ANNIE FRAZIER HALLADAY
Relationship Hierarchy- it's the essential underpinning to every romantic comedy plot, the resolution to every love triangle and the moral of every fairy tale. Maybe you’ve never heard the term, but you’re probably familiar with the idea. Relationship Hierarchy is the cultural script that says there is a singular, correct order for us to prioritize the people in our lives.
Before you find a sexual relationship, the order from most to least important are parental relationships, sibling relationships, followed by friends/ platonic relationships.
After you find a sexual relationship (which, according to the ideal, hopefully becomes a spousal relationship), it goes: sexual relationship/spouse, familial relationships, everyone else.
Your sexual relationship gets to jump the line ahead of everyone else that’s ever been in your life (or might someday come into your life). And everyone else is expected to understand when you and your new beau disappear into the bedroom for a year before re-emerging, or returning a text message.
Not sure if your relationship follows the typical relationship hierarchy pattern? Read the following, and see if it seems familiar.
‘My partner is my one and only. We have agreed to be more important to each other than anyone else, and to never, ever let someone else be more important. My partner always comes first, no matter what, and vis versa. If my partner’s needs conflict with anyone else’s needs in my life, I have an obligation to meet my partner’s needs first because they are more important. It is important to set aside my own needs to meet those of my partner.”
I’ll refer to this idea as Relarchy (pronounced like malarkey) from here on.
Although we commonly associate Relarchy with monogamous relationships, plenty of non-monogamous folks fall into this category as well (regardless of the label they put on it). They may date other people, but at the end of the day, both parts of the couple agree that the needs of the 'primary partner' will always trump the needs of anyone else.
Relarchy is generally seen as a good thing. Not just a good thing, but the ideal relationship structure. Many people believe polyamory can’t work without Relarchy (it definitely can). Messages of ‘find the person who puts you above all else’ are everywhere.
I think we default to Relarchy for a few obvious reasons:
It seems to me that we also default to Relarchy for a few less obvious, and more insidious, reasons.
It’s a built in excuse to shirk responsibility and accountability in our other relationships.
When we follow Relarchy, we always have someone to shift the blame to when we’d rather not be accountable for our own feelings. Sometimes this shows up as ditching a friend’s party because our sweetie ‘is sick.’ (Who among us has never done this? I am not innocent here. Sorry, friends.)
In polyamorous dynamics, this can sometimes show up as ‘my partner doesn’t want me to’ rather than a more honest ‘I don’t really want to.’ On the flip side, it can also be easier to blame rejection or hurt on our partner’s partner rather than to see that it is coming from the person we are in a relationship with. ‘They became distant from me because their wife didn’t like me’ is an easier thing to tell to ourselves than ‘they became distant from me because we weren’t right for each other, or because of my behaviors towards them.’
There are also very real safety-related reasons that we may choose to shift responsibility to our partners. In my experience as a woman, a man asserting his interest in me usually won’t take my standalone ‘I’m not interested’ as an answer, but will back off once I say ‘Can’t, I have a boyfriend/husband’. Why is this? Because they also know the rules of Relarchy (and who they should ultimately respect within the bounds of it. Hint: it’s not the woman.)
We believe the myth that if we follow the rules of Relarchy (that is, prioritizing a singular, sexual relationship over all else) we will be kept safe and secure, for the rest of our lives, and live Happily Ever After. Put more explicitly, relationship hierarchy tells us that we can trade sex for security.
So... what if you are a person that doesn’t experience sexual attraction, or are choosing not to have sex? According to Relarchy, your relationships probably don’t matter very much, and you should understand when your important relationships don’t prioritize you- yikes! (An excellent video from David Jay about how Relarchy affects asexual/aromantic folks here)
What if at some point in a previously sexual relationship you become disinterested in sex, experience loss of libido, or are no longer able to have sex? According to Relarchy (and the $4.4 billion erectile dysfunction drug global industry profiting off of it), it’s your own fault when the relationship disintegrates due to the sexual disatisfaction of your partner.
What if you want to prioritize community, and maintain a long term supportive network of friends? Good luck with Relarchy. How many people make it to middle age to find they’ve lost many friendships due to years of not prioritizing them? How many of us have come through a romantic split, to look around and realize we have no (or at least far fewer than we’d like) friends waiting for us? I know I have.
And for my biggest question: what about prioritizing your own needs? Relarchy makes no room for that at all. We are expected to do everything we can for the top ranking person in our hierarchy, including ignoring our own needs. Self-sacrificing is upheld as being the ultimate virtue. But who is that really helping?
While give and take is of course a huge part of relationships, and sometimes it’s best to come to compromises or focus more on one partner’s goals and needs for a time, this mindset can easily give way to abusive patterns, and makes us less adept at spotting abuse or coercion when it is happening to people we care about. Ideal, sacrificing wife or being financially controlled? Who’s to say?
In an unsurprising double whammy, many people (especially women) are expected to prioritize their partner above all else AND THEN shamed for not attending adequately to ‘self-care’!
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If you weigh your relationships and priorities, and a partner comes out on top, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ll repeat: there’s nothing inherently wrong with prioritizing a relationship with a sexual component over a relationship without one. It’s the ingrained belief that we ‘should’ that comes at the cost of true authenticity in relationships.
Many of the most successful, happiest relationships I've witnessed (and experienced) are the ones that dare to write their own rules, are self-evaluating and don't take their outcome as a foregone conclusion.
A healthy dose of skepticism and, dare I say it, taking a page out of the Relationship Anarchists’ cookbook by doing away with strict hierarchy and taking an evaluation and needs based approach instead, can go a long way.
In my relationships, I try to write my own script/ break free from Relarchy in the following ways:
I want for myself and each person I’m in relationship with (be it a platonic friendship, a romantic relationship or familial relationship) to prