Just good friends" can become lovers, and more. Secondary partners might stay that way because of circumstance or design, or they might develop into co-primary relationships.

And even my daughter's dominance over my life will change. My husband and I have made a commitment to stay together for a lifetime, but my daughter will rely on us less and less, and one day she'll grow up and leave home. Having been woken up by her kisses, I'm conflicted about that, but I know I'll let her go. The shape and structure of our relationships isn't always within our control.


  1. This is an *amazing* post! So bold and matter of fact. Hierarchies are always tricky to explain/understand and I think you've done a fantastic job of putting across one side of the argument. One that, if I'm honest, I totally agree with but wasn't brave enough to say myself. Sometimes I try too hard to make everyone happy.

    I love how this month's #PolyMeansMany posts have been quite varied so far. Am looking forward to reading the remaining two.

    1. Ah, well if we both think so, we must be right. x

  2. As usual, you provide some extremely important, extremely specific perspective on another important poly topic!

    I like to think that often logistics are the reason behind most prioritization/decisions, and while I can still understand people's feelings being hurt about not being prioritized, I think more often than not the reasons are practical and honest. Like you said, you put your daughter first because she NEEDS you for one, but also because you love her desperately. Shared finances and entangled lives can force preference. And as many others have said in their posts, you're not going to automatically give a partner these things just because you love them and want them to know that they are important too. It's unfortunately impractical.

    As always, very well said. :)

    1. Thanks, Allie! That is *exactly* what I was getting at!

  3. Great post. I come to polyamory from a secure medium term relationship, so the primary dynamic is something that automatically comes to the table.

    Neither of us are opposed to that changing over time, but I imagine that will bring a whole new set of challenges!