Poly Stories

Avoiding Hierarchy

By Cascade Spring Cook

Based on an interview with Lori (whose partners are Adam and Tom)
(these are pseudonyms)
(My comments are in italics)

If you think that the basic unit of polyamory is a committed couple, you’ll find many people who disagree with you. A committed poly couple often considers each other primary, and other partners secondary. While many poly folk are married or live in a marriage-like relationship, sharing finances and child rearing and making major decisions together, others don’t relate to the concept of primary/secondary relationships at all. Some consider the hierarchical ranking of relationships as demeaning. Some simply prefer to live alone. However this doesn’t necessarily mean they are avoiding commitment.

Lori, for example, spends time with two men with whom she has long term committed relationships. She doesn’t “get involved in the whole hierarchy thing,” and thinks that if you love two people, the relationship should be non-hierarchical. She prefers to “just let relationships grow however they grow and hope there’s enough time for everyone.” For her, polyamory means being able to let a relationship with someone evolve without being constrained by her existing relationships. However, she’s realistic enough to recognize that it’s hard to be seriously involved with an infinite number of people. She’s clearly comfortable with two partners, and thinks three is probably possible, but even if she didn’t have to work she can’t imagine more than that.

Coming to terms with terminology

The problem of the primary and secondary terminology as Lori sees it is that she understands primary to mean first, or most, and two people can’t both be first. She also doesn’t have any primaries in the sense of living with someone (or more than one person), or having a spouse equivalent. However, secondary implies a degree of secondariness or lack of significance which she does not find appropriate. The terminology also implies that there’s a threat of being demoted when there’s someone new in the picture, which is an implication she dislikes.

About Lori

While she’s bisexual, and attracted sexually and sensually to both women and men, Lori thinks she’s not had any long term relationships with women for the same reason that she’s always had better friendships with men than women:

“I think my interests more typically run more in line with men. And also, I never had much tolerance for made up, fake drama, which I think a lot of especially younger women’s friendships are based on. Commiserating over drama that they make up to have something to commiserate over. So the only women friends I ever had were the ones that had the exact same commonality with me in that most of their friends were usually men.”

Lori is 40, a computer professional and owns her own condo. She prefers living alone. In fact, her current situation is pretty much her ideal situation, although she’d enjoy the extra time if she didn’t have to work. Many of us would like that option, which would make it easier to lead our poly lives.

Lori’s partners

One of Lori’s partners, Tom, is long distance, so they spend time together when they have a chance to visit. The other, Adam, is local, and their arrangement is impromptu – they simply get together when they both feel like it. They end up spending about half the nights together when Lori is in town. Lori also sometimes dates others, and has short term relationships or friends with occasional benefits. Lori doesn’t seem to have the scheduling problems that a lot of people report – no kids and the independence of not living together may help.

Adam is the anti-Tom, and Tom the anti-Adam – that’s their running joke. They’re very different and don’t have very much in common, except for Lori and some other mutual friends. They still manage to be friendly with each other, and somehow Lori has a lot in common with each of them. Thus being polyamorous gives her the opportunity for more varied experiences, fulfilling one of the reasons that people give for making the choice to be poly.

Adam has always been involved with multiple people and clearly values lasting relationships. He has a long distance relationship with a married lover which predates his involvement with Lori, and has also had other shorter term relationships during this time.

Tom, on the other hand, has avoided getting into any other relationships. Lori explains that he “kind of likes only seeing each other every couple of weeks, because it reduces the mundane and increases the more fun part of the relationship. We’ve joked how I’m the ideal girlfriend because I live in a different town and because he works hard during the week, he can be pretty exhausted.” Tom sees her involvement with Adam as a benefit, because he came out of a really bad divorce, hating women, and the fact that she was in another long term committed relationship served as a safety net for him. It meant she wasn’t going to turn into his exwife.

Tom’s friends didn’t understand his attitude. “Oh, Lori and Tom are so in love, the other guy will be gone in six months.” That’s what they heard from his friends early in their relationship. No way. Lori wasn’t going to let that happen. She was explicit with Tom that she wouldn’t break up with Adam for him or because of him.

Living alone

Living alone has some definite advantages. Lori likes having her own space and having the freedom to keep it in whatever condition she wants. She likes having a social circle of friends nearby, but her private space is important to her. While some people hate living alone, Lori prefers to have company when she wants it, and is content to leave her condo to find it. This way she also has alone time when she wants it, and doesn’t get forced into interactions with a housemate.

