Polyamory: Hierarchy or BYE-erarchy?

You may or may not be aware that I like rules.

I’m in a 24/7 lifestyle D/s dynamic with my Daddy. We have a lot of rules, formatted immaculately in a Google Doc that’s always at the tips of our fingers, should anything need to be edited or updated. In times of stress – near essay deadlines, or when things get complicated at home – I often ask for additional rules, tasks or check-ins, to help me feel grounded and to create a sense of security and consistency that assuages my anxiety and fills me with unique autistic glee.

By contrast, I have literally zero rules within my relationship with my girlfriend – at least, not in any formal sense. We generally try to avoid giving each other advice unless it’s specifically asked for because we’re both easily influenced, and we obviously both strive to be kind and considerate to each other at all times… but other than that, our relationship is as laid-back as it is loving. We update each other on new partners only when we’re particularly excited about them (or when it informs decisions about fluid bonding); we keep in touch however much our spoons allow; we lead intertwined but independent lives. It’s almost the opposite of the 24/7 power exchange I enjoy with my Daddy, but it’s equally as reassuring, as grounding and as loving.

I consider these relationships to be equal. Different, but equal.

I also see the benefits to hierarchical polyamory, especially as somebody who likes rules and structure. At the moment, my Daddy isn’t dating anybody else, and I’m only tentatively starting to explore new relationships after a number of heartbreaks last year, so I’ve sort of moved away from hierarchical polyamory by default. Their roles in my life are hugely different, but my Daddy and my girlfriend are as equal to me, as beloved and as necessary, as a pair of knitting needles. The right-hand one is doing a very different job to the one on the left, but they both play an irreplaceable role in creating each stitch.

On the other hand… what happens when a new party comes along? Will I consider someone I’ve been on two dates with to be on equal footing with my lifestyle Dom, or the girl I’ve been in love with for nearly four years? If not, does that mean I’m ‘bad’ at polyamory? At non-monogamy? At relationships as a whole?

In unpicking this concern of mine (whilst, of course, knitting, and relaxing into the meditative headspace that knitting invokes), I realised that I, at least, was conflating two ideas: hierarchies of partners, and hierarchies of people. Within a hierarchy of people, the people at the top hold power over the people lower down. This happens within capitalism, within workplaces, and within some polyamorous constellations – for example, primary partners holding ‘veto’ power over secondary or tertiary partners. I came to realise that I don’t want to create a hierarchy of people. I strongly dislike the idea of making anybody feel less-than, or threatened by my existing partners, or otherwise powerless within a relationship with me. I want everybody within my constellation to feel like equals as people, and I want everybody to be able to communicate about how they might be helped to feel that way.

Buut… I don’t have more than 24 hours in my day. I only have the spoons I have. I have boundaries I absolutely will not flex on: I won’t compromise on the lifestyle dynamic my Daddy uses to bring me comfort and stability to make a different relationship work – not without renegotiating with my Daddy, and closely examining why someone might want or need my lifestyle dynamic to change. If I had to choose between attending an emergency a new partner was having and attending an identical emergency my girlfriend was having, I’d choose my girlfriend every single time. In that sense, I guess I do create and maintain a hierarchy of partners – but I aim to treat every one of those people as people.

Even if I’m just seeing someone for sex, with no romance and very little friendship attached, I’ll still check in with them about their boundaries, their feelings, and how they feel about their place in my life. If a ‘secondary’ partner needed emotional support whilst my girlfriend was free to grab Starbucks, I would still go and support the ‘secondary’ partner, regardless of how I’d labelled their position within the hierarchy, because Starbucks is (probably) not as essential to my girlfriend as emotional support is to anybody else. The difference between a hierarchy of partners and a hierarchy of people is, in essence: within a hierarchy of partners, you still treat everybody in a loving, considerate way, but you do so within a framework that allows for the prioritisation of older or more intense relationship dynamics; within a hierarchy of people, power is wielded directly and indirectly in ways that can be miserable or outright destructive, and ultimately, people at the bottom can feel less like people than people at the top.

So, I guess I practice laid-back, communicative, flexible, loving hierarchical polyamory. And I think I’m okay with that.

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