As I wrote in an earlier post, sneakiarchy is one of the most insidious destructive forces in polyamorous relationship systems. 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.
But it happens. And in keeping with the covert nature of sneakiarchy itself, it happens more than most in the broader polyamorous community would like to admit. Pretty much anyone who is polyamorous and actively dates for any length of time will encounter it at least once (and likely multiple times).
This begs the question: Why?
Multiple Roles Are a Reality Within Even Theoretically Egalitarian Polyamorous Relationship Systems
Here’s the thing: Even in the most egalitarian polyamorous relationship system, relationships that have gone on for any length of time will involve multiple roles.
“Page, what the heck does that mean?” you might be asking. And that’s a fair question. Let’s give an example: Okay, so let’s say you have a couple of longer-term relationships — one that’s lasted 20 years and another that has lasted 8 years. Both of these partners live with you. You own a business with your 20-year partner and have a child with your 8-year partner.
You’ve also gone on to date someone new that you’re very excited about. Brand New Partner doesn’t live with you. You’ve been on three very good dates with them and are very excited about how well you’re clicking.
Even if you consider all romantic relationships to be completely equal — regardless of length — you still have multiple roles with your preexisting partners. Your 20-year partner isn’t just your romantic partner; they’re your business partner. And you co-parent with 8-year partner. Additionally, let’s say you’re financially enmeshed with both of them — so you’re also financial partners with 20-year partner and 8-year partner. You might share vehicles with them. And you certainly all have to balance living together, home maintenance, and chores. That’s another set of roles — you’re roommates.
Conversely, your connection to your newest partner is a great deal less complicated — because you have a single role with them at the moment.
In Real Life Scenarios, Multiple Roles Can Create Structural Priority
Because of the other roles you have with your other two partners, you might find that you have to prioritize them differently in certain decisions you make. Yes, even if you’re a staunch relationship egalitarian — real life has to account for childcare, chores, etc.
This creates an inherent inequality in certain polyamorous relationship systems. In essence, what you have here is a form of descriptive hierarchy. If a hierarchy is descriptive, terms like “primary” and “secondary” are used to describe the current level of entanglement of a relationship. Descriptive hierarchy makes no claims about what is possible in the future (that’s a different kind, called prescriptive hierarchy)– it simply describes what is. 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.)
Not Being Able to Talk Honestly About Incidental Inequality Creates Sneakiarchy
Anyway, a ton of long-term polyamorous relationship systems have inequalities inherent in them — typically as a result of multiple roles.
Yes, this can happen incidentally. Yes, even to egalitarian polyamorists.
It happens. Unfortunately, if you can’t acknowledge these multiple roles and the potential impact they might have — regardless of how you philosophically feel about relationships and how they should IDEALLY be — the reality of the situation will sneak up on you. And also on anybody you love that you don’t inform properly.
Under these conditions, it becomes very easy — practically inevitable — to end up with sneakiarchy.