In our couple centric society, many people might assume that a single woman living alone is not in a committed relationship. They would be wrong about Lori. Lori has been with Adam for 9 years, and with Tom for more than 4 years. After Adam and Lori had dated for several years and she didn’t have another significant relationship, he started wondering whether she was really polyamorous, but now he understands that she’s just choosy. Lori feels committed to both men. What does this mean? She sees her sense of commitment as fairly conventional, except for not living together and not being sexually exclusive. They are in it for the long haul, trust each other, communicate well, and count on each other for emotional and physical availability. They take each other into consideration when making plans and taking actions, all the kinds of things that traditional couples do. Since they don’t live together, they also don’t share finances, but some monogamous couples also keep their finances separate.

Issues, there are always issues

Lori and her partners have had some stress about their relationships in the past, though she sees them as being fairly stress-free currently. They worked through their miscommunications and problems in the early years. When Adam started new relationships, she originally felt somewhat threatened and wondered how it was going to affect her in terms of time and schedule. Was she going to get squeezed out?

One such period of tension came about when he got involved with a woman who wanted to get married and have children. This woman had the attitude of, “Of course I’m respectful of your existing relationships, as long as you move in with me, have children with me, and only see them occasionally.” This was stressful, because Lori wants him to have whatever relationships are good for him, but it would have severely limited his time for his other relationships, including her. The problem was resolved when Adam broke up with this other woman because he didn’t want to have children, and also because he recognized that while she found his other poly relationships acceptable in theory, in practice it would have been a different matter.

A poly counselor was helpful during a difficult time, when Adam was seeing another woman who clearly wanted more of his time than other women had expected. In talking with the counselor Lori soon recognized that what was bothering her was not so much that the other woman wanted more of Adam’s time, but that she was a bit of a drama queen. Lori didn’t like having that in her life. It wasn’t a problem for long: “They ended up breaking up shortly thereafter, because that was a dramatic thing for her to do.”

Lori clearly prefers a calm approach to resolving issues:

“Drama does not mean that you love somebody more. Drama doesn’t mean your life is more interesting, it just means you’re a drama queen. And that you like to create a crisis where one is not necessary. And so I wish I’d learned earlier not to waste emotional energy on either creating my own drama or responding to other people’s drama, but I think it’s just something you have to learn with good time. And I think a lot of jealousy can be about that, about generating drama, about feeling that you’re not getting as much time as you want to, and it can be a lot more emotionally satisfying to have a temper tantrum than to sit down and rationally talk to somebody about your feelings and about what causes them and about what your needs are.”

Lori clearly doesn’t have any problem with Adam’s long term lover who lives in another state. In fact, they’re friends, and even did some threesomes together some years ago. She says that they joke that, “Nobody could ever possibly be jealous of her, because she doesn’t have a monogamous bone in her body.” In any case, Lori has never had a tendency to be jealous. Polyamory came naturally to her, because she has always been aware of being attracted to multiple people at the same time.

What’s success or failure?

Relationships should not be judged by the length of time they last, and it’s not a sign of failure if a relationship doesn’t last to the grave. Lori comments that “A relationship is a relationship, it’s not successful or unsuccessful. It ends when it doesn’t work for both people, or however many people, and then you move on.”

Maturity helps

There’s a balance to emotional connection that Lori talks about. You need to have a certain level of natural emotional connection, but at the same time, your partner isn’t a mind reader, so you need to be able to communicate your needs and desires to that person. There’s no point in thinking that if you were perfect for each other you wouldn’t need to do that. She thinks that part of learning this is just growing up:

“I knew all these things when I was younger, I just couldn’t internalize them and I couldn’t act on them. I knew that emotions are emotions, you can’t deny them, you can’t make them go away, but you can acknowledge them and deal with them, and I knew all that, but it didn’t do me any good until I grew up enough to be able to accept the emotions and accept things as they are and deal with the things I could deal with.”

She feels that she needed a certain level of maturity to be able to accept that there’s nothing wrong with her just because she’s in the minority in not wanting to get married and have kids. She’s in the majority on other issues, and that’s fine too.

