Episode 91: Hierarchies and Ethics

Sometimes making a rule causes the exact problem that the rule is designed to prevent.

Some people think having a “primary” partner is always an unethical decision but isn’t prioritising a long term marriage logical?

That’s what’s on this week’s episode of Non-Monogamy Help.

Discussion Topic:

What is your definition of “ethical” within the confines of relationships?

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Thank you to Chris Albery-Jones at albery-jones.com for the theme music and a big thanks for the podcast art to Dom Duong at domduong.com.

Podcast transcript

Is there anything inherently wrong in a hierarchical poly[am] structure? A lot of the sources I’ve listened and read seem to favor anarchical, but my partner and I are married, have been together for 6 years, and have agreed upon being each other’s primary.

We know being married doesn’t guarantee that we stay together any more than a domestic partnership, but for us, being married means we’ll try and work problems out before ever considering leaving. It means we don’t want to have to imagine life without each other in some way.

I want more casual relationships, while he requires more mental/emotional connection so maybe what we’re doing is more just being “open” than poly[am] but I figured poly[am] was the correct term.


I think that there are people within the polyam community who basically feel like hierarchy is inherently unethical. And just as I said when it comes to the question that started this episode, the discussion question, ethics is a complicated thing. And people use it to mean a lot of different things. In my opinion, what makes something ethical is that all parties are informed. So if you have a — what's called a Don't Ask Don't Tell relationship, technically, in my opinion, that is an ethical relationship.

Because even though the rule is that one partner probably has other relationships, and one other partner isn't informed about those relationships, at the very least that other partner has been informed that there will be other relationships. So they are in some way informed in a way that somebody who keeps relationships hidden is not informing their partner.

Some people would say Don't Ask Don't Tell is always unethical to them because their standard of ethics is that not only do people inform and consent to non-monogamy but they also know their partners and know everybody and don't feel like they have to hide things. Some people feel like if there's any situation where they would have to hide or pretend like they aren't dating their partner, that would feel very unethical to them. And I think that that's valid.

I think both of those approaches are very valid. I can understand why people feel like a hierarchy where you have a primary partner is unethical and I think from my experience, and maybe I'm wrong, there's probably a lot of different experiences people have. But that probably stems from the fact that there are a lot of people who practice a hierarchical structure where they do treat other people outside of that structure as disposable and probably a lot of people have been burned by that, myself included.

Though, the person who burned me wasn't really in a hierarchical polyamorous relationship. They were monogamous and they just neglected to tell me. Anyway, I won’t get into that. The point is that I feel like this is where a lot of people have been burned. And I think the assumption is that if somebody is “anarchical” in their practice of polyamory, it means that they shouldn't value one relationship over the other even friendships or anything like that.

However, whether that is how people actually practice is arguable. Just because someone says that they're not hierarchical doesn't mean that's how they behave. For me, I think if you're going to have a structure where you have a primary partner, there are two main things to consider. The first thing to consider is that when you create a MVP position, and that's what this is that you have created. This is the most important person. This is a VIP, MVP, whatever you want to call it.

That in and of itself, will induce some anxiety in the relationship and the reason is that if somebody is put on a pedestal, if there is one position in your partner's heart for “most important partner”, it makes total sense for your brain to worry about being kicked off of your throne. So understand that as much as you might feel that a primary partnership is “safer”, I have seen that for some people, it creates more fear of loss. It creates more of a fear of competition. It creates more anxiety and doesn’t, in fact, make them feel safer.

Also, I'd say as an addendum onto that type of consideration— Actually, maybe this is… there are three considerations and this is a second. Especially because you are married and you live together, one thing that I have personally found is that when you are married and living with someone, as much as people say that you have some type of privilege over “secondary partners”, my personal experience is that having to live with someone and share that type of life means that you get the good, the bad and the ugly.

You fight about money. You fight about housework. You fight about this or that. I don’t mean like fight fight, but like there are a lot more reasons for you to have disagreements. And there are a lot more compromising things that you have to do when you share a space with someone then when you don't. There are a lot more opportunities for disagreement and frustration in a life where you share something with someone to that extent than when you don't.

And I would not be surprised to find out many, many people who are the “primary” and who are supposedly in a better off position, who feel like they're being neglected to be blunt. They're being not cared for or not able to have the benefits —not even benefits — basically, “secondary partners”, sometimes it feels like they get all the fun bits of the person that you're dating, whereas you have to deal with all the negative things.

