Some thoughts on Hierarchy vs Couples Privilege

The subject of hierarchy comes up often in poly discussion groups. People generally fall into the camps of “hierarchy is fine” or “hierarchy is evil” and usually those who fall into the former are at the top of the pyramid, and those in the latter have been burned by being at the bottom.

I think where the confusion and/or disagreement about hierarchy sometimes happens is where hierarchy intersects with privilege. When I separate the two concepts from each other, then it’s much easier to point to reasons why hierarchy is bad all around, but privilege is sometimes unavoidable.

But, in that intersection, it’s easy to paint them both as harbingers of relationship toxicity.

There are certain things one might take for granted in a situation where partners have shared homes, resources, offspring, and relationship longevity.  For example, the expectation to for the couple to attend family holiday dinners, or visit family living out of state, or attend family weddings or funerals.

Those are inherent privileges that can be pretty circumstantial depending on how “out” one of the people in the couple is to their family. The social expectations of the mononormative culture, especially at gatherings where the older generations are in attendance, make for some these uncomfortable situations where someone’s partner(s) might have to remain “hidden” without it necessarily be the preference for anybody within the relationship. It just can’t be helped without causing major disruptions in the extended family dynamic (or with employers).

I understand having circumstantial, or unearned privileges that I can’t help having. Like the color of my skin or my parents’ socioeconomic status. The thing is, I’m aware that my experience isn’t the experience of everyone else who does not share these traits with me. I’m aware of my privilege and can therefore take action to feel MORE empathy and show more compassion for those who do not have them. I can take into account that their experiences are different than mine and not make assumptions about how they feel or react to things based on how I would feel or react to them.

The lack of this awareness is where couples’ privilege becomes toxic. When the couple isn’t even aware of how their privilege manifests or how it affects those who DON’T have the automatic +1 to your cousin’s wedding, or who don’t have you around to make us a cup of hot tea when we’re at home with a sore throat.

At the same time, as the non-nested partner, I also don’t have to do the boring and stressful stuff, like spend my limited time with him cleaning the cat box or renewing my DMV registration or paying taxes or vacuuming. Every time we’re together it’s a vacation from responsibilities for him, so I get to be the partner he never gets snippy with nor tunes out with headphones and a podcast.

There are certain privileges I have in my role in his life as well, and being aware of them helps me have empathy for the times when his nested partner might feel like she’s not getting quality time with him, for example.

But all of that is separate from hierarchy, because to me, hierarchy implies rank. She does not outrank any of his other partners, nor we her. She cannot (nor would she attempt to) pull rank and affect either of our plans with him. None of us can (or would). He runs his own relationships, his own calendar, and his own emotions. We’re each responsible for our own.

In our polycule, we’re all child-free, so when it comes to the managing of hierarchy and privilege around children, I draw from a different experience. When my late husband and I got together, he was recently divorced and had an 8 year old daughter, an ex-wife and co-parent who would sometimes pull “rank” when it came to my husband’s time for their daughter’s recitals and open houses.  He also had an aging mother who lived with us. If that wasn’t boot camp for polyamory, I don’t know what is.

But the point is – there was hierarchy. The kid came first. I felt his ex-wife liked to use the kid as a way to position herself above me, but the reality was that it was the KID who had priority, not her.

Even in a monogamous marriage, the kid came first, so I don’t see any reason why that wouldn’t hold true in a poly relationship. When my husband’s mom became ill, her needs were elevated as well. We learn to balance all these multiple priorities all the time – at work, with family, and in relationships.

I believe hierarchy in extenuating circumstances, like children or illness or major accident is part of life. I just don’t feel comfortable with it being part of the standard operating procedure when you’re in multiple, committed, romantic relationships.

A Walk in the Desert: On taking things at the pace of the slowest person

There’s a saying I’ve been hearing from people in poly circles over the past couple of months, in regards to opening up a relationship: “It’s best to take it at the pace of the slowest person.”

