“I’ve been in a polyamorous relationship for almost 5 years. I was part of a hierarchical relationship as a secondary for the first year of that relationship. Initially it was fine. I wasn’t looking for anything serious. But the relationship evolved into much more and my partners primary relationship evolved too in a different, less romantic partnership. Hierarchical isn’t practiced anymore. There were times during that first year that were bumpy. It was my first poly relationship. I was interested in trying it out. I had to reframe my mind a bit from a monogamous mindset. But I realized I liked it because I felt freedom. I wasn’t suffocating. My custody arrangements have changed so that I now have my kids 80% of the time. This isn’t ideal for someone who wants to date multiple people. So I haven’t had the opportunity to form any solid relationships outside my current partners. So with that background in mind, I have this innate desire to feel like I’m prioritized in some way. Even though we aren’t hierarchical. Is this a monogamous mindset? Should I be working on that? Are there ways to feel that way, things that can be done to accomplish that within a polyamorous relationship? My partner does a lot of behind the scenes prioritization of me that I don’t see or hear…but sometimes I feel insecure when it “feels” like I’m not in certain situations. I know I could “understand” this more if I had more opportunities to date other people. So I’m trying to explore that feeling before broaching this more with my partner. Thoughts, advice?”
Dear Runner Chick 0601,
Let’s first talk about priorities.
My advice to you greatly depends on how you personally define priority in your non-hierarchical polyamorous relationship. In general, priority is defined as a form of lenient privilege that one partner has over other partner(s). These priorities can be temporary (i.e. “I live with my nesting partner. So until you move in next month, I am going to continue to prioritize eating dinner at my home with my nesting partner over driving two hours into the city to eat dinners with you.”), implicit (i.e. “Janet is performing at the concert I want to attend. So I’m just going to go alone and meet Janet there after her performance.”), and/or exclusive (i.e. “Peter is the only person I consent to be fluid bonded / barrier-free with.”).
Priority is frequently used in the context of scarcity of resources in polyamorous relationships: time, space, and energy.
Priority of time means that one partner gets dibs on scheduling their plans with the shared partner, often in the absence of any other plans. Depending on how stringent this priority is, it can even be placed to override existing plans with other people.
Priority of space means that one partner gets dibs on a particular activity, a specific physical space, or even emotional commitment. In an earlier example, choosing to go see Janet at her concert would be considered an implicit prioritization of space. This type of prioritization can frequently be found in kink spaces or meetups in parallel polyamorous contexts.
Priority of energy is prioritization in the emotional, physical, financial, or sexual reserves available. So a priority of emotional energy could look a lot like, “I am currently going through a breakup with my other partner. So I need a little more of your emotional support while I get myself together.”
Not all priorities are inherently unhealthy.
There are bound to be implicit, descriptive hierarchies built into any long-term relationships that stand the test of time. Requesting priority, if done appropriately and respectfully, can sound a lot like communicating your needs, setting expectations, and assessing your followup scenarios.
It sounds like your polyamorous relationship with your partner has gone through a lot of changes in the past five years. It sounds like the space you occupied in his life grew a lot in the first year as his relationship priorities shifted through his deepening connection to you. And I can see that you’re struggling with the varying degrees of that descriptive hierarchy and different levels of prioritization in his other relationship that make you feel insecure in your relationship with him.
Maybe the first place to start is to consider if this is a problem that needs fixin’. Are there aspects of your relationship with your partner that make you feel not as prioritized? And what about those experiences make you feel less secure in your relationship? Is that insecurity causing you any significant distress? Is that cause of insecurity something that you can address on your own or do you need to recruit help from your partner?
If you aren’t already familiar with the Five Love Languages, I also wrote about it in a previous column here. And based on what you’ve shared, it sounds like one of your primary love languages is in quality time. But due to your childrearing responsibilities, your time is already stretched thin. So take advantage of the quality one-on-one times you can find together and try to come into your experiences fully present together.
I also want to talk a little bit about monogamy conditioning. I think a LOT of polyamorous folks get wrapped up in disentangling themselves from ALL of monogamy-related mindsets, as if it is the worst thing in the world. From what I have seen and experienced, ability to do monogamous or polyamorous relationships lie on a spectrum; there are many ambiamorous folks who can do one or the other by embracing that there are pros and cons to both ends of the spectrum.
That change in perspective could really benefit you as you assess your insecurities around prioritization. That innate desire to feel prioritized in your relationship is sound; it could come from your fears of abandonment, personal needs that are not being met, or even from how you are mentally comparing yourself to the relationship he has with his other partner. Take some time to consider each of those points and feel it out to see if they apply to you.
Last thing I’ll leave you off with is that there is always going to be a lot of that “behind the scenes prioritization” for any hinge partner. Part of what makes being a hinge partner so difficult is in managing and prioritizing each of their relationships in an appropriate and respectful way also while communicating appropriately – not too much and not too little. Since he is managing his relationship with you and his relationship with his other partner, those are two incredibly fine lines to toe.
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.
I want to hear your thoughts and feedback! Please feel free to send me your questions and comments at email@example.com. If you liked my advice for this post, please subscribe below to get alerted when my next advice column is published!