Unethical hierarchies in polyamory

I have been currently investing my time in a polygamous relationship. My partner and I have been talking since February and I would say officially together since March as we are now fluid bonded and consider ourselves boyfriend and girlfriend. I am however his secondary partner and therefore our relationship is very much influenced by his want to protect his primary. The struggle that I am having is that it is very apparent at this point that we both love each other and are heavily committed to being together, but I am scared and have lost a little bit of trust in our situation.
His primary partner has been struggling with our relationship and I don’t think non-monogamy is really working out for her. I am very familiar with his primary, she’s a terrific person, we’ve met many times. My partner and I are long distance and don’t see each other regularly and don’t get the most time together when we do see each other. But we still very much love and enjoy the time we do get until recently, when tension and stress caused him to end our relationship.
So now I’m very worried and can’t help but feel like I am overthinking because I feel like even though I know we have a deep connection his other partners needs totally trump mine. We have talked since then and the situation very clearly broke both of our hearts and we have discussed us being together again. So i am wondering if this is a common thing that I have to be mindful of in non monogamy, is it common that as a secondary partner you fall behind what’s best for the primary partner?
I think I’m just worried because I know he wants to be with me and his primary, but I just don’t know how to trust that as a secondary partner my feelings matter and I’m going a little crazy trying to understand what the place of a secondary partner is and how to trust that we love each other enough to continue to make our relationship work, because it’s been pretty perfect up until now.

I’m sorry you’re going through this right now. It sounds challenging. There are a few things going on that I want to address:

Motivations to be polyamorous

You said you’re investing in a ‘polygamous’ relationship but also say ‘non-monogamy’, so I’m going to assume that you mean polyamorous. Generally speaking, while people are free to do what they like with their lives, I can’t find myself morally agreeing with a relationship structure where one person was allowed to have multiple partners but all of their partners could not date anyone else, which is what polygamy is vs. polyamory. If folks want to agree to that sort of thing, then that’s up to them, but generally I would say that dynamic leads itself to unfairness and that’s worth considering.

Throughout your letter, you don’t really identify whether or not polyamory is something that you are pursuing because you’re interested in it independent of this person or if it’s something that you’re doing for this person. Sometimes it can be a bit of both. There’s not anything necessarily wrong with choosing to try polyamory because you’ve met someone who is polyamorous, but I do think that you have to be somewhat, if not interested in polyamory for your own reasons, very aware of what it means to agree to that vs. to monogamy.

You seem aware that being a ‘secondary’ in a relationship might mean that you have less time than others do — but I would say that regardless of hierarchies involved (which I will address later), you have to be okay with the idea that your partner will not devote a majority of their time to you. I think even people in monogamous relationships can make this sort of agreement if their partner has, for example, a demanding and time consuming career or hobby. Even being monogamous isn’t a guarantee that you will get all of your partner’s undivided energy or attention.

Some people take this into consideration in terms of how they want to practice polyamory. They may decide to set up a structure where they are ‘solo polyamorous’ and have no ‘primary’ partners or live-in partners. Others might live with some or all. But I think what helps you whenever polyamory gets rough, and it does, is understanding your motivation for doing it. And if your motivation is purely because you want to keep one person in your life, I don’t see that leading to a stable foundation in the future

So take a moment and examine your motivations for trying polyamory. What do you hope to get out of it? What does your ideal look like? What do you think you need from each partner at minimum? What do your ideal relationships look like? This can sometimes help you check your current situation and see if relationships are meeting your needs or fitting in with where you want to be.

Good and bad hierarchies

A lot of people would take your letter as tacit proof that hierarchies don’t work — but this is because people assume that having a ‘primary’ partner means that, as you said, the relationship with them should be protected at all costs and the ‘secondary’ relationships are up for grabs. I don’t see this as inherent part of a hierarchy, nor do I see this behaviour only happening in hierarchies. I’ve seen people ‘sacrifice’ one relationship to ‘save’ another in supposed ‘relationship anarchy’ situations. I’ve seen people do this in monogamy. I’ve seen people do this among friendships. I’ve seen people do this in families. It’s a behaviour that isn’t inherent in a hierarchy.

