What can I say about hierarchies and labels when it comes to polyamory?
Throughout my life I’ve often rejected the primary/secondary structure and will probably continue to do so. I have done so consistently, whether I’ve been single, married and/or coupled up in non-married capacity, living together or long-distance.
I recognise that rejecting these labels isn’t for everyone, nor should it be. By using primary/secondary/etc, some may be able to more clearly communicate the roles that may be available in their lives to prospective partners. It can give a certain sense of security and necessary structure. Some people may prefer a structure in which they live with one of their partners and spend most of their time with them, and never live with another and see them just once or twice a week (or perhaps this is not so much their preference but the shape their life takes due to logistical necessity). For some these labels may not only be a useful descriptor for their relationships but a useful boundary-marker. Personally, this sets up a boundary that I’m not comfortable with, but I can certainly see why others may need it or prefer it that way.
However, I don’t find the hierarchical labels of primary/secondary that useful or accurate. Take any one poly person and they will likely have a different understanding of primary vs. secondary or partner vs. boyfriend from the next poly person (incidentally I tend to use partner for anyone I’m in a relationship with and rarely use other words). Those different understandings carry a whole different set of assumptions, boundaries and limitations. Not using labels means that I have to have a full conversation with my partner(s) about what we mean to each other, where our priorities lie, and what our lives can look like on a daily basis instead of using the shorthand of labels, which we may or may not imbue with the same meaning.
As well, I don’t want to be a secondary or tell a partner that they’re a secondary, because I don’t like the inherent limitations those labels bring with them, nor do I want to buy into the couple privilege that is labelling any particular relationship as my “primary partner.” Many people (if not most) seem to understand a “primary partner” as a label for only one person in your life. I find this understanding extremely limiting and using those labels could mean that my relationships with lovers I don’t live with will tend to be bounded by their assumptions and understandings of such labels.
The only label I have not historically rejected is that of domestic partner. That’s because this label is useful and clearly communicates a particular arrangement using a word that most people recognise to have the same meaning. Nor is it particularly exclusive – just because I may already have a domestic partner doesn’t mean I can’t have more than one. Having been poly both with and without a domestic partner, I acknowledge that there is simply no replacement for the companionship that a domestic partner or partners can bring to your life. Shared domesticity is something I simply never stopped missing for as long as I didn’t have it.
Labels and hierarchies also tend to focus on the couple as an essential unit, which is not a way in which I’d like to live my life. I want to be open to triads, quads or whatever other relationship form life throws in my direction. I want children and life-long commitment, but probably not with only one other person. Why would I use a label that denotes a life fundamentally different from what I seek?
I know, from experience, that most poly people use these labels and by rejecting them as I have that I might exclude myself from even more of the dating pool. (Indeed, this has already happened a few times.) However, it does mean that the relationships I do successfully have are with people with very compatible views.
Just as loving someone feels different every time, so will every relationship be uniquely different because of the people involved in it. This is why I actively reject hierarchical relationship models and the labels that come with them. My focus is on building the relationships themselves, not slapping on yet another label that may or may not accurately convey its importance to the people around us or limit the direction our relationship could grow.
Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each
month seven bloggers – ALBJ, Delightfully Queer, An Open Book, More Than Nuclear, Post Modern Sleaze, Rarely Wears Lipstick, and The Boy With The Inked Skin – will write about their views on one of them.