Polyamory: Hierarchy or BYE-erarchy?

Image is of a number of chicken eggs piled up in a brown wooden bowl, with one egg lying beside the bowl on a small patch of jute cloth. The background is a pale blue with no other detail.

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.

Non-Monogamy and Me

When I was first investigating non-monogamy, my main method of research consisted of devouring all the personal stories I could find told by non-monogamous people. I read about swinging, listened to podcasts about compersion, tracked the polyamory Tumblr tag and more.

I was, as always, insatiable.

I’d accidentally fallen into non-monogamy when I’d “cheated on” [read: been groomed and coerced into Skype sex by an adult, while I was fifteen] a long-distance boyfriend. With no vocabulary at my disposal, I had awkwardly explained that I wanted “to date both of” them, “if that’s even possible”. It had been wild conjecture as I’d tried to solve the problem of loving both of them and not wanting to lose either.

Surprisingly, they were both on board.

That mess fell apart within months for a whole host of reasons, but it planted a seed. I now knew what it felt like to be cared about in abundance. I knew what it was to feel endlessly secure. I had experienced the relief of knowing that my boyfriend wouldn’t leave me for a redhead – he could have both! Me and her! (That’s not a very nuanced or healthy take on things, but we’ll get there.)

However, I met a boy who wanted an exclusive sort of thing, so, being sixteen, I promptly and deliberately forgot about the seed altogether.

It took two years and me moving in with this boyfriend for me to admit to myself my interest in non-monogamy. It started with an intense, existential sort of sadness at the apparent permanency of our relationship – or, more accurately, at what that signalled. A thought I had far too often was, “I might never kiss a girl again.”

Gently, I introduced the idea of an FMF threesome. (At this point, I was still masquerading as a girl.) Then came the idea of us seeing other people, but only same-gender people. We talked about it and worked out ground rules.

Then that, too, fell apart (disastrously; like, I-was-sleeping-on-sofas disastrously), but by this point, I was fascinated. I wanted to hear the insights of every non-monogamous person under the sun.

So, for anyone in the same position: here are some of mine.


  1. Non-monogamy makes me less jealous, not more.

This is only true now that I’m in healthy, communicative relationships, but it is true. I have a long-distance girlfriend who sees whomever she likes, and I have my Daddy, who theoretically could date other people but is super busy, and who wouldn’t take another submissive or start something new with somebody without talking to me about it first. Similarly, my girlfriend doesn’t mind who I see, and in what capacity, but I’d talk to my Daddy before I interacted sexually or romantically with anybody else, and I wouldn’t have another dominant in most capacities.

The rules are different because the relationships are different. My girlfriend and I are close; we’re also aware that we’re each irreplaceable to each other. I could have dozens of brilliant, sexy people in my romantic or sex life and I still wouldn’t be able to replace her. She’s just… her. Hearing about her romantic and sexy encounters fills me with joy, knowing that she’s living her life and I get to cheer her on. It also has the happy side effect of making me less convinced that the distance will tear us apart, because I know that she can find things that she’s missing where she lives. She doesn’t rely on me for every cuddle or orgasm or nice date or movie night, and that takes an enormous amount of pressure off us both.

Meanwhile, things with my Daddy and I are newer, and on some levels, more intense. I feel compersion when he flirts or does more, just like with my girlfriend, but I also freeze up with jealousy. Part of this is socialisation: I grew up thinking I was a girl, and girls are taught that men are a finite and precious resource, one for which we are always in competition with each other. As soon as anybody (but especially feminine-of-centre people) gets close to my Daddy, romantically or sexually, I feel threatened.

But! This isn’t to say that he shouldn’t be getting close to people. Experience keeps teaching me what I already know in the context of my girlfriend and I: human beings aren’t replaceable. I know, in theory, that people aren’t items and that no person is better than another (with obvious exceptions like non-Nazis are always better than Nazis, etc.), but non-monogamy has forced me to actually absorb that belief.

Through a combination of a lack of pressure, the knowledge that I don’t have to be my partners’ be-all-end-all, some CBT techniques and confronting my fear of being replaced, I’ve become way less jealous than I ever was in a monogamous framework.


2. People are gonna be ignorant, but well-meaning

Educating people on things that are at the core of your identity can be pretty emotional-labour-intensive. It’s sometimes satisfying, but sometimes exhausting, to explain to the seventeenth person this week that no, I don’t hate my girlfriend’s boyfriends and yes, it is kind of like hippies and free love and maybe, you should talk to your partner if that’s something you’re interested in.

I’m already queer, disabled and AFAB. I spend a lot of my time explaining and justifying my existence. However, I’m white, middle-class and well-educated, and I probably have an easier time justifying non-monogamy to bigots than a person of colour, a working-class person or a less educated (in the restrictive academic sense) person would have, and I feel like it’s important I use my Kentish little voice to educate.

Still, I get some real humdingers, so here’s a quick FAQ:

  • Don’t you get jealous?
    • As outlined above, not as much as I would in a monogamous relationship.
  • Do you prefer one partner over the other?
    • Obviously not, because then I wouldn’t be dating both of them.
  • How does it work?
    • If you’re asking about threesomes, that’s rude and you should stop. If you’re asking about logistics: group chats and shared Google calendars are your friends.
  • What do your parents think?
    • My dad didn’t think much of anything even when he was alive on account of all the whiskey. My mum thinks it’s great that I have more lovely people in my life supporting me, though she’s very faceblind so she struggles to keep track of people (especially since I have a penchant for tall guys with dark beards).
  • Is it really love if you fuck/date other people?
    • I’m pretty sure I’m aware of and familiar with my own feelings. Do you still love your uni friends when you hang out with your hometown friends? Does all your fondness for pizza dissipate when you eat egg fried rice? Dear God, I hope you don’t have more than one sibling.

3. BUT there are so many things to love about non-monogamy.

When I was drowning in jealousy living with a boyfriend who spent more time on OkCupid than he did talking to me, I wondered why I’d chosen non-monogamy – why anybody would choose non-monogamy. I felt discarded and inferior, and I cursed myself over and over and over again for allowing this obvious liability into our perfect relationship.

Lads, I was doing it wrong.

The list of things that I, personally, love about non-monogamy includes:

  • Compersion! So many other people have written great things on this subject, but compersion is, in essence, the joy you feel at regarding your partners’ other relationships going successfully. It’s a unique mix of pride, excitement and contentment, and it’s not a feeling I’ve found in any other setting. Would recommend.
  • It encourages you to communicate so. Much. More. All the advice you find online about moving into non-monogamy is centred around communication because it’s so beneficial to non-monogamy, but it’s also beneficial to relationships at large, and non-monogamy can create built-in check-in points (like after a first date, after a threesome, etc.).
  • Also, once you learn that the mythical bitch-who’s-gonna-steal-your-man is actually a human person who likes Power Rangers and oysters, you can start to communicate to your partners about your insecurities in a much kinder, more insightful way. Instead of, “I’m scared that slut is gonna steal you from me,” you’re naturally more likely to say something like, “It makes me nervous that you and Rebecca have Power Rangers in common and I don’t even know what a zord is.”
  • As soon as your partners have partners, your social circle is instantly wider, and it’s usually richer. Your partner’s partners are called ‘metamours’ and you can have some incredible friendships with them – and you have a head start in befriending them because you two have something pretty major in common: a partner!

    Are you non-monogamous? Or are there aspects of it you’re still curious about? Leave a comment down below!