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Advice – How can I renegotiate relationship hierarchies?

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/u/lefthandsore on /r/polyamory writes…

“Around February, I [29M] started a new relationship with a partner [25F] “Able” who swept me off my feet. She already had an established local partner, and I was in a long distance situation. A month or two later, she asked if we could be primary partners. Because I only saw my LDR once a month or so, I felt like it would be a good move. But, we didn’t talk about what being primaries means to each other. I had never had any hierarchy in my relationships before, so I didn’t think too much of it. Shortly thereafter, my long distance partner and I amicably call it quits, Able and her other partner call it quits; so, Able and I are essentially monogamous.

Fast forward a few months, and I start seeing a new partner [24F] “Baker”. This was her first foray into polyamory. She has since started seeing another partner and is very happy with non-monogamy.

Able sat me down for a talk a few weeks ago because she was concerned that I wasn’t treating her like a primary partner which prompted a discussion (which we should have had months prior) on what it means to be primaries. The gist that I got from her: primary partners are essentially in a committed monogamous relationship with other noncommittal side pieces.

However, as the new relationship between Baker and me has developed, I realize that this hierarchical structure isn’t working. Baker is feeling neglected, Able feels like I’m not prioritizing her enough, and I’m in the middle just trying to avoid hurt feelings for both of them. To me, the solution would be to eliminate the hierarchy (which tends to be how I approach polyamory to begin with). I feel slightly bamboozled by Able because she pitched primaries as just being the ones who are brought home to (less open-minded) family, but then turns around and says she wants a monogamous relationship while we can still bone down on the side.

Is there any way to resolve this without losing one or more partners?”

Dear Left Hand Sore,

I am really sorry to hear you are having such a difficult time with hierarchies. It sounds like you and Able had a pretty major miscommunication on what kind of hierarchical polyamorous relationship you were both participating in. And I can see that you are not aligned with Able in how you personally see your own relationships evolving and growing. I will come back to the question “how can I resolve this without losing one or both partners” at the end.

Polyamorous relationships are all about developing new agreements, adjusting existing agreements, and obsoleting outdated agreements. It sounds like it is the perfect moment to revisit and flesh out that primary partner agreement in much more detail with your partner Able. If you really cannot make hierarchical polyamorous relationship work (or at least in this specific way), then that is something you should communicate immediately with Able so that she too isn’t setting unfair expectations about your relationship with her.

Traditionally, hierarchical relationships generally have a clear and distinct primary relationship that preside over all other secondary relationships. That difference is often reflected in descriptive or prescriptive hierarchies. Prescriptive hierarchies are explicitly defined rules and boundaries that determine the scope and depth of all non-primary relationships. A very good example of a prescriptive hierarchy is the concept of veto. Veto power is a structured rule that allows a primary partner to veto any secondary relationships that they might or might not be a part of. Allowing another person to dictate the status of your relationships can have intense ramifications, and is often a dealbreaker for a lot of polyfolks. In comparison, descriptive hierarchies are implicit guidelines or snapshots of current relationships that might reflect practical, physical, or emotional investment one can make. A good example of a descriptive hierarchy is in marriage. Polygamy is still illegal in all 50 states. So by being married to one partner, it implicitly states that you cannot be married to another partner, at least not in the same legalistic sense. While descriptive hierarchies are naturally developed as you get more or less entangled and enmeshed with a partner, prescriptive hierarchies are internally agreed upon and externally enforced. So please keep that in mind in discussing what your process of shedding hierarchies might look like with Able.

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Now. Let’s talk about how to resolve this issue ahead of you.

I can also sense that there are some resentment that you harbor towards Able over the miscommunication on your agreements. Please understand that the unfortunate part of human experiences is that we have to use words to communicate. And because words can have multiple meanings and intentions aren’t always clear, misunderstandings and miscommunications are just natural consequences of human experience. Based on what you have shared, I do not get the sense that neither you nor Able were inherently or intentionally malicious in your miscommunication surrounding primary partnership. You two just never actually sat down to discuss what it means until it came under heat through the lens of your relationship with Baker. Able did not bamboozle or mislead you. You’ve misled each other to some extent. So learn to give her some benefit of the doubt. Decide whether you want to mindfully and intentionally pursue a better form of communication with Able instead. You can start by discussing how your relationship with Baker has changed a bit of your perspective and subsequently caused a bit of a gap in development and expectation between you and Able. People change all the time. And it sounds like you have. So give a chance to Able to play some catch up. Your job here is to be patient while she makes progress and to hold firm to your own personal boundaries.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that there isn’t anything inherently or ethically wrong with pursuing a hierarchical relationship. Not everyone wants to be a part of a non-hierarchical polyamorous relationship. A lot of people need that primary designation to help with a lot of their inherent insecurity that cannot or will not be resolved through intensive therapy. What distinguishes an ethical hierarchical polyamorous relationship from an unethical one is in how you – as a hinge partner – present those prescriptive and descriptive hierarchies. If you and Able decide to settle on designating each other as primary partners, communicate exactly what that means to Baker so that Baker herself can determine whether a strict hierarchical relationship as it stands continues to work for her. Then determine for yourself what kind of interpersonal boundaries you would need to develop and establish so that the secondary relationship can remain secondary to your relationship with Able.

The last thing I will mention here is that sitting in the middle to sequester hurt feelings from each side of your relationships is part of the price of admission to be a good hinge partner. You’re doing a great job by compartmentalizing some of that pain to its respective relationship. So give yourself some credit.

Good luck.

Tea Time with Tomato is an informative relationship and sex advice column for both monogamous and polyamorous folks. By submitting your post, you agree to let me use your story in part or in full. You also agree to let me edit or elaborate for clarity.

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