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The Tyranny of Takebacksies and When Hierarchy Goes Mean

·2715 words·13 mins
Advice Friend

_Hi Page, _

I have been in a polyamorous relationship for several months now, and everything seemed to be going relatively okay until about a month and a half ago. There were small obstacles along the way, but I was under the impression they’d been overcome.

To start from the beginning: I met my partner Tom† when we ended up sitting next to each other on a train and spoke for the whole ride. After a few days of messaging back and forth, it became clear that I was romantically interested in him and he in I, so he disclosed to me that he and his fiance (who I’ll call Vicki from now on) had agreed to open up their relationship a little over a year prior. I had never been in a serious relationship in the first place, let alone a poly one, but I thought, sure, I really like this guy and I want to give this the best chance I can. Besides, I wasn’t sure I loved the idea of being monogamous in the first place, and I was already seeing multiple people at the time.

I was given the guidelines they’d established so I could follow them as well, one of which included me meeting Vicki and her “approving” of me before Tom and I could do anything non-platonic. We met, she said she was fine with me, and Tom and I started dating, calling each other boyfriend and girlfriend with ease.

Within a month of meeting, we confessed our love for each other when he slept over for the first time and were completely wrapped up in a “honeymoon phase” for the foreseeable future. Although we only see each other about once a week and it’s difficult for me to spend so little time with him, it’s the happiest I’ve ever been.

A few weeks pass, and then Tom asks me if Vicki is allowed to look through any and all of the messages between Tom and me, which makes me sick to my stomach. I say no to this. He then asks for permission to discuss the things Tom and I have talked about with Vicki, which I do agree to, but remind him that I have been extremely vulnerable with him about things I don’t usually talk to others about.

The holiday and Christmas happen, and it’s harder than usual because Tom and I don’t see each other for a while, even when I invite him to stay at my sister’s the day after New Year’s with me because we both wanted him to start meeting my siblings. He says no because at that point Vicki will have gone 2 days (big whoop) without seeing him and is demanding his time.

_I accept it, and console myself with the knowledge that I will see him soon anyways. After the holidays are over, I start to see him more often. _

Valentine’s Day comes, we have a great date. A few weeks later, we watch the Olympics at his house until late, his roommates and fiance eventually joining us after she got home from work. That is the last time I see Vicki, because as Tom tells me the next time I see him, she apparently doesn’t want to be around me. Ever. Even though that is not what any of us agreed to and in my opinion is extremely immature, this is a new condition in our relationship that I don’t get any say in.

I’m upset for the rest of our time together that night and quiet towards him over the next few days, but then I get over it, and we plan another date. Tom cancels on me a few days later, stating he can’t come over because Vicki only works in the morning.

He’s now apparently not even allowed to see me if it means she’s not working, even though they cohabitate, and we literally only get one day a week together. He also doesn’t offer any alternatives and doesn’t seem to realize how stupid it is that she can’t even handle him spending time with me when she’s not busy.

I shut him out for a few days, eventually telling him how terrible this is making me feel, but not quite accepting his apology yet. Tom’s not the one who needs to apologize, anyway. My biggest issues with this are that I’m being controlled (which I hate) and that someone who’s actually older than me is acting like a child and backing out of an agreement without any justifiable reason other than they’re too dependent on someone else’s attention for their security. It also upsets me because I think it’s making Tom unhappy, and when you love someone, you’re not supposed to control their behavior to suit only your needs.

_Time passes, Tom and I talk a little less, and plan a new date for the next week. I’m told there’s a serious discussion we need to have before we get to anything else, which makes me nervous since at this point it will have been two full weeks since we last saw each other and I know there have been discussions between Vicki and Tom about my relationship that I should’ve been involved in but that I wasn’t even invited to. _

At our next date, he drops a bomb: Tom and I are no longer supposed to date at all. Meaning we can no longer call each other boyfriend and girlfriend, tell each other we love each other, or have any type of romantic feelings within our relationship. Instead, we are forced to go backwards to friends with benefits. The day he tells me, I say I’m undecided…and then we have sex about 5 times, because let’s be honest, we’re young and nuts about each other and it’s been 2 weeks, and I don’t want to deal with my feelings right then.

He leaves, I cry, I ask a bunch of questions over text, and then we don’t talk for 5 days. I’m completely and utterly heartbroken. I ask for one last date to at least get some closure and tell him everything I’ve been meaning to say that I won’t be allowed to speak of once the romanticism is over, and he agrees.

_At that date, I tell him everything. I say I love him, he says it back. And we say goodbye. That was Monday; Friday and Saturday I go to a show he’s working on, but at the bus stop, he tells me we can’t kiss, which makes reality hit a little harder than I’d like. I start to feel sort of okay, even though I’m still totally depressed and angry about the whole thing. It feels so unjust. Wednesday we spend the afternoon into evening at my apartment, having sex and cuddling and talking and making dinner. It feels similar to how we usually were, only without the coos of “I love you” amidst everything one does that the other finds adorable. I almost feel like I can do this. He leaves for vacation with Vicki on Friday and that brings us to now. _

We’ve gotten to the point where he barely texts me back and is almost never the one to text me first. I wake up dejected every day about my situation, feel normal for a while, and then go to bed sad again. I don’t know what to do anymore. I’m completely lost and trying so, so hard to make this work and to hold out some type of hope. I love him more than I thought I could ever love anyone, and as cliche and cheesy as it sounds, I think he and I are endgame. We’re supposed to be in each other’s lives, no matter the circumstances, because I’ve never felt a connection so instantaneous and intense with anyone else, and I think it’s rare. I’m so upset with Vicki for acting like this and thinking she’s the dictator of everything in this relationship web. She’s behaving like a child with a tantrum, and it’s making me think that she only originally agreed to open their relationship because she was afraid Tom might leave her if she said no or something. She obviously doesn’t consider my thoughts, opinions, and feelings to be important in the slightest and I feel like I’ve done everything I can to make the situation better, but it’s all out of my reach. I’m handed down a judgement from above without a chance to even plea my case or sit in on the trial, and I’m just supposed to fucking deal with it like I’m an eternal fountain of acceptance rather than a human being with feelings. If you take the time to read this, thank you, and please offer me some guidance.


Oh honey, this is pretty awful. I am so sorry you’re going through this.

From where I’m sitting, it sounds like you’re the victim of unmanaged insecurities.

As I read through your letter, I found myself wondering a few things:

Is this Tom’s first relationship since opening things up with Vicki? Or has he dated other people prior to opening up? Does Vicki see other people herself?

I’m guessing not. My gut tells me you’re the first girlfriend and that she isn’t seeing anyone else. Because one line in this letter really stuck out to me: “It’s making me think that she only originally agreed to open their relationship because she was afraid Tom might leave her if she said no or something_“_

Does this mean that the open relationship was initially Tom’s suggestion? If so, I’d be inclined to agree with your hunch here.

The Tyranny of Takebacksies and When Hierarchy Goes Mean

There are few things in this world that I hate more than when primary partners pull rank and call takebacksies. It is not cool. It is just about the least cool thing of all.

Here’s an article I recommend from Morgaine, a polyamorous woman whose partner’s wife vetoed their relationship. It’s a heartbreaking read, but I want you to know that you’re not alone.

Occasionally, I’ll get someone asking me something like, “Why do so many polyamorous people hate hierarchy? I’m sick of it. There’s nothing wrong with hierarchy.”

So here’s the answer. This letter is why. This sort of situation is why so many polyamorous people are so soured on hierarchy. Veto power, takebacksies, and broken hearts.

Now, I’ll be clear: I don’t think there’s an inherent problem with hierarchy in every situation, in every cast of characters. And I think the distinction between prescriptive and descriptive hierarchy is very important. As I wrote in Prescriptive Hierarchy, Incorporated:

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.

Descriptive hierarchy is often unavoidable. Relationships progress at different speeds, especially when they start at different times. It just makes sense that a relationship that’s been around for years would be at a different place than one that’s been going on for, say, three days or even three months.

But prescriptive hierarchy — imposing restrictions that other relationships can only become so entangled ever — that’s a choice. And it’s often one that’s made to help people in one relationship feel more secure at the expense of people in another.

I’m not _personally _a big fan of being on either side of a prescriptive hierarchy. I haven’t done that since my first few polyamorous relationships — and in those situations, I had a primary partner myself in addition to the person who I was secondary to (and who was mutually secondary to me). Like many other people new to polyamory, I had a number of “training wheels” in place (restrictions that were wacky and nonsensical long term but did make me feel more secure starting out) that I later discarded when I realized I didn’t need them and that they actually did more harm than good.  And I can’t imagine dating someone long term who didn’t have a primary partner in addition to me and expecting them to stay prescriptively secondary for years on end.

Nor could I imagine doing what appears to be happening to you, insisting that a relationship between one of my partners and a metamour deescalate to less serious form, playing takebacksies with relationship freedoms that have been in play for some time.

It’s been ages, but I _have _had takebacksies happen to me (for example, my ex-boyfriend Rob casually offered to delete me from his life once when his wife had a meltdown). I just can’t imagine doing that to anyone else (especially because I know how much it hurts).

Again, I’m not one of those people who think that hierarchy is mean by default. But I can tell you unequivocally that what you’re describing? Well, these are the times when hierarchy goes mean.  And when it does, it isn’t pretty.

My advice is to take care of yourself (and seriously, read Morgaine’s article). I’m so sorry this happened to you.

Everyone, Please Check In and Make Sure You’re Doing Right By People

To everyone else reading this, I have the following advice: Take this letter as an opportunity to check in and make sure you’re doing right by the people in your life.

Take a second and think about where you struggle the most. What pushes your buttons? When do you start to panic and feel like you might start trying to control people instead of working on your issues?

Would it help you to better build up your sense of personal security? Get better at having accountability talks? Learn how to deal with jealousy productively? Find ways to cultivate compersion if you don’t feel it naturally? Stop comparing yourself to others?

If you can, work on those things right now. Don’t wait until you’re knee deep in some situation where you feel like you’re backed into a corner and you’ve already wounded a third party because you didn’t handle it well.

And look, if that’s already happened, see what you can do to make things better.


Same to you, actually, writer of today’s letter — if a day comes when the shoe is on the other foot and you’re someone’s primary partner and they’re dating someone new, don’t you ever do to your metamour what’s being done to you right now.


† all names in this piece are changed, advice letters are routinely edited to purge or change identifying details


Update (6/13/2018): Two readers wrote in after this post came out saying they were in the “Tom” role and asking for advice re: being caught in the middle. Here’s the followup article where I do just that.


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