Hierarchical Polyamory vs Non-Hierarchical Polyamory

The web has been buzzing of late with the concept of non-hierarchical polyamory.

Chances are you’ve been practicing hierarchical polyamory or non-hierarchical polyamory already, depending on the nature of your current relationships or your own personality and relationship style.

Often, we are involved with others or have practices and play styles that suit our lifestyle, but we don’t name or label them, or think about the labels. We have no idea whether our polyamory is hierarchical or non-hierarchical polyamory. Other times, the labels change or change meaning over time. For example, not everyone who is polyamorous calls it that—they may simply be in love with two partners at the same time. Others call their lifestyle choices an “open relationship.” Some describe it as “swinging,” an old-fashioned term that is making a comeback.

Read: How to Find Swinger Couples

Whether you find labels useful or useless, there can be value in definition when communicating with our polyamorous romantic and sexual partners about what we want, need, expect, and reject in relationships.

In classic polyamory parlance, we frequently use labels like “primary partner” or “secondary partner.” These are terms of the polyamory hierarchy.

What Is Hierarchical Polyamory?

Hierarchical polyamory is simply polyamory where one or more relationships are central in importance versus other relationships or sexual encounters.

For example, a couple may be married but have open doors to sexual encounters. They may also have secondary or tertiary relationships, long-term commitments with other partners who they value, but place the most investment in their primary partnership.

Read: How to Find a Primary Partner

Often, the polyamorous hierarchy evolves naturally and isn’t planned. An adventurous couple may choose to see other people after a few years of marriage, with the commitment that other relationships don’t interfere with theirs. They may have a “sex only” rule for other relationships, or other boundaries that protect the primary relationship.

Hierarchical Polyamory Examples

A couple who is together or married may choose to have sexual relationships outside of that bond. They may have a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy, or they may all be friendly and open together, but the sexual relationships don’t impact the couples commitment, economic relationship, or child-rearing practices.

They may have specific boundaries to protect the primary relationship, such as a bisexual wife can date women or have romantic relationships with women, but not with other men.

Read: 4 Boundaries to Discuss with a New Poly Partner

There can be a relationship between two women wherein both are bisexual and date men for sex, but their spiritual and love connection is a sisterhood and they only have a romantic relationship with each other.

Almost any “arrangement” in polyamory is traditionally hierarchical polyamory. The relationship from where other relationships are formed is protected. For example, a business man may be “allowed” to meet women for sex while travelling, as long as nothing interferes with his family life and providing for her and the kids.

A couple who wants each other to explore their crushes and enjoy sexual pleasure with other partners but wants the security of commitment between each other and the ultimate intimacy of being “the one” is another example of hierarchical polyamory.

Read: Is Being a Secondary Partner Right for You?

What Is Non-Hierarchical Polyamory?

Non-hierarchical polyamory is a polyamory style where there are multiple simultaneous relationships but no hierarchies exist in those relationships. No one relationship is primary and terms like secondary partners or tertiary relationships are not used.

All relationships have equal weight in decision making, and none of the relationships have the privilege of setting the requirements and boundaries on the other relationships.

All partners and metamours make collaborative decisions.

Read: 4 Simple Ways to Show Love for Your Metamour

Traditional relationship patterns like history, having children together, relationship with in-laws, expenses paid or savings or other financial connections, and length of time together do not influence or privilege the importance of one relationship over another.

For some, non-hierarchical polyamory is a natural offshoot of polyamory, which is itself, for some people, a political statement about autonomy, sexual ownership, and inclusivity. Not everyone views polyamory politically but many view it as a response to negative aspects of exclusivity, or commitment. Naturally, some may view commitment with an open door as a continuation of exclusive arrangements. Relationship egalitarianism and equity is the goal.

Non-Hierarchical Polyamory Examples

Non-hierarchical poly examples would include a throuple or polycule where all relationships between lovers are as essential as others in decision making, time, or personal attachment.

A married couple that chooses to date other people would value the new relationships and place equal importance on the opinions and needs of the new metamours and bonds.

A woman who dates or marries several men may remain independent but value her relationship with each equally.

Several couples may “swing” or date between each other, and the new sexual connections that form are equally important with the original relationships.

Is Non-Hierarchical Polyamory more Ethical than Hierarchical Polyamory?

The nuances of ethics and morality have been philosophical debates for as long as humans could communicate and think. And that’s a good thing. But a consensus is another thing.

Non-hierarchical polyamory is not just a personal lifestyle choice for many. It is a political decision, based on the idea of equality and holding all relationships as equals. Therefore, it may view hierarchical polyamorous relationships negatively, believing it is not inclusive or egalitarian to value some relationships in deeper ways than others.

Read: How to Practice Ethical Non-Monogamy

Some view the family itself as a negative hierarchy, and blood ties or personal enmeshment shouldn’t determine importance. This goes beyond the “it takes a village” approach to celebrating the importance of extended family and community, and sees any ties as anti-egalitarian. A very radical perspective may view women or children they have never met as “just as important” as their own wife or offspring.

Likewise, a close friend should hypothetically not be any more important than a distant person you have never met.

While most do not go this far in their view, the illustration serves as to why some polyamorous people disagree and perceive hierarchical polyamory as being “ethical polyamory.” After all, one’s wife and mother of your children should carry more decision-making weight than a woman with whom you have had one sexual encounter.

We do not need to treat others badly or look down on them, but it is natural and healthy in this thinking to treat the input of some relationships as more valuable than others. Someone with whom you have made a commitment merits more of your time and energy than a person who you occasionally sleep with, and it would be unethical to place the same importance on them.

Read: 4 Expressions of Commitment in Poly Relationships

You can probably guess my own opinions on these matters from past posts. I don’t care much for the politics and politicization of sex, relationships, and lifestyles. I think every person should do what is best for themselves and act according to their conscience. My opinion: You do you.

Are you in a hierarchical or non-hierarchical poly relationship? Please share!

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