Last night I heard it in a sightly different way, “to take it at the pace of the slowest camel.”

This sort of makes sense, when everyone’s got a similar end-game in mind, right? Like, if there are two people who want to open up their relationship, but one person is struggling with the nuts and bolts of opening up a bit more than the other, then you take it at the pace of the person who’s taking a little longer to figure it all out. They still have the end-goal of opening up, so you know they’ll get there eventually.

But what do you do when one of the people in the relationship doesn’t really want to open up?

That’s when I’ve heard of situations where taking it at the pace of the slowest person can backfire, ’cause they are in control of the pace, and without the motivation to ever reach that goal, they can slow it down to a full stop.

Metaphor Time!

Imagine you’re in a group of people heading out of the desert toward a source of cold water. There’s plenty of warm canteen water, but the promise of pools of cool water sounds so good.

Now, you don’t want to leave anybody behind, so you all agree to keep pace with the slowest walker. Some of you can run, and some of you can walk briskly and you could get to that ice cold water source within the day if left to your own devices….

…but this one person in your group has a broken ankle and every step they take is excruciatingly painful. They keep wanting to stop and take breaks. You try to carry them, but not for long before it wears you out, and they feel guilty and like a burden to you.

At one point, they sit down on the ground and ask….”can’t we just stay here and wait until nightfall when it’s cooler?”

And maybe you agree. But then that night they say, “Now that it’s cooler – do we really need to get out of the desert? It’s nice here. Look at all the stars…., and the water in the canteen has cooled down so it’s totally drinkable. Why isn’t this water good enough?”

But by mid afternoon, that heat is bearing down on you and you’re beginning to resent the “slowest person” in the group.

Now you’re in a really shitty position. You gotta drink. Like, this canteen water is great to have, and it’s absolutely meeting your basic needs, but it’s unsatisfying and no longer sufficient for you. You’re still not much closer to that cold water source than you were a day ago; and you had estimated that the pace of the slowest person wasn’t going to hold you back for THAT long.

Extrapolate this into a relationship that’s now lasted over a year.

This is why partners who are being “held back” start getting frustrated and passive aggressive and saying things that are unkind.

If you are the slowest person in the group you do, in some ways, have control over the pace: but you also have a responsibility to keep trying to make progress, so that everyone in the caravan feels like their goals are achievable.

And if you dig down and find that your goal is to sabotage the expedition; then perhaps it’s only fair to let your partner go on their own. This is not because you are a bad person, or because you aren’t deserving of them. This is simply a case where your goal and your partner’s goals are in opposition.

And a relationship formed by someone who “won” and someone who “lost” is never as strong as a relationship between two people who both got what they wanted together.

That doesn’t mean they have to want the same thing. You don’t have to want to be poly just like your partner does. All your goal needs to be focused on is achieving acceptance.

That’s why you have to WANT to be okay with your partner being polyamorous. When that is your goal, then the caravan keeps making progress.

Holding out for them to want to be monogamous is probably not going to work.

Your Kink is Not My Kink, but Your Words Fucking Matter

Imagine if I were to ask if anybody else out there has a kink of “playing poly.”  When asked to explain what I mean by “playing at poly,” I described it as “you know, like when you pretend to sleep with everyone indiscriminately and not give a shit about what your partners think.”

I’ll just wait here for those fumes to settle down.

If I were to have asked that question in earnest, then I imagine that the fumes would still not have settled down.  I imagine this because yesterday, someone asked the question regarding “playing at monogamy” and when asked to clarify what they meant by that, they said, “You know, like, when you pretend to get really jealous over a text your partner receives and then have a big fight and then great make up sex.”

Now, I get it. I get that in dominant culture, polyamory is put down, oppressed, and those who practice any form of ethical non-monogamy are frequently met with disdain and derision (unless they’re Hugh Hefner, then they get a TV deal).

So I do get that when you’re in a closed group of mostly people who, like you, practice some form of ethical non-monogamy, it’s really easy to point fingers and laugh at those unenlightened monogamists.  Those poor, pitiful, one-on-one relationship having neanderthals.

