Polyamory does not equal hierarchy (and why it’s a problem to talk as if it does)

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October 31, 2014 by aggiesez

you-keep-using-that-word1It’s still pretty common to hear people habitually use hierarchical terms such as “primary/secondary” when discussing any polyamorous or otherwise ethically open relationships. I sometimes hear this even from people who have been in poly relationships for years, who understand that hierarchy is just an option (not a requirement) — and who may even avoid hierarchical relationships themselves.

So: Why do people often talk as if polyamory = hierarchy? 

Recently one poly person told me they do this because it’s “easier for most people to understand, and you need to meet people where they are.”

OK, what’s the problem with that?

As a writer and editor, normally I agree with “meeting people where they are” for effective communication. But sometimes that’s not the right thing to do — if meeting people where they are ends up supporting social biases or presumptions that end up hurting people, or fundamentally misrepresenting a group or issue.


The words we choose to describe relationships can be a simple but powerful clue to people (inside and outside the poly community) that polyamory does not equal hierarchy. Hierarchy is just an option. This small, subtle insight can profoundly affect how people understand poly/open relationships and treat people.

So when people describe me as “a secondary,” or say that my writing “tells people how to be a poly secondary,” here’s what I say:

I am not, nor will I ever be, a “secondary” partner. Nor do I wish to be a “primary” partner. I do not engage in hierarchical relationships, period.

Nor do I write about “how to be a poly secondary” — similar to how someone writing about feminism is unlikely to tell women “how to be a good wife.” If anything, my writing is intended, in part, to encourage people to see a bigger picture than a rank-based framework tends to permit.

Personally, I only engage in nonhierarchical, nonexclusive, fully honest intimate relationships. Also, because I prefer solohood, my relationships do not follow a relationship escalator toward a goal of cohabitation or deep enmeshment of life logistics (which does not preclude deep feelings, commitment or long-term relationships). This is why I call myself “solo poly.”

I always expect to have a full and equal voice in the conduct of my own relationships. I don’t enter or remain in relationships where this is not honored. My needs, wants, goals and priorities matter as much as anyone else’s.

I do prefer to consider how my relationships and choices affect others, but I never defer by default to other relationships — even when I’m in a relationship with someone who also happens to be in a primary-style or nesting partnership. Nor do I expect anyone to defer to me or my relationships by default. Where conflicts of priorities, needs or resources are concerned, I prefer to negotiate situationally and directly with my partners and metamours. I’ve found that this approach typically yields creative, constructive solutions that are far more satisfying to everyone involved than “relationship/partner X always comes first.”

Yeah, that’s pretty different from what most people assume when they hear “secondary.”

I hesitated to write this post. Normally I don’t like to tell people how to talk. However, I find that when people habitually use (or mostly hear) hierarchical terms like “primary/secondary,” it reinforces conscious and unconscious rank-based assumptions (rooted in socially imbued couple privilege) that tend to put people like me at a disadvantage in our own relationships. That’s a problem.

Caveat: I’m not trashing hierarchy, or people who choose to self-identify as “secondary.” I’m totally fine with people self-applying the “secondary” label if they feel it accurately describes their role in a conscious, mutually voluntary hierarchical relationship structure.

My point is that habitually saying “secondary” as a catchall term for nonprimary poly/open relationships tends to support crappy treatment of nonprimary partners, due to unfortunately common social presumptions. Worse: it can encourage nonprimary partners to devalue themselves, or their own relationships.

Words are powerful things. The more people hear nonhierarchical relationship terms (like “nonprimary,” or just “my partner” or “my sweetheart”), the more it normalizes the concept that hierarchy is an option and a choice, not a default. That’s a crucial mindset shift. Because if anything, the more ethical default is to assume that every person matters, and has full rights in their own relationships. Unless they specifically consent otherwise.

As a wise friend once told me: There are no secondary people.
…Ok, that’s the semi-short version of why I don’t refer to myself as a secondary partner. Here’s the long version: Why I say “non-primary,” not “secondary”

Related: Andrea Zanin’s The problem with polynormativity

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14 thoughts on “Polyamory does not equal hierarchy (and why it’s a problem to talk as if it does)

  1. Eve says:

    I would argue that there are many rights in a relationship that you cannot consent to give up. For example, I don’t think you can ever consent to give up your right to leave a relationship. Even if you and your partner claim you are in a 24/7 master-slave relationship and that he “owns” you (“like my toaster,” as someone Franklin knew once said), the instant you stop consenting to be in that relationship, you DO always have an absolute right to leave – no matter what you said before.

    Other rights you can’t consent to give up include the right to be free from coercion – because if you’re being coerced, you’re not consenting, by definition – and the right to revoke consent to any form of intimacy at any time.

    • aggiesez says:

      This is true, just like people can’t surrender their basic human rights. However, people can agree to consent to give up some power within the dynamic of their relationship — i.e., agreeing that in disputes, priority conflicts, etc., the primary partner/relationship automatically wins. It’s not what I’d ever agree to (or advocate), but I firmly believe others are free to do so.