They get to go out on dates. They get to have fun. They don't have to worry about bills. They don't have to worry about child care. Like it can very much feel like you are the work partner and they're the fun partner. And that can be really, really hard to deal with. It takes work and effort for someone who is monogamous within a long term monogamous marriage to keep that connection alive because there's so much about the way we live our lives now that creates stress. That creates a lot of time suck basically.

We don't have a lot of time to spend in fun relationship stuff, because we have so much other shit to do. And so if it already takes a lot of effort to keep monogamy kind of going and to put effort into that relationship, then not only does your partner have to put effort into your relationship, but they also are putting effort into other people's relationships and it's very very easy, especially with new relationship energy and people being exciting and shiny and new, to end up with a partner who spends a lot of time impressing other people and basically just takes you for granted.

And that may be more of my personal experience shining through. But I do want to have you consider that as a thing. And you might actually have that experience because if that's what you've been doing, then you probably might have already run across that. But that is something that I think people considering a type of primary hierarchy should think about and you will run across a lot of criticism of it. Because, you know, there is the assumption, because of monogamous culture, that a couple that's married is doing what you're doing.

Like they're preserving their relationship at all costs to others. And that is a fair critique. And I don't think that's something that's unfair or not true. I think that there's lots and lots of cases, especially people new to polyamory, who have been in marriages for a long time and who probably will save that marriage over any other relationship because they've invested more time, because they share children, because they share housing. There's lots of different reasons why they would do that. So it gets that fair critique.

But I do think that there's very little in my opinion, of a way of discussing how difficult it can be to be the “primary” and see a partner invest time into other relationships that they don't invest in you. Because the assumption is that you live together. You're a safe option. You are always going to be there. And so there is less of a reason to focus on you than there is on new people.

And I think that the last thing that I think is also worth considering if you go about this type of structure is consent and informed consent. Where I have read and advised on stories where people have been burned by couples who are prioritising their own relationship in front of others, generally speaking, it has been because there has been a lack of informed consent on the side of the couple.

And it's because they haven't been truly honest. Most of the time sometimes because they're just new to polyamory and they don't really understand or know what it is they're going about. But I think that if you are going to prioritise your marriage over other relationships, both you and your partner should be 100% honest with anybody that you date about that priority. Don't hide it. You may get a little shit from it from people who think that you're just being mean or unethical or whatever. But it's better for you to be fully honest about that.

And so every single person who dates you or your partner 100% knows what they're getting into, and can make their own informed decision about whether or not they decide to engage with you past that information. Now, there may be people who, you know, kind of ignore their own boundaries, who decide that they want to take a risk and invest in you and then you— something happens and you decide to end that relationship and they get burned anyway.

That still may happen. But I feel like part of that is also giving informed consent to that person and just say, “This is a hierarchical structure”. And I also think as an attachment to this, understanding what this means for how your relationship will exist in the future will also help. So yes, you're each other's primary. And understandably, you are going to probably want to preserve the marriage over other things. If non-monogamy isn't something that ends up working, then you're probably going to want to return to monogamy potentially.

However, I think a big part of the reason why couples like this open and then close and try to dip their toe into non-monogamy and then something happens and they decide to basically chuck other people out like a you know defunct warp core to save the major ship. Sorry to be a nerd. I think that mostly that comes from not understanding how non-monogamy is meant to fit into their marriage and thinking that they can go about non-monogamy in a way that won't mean that they spend less time together or won't feel threatening to their relationship.

And I don't think that that's the case. So not only do you need to be informing people of your hierarchical structure, but I also think that you need to understand what actual positions there are available in your life. If you and your partner were to have let's say one other partner, how would that fit into your day to day activities? How would that fit into your life? It's much easier to, as a person, agree to be a “secondary” — if you want to call that — if I understand what being a “secondary” means.

And likewise, if you and your partner agree, “Okay, we'll have— you want more casual relationships. So I will have dates on Friday, and that will be my date night and I might spend the night at somebody's house, but that'll be the only night I spend at somebody's house”. And then maybe your partner has more of a mental and emotional connection. So maybe he talks to people all throughout the days, maybe goes on coffee dates, and then maybe he on Friday goes on bigger dates.