For me, having a ‘primary’ partner does not mean that this is the relationship I save above all else any more than having a married spouse means I don’t care about my friendships. For me, the ‘primary’ is more about communicating expectations and time management. I’m disabled and don’t have a lot of spoons. And even for people who are disabled — love is infinite but time is not. Very few of us have the luxury of living with all of our partners or living within a close distance. And some of us have children who, in my opinion, should be the relationship that we are willing to save among any other relationship.

Personally, I distinguish between my romantic partners and friends because I do have a closer, more intimate and different bond with my romantic partners than my friends and that is a useful distinction for me that comes with helpful boundaries. That doesn’t mean that I value my friends less in my life. And even if I were monogamous, my monogamous partner wouldn’t immediately be valued more than my friends. Life is just not as simple as that.

Sometimes people are afraid when they open their relationships. They are afraid of messing up something they know ‘works’. And rather than finding stability within their own bond and establishing a means of communication that accepts that life is ultimately out of their control, they react by establishing boundaries that restrict. Boundaries can be a great thing. They can help us navigate through difficult decisions. But at times they can also prevent us from sharing ourselves with others.

We put boundaries in place sometimes when we’re afraid to protect ourselves. And this idea that all other relationships are not as important as one other and adhering to that despite how life changes is not a good behaviour, even if it sounds to your partner like the safest way of protecting himself and his partner. Ultimately, all it will do is drive people away from them. And it will not prevent what they are trying to prevent which is them breaking up.

Imagine if we did something similar to this when we had friends. We say we have ‘best’ friends, but does that mean that it’s a simple as prioritising that friend over other people? No. That’s just not what we mean by ‘best friend’. We create labels to distinguish relationships from one another to communicate intimacy, closeness and emotional responsibility — not as a means of dictating how people ought to ‘choose’ ignorant of the idea that being forced to ‘choose’ is kind of the problem. People who have a problem or think hierarchy is always problematic are targeting a symptom, not the disease. Which brings me to the next subject.

Priorities and choices

You no more should expect as a ‘secondary’ to be at the whims of a ‘primary’s’ needs than you should expect to be subject to the whims of one friend choosing another friend over you. What if your aunt told you that your needs would come ‘secondary’ to the needs of her own children? You might expect that your aunt is going to pay attention to her own children, but someone who sets something out so clearly as that or behaves in that way has some deeper problems that you cannot address.

There are a lot of reasons why people defer to their ‘primary’. Usually it’s out of fear. But what’s particularly cowardly is when people blame what is their choice on their ‘primary’ rather than taking responsibility for their own choices. If I were to inform my place of employment that I need time off to help support a partner or a friend, I would ask because it is my choice. I wouldn’t approach my employer saying “Well my partner says I need to be off work so…”. If I had to cancel a meetup with my cousin because a friend needed me, I would tell my cousin that we needed to re-arrange our meeting because there was something that needed my attention. I would not blame it on my friend.

We all make choices every day about how to manage our time. It’s rarely as simple as ‘choosing’ or ‘valuing’ one relationship over another because it depends on our time, our capabilities, and what someone else needs from us. But we have to own that. Your metamour may indeed be struggling with non-monogamy, but the solution to that is for your partner and your metamour to work that out on their own. And yes, maybe there might be times when dates with you could need to be rearranged, but he needs to take ownership of that as his decision, instead of blaming it on his relationship structure.

Another mistake people often make in polyamory is trying to etch-a-sketch their way out of fear or negative feelings. Because people expect that polyamory will be so great and fix some of the problems in their relationship, when they are actually confronted with fear of losing their partner, they do not know how, other than trying to un-do what they did, to fix it. Cancelling your dates will not magically make your metamour better at handling non-monogamy. In fact, if I were advising him or his partner, I would say that they are delaying the inevitable — but this is not your problem to manage!

What is your problem is that your partner is making it your problem — and this can happen in *any* type of relationship structure. I think ultimately if you want to try again with him, it’s up to you but he should really be able to say what is different about this time than the last. You can care for each other as much as you’d like, but if he continues to allow one relationship to dictate another, he is going to struggle regardless and so will you. Hierarchy isn’t the problem. The behaviour is.

In the future, be wary of people who communicate clearly that you are never going to be a priority in your life. If this is a behaviour you wouldn’t tolerate from a friend or family member, why tolerate it from a romantic partner? You cannot do anything to make a relationship ‘work’ with someone who is unwilling to take responsibility for their decisions and communicate clearly to you what times they are available and commit to those times barring emergencies. And you deserve someone who does that.

I hope this helps and good luck!

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