Yeah. Except some of us are in relationships with some of y’all.

And even if we weren’t, the implication that “monogamy” is interchangeable with the concepts of jealousy and toxicity in a relationship is about as insulting and offensive as the implication that anybody who identifies as polyamorous is into selfish promiscuity.

But you know what?  It’s not so much that someone asked this question in an offensive manner that really bothered me. I mean, it bothered me, but I probably could have just rolled my eyes and let it go as the myopic word-vomit of an insignificant person.  In fact, many of the other group members, including those who are actively polyamorous, stepped in and made comments supporting the premise that the choice of the word “monogamy” to describe what amounted to a “cheating” fetish was problematic.

(Nobody was questioning the validity of the fetish itself, just the language used to describe it).

What *really* bothered me is that the group admins allowed it, and continues to allow that language to stand. They agreed that the OP was flippant, dismissive, and condescending to those of us who questioned their word choice, but made no request for OP to modify their post. What *really* bothered me is that the third rule in this group’s list of rules includes language against “Comments that deride any relationship structure, including monogamy or polygamy.”

I waited 24 hours, fuming, before I made the decision to leave that group.   I kept hoping the admins would step in and address the issue, to (as I’d seen them do in many posts with problematic language) request that the OP modify their question to remove the implication that monogamy equals jealousy and fighting.

But instead, they defended it.

And so, they won’t see me there any longer.

Can I talk to you about something serious for a sec?

Content warning: Death and death-related topics ahead

I’ve heard my boss say, on more than one occasion, that “nobody gets out of life alive.” She doesn’t say a lot that’s worth repeating, but this is one of her finest and most salient comments.

We’re all gonna die one day.

And yes, many of us hope that it will happen way down the road when we’re super old and we’ve accomplished everything and our bones hurt so much that death will look like a welcome friend.

Some of us, though we are still young, feel that pain in our bones now and might sometimes wonder if it would be so bad if it comes a little sooner.

Some of us are terrified of both aging and death, and we live out our formative years avoiding the topic. I imagine most of those people didn’t get past the content warning.

And sometimes, we hear a story and are faced with the stark reality that most of us do not have control over when it happens – not for ourselves and not for our loved ones. As it ought to be.

It doesn’t really matter what your relationship with death is – the fact is, we are all going to have one some day.

So, if you have people or causes in your life that matter to you, get your shit together.

Yes, it’s probably more important to do this if you have assets, but even if you don’t – you can leave behind instructions for your loved ones on what you’d want in the unfortunate event of a terrible accident. How do you want your remains handled? I’m telling you right now, that shit is EXPENSIVE. Can you set aside anything to help with those expenses?

Also, there are documents you might want to consider having in your files – like an Advanced Directive or a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) if that’s what you’re into, or a Power of Attorney for someone you trust to make medical decisions on your behalf if you are incapacitated or unconscious.

If you do have assets – talk to a professional. Homes and life insurance policies and other large financial assets…if you don’t square this stuff away, then depending on where you live and your legal marital status, everything can go haywire after you’re gone. You have absolutely no say in it unless you’ve figured it all out in advance.

Now, when my husband died – we had none of these things. I know he would not have wanted to be resuscitated. He was miserable and in pain all the time, and he’d said as much..but we did not have this document signed and notarized. I watched as the paramedics tried (to no avail) to bring him back, somewhat terrified that they’d succeed and he’d be in even MORE pain than he was before from the way they’d had to handle his body.

And, because he was my husband and we live in California, when he died – everything he owned automatically became mine. But if we hadn’t been married yet, without the documentation to back it up – his half of my house that we bought together might have ended up in probate, paying off his personal debt or in his ex-wife’s hands, as the legal guardian of his underage daughter.

And that’s a pretty straightforward relationship: husband and wife. What if we’d been polyamorous? Lots of you are. Lots of you are in long term relationships with multiple people and some of those people don’t really like each other. Do you want to leave it up to them to figure out who gets what?