Safer sex

In poly groups, safer sex is often a hot topic, with different people taking very different approaches towards it. Lori has a pragmatic attitude towards safer sex. She uses safer sex with one partner who has an STD that no one wants to catch, and doesn’t with the other. She’s not very concerned about the practices of the partner with whom she doesn’t use condoms, but she also doesn’t think he’s having sex without barriers with others. Her lack of concern comes from believing that life is full of risk, and,

“I feel that the worst way to protect yourself is to have questionnaires and agreements because people can veer from them, people can lie, people can mistakenly believe that they’re being safe, or mistakenly believe that they’re not infected with whatever, and therefore I think that those give people the illusion of safety that they don’t actually have. And therefore I’ve chosen, in my life, for me, I choose to take a certain amount of risk.”

She knows that safer sex doesn’t always work; she accidentally got pregnant one time when a condom broke, and had to have an abortion. Things happen.

“I’m sure we’re not atypical of people who actually do things that are unsafe and take a certain amount of risk, but I think that we’re atypical in that we just right out and say it. We use our own best judgment, and we realize that we’re taking a certain amount of risk and that’s part of life.”

Advice from Lori

The main piece of advice that Lori would give people who are considering polyamory is to avoid making any major relationship decisions while under the influence of New Relationship Energy (NRE). Especially for someone who’s relatively new to poly, it’s too easy during the initial phase to think, “Oh, I thought I was poly, but I’m so in love with you I can’t imagine ever being with anybody else.” But six months later the thought may be, “I can imagine being with someone else, but I would still love you.” Unfortunately, now it’s seen as a rejection of the partner. She dismisses the idea that is shown on TV and in movies that jealousy shows how much you love someone. No, it just “shows that you’re either insecure or competitive or immature or something else.”

There are constructive ways of interacting with the pre-existing partner when experiencing NRE. Lori finds that it’s important while in the NRE phase with a new person to be able to tell her existing partner that “Yes, I’m totally in NRE with this person, and yes, I still love you and I have absolutely no plans whatsoever to leave you or to change the nature of our relationship or to demote you.” However, it’s also important not to talk too much about the new partner with the existing partner. Still, she and Adam like to talk about hookups that they’ve had, because that’s hot. She enjoys hearing the good stories, like about the woman who didn’t really understand about polyamory, and set out to seduce Adam thinking they were doing something illicit. He told Lori about it because he knew she would find it very sexy.

Most polys find that the openness and honesty of polyamory makes life much simpler, but some people really don’t get the concept, and actually finding cheating easier. Lori has had the experience of dating a man who claimed to be fine with polyamory, but when he did hook up with another woman, hid this from her. She found that weird, and asked, “Why are you sneaking around from me? I want to hear about this.” This helped her recognize that some people want the freedom to sleep around, but don’t want to deal with the fact that they are in a nonstandard relationship. Maybe it’s easier not to have to explain; maybe it’s hard-wired.

Can you see what’s under your nose?

Sometimes people who find a concept intriguing if they see it on TV don’t recognize it even when it’s going on under their nose. One of Tom’s closest friends, a woman he’s known for 20 years and who knows of his relationship with Lori, was intrigued by the TV show Big Love, which is about a polygamous family, a man and his three wives. The friend said she’d really like to interview the character and find out what it was like to have more than one spouse. Tom gently tried to point out to her that his girlfriend has another boyfriend, but she seemed to be unable to make the connection between the real life situation and the fictional situation. In spite of her interest in the TV character, Tom’s friend hasn’t tried to talk with Lori to find out what it’s like from her perspective.

Other monogamous friends are also in denial about her poly relationships. They file her as a couple with either Adam or Tom, depending on the one they usually see her with. One is her boyfriend, and the other is “just some guy,” because they can’t quite process two boyfriends, even when they’ve met both.


Lori doesn’t intend to have kids, but doesn’t think that polyamory should be an issue in raising children:

“Generally the people I’ve known who are poly with kids, the kids really didn’t think it was any kind of a problem. Generally kids only think things are weird if adults act like those things are weird. As long as adults act like, this is Mommy’s boyfriend or Daddy’s girlfriend, or Daddy’s boyfriend, or whatever, then the kid knows that that’s Daddy’s boyfriend, and he comes over on Saturdays, and there’s nothing weird about it.”

The kids in poly families that she’s known are fairly young, and by the time they get to school they’re used to the idea that lots of adults come over and there are puppy piles and everybody loves everybody. In any case, “I think people who are open about all their relationships are probably better role models than ones who sneak around with affairs. The other thing is I think that the more loving adults there are available to help out in bringing up a child the better,” although if you do want to have kids, deciding with whom to have the children could be a serious dilemma.

© 2009 by Elaine Cook

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