      • Eve says:

        Okay, so I’ve been chewing on this. I’m going to assume, because you linked to Franklin’s post on the More Than Two Relationship Bill of Rights, that those are the “rights” we’re talking about here. At least, for the sake of clarity, those are the rights I’m going to talk about.

        Our intent when we selected those “rights” was that we wanted to choose things for which, if you consistently *don’t* have them, the relationship quickly becomes coercive or abusive. If something on that list doesn’t meet that bar, then it probably shouldn’t be called a right. That’s part of why we turned to DV resources to help with this.

        So that means that while people can “consent” to give up their relationship rights – by entering in or remaining in a relationship where one or more of them is absent – they can consent only in the same way that you can consent to being in an abusive relationship. We know that people stay in abusive relationships, and they have a right to do so, but their choice to stay doesn’t make the relationship not abusive, or their partners not abusers.

        Having said that, now I need to go back and look at our BoR to see if everything there is in fact a right by the definition I’ve given above. I think that most of them are: if you picture a relationship in which any one of them is consistently overridden, it’s very hard to imagine that relationship not being abusive or coercive.

        There is at least one exception, and it’s one that was grandfathered from the Secondary’s Bill of Rights:

        “to have plans made with your partner be respected; for instance, not changed at the last minute for trivial reasons”

        I think that depending on the people involved, it’s possible (though not easy) to do away with this one and not have it create a dynamic that’s harmful to the people in it. So… maybe in the second edition, that shouldn’t be a right.

        I’m not sure that “agreeing that in disputes, priority conflicts, etc., the primary partner/relationship automatically wins” is, in and of itself, a violation of the BoR. It depends on how those conflicts are handled. If I disagree with a decision being made, and I express my disagreement and hurt feelings, which are heard and acknowledged, and then the primary partner gets what he/she wants because that was the deal, then that’s not necessarily a violation of any relationship rights.

        But if when I express my disagreement and hurt feelings I’m met with shame for *having* those feelings, and admonitions not to express them because I’m secondary and I agreed to that, then that violates my right in a relationship to feel all my emotions, express them and have them heard, and express differing points of view. And those are *rights* because if I’m in a relationship where I am regularly not allowed to feel and express hurt feelings about how I’m being treated, or to express a differing point of view – then that’s abuse, even if I say that I agree to those terms.

  2. Ginger says:

    I almost see your point. Your argument gets shaky for me with the use of non-primary, which you are okay with…but still implies primary and *not* primary.

    This reminds me of a comment my partner made to me…he *almost* likes the term OSO for “other significant other”, but doesn’t like the implication that his wife is THE significant other and I’m the other. I don’t know. I asked him why he didn’t just use the term SO for me, and he said something about that not feeling right either. Language reflects society. As societal norms change, so will the language. While the word secondary doesn’t bother me, I agree that a shift is needed and likely forthcoming.

    • aggiesez says:

      It’s a fair criticism. In fact, I’ve criticized it myself!

      I really only use the term non-primary to clarify that my relationships aren’t riding the escalator toward primaryhood, which is what people (including many poly folk) often assume if a relationship is more-than-casual.

      I use that term often in this blog (because I write about relationship structure a lot here), but not so much in ordinary conversation. In most everyday conversations about my relationships, I simply mention my “partner” or “sweetheart” or some similar intimate-but-not-necessarily hierarchical term — or I just refer to my partners by name — and leave it at that.

  3. Abby Normal says:

    Brilliant article! Thank you!

  4. ariddles says:

    I had noticed that to a lot of people out side of ethical non-monogamy, ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ are not really shortcut terms to understanding. They require further explanation because monogamous people are used to terms such as boyfriend/girlfriend, husband/wife, partners etc, which, though extremely loaded and hierarchical, do come with a set of built ingrained definition (even if the values of these meanings conflict for different people – words like boyfriend have very positive meanings for one person and negative to some of us.) So I always try to give definition in the terms I use. Some are fairly straight forward and the spectrum of them match the spectrum of my friendships – “the friend I am most involved with,” “someone I see sometimes,” “someone I sometimes hold hands with at the movies.” Other convey other meanings, for example, to relay the fact a relationship is not located within the escalator paradigm of relationships, eg “the person I am in love with but we won’t be buying a fridge together.” None of these are handy expressions that trip off the tongue, but I have to explain my situations to a lot of people on a regular basis anyway, so I prefer these. They also mesh slightly better with the relationship anarchy view of things that I feel more and more comfortable with, and help embrace describing the important position of asexual people in my life.

  5. I love that you are writing about this. It’s pedantic at times, but I like words and I like precise language. I despise the terms primary and secondary actually, and hate that they are often the shorthand for things. There is this dichotomy that seems to work its way into discussions like this sometimes. There are primaries and non-primaries, and then wife or girlfriend or boyfriend or husband vs our others, there is our significant other and our other significant others. Language does matter. Setting up and reinforcing this sort of “us” and “them” can create a disconnect and can affect how people are ranked and then therefore treated. I rather like the term partners personally for involved and committed and loving relationships and sweeties for anyone I’d date in general. It’d be nice to have a better word I think for those inner-circle deeply committed and invested relationships though. But I know that’s just me. I’m not really solo-poly, though I don’t live with any of my partners and don’t have a primary. I have more of a tangled arrangement and just don’t identify as solo, but I learn so much from this perspective.

