Prescriptive Hierarchy, Incorporated: Where There’s No Path to Promotion

a black and white photo of a smokestack pouring out a thick cloud of smoke
Image by Dean Hochman / CC BY

After a long and exhaustive search chasing dead ends, you finally land a new job that you’re excited about.

The company culture is fantastic. The benefits are great. And it pays pretty well… except, well, it’s entry level. You’re in the right field, but it’s not what you dream of doing.

No problem, these things take time. You figure you’ll work hard, build up a reputation, and eventually all of your hard work will be rewarded.

At your 90-day review, your supervisor glows about your performance so far. You take the opportunity to let her know your ambitions. What you’d like to see unfold in your career.

“Uhhh… about that,” your supervisor says. “I wouldn’t get your hopes up too much.”

“What do you mean?”

She leans forward on her elbows, lowering her voice. “This isn’t exactly a place with a lot of upward mobility.”

“Well, how did you get you get promoted?”

“I didn’t,” she says. “I’m one of the founders.”

“But people leave, don’t they? Surely spots open up from time to time.”

“They haven’t yet,” she says. “Now, don’t get me wrong. I appreciate your ambition. I just want to make sure you have realistic expectations.”

After your meeting, you slink back to your desk, disheartened. An office neighbor approaches you. “I couldn’t help but overhear. Nice try. But management positions just don’t open up here. No one leaves, and they don’t let anyone go either.”

“No one’s ever gotten fired?”

“Not management,” your coworker says. “Entry level, sure. If a manager doesn’t like you, you’re gone. But a manager? They can get away with basically anything. They’re untouchable. Their needs always come first.”

You’re faced with an uncomfortable decision: Do you stick it out here hoping that a rare opportunity will present itself, happy that you’ve at least found a job and one in your field? Or do you roll the dice on another company that might actually offer you a path to promotion?

Descriptive Versus Prescriptive Hierarchical Polyamory

This is a decision that many people in secondary polyamorous relationships face.

In a hierarchical style of polyamory, certain relationships are considered higher priority than others. This is usually denoted by calling some relationships “primary” and others “secondary.”

Hierarchy often gets a bad rap in polyamorous circles. But there’s an important distinction to be made regarding prescriptive vs. descriptive hierarchy.

Descriptive Hierarchy

If a hierarchy is descriptive, terms like “primary” and “secondary” are used to describe the current level of entanglement of a relationship. It’s understandable that a partner of many years that you live and share finances with is going to have a different sort of dynamic than a brand new partner you’ve only begun to date casually. In a descriptive hierarchy, when you call your pre-existing nesting partner “primary” and your new flame “secondary,” you’re not saying anything about what they can and can’t become to you, only what they are.

Prescriptive Hierarchy

Conversely, in a prescriptive hierarchy, the terms “primary” and “secondary” not only describe the current relationships but also serve as an indicator of what those relationships will be in the future. What any given relationship can become. Folks in prescriptive hierarchies often say things like, “I love you dearly, but my marriage comes first and always will.”

And it’s in prescriptive hierarchies that I’ve really seen secondary partners suffer and struggle the most.

Now, some secondary partners don’t mind it all. After all, some folks prefer having lower-entanglement relationships and not every connection needs to become progressively serious (à la the relationship escalator). Just like how there are plenty of people who would rather stick with the job they have because they enjoy it more than they would taking on a bunch of stress being a manager. And to take the analogy further, there are people who moonlight. People with side hustles. And some who freelance.

However, there are many other people who are like the eager job seeker at the beginning of this post. Folks who begin a secondary relationship hoping that it will one day become a high-entanglement primary one.

Sometimes it works out. The compatibility is there. A new love that starts out secondary blossoms into a high-entanglement relationship. An anchor partner and/or co-primary.

But other times? Even if compatibility is great, there’s no path to promotion.

Be Clear About What You Need and Whether a Hierarchy Is Descriptive or Prescriptive

There’s no easy answer here. But the best practice is to be as clear as you can, with yourself and others, about your expectations and your needs.

For the secondary partner, this means being honest with yourself about whether or not you can be happy if things stay the way as they are. Do you need things to progress? And if you do, this means having the courage to discuss with your partner whether their primary relationship is descriptive or prescriptive. Checking in about this can be as simple as saying something like, “So I know that your other partner is your primary and that they come first. Will that always be the case? Or are you open to having more than one primary partner in the future?”

And for anybody in a primary relationship who is dating others, this means letting secondary partners honestly know whether a hierarchy is prescriptive or descriptive.

Bear in mind that a prescriptive hierarchy may limit your pool of interested partners. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encountered couples with a strict prescriptive hierarchy that bemoan the difficulty of finding long-term partners.

Even if someone prefers a secondary relationship and is satisfied with an off-escalator relationship, many (though not all) people like to know that a high-entanglement relationship is still a possibility, especially if it made sense and were mutually beneficial.

 

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2 Comments

  1. Excellent description, I’ll add it to my resource guide: OffEscalator.com/resources.

    Also, I’ll note that where any hierarchy is practiced, nonprimary partners and relationships can be subject to exactly the same limits, rules and requirements regardless of whether hierarchy is called prescriptive or descriptive. That is, functionally, this distinction can be little more than academic.

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