I differentiate between prioritizing a partner and practicing hierarchy in polyamorous relationships.
It’s normal and natural to prioritize relationships. Here’s when we should do that: when we WANT to. And prioritizing is a vital part of ALL healthy relationships. We make time to nurture the relationships we care about. We make space in our busy schedules to see friends and family and partners – because they matter to us.
Hierarchy declares “I will ALWAYS prioritize THIS relationship because it is and always will be MOST important to me”! But how do we know that? And will we feel that way in EVERY situation? This statement feels familiar, because it’s what we’re CONDITIONED to expect from a romantic and intimate connection. And, honestly, if this is what a couple wants to agree to, that’s fine, as long as they communicate it to all potential partners upfront and include how it might impact them. If their partner has VETO power over who they date, for example, that’s a relationship I wouldn’t engage in. However, I’ve dated people who have a primary relationship and it doesn’t bother me because I had no expectations or need for it to be any different.
The inherent assumption is that the status of “highest priority” in hierarchical relationships will remain permanently and never ever waver, which is, for most, unrealistic. And in practice is quite a powerful and sometimes inaccurate assumption. It can also feed harmful behaviours (VETO is an example) and ways of thinking of someone else as intrinsically LESS. Which is personally why I don’t practice hierarchy.
I am married and work with my husband, and we share a business. When business related matters are of the highest priority in my life, someone might assume I’m operating hierarchically by spending time with my husband, but I’m not. I would be doing this with any business partner. We also share a home and friends and family. When we do home projects or we visit friends and family, someone might assume I’m operating hierarchically but I’m choosing to spend time with the partner who has a vested interested in those things and those people. If I had another partner who enjoyed those same relationships with me, I would also visit them with that partner. I don’t have a lot of crossover there because my relationships are parallel (separate) and because time is short when I can see the partners I don’t live with, we focus on us.
I also have a boyfriend of two years. We share some interests, but others (like skiing and hiking) we don’t share. And he has his children living with him every other week and I don’t interact with them. So our time is limited. His time with them, and his time skiing and hiking will take priority over spending time with me. I understand that and want him to choose how to spend his time in the ways that he’s MOST happy. If he wants to spend time with doing something he enjoys or being with another partner (or anyone) and prioritizes that relationship for any reason, I want that for him. And when he is child-free for 2 weeks each month, I prioritize him to make sure we maximize our opportunities to spend time together. But that’s not practicing hierarchy. It’s healthy time management and wise relationship investment.
I have started seeing a long distance partner who is a comet. I will maybe see him once a month and he, by the way, has an agreement with his wife that their relationship is “primary” but they do not have VETO power. When my comet partner is able to come to town, I prioritize him, and even rearrange my schedule to spend as much time with him as possible. This makes sense to me, is what I authentically want to do, isn’t about him being MORE important intrinsically than my other partners, or anyone else, and so I wouldn’t consider it hierarchical.
I only ever want my partners to show up for me when they feel they want to. Not out of obligation because we’ve agreed I’m MOST IMPORTANT. Ugh. And vice versa! I only ever want to show up for them when I want to be there. If we’re showing up out of obligation, that’s how resentment starts!
That means allowing for circumstances where I may WANT to spend time with my partner but they’re prioritizing spending time by themselves, or spending time with another person (friends, family, or partners). That might be hard for me and I’ll need to find ways to self-soothe and self-regulate when they aren’t available. But it isn’t the same as practicing polyamory hierarchically.