  6. Myth says:

    I like the term “nesting partnership”. That feels descriptive without placing a ranking or hierarchy into the description. Have you used that term elsewhere?

    • aggiesez says:

      I’ve heard the term “nesting partnership” used, and it can describe a variety of cohabitating relationships — not just where sexual/romantic partners share a home, finances, etc., but siblings, nonsexual friends, etc. who choose to combine their lives in this way.

      Still, it seems that where nesting partners are also sexual/romantic partners (or at least, that’s how their relationship started out, even if it’s now mostly companionate rather than sexual/romantic), hierarchy usually is still a feature of how those couples handle open/poly relationships. Often they’re pretty honest and clear about that — but surprisingly often, they’re not.

      That is, it’s discouragingly common for a poly/open couple to claim to others “we’re not hierarchical.” But then, when circumstances involving other partners or relationships get challenging, or when they feel more insecure, they behave in ways that are very hierarchical indeed. I’ve had that experience multiple times. Sometimes these couples choose to conceal, obscure or deny their hierarchy because they know it would be offputting to most nonprimary partners — but often they’re just fooling themselves about being nonhierarchical. And it’s easy to resort to hierarchy when you’re feeling threatened or challenged, because there’s overwhelming social conditioning and support for doing so.

      I see the nonhierarchical bait-and-switch happen so often, in fact, that I personally tend to assume that poly/open couples who are nesting partners also practice some level of hierarchy in their other relationships unless I know that they’ve chosen to behave in decidedly nonhierarchical ways during challenging circumstances.

      Fortunately, I do know some couples who are poly, who are also nesting partners, and who also have demonstrated nonhierarchical behavior when that was probably not their most expedient option.

      I wouldn’t refer to any couple as “primary partners” unless they’ve self-identified that way. I’d just refer to them as a couple or life partners, or acknowledge that they’re married or live together, etc.

      Also: All things considered, I vastly prefer when people are honest (with themselves, and with others) about whether they’re hierarchical in any way — and how/when that might kick in and affect nonprimary partners or relationships. That makes everything much easier and less painful/risky for everyone.

      • Stella says:

        With all due respect to the fact that everyone in an intimate (or any) relationship likes to be respected, not have their feelings hurt and not feel as if they are lower priority than the one who came before them (eg the wife in a married couple when you are the OSO), what about the reality that sometimes the married couple, the kids they have together and the life theyve built together really does take priority? It means the OSO has to have a well of patience and understanding and “we” can do this if we really feel loved. Then neither the labels, the BoR, nor the lack thereof really matters.

  7. CountryFriedRyan says:

    I’m curious about the inference that hierarchical terms mean that the primary always takes precedence over the secondary. In the larger polyamory community I’m in (the Triangle area in North Carolina), people regularly use the terms “primary” and “secondary” but everyone knows they don’t mean that the primary always takes precedence over the secondary. Generally they use those terms to refer to where that relationship is on the relationship escalator. Primaries are usually living together and have some sort of financial and legal relationship, often are fluidbonded, might have kids together, etc. Secondaries usually don’t live together and don’t have financial and legal obligations to each other, but are in long term committed relationships. Tertiaries are usually in short term relationships. Yet our community does not assume that primaries automatically take precedence over secondaries when conflicts arise. They do sometimes, but usually for an understandable reason, like the needs of child care or aforementioned legal and financial obligations. But many people in this community tend to be quite egalitarian about conflict even while using those terms. I’m not endorsing the use of these terms, and I don’t use them myself, and I avoid the relationship escalator, but I respect that this is the consensus our community has reached regarding these terms.

    • aggiesez says:

      While some people may use those hierarchical terms in the way you’d describe, I personally question whether there’s a consensus about it. In my experience, when people get insecure, hierarchy tends to mean hierarchy. Maybe not in every case, but enough that I’m very skeptical of the consensus you describe.

      You might want to start a discission in your community: “Hey, if our intent in not yo disempower people in less established or less life-entwined relationships, why are we using hierarchical language?”

      If it’s really just a habit, it may be that habit should change. Words do affect how people think, and how they act.

      • I hate the term secondary, and I found this blog by Googling “I am not a secondary.” I’m so glad to see this perspective, because it seems like I cannot find any poly resources that don’t use these terms and it’s startingto become disheartening. The first time I was told I was a secondary, I visibly flinched. I still remember how it felt and the way I recoiled.

        I have come to the conclusion that I am not, nor will I ever be, a secondary. Period. Anyone who feels like they need to pen me in with that label can move along. I am a person, and my relationships will not be devalued just because someone else got there first.

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