One of the biggest shocks to my system after he died was that I could no longer call him to ask him the simplest questions. Like “Where is the charger cable for that really expensive camera you bought?” or “What is the password for our cable account?”

They can’t ask you what you would have wanted. They can only guess.

So make it easy for them.

And, if you don’t have people in your life or if you are so inclined, remember that there are charitable causes out there that can also be listed as beneficiaries of your estate, if you’re into that sort of thing.

This semi-morbid post brought to you by the learning of Chris Cornell’s passing this morning at the age of 52 – same age as my late husband.

Nobody gets out of life alive. Get it together while you still can.

The Monocorn Sanctuary

Over on Facebook, I created an alt profile that’s attached to my scene-name so I could join special groups that talk about kinky shit without outing my “real life” details to people I don’t know that well. It had the added benefit of making it possible for me to join a bunch of polyamory discussion groups without being outed to my extended family and coworkers on my regular facebook account, including one specifically for mono + poly couples. I was ecstatic! I was gonna find my people!

Only, the polyfolk are the most active in the mono + poly group and there’s a lot of #polysplaining that happens where they are trying to address a struggling monoperson’s issues from their polyamorous perspective, and the monogamuggles get kind of turned off by it.

Then I found a group that was for the mono people ONLY, and I was ecstatic again! I found my people!

Only….these were not my people.

That turned out to be a group largely made up of mono people who were bitter about their partners’ polyamory. They’d spend all day talking shit about poly, blaming it for ruining lives, and going full mean-girl on the things that were discussed in other groups.

So I bailed. That is not what I wanted.

I started to think that I was some sort of wacky anomaly again. The polyfolk talk about “unicorns” and “unicorn hunters” ….maybe I was some sort of new breed: a Monocorn. A monoamorous person who is accepting of polyamory and actively works toward having a harmonious relationship with a polyamorous partner.

Recently, another poly person posted in the mono + poly group on behalf of her boyfriend, who was looking to connect with other mono people who were not bitter and angry about their partners being polyamorous.

We started talking about starting a group.

A couple of other monocorns commented that they might be interested in joining a group like that. All I’m waiting on now is for one of them to accept my friend request so I can get it started. (Facebook makes you invite at least one friend to start a group, and all my friends are polyamorous.)

Anyway, here’s what I’ve drafted as the group description and guidelines. I’m anxious to get it started….so if there are any other monocorns out there that’d like to join, let me know!

Monocorn Sanctuary

What’s a monocorn? It’s the monoamorous person that is happy (or working toward happiness) in a polyamorous relationship. Some of us take to poly-style relationships more easily than others, but the bottom line is – we don’t hate the concept of polyamory. We just don’t wanna be poly ourselves.

Still, every once in a while we need a place of support from other people like us. Our families think its a phase, our friends don’t understand it, and our partners sometimes don’t understand us either. When we attend poly events, we feel a little out of place ’cause everyone assumes we’re like them; but, we don’t quite fit in with the standard-issue monofolk either.

Please only request to join if you are the MONOAMOROUS or MONOGAMOUS part of an ethically non-monogamous, open, or polyamorous relationship. Also welcome:

  • Asexual folk in poly relationships who are not romantically involved with multiple partners
  • Monogamish folk who have outside play partners, but are romantically and/or sexually connected to only one partner
  • Monoamorous people who are currently single or unattached, but are open to or interested in dating a polyamorous person.

This is a safe space to ask questions, process difficulties, share wins, and help others navigate the wacky world of mono-poly relationships. Your partners aren’t here. There won’t be any polysplaining.

In the event two monogamous metamours who are dating the same polyperson join the group, please be respectful of one another. Be aware that you can edit visibility on your posts so that certain group members can’t see them. Utilize this function if you feel like it will help keep the peace.

