“I am a woman who has been married to my husband for many years and has been dating my boyfriend for a little over a year. We are (at least theoretically) non-hierarchical; they are both life-partner level people for me. While I’m not open to seeing others, they are both free to have relationships with others but neither has anything serious right now.
Before quarantine, I spent maybe 60% of my time with my husband and 40% with my boyfriend, but it has now become clear how much of my boyfriend time was related to other things – primarily my own work/travel (we live in opposite suburbs of a big city, I have to travel to his side often and would always stay with him then) and my husband being busy with a lot of hobbies. This whole situation also just really highlighted that while our situation felt pretty equitable on the surface, it favored my husband in many underlying ways. Some of these are just part of the situation and will never change (marriage brings a lot of legal benefits!) but I do want to change what I can.
The most obvious thing to me is to set up an actual schedule to split time between them. My boyfriend is moving soon and wants me to help set up, so I think that’ll make me feel like I’m a real resident of his place.
Has anyone else done this? Can you tell me about it? What were the things that really made things feel more equal? Any speed bumps along the way I can keep an eye out for?”
Dear Listen Y’all,
It sounds like you are making some strides to ensure that your theoretically non-hierarchical polyamorous relationship is becoming a more practical one! It is so good to hear that you’re using this particular time of immense stress to recognize and amend what appears unbalanced in your own relationships.
I did post a write-up of ethical practice of hierarchical polyamorous relationships about four months ago as well as two advice posts about hierarchies – one from five months ago and the other from six months ago – that might be worth a gander for you. As you can see, recognizing and deconstructing hierarchies is a pretty common problem in non-hierarchical polyamory. It is also something I am constantly and personally vigilant about in my own personal practice of non-hierarchical polyamory.
In this post, I won’t spend too much time defining what hierarchies are. You deserve better than Poly 101. Instead, I’ll dedicate most of this post to outline a process you can implement to even your relationships out a bit more.
The first step is to recognize and identify what hierarchies and privileges each of your relationship experiences.
Some descriptive hierarchies are natural developments of any healthy long-term relationships. As you mentioned, your marriage to your husband brings a lot of inherent privileges that you both get to enjoy through the legal protection of marriage. Also, since you’ve been together for many years before, you two have had an opportunity to forge a strong connection over the years that is physically represented in the home you two quarantine together. These types of advantages naturally develop over time and for good reason. Think of it this way. Through the years of connection you’ve built with your husband, you two have been able to develop a fundamental and sound level of trust that has stood the test of time over and over again. So of course that trust has manifested in various privileges you two enjoy and share together.
In the past month, you have had an opportunity to see how the percentage of time spent (60% husband / 40% boyfriend) wasn’t ultimately as equitable as you’d like it to be. But time alone isn’t a great indicator of a specific hierarchy. I assume that you generally approach your relationships with the type of mindfulness in experienced polyfolks. That means you implicitly determined or explicitly declared the number of days per week / month you’d be spending with one or both partners.
There are also inherent and unique privileges that you get to enjoy with your boyfriend of one year as well. New Relationship Energy goes without saying. But I believe that there is something much more intricate about the way NRE plays out in new relationships. When you connect with someone new, you get to reforge and rediscover various aspects about yourself in the context of the relationship with this new person. That is not something that you can often get to do when you are in an old relationship.
Once you have figured out what kind of hierarchies and privileges you have, the next step is to determine what you want to do about them.
You implied that you currently live with your husband, but not with your boyfriend. For you, what does it mean to nest with a partner? If it is a specific hierarchy that only applies to your relationship with your husband, what kind of space can you and your boyfriend create so that you two can continue to expand and grow in your relationship together? If there are mutual friends who have had years of opportunity to connect with your husband, do you want those same folks to connect with your boyfriend as well?
Think about the advantages you currently enjoy with your boyfriend that you don’t get to enjoy with your husband. Living in a space away from your husband could allow for you two to build something anew. But it could also be an opportunity for you two to grow apart. How will you continue to be engaged with your husband and ensure that your respective insecurities do not cause too much harm to your marriage?
Third step of the process is to communicate your findings, intentions, and plans.
Your partners both deserve to know what level of emotional, physical, financial, and sexual engagement to expect from each of their respective relationships with you. Be open and vulnerable with them about what you discovered. Share what conclusions you’ve arrived to based on those findings. And verbally commit to a plan to de-escalate some aspects of your relationships with each of your partners while escalating others.
In specific, the verbal commitment to your plan will also hold yourself accountable to follow through on your intentions. Doing so will also give an opportunity for each of your partners to help you actualize those plans. Each of your partner should be able to see what you saw, arrive to the same conclusions, and support your personal as well as your relational growth.
Some parts of this is going to feel so wildly out of your comfort zone. We live in a society at a time where vulnerability is often seen as weakness. To that I say, why build trust if you aren’t willing to utilize that trust as a bridge to connect with others about the issues you feel vulnerable about? The discomfort in sharing in a vulnerable space is not because being vulnerable is bad. It’s because we aren’t used to often diving deep even with all the right diving equipments in hand.
All that remains is to follow through and mind the disconnects.
I believe that love need not be a zero sum game. You don’t necessarily need to de-escalate the entirety of your relationship with your husband to make sure that your boyfriend is standing on an fair and equitable playing level with your husband. But some aspects of your connections will have to change in order to make room for your boyfriend to represent the level of entanglement you want his relationship with you to represent. That means pre-emptive discussions about how this new realization impacts the long-term vision of your connection with your husband.
You asked about speed bumps to look out for. Some disconnects will be inevitable. Keep a close eye on your husband’s level of security in his relationship with you as these aspects of his marriage with you keep changing. Saying is one thing and doing is another. So be mindful about reconnecting when you anticipate or experience an emotional or sexual gaps. Also, pay a close attention to your boyfriend’s emotional involvement as you get more enmeshed. If you don’t already do so, do a weekly or a monthly check in with your boyfriend as you get more and more settled in the new space you two have created.
Things will be difficult. And sometimes your motives will be foggy. The kindest things you can do when you aren’t sure why you keep forging forward is to remind yourself that you are doing this for all the right reasons. Hope for the best, that logic will prevail.
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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