But the agreement is that you know when you're eating dinner together, he's there only for you and there's no communication with anybody else. And you both have agreed date nights yourself and you agree on childcare if there's children involved, or anything like that. So once you understand what your life looks like, in non-monogamy or polyamory, or whatever you want to call it, then it becomes much easier to when you're on a date with somebody to be like “So this is my structure. This is what I'm looking for. I'm not really looking for someone who wants a ‘primary’. I'm looking for something more casual”.

And then you don't waste your time and the other person doesn't waste their time getting invested, getting emotionally hooked on one another when you are inherently incompatible, because I think that sometimes it's about incompatibility and not necessarily that you are evil for having a hierarchy, but that you want something specific and people who are looking for more of an emotional investment, or maybe want anchor partners themselves may not be the best people for you to date in the long term.

Maybe you have a hookup. But you see what I'm saying— the more you have an idea of what it is that you're looking for, where the puzzle piece fits, then you won't waste your time trying to jam a piece that doesn't fit and that piece that doesn't fit won't get all janky. And last but not least, I think that there is something to consider with this. And I think that

there needs to be some discussion amongst the two of you about veto power and what that means.

There is a lot of shit about how veto is wrong, how it should never be allowed, about how it's unethical. And me personally, I think a veto is a band-aid on a gaping wound. Likewise, I feel very much the same about people who open their relationships and then try to close them when it “doesn’t work”. And that's because— two things. One: people have an expectation that polyamory or non-monogamy will make them happy. And when they start doing non-monogamy and they start experiencing negative emotions, they get freaked out.

Sometimes they think that they aren't non-monogamous enough, or they're freaked out by their partner dating somebody else and they don't know how to deal with it so they close the relationship to presumably bring them back to a type of stasis that calms them. And then they're less freaked out. And then the second thing I think, is the assumption that their closed relationship is safer. And it does feel safer to them, obviously because this is a big change. Think of it in comparison to like moving to a new town. Or you know, something like that.

It probably does feel safer, in some instances, to just move back when you're struggling and when and something isn't going exactly the way that you plan. And people don't have a roadmap within non-monogamy and they don't sometimes have an example of it. And it's a completely new idea for some people, and they're not used to it and they don't really remember what it was like to have their first relationships in monogamy where they were just stressed out.

But at least they had that cultural backing of like, “This is something that definitely works”. So, understandably there's a lot or a bit of a panic there and then they get freaked out they shut it. And I think that equally when you veto somebody, if what you want is for your partner to pay attention to you, if you're vetoing because your partner isn't paying enough attention to you or there's something going wrong, the mistake you're making there is that the other person is the cause of that. And getting rid of them will solve that. And it's not true.

I understand why people use vetoes. I'm not really here to judge or attack anybody who uses a veto because I get it. I get that they’re panicked. And sometimes it does actually cause somebody to pay more attention to them or to— you know, it's a shock, and then they focus on the relationship and improve it. But generally on the whole I think that it's far better and far more sustainable for you to try and— if your partner isn't working with you to fix the problem, and that's an issue that's going to be there whether your relationship is open or not.

But it's more sustainable for you to address the actual cause of the problem. Vetoes and things like that are treating the symptom and not the disease if that makes sense. So when you talk about how you're going to try and work out problems before considering leaving, even if I knew someone who was monogamous who felt that way, I would probably challenge them on that. And I'm not saying that you can't want to be in a relationship that you've been in for a long time.

But I do think that when you get to a point where staying in a relationship is more important than anything to me that's a little bit worrying, whether or not somebody is in an open relationship or not or whether or not someone is monogamous or polyamorous. I think that primarily you both should be more interested in a successful relationship with yourself than necessarily always preserving the marriage. And I get what you're saying. I don't think that you're saying that you're just going to stay together no matter how unhappy you are together.

I get what you're saying. You're just saying that you're going to try and work out problems, but I don't think that that's a function of hierarchy. Because if there's a problem within your relationships, or if there's a problem within your relationship as a couple, then getting rid of other people isn't necessarily going to fix the problem within your relationship and I think you need to question your attitude towards what this means when it comes to other people because it is fucked up and cruel and mean to decide that, in the same way friendship— it's also— think of it this way.