There also won’t be any polyHATING. It’s not okay to paint polyamory as an absolute evil that ruins lives. Remember that people define polyamory differently, so before you tell someone “that’s not poly” make sure you understand how they define it or be clear that it’s not poly per YOUR personal definition.

Except cheating. Cheating is not polyamory. Cheating is cheating.

Also, this is a sex-positive atmosphere. No slut-shaming, no kink-shaming, and please make every attempt to address your fellow monocorns with their appropriate pronouns. (Trans monocorns, please feel free to correct anybody who misgenders you. Everyone, please accept the correction without getting defensive.)

Even when venting, please do not attack polyamory as a concept. This group is for those who are accepting of our partners’ polyamorous natures, or at least actively working toward acceptance. It’s okay to vent and be frustrated and to question whether or not this is for you, but if you already know it’s not for you and you’re angry or bitter about it, then this isn’t your lily pad.

Oh…and if at some point down the line you find yourself leaning toward trying polyamory out for yourself, please voluntarily step away from the group. If or when you change your mind, you can come back. Promise.

If you’re unsure if this group is the right fit for you, please feel free to contact an admin. We’re nice people. At least I am.

Need a place to vent all your frustrations without the kum-ba-ya poly-accepting atmosphere? There is a group for that. Message the admins for details.


Edit: Yay! I got the requisite friend. The group now exists.

The thing about not feeling “enough”

The most frequent statement I read from people trying to transition into polyamorous relationships for their partner is the sense that they feel like they are “not enough.”

Whenever I see that line, my heart sort of aches for them. I understand that feeling and where it comes from, but somehow it doesn’t affect me and I had a difficult time articulating why.

And I finally figured out the answer:

The trick is in realizing that not being “everything” is still enough.

Relationship Jenga

When you imagine your perfect relationship(s), it might be a little bit like a Jenga tower: an eighteen-story stack of 54 wood blocks; organized in pallets of three in alternating directions.

It’s all the pieces you want….like that mental checklist you have of what “happily ever after” is going to look like for you one day.

Then you meet someone. Turns out they have a lot of the stuff you like, but …maybe some of the other stuff doesn’t quite line up. That’s when you start playing the game of relationship Jenga.

At first it’s easy to remove the blocks that aren’t load-bearing. Poke them with a finger and they slip right out without disturbing any of the other blocks nor the tower’s overall stability. You wanted someone who could play a musical instrument. Turns out they’re tone-deaf. No biggie. Those were the wants. Nice to have, but not necessary for happiness.

What gets stacked on top of the tower are the unexpected parts of life. Some of the things were their needs that you want to try to accommodate (they’re vegetarian, but you’re a devout meat eater.). Some of them are your needs that they want to accommodate (you want them to be your +1 to all your family events). There’s also all those pesky realities that come up like money, family, children, new partners, new jobs, illness, and politics. Over time, that tower looks like it’s carrying a pretty heavy load on top, but as long as your basic load-bearing blocks are in place, you’re still feeling pretty good about your relationship’s overall stability.

Every block that gets pulled from your structure leaves it more vulnerable to the pressures of daily life – even the blocks that were easy to pull out. What do you do when you didn’t realize that one of the blocks you pulled was less wanty than you thought it was? When, while not load-bearing – it still made up part of the overall foundation and provided stability and security in your relationship?

Can it be replaced at the top in a way that re-balances a wobbly tower?

The difference, of course, between a relationship and a game of Jenga is pretty obvious. You don’t have to keep pulling at those foundation blocks. You don’t have to keep playing until the tower knocks over.

When a relationship is good…you could just leave the tower standing and go get a pizza.

But when you have one of those wobbly moments – take a look at that tower. Is it one of the new added stressors or the absence of one of the foundation pieces that’s causing concern?

It might be a solvable puzzle – ’cause unlike a game of Jenga – you might find a way to put a missing block back in, or possibly shift one of the added stressors to a less dangerous position.

Ultimately, whether it’s a 2-player game or a 10-player group, the relationship tower lasts longer when all the players work collaboratively to keep it as stable as possible.