Descriptive Hierarchy is a Misnomer

When you view your partners, and yourself, as autonomous individuals who exist in proximity to each other but aren’t defined by it, you’re rewarded with relationships based on secure connections between adults.

Hierarchy gets a bad rap in the non-monogamous community for a number of reasons. It’s often the product of a formerly monogamous couple opening up and wanting to mitigate fear and insecurity by limiting what can happen outside of their relationship. Many times, the “primary” couple make agreements within their dyad that infringe upon each other’s autonomy as well as the privacy and agency of any other partners they become involved with. This type of hierarchy exists on a vast spectrum, but for many reasons, prioritizing the original couple to the detriment of all other relationships doesn’t find favor with most folks who’ve practiced non-monogamy long enough to have seen this go badly over and over again.

Anytime hierarchy is brought up in the context of non-monogamy to debate whether or not it’s a good thing for everyone involved, you will inevitably see someone break down the concept of “descriptive hierarchy” vs. “prescriptive hierarchy.” To those unfamiliar with these concepts, they basically boil down to:

  • a prescribed ranking of relationships (i.e. there is a primary/most important one, and all others will be considered lesser in whatever ways the primary couple has deemed works for them) 
  • and a descriptive one in which a relationship appears primary when there is actually just a lot of enmeshment, investment, and shared responsibilities, etc.

Unfortunately, descriptive hierarchy is often prescriptive hierarchy in disguise, but you can recognize it (in yourself, and others) when it asserts the following:

  • I am married to this person, (or I was here first), so I should have some say in what they do with other people because it affects me to a greater degree
  • I share children with this person, so I should have some say in what they do with other people to ensure that our children are prioritized
  • I cohabit with this person, so I should have some say in what they do with other people because I live here and it’s my house, too

I mean, I get it. But, I also know it’s possible to do these things with adults I’m not in a romantic/sexual relationship with, and I do not need my romantic/sexual relationship elevated above all others in order to ensure the mutual obligations we have in those areas are met. Instead, I trust my fellow adults to fulfill their obligations just like I plan to, regardless of any other aspect of our relationship.

To prescriptively rank a co-parenting relationship higher than others is disingenuous in that it’s the relationship with one’s children that’s the priority in that context, not the partnership of the parents. People co-parent with former partners all the time, therefore it behooves us to see parenting as a responsibility completely separate from our romantic/sexual relationships. Of course there should be agreements regarding mutual child-rearing obligations, family time, and a litany of other things . . . but there is nothing about co-parenting that requires your co-parent to be ranked above your other partners or granted special controls or powers that affect them. After all, if having younger children together is what elevates a relationship, what happens when they grow up and move out? Is that when all relationships will be allowed equanimity? 

Living together is a big deal, but platonic roommates don’t elevate their roommate relationship above all others simply because they cohabit. If you’re a non-monogamous person who lives with one (or more) of your partners, you could consider them an autonomous roommate during times you’re not scheduled to be with them. For me, this means being able to come and go as I please or have others over so long as I respect existing cohabitation agreements, such as letting housemates know when I’ll have a guest over and ensuring that I clean up after them.

Marriage is often elevated above all other relationships by default. This is supported by the society I live in and it’s not difficult to see that approach making a lot of sense . . . after all, most folks enter into marriage believing they will become and remain the most important person to this other person, forever and ever, until they die. Welp, that’s nice and all, but it’s also the monogamous marriage script. The non-monogamous marriage script doesn’t have to read like that, and perhaps it makes more sense for it not to, considering non-monogamy already rejects a prime tenet of traditional marriage by definition. But we have to write it as we go.

Okay, but how?

I’m so glad to pretend you asked!!

Here are some tips for surviving in a relationship model that honors the autonomy of each individual:

Calendars, planning, and schedules:

When you share responsibilities for things like household maintenance, childcare, or various other projects that require mutual investment, the importance of having a plan to meet those obligations cannot be overstated. A best practice in my life is negotiating what each party is responsible for, and then discussing how those obligations will be met in a way that works for each individual. 

I’m the kind of person who likes to clean my home independent of direction and free from the obligation to manage others. Simply put, I want the adults I cohabit with to do what needs to be done without needing to be asked. I also do not want to be directed in that area; if someone wants something clean that I have not cleaned, surely they are capable. I do not need or want others to clean while I am cleaning. I want folks to clean when it works best for them. I harbor no resentment for anyone who naps while I vacuum, but I want the same in return. There is a clear separation in my household between relationships and chores; one has nothing to do with the other.

When my children were younger, I co-parented with my spouse for a time, and then I co-parented with my former spouse. During our marriage and cohabitation, we had a defined schedule for parental responsibilities and scheduled family time when we could both be present. Outside of that, we had independent careers and social lives. Our children reaped the benefits of dedicated one-on-one time as well as family time, and we kept our co-parenting obligation separate from our romantic partnership which was fed by intentional time together with things like date nights and time away. After our marriage ended, co-parenting continued and the other things did not.

In the nesting relationship I currently enjoy, we have scheduled date nights once a week and some time every other weekend. We had a similar schedule as a non-nesting couple and agreed it was a good idea to retain it when we opted to share a living space. In many ways we are emotionally close roommates whose time is our own to do with as we please. There is no expectation of occupying each other’s free time simply because we both happen to be home. Living together doesn’t mean we have dibs on each other’s time.

Intentional autonomy as a guiding principle:

Recently, my live-in partner traveled out of town for a week and we postponed our regular date night until two days after his return because he had an appointment to keep. When he cancelled that appointment to schedule a date with someone else, I felt slighted because I had wanted that time with him if he was available. After sucking-it-up, I decided to go out and have a good time that evening as well. The day before his return, he said he expected to be home on the earlier side after his date and was looking forward to spending that time with me. I was taken aback by his assumption that I would be available! In the end, we both had to admit our assumptions crept into areas we try very hard to work against. Shit happens.

In that scenario, my inclination was to assume priority since we would already be missing each other and his was to assume my immediate availability once he was done with his evening plans. What we were able to remind ourselves of is that if we want to see each other, we need to ask for that time and agree to spend it together. The minor uncomfortable feelings associated with that reminder faded away when it became evident we really both wanted the same thing: to reconnect after several days apart. 

Rejecting the “default partner” narrative is difficult but empowering in the long term. You may spend the majority of your time with one partner due to enmeshment, shared responsibilities, or any number of valid reasons, but it doesn’t have to mean that person comes first in all other ways. 

  • Ask your partners to be honest with you about whether or not they feel ranked
  • Make an effort to unpack any latent desire you might have to be seen or considered “primary” 
  • Compartmentalize your adult responsibilities away from your adult relationships

When you view your partners, and yourself, as autonomous individuals who exist in proximity to each other but aren’t defined by it, you’re rewarded with relationships based on secure connections between adults. I find that infinitely preferable to ones filled with assumptions, unmet expectations, and resentments—all of which hierarchy (of any kind) is a fertile breeding ground for.


***Footnote: one of the originators of the term “descriptive hierarchy” has, themselves, come out against it. You can read their personal essay on the topic here: I Apologize To The Entire Poly Community For This One

Photo by Lidya Nada on Unsplash

One thought on “Descriptive Hierarchy is a Misnomer

  1. Somehow I needed to find this tonight. It says so many things about my own solo poly that I’ve had difficulty articulating cleanly. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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