Poly Means Many: a sceptic’s point of view on hierarchies and labels

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.

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9 thoughts on “Poly Means Many: a sceptic’s point of view on hierarchies and labels

  1. A very nice argument indeed. You’re so right about “partner” and “domestic partner” as labels – they are the only ones that can be used without confusion (whether you’re speaking to monogamous or non-monogamous folk). This post has really made me think. Thanks!

  2. Very well said. I think you captured very well both why some people prefer the labels, as well as some very good reasons to reject them. It is very difficult to shed the assumptions that accompany labels and descriptions, and often it’s just better to give a tailored description when asked.

    Well done! 🙂

  3. Pingback: » Labels and hierarchies Poly Means Many

  4. It’s not that I personally find the labels of “secondary” and “primary” useful, but I do think a lot of people who claim to not have hierarchies in how they view relationships are kind of kidding themselves. I say quite frequently, “Love is infinite. Time is not”. At some point, we all have to structure our lives in a way that allows us to work, live, love, and do what we like in a fashion that gives things an appropriate amount of time. Unless you’re lucky enough to live with all of your partners or unless you’re magically gifted with time management, there will be partners you spend more time with than others. And when you factor children into that situation, you’re going to have to manage your time. That isn’t necessarily a reflection of how much you love them, but how much time you spend with someone can be a contention and can make/break relationships.

    I say quite bluntly that when I adopt children, my children will become my “primary” for lack of a better term. And I will expect to be true of any person I let into my life as a parental figure or someone who’s supposed to be involved in my child’s life. I expect even if our relationship no longer exists, they will continue to prioritise time for my child. I can’t see a non-hierarchical structure working in a positive way in a child’s life. I can’t see how not prioritising your child can be beneficial to them. I say this as a person who grew up with non-monogamous parents. It didn’t matter to me that my parents dated other people. But if those people were introduced into my life as “step-parents” and were told via them and other people that they cared for me and loved me as a parent, when they left it broke my heart and it had a huge impact on me. Heh, as it stands within non-monogamy and from what I’ve seen of kids in poly households and families, I’m quite certain that I will be the only one who sees my kid(s) as a “primary” and will probably end up being a single parent with maybe some help unless I find an individual who wants to prioritise kids they way I do. And they might even be a romantic partner.

    I see this so often in poly. So many people feel like there’s no clear line between friend and lover. So they reject these labels or hierarchical structures because for whatever reason they tend to make people nervous. Personally, as someone with social anxiety and who’s possibly on the spectrum, it’s very clear to me the difference between friends, new people, and people I’m in relationships with. It takes time for me to get used to them so I am less anxious and can relax. The people I consider lovers or are very close to don’t drain my social reserves. And the most frustrating thing I’ve found in trying to form relationships is that none of this is spoken. There are no la bels and people don’t communicate what they expect or want out of a relationship. For me, a relationship needs time. I need someone who has the time in their life to cultivating a relationship with me. And aside from all of the assholes who have been rude and nasty to me, the nicest people I’ve dated have just been people who honestly have no time to devote to a relationship. But they say to me they do have time. And clearly we have a different idea of what it takes to form a relationship. I end up losing my interest in them because they don’t maintain contact – because apparently a lot of people can have “secondaries” or all of these things without la bels and maintain relationships with people they don’t speak to frequently and I can’t.

    I’m not saying labels solve this, but at least it makes it clearer for me.. If someone has a primary and they call it that, I can expect that this person will take up most of their time. I can talk to them honesty about their time constraints and we can focus less on how much they love me or whatever stigma the “secondary” label brings it at least communicates *something* to me about what I can expect. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve learned from the constant flaking and the heartbreak from dating. I now will be far more forward about what I want in terms of time constraints and time commitment from a future partner (when I feel like dating again. Honestly the constant disappointment has left it’s mark on me for a good while). But in the meantime, I’m not rejecting all of these labels because to me, SOME communication about the expectation of time and commitment is better than none at all. I’ve found it less useful to not use labels and hierarchies than not. Hierarchies are clear to me. I know what to expect rather than just have someone say, “Let’s see where it goes”. Because usually that means that no one’s responsible for maintaining contact or attempting to form the relationship and it dies in it’s infancy.

    I wish I had got to a stage where I even HAD secondaries to grapple with what to call them, but I have had so many people who are just blatantly dishonest with themselves and with me about how much time they have to commit to other people because of all the other relationships they’re in or things they’re doing that nothing has gotten further than a few dates. And if it has gone farther than that, I had to stop seeing the person because they turned out to be abusive or terrible. Apparently abusive people have time for everyone. /side rant

    In general as well I have a bone to pick with the use of the word “privilege” given it’s cultural contexts within social justice when it’s applied to “couples”. While I think there is a certain amount of passing privilege in being a couple in a lot of monogamous environments, I feel like that privilege depends on being straight and upon a lot of other things. To not communicate to another partner that a certain relationship does and always will be a priority in your time management is a pretty shitty thing to do, but I don’t think that makes a “primary” couple “privileged”. Just like when I have children, as I said, they will become my “primary”. If I choose to spend time with my kid(s) over my partner or if I dump someone because I don’t think they make a good influence on my kid or I just don’t have the time to commit to them and my kid is my kid “privileged”? Is the relationship I have with my child “privileged”? I don’t think so.