If you decided that because you're married, your partner should care more about you than they do their friends. And you will preserve your marriage over any friendship your partner has or any friendship you have. And you take that attitude toward it. It's a very weird attitude to take towards friends and almost we would kind of see someone who expects their partner to get rid of friends they don't like as— if not abusive— than going down that route.

And I'm not saying that this is an abusive approach that you're taking. But what I'm saying is to be so explicit, and the idea that other people are a threat, and there is only safety within your relationship is maybe a different concept that isn't necessarily accurate. I'm not saying there aren't people who— there's a concept called cowgirling or cowboying where someone pretends to be non-monogamous, but their point is really to extricate someone from their partner and establish a monogamous relationship with them. That probably does exist.

However, if you are strong as a couple, as two people together, then you're strong as a couple and I think that someone else trying to “steal your partner”… It's a very similar idea of that when your partner is responsible for their behaviour. If your partner decides to dump you for somebody else that isn't like— it's not that the other person was wily and evil and your partner was this innocent victim. It's your partner made a decision and acted as a grown adult of their own volition.

So I think that it might help for you to reexamine and rethink this immediate assumption that other people are a threat because even if you don't outwardly think that— the idea that like “Okay, we're gonna save our marriage”, just think about how you would apply that to discussions of any other relationship. Would you say overtly? “We care about our marriage and we're preserving it over friendship. We’re preserving it over family relationships”?

No, because you see family relationships as different and even if you're going to be non-monogamous, the relationship that you're gonna have with other people will be different than the relationship you have with your partner that you're married to. And any relationship they have will be different than the relationship that they have with you. So it's not really— it doesn't have to be this cutthroat, more or less. And I think that the way that monogamous centric culture, and also just the way that people think about dating and love and as a resource that needs to be competed for, sometimes leads us into this type of thing bleeding in.

And I don't know is that it's necessarily accurate. So yeah, overall, if I can sum up, I think that as long as you're clear about what it is that— not only what it is that you are doing within non-monogamy, but also how other people fit into your relationship. That is ethical you will always get people criticising you for whatever choices you're gonna make. If it works for you and your partner and if you're not hurting loads of people, then I think that you're fine.

I think as long as you're clear and upfront with anyone that you date about what what position they would hold in your life and what non-monogamy means in your life, then they as other grown adults can decide to consent to that or leave if it doesn't fit them. And if they decide to consent to it, and it isn't what they wanted and they get hurt, as much as that sucks, that's very different than a situation where you pretend like you're going to be emotionally involved in someone's life and

you're not.

And last but not least, I do think you should consider this kind of unspoken concept that other romantic relationships are a threat. And also think about the role that vetoes play within your relationship. And how you treat other people because even if you have casual relationships, that doesn't mean you don't care about the people, you have casual relationships [with], right? Like, you still don't want to hurt those people.

And I think that it's it's worth talking about how you might go through challenges and I think part of that will be establishing how non-monogamy works in your life, but also accepting the fact that you are going to feel challenged by this. It's a big change, and it's understandable to feel scared and that doesn't necessarily mean that you're bad at it or it's not the right decision. But how you all handle conflict is important. And to me, in my opinion, it's better for you if what you want is a long term non-monogamous relationship and you're not just kind of testing the waters of non monogamy and if you are doing that, I think it's probably better to maybe just be honest again about that.

But if you want a long term non-monogamous relationship and you want that to work, I think it's better to work on the issues with each other whilst the relationship is open. Because closing it will only temporarily solve the issue. And it won't give you the practice that you need of addressing the problems that come up in your relationship whilst it's open and it's also kind of not fair to the other people to just be chucked out like a defunct warp core. Anyways, so yeah, there's a lot going on in this.

Hopefully that kind of gave you a thorough answer and other people may disagree with me. Other people may be like “Hierarchies are always wrong and evil and bad, blah, blah, blah”. Whatever. I take a kind of an anarchical approach necessarily. I mean, I'm in a kind of in between position where I'm not really necessarily sold on any type of relationship right now. But, you know, I kind of do have more of an anarchical approach. But I think that if if a clear defined hierarchy works for you, then I think it's fine as long as people are informed about it and can say no to you, and they can say no if they know that it's something that you're doing and if they don't want to part of it, then they can say no. But yeah, I hope that helps and good luck.

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