In polyamorous circles, hierarchy can sometimes be a dirty word, depending on your audience.
Some folks will get offended at even the mere mention of the word. “I don’t believe in hierarchy,” they’ll say. “It’s always unethical. Always.”
And typically, they’ll stick to this position no matter what anyone else says to them. No matter what distinctions are drawn, scenarios outlined. Hierarchy is never okay, they’ll insist — even if to argue such a generalization leads them into rather absurd positions. They won’t back down.
I’ve seen this argument play out many times in polyamory workshops, local discussion groups, and of course online forums.
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 as I wrote in an earlier piece, there’s an important distinction to be made regarding prescriptive vs. 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 had two dinner dates with. 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 at the time that this determination is made.
And just because one of your partners is currently your descriptive primary, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are closed to additional new primary relationships. Plenty of people have relationship systems where they actually have more than one primary partner, a state called “co-primacy.” (I personally know several folks with this setup.)
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 more traditionally entangled (à la the relationship escalator).
But typically, at the best of times, prescriptive hierarchy presents itself as a firm boundary, a limiting force. At the worst of times, it’s wielded like a weapon.
Which is why so many people don’t like it.
However, while prescriptive hierarchy is something many (but not all) polyamorous people vehemently oppose, there’s actually something a whole hell of a lot worse and emotionally damaging.
And that’s sneakiarchy (sometimes also spelled sneakyarchy).
Sneakiarchy, or Secret Hierarchy
Sneakiarchy (alternative spelling: Sneakyarchy) is basically a portmanteau of sneaky and hierarchy. And that’s exactly what it is, sneaky hierarchy. Sneakiarchy is hierarchy that isn’t presented honestly but is secret, sneakily implemented, and not expressed or acknowledged.
In fact, the sneakiarchy is instead usually explicitly denied.
The person who engages in sneakiarchy says to their partners, “I don’t believe in hierarchy. I treat all of my partners equally.” And yet, if an unbiased third party were to survey the situation, it would become clear that some partners are definitely consistently prioritized over others. There’s at least descriptive hierarchy going on (and possibly even a prescriptive one, depending on the particular case).
Sneakiarchy can be particularly emotionally damaging. The dishonesty involved can easily erode the trust to a point where the relationship completely fails. And being continually told one thing but being shown another can exacerbate a person’s underlying insecurities to the point where they constantly doubt themselves and are suspended in a state of limbo and emotional anguish.
Sneakiarchy Thrives in Places Where Hierarchy Is Taboo
So how do you avoid ending up in a situation where there’s an unwanted sneakiarchy?
That’s tough. Since the people doing it aren’t being honest with others (and usually not with themselves), it isn’t exactly straightforward.
You can’t even depend on someone’s public views on hierarchy to help weed out sneakiarchy.
In fact, I’ve found in my travels as a coach and social connector that the people most prone to practicing sneakiarchy are the very same folks who will publicly denounce hierarchy as inherently bad. Meanwhile, if you look at how they structure their relationships, they’re full of unacknowledged inequalities and uneven priorities.
What seems to happen in these instances is that descriptive hierarchy seems to happen in complicated relationship systems, pretty naturally, as a function of things like difference in the ages of relationships, logistical entanglements, and/or personal compatibility… it happens. It does. (It’s always worth noting in these discussions that equal and fair are different things, and even if you aren’t treating people equally, you should be treating everyone fairly.)
Hierarchy happens. Especially the temporary imbalances that fall under the umbrella of descriptive hierarchy.
But people who are globally opposed to hierarchy are more likely when they discover even descriptive hierarchy to be unable to honestly acknowledge it to their partners.
Now, depending on the particular context, silence on the matter of hierarchy could actually be good and tactful. Regardless of your hierarchical or non-hierarchical setup, it’s probably not the best idea to randomly bark at your partner that they’re lower entanglement:”Stay in your place, secondary!” “You’re not my primary!”
Oh dear. That’s pretty awful, right?
I cringe whenever I hear people weaponizing hierarchy. Or even describing hierarchies when they’re not immediately relevant to the discussion.
But on the other hand, if your partner asks you directly about hierarchy and you’re not honest with yourself or them about it, when you’re saying one thing and doing another, that’s no good either. It can be extremely damaging, both to your relationship with them and also to their psychological health.
Honest Hierarchy Is Better Than Dishonest Egalitarianism
That said, I’m sure the “all hierarchy is inherently bad” line of argument will continue floating around in polyamorous spaces until humans are basically extinct.
And as I mentioned above, there are valid reasons for it. Some people really do use those labels in ways that are unkind. And some folks aren’t great at dividing loyalties in a way that’s fair, if not always exactly equal (since again, fair and equal are different things).
I suspect there will always be people who state that egalitarian (or non-hierarchical) polyamory is the only evolved and ethical way of conducting oneself in relationships. But I’ve also come to realize that a significant number of the people saying that aren’t egalitarian at all. They’re actually practicing sneakiarchy.
And while I tend to much prefer relationship systems in which new relationships don’t have some kind of artificial limit predetermined by my preexisting partnerships (i.e., I’m not much of a fan of prescriptive hierarchy and am much more amenable to the descriptive kind), I don’t much enjoy being constantly lied to so that someone can feel more evolved.
So, no. Hierarchy isn’t the worst thing I can possibly imagine in a polyamorous setup.
I’ll take honest hierarchy over dishonest egalitarianism any day.
Sneakirarchy is yet another reason why I tend to go slowly in new relationships. I find it helpful to watch a person for a while, see how they conduct other relationships before I date them myself. Actions can take a bit more time to come out than words, but actions are inevitably more honest.
Update (5/31/2021): I wrote a followup post to this one called “Why It’s Easy for Well-Meaning Polyamorous People to Engage in Sneakiarchy.”