    Deciding to prioritise a relationship with someone you live with, share children with, share monetary investments with is really not analogous to having social privilege. It’s a dick move to not communicate that clearly to someone, but I don’t think having that priority makes it “privileged”.

    I think what people need to be overall honest with themselves and others about, regardless of whether they accept labels or hierarchies or not, is how much time they have and what they can commit towards a relationship. Because while some people may be able to sustain a relationship where they only see someone once every two weeks or talk to them once every five days… some of us can’t.

  5. I have always disliked the concept of secondary and primary, pehaps more fool me since I got myself into a relationship in which I was very firmly classed as the secondary. If love is supposed to be unconditional how can you have secondary or primary loves, it doesn’t work for me. Neither does the idea of one person forever getting special priviledge for having met someone before you did. If poly is truly poly, for me, then it has to have the potential to fully integrate new people into the existing structure as equals in every way.

    Also I dislike the mixing of poly and open. I don’t have to be open to be poly. I don’t have to want to sleep around or even want/need to have multiple partners myself to be poly. I consider myself poly beause I am comfortable with the idea of my partner having another partner, I know this to be true because I have been there. I have never had two partners at once, I don’t know if I ever will because it has not happened yet. But that doesn’t make me not poly. I know I am open because I can be comfortable with my partner sleeping/playing with others and I can be comfortable doing so myself while with someone. But I don’t have to always be comfortable with my partner wanting to sleep around or with every person they want to sleep around with to be poly, or even to be open.

    Poly doesn’t mean you have no jealousy, no insecurity, no emotional needs. We all want to be special and important and feel loved and safe. Poly is about loving multiple people, and loving them means everyone involved working to keep everyone safe and happy.

  6. Also a thought on the time thing. Yeah, I’ve been burned by people not seeing that while it’s exciting to have lot’s of people to play with there’s only so much time to do it in and you need to devote time to all your partners. Not just actual time but brain space, mental time. And that’s hard in a world where you have to work and live and relax and play and maintain more than one relationship. Being poly isn’t the easy fun sexy option.

  7. I think that the point that labels can’t be a substitute for conversation is a very good one. I find labels useful for quickly communicating to the outside world what we mean to each other, but they aren’t useful at all for communicating *within* those relationships!

    However, what you’ve described here isn’t what I understood “non-hierarchical poly” to mean. I thought of it as treating all relationships equally, which just sounded ridiculous and probably even harmful and disrespectful, to me, so I just dismissed it. Expecting someone you’ve only just started seeing to think of you in the same way as a long-standing partner is unreasonable. But that clearly isn’t what you’re doing (because you’re a reasonable person!) To be honest, I’m really not quite sure how what you’ve described here differs from “hierarchical poly” apart from the difference in terminology.

    But one thing I don’t understand is why “primary partner” suggests to you that you have only one, but “domestic partner” doesn’t. To me, neither one implies that there is only one domestic/primary partner more than the other. And neither *entail* it, which is the important thing. (In the same way that calling someone “my best friend” implies that you have only one, but doesn’t entail it.) In fact, the word that most suggests “only one” is “partner” itself, because that is how the majority of our society uses it!

    Just as “primary partner” implies that other relationships are “secondary”, “domestic partner” implies to me that other relationships are “non-domestic”, and that still reads as a hierarchical situation to me. One would hope that a commitment to a domestic partnership, with shared finances, possible legal ties and maybe shared parenting, would be prioritised over a relationship without those entanglements. So if someone called someone their “domestic partner” I would assume commitment or prioritisation of that relationship above any others. Hence, hierarchy.

    I think what this shows is that although “primary partner” and “secondary partner” can mislead, there aren’t really other words that won’t do this. Perhaps I hear things in “domestic partner” that you don’t want me to hear, just as it seems you hear some things in “secondary partner” that aren’t part of my usage. We either explain everything from scratch every time, or we put up with some of the limitations of language. That seems to be part of the choice that we’re making.

  8. Loved this 🙂 I also use “domestic partner” far more freely than “primary partner”, which on some level continues to irk me.
    One thing in response to @MoreThanNuclear’s comment though:

    “Just as “primary partner” implies that other relationships are “secondary”, “domestic partner” implies to me that other relationships are “non-domestic”, and that still reads as a hierarchical situation to me”

    I don’t see this. I dont think monogamous couples who live apart are in any way lower in the (entirely ridiculous, but as were discussing it!) ‘relationship hierarchy’ than monogamous couples who live together, so I don’t see that same distinction that makes me uncomfortable implied in these terms compared with ‘primary/secondary’ ..

    Bloody loving this debate all round though. Comments on my post have topped 3k words and it looks similar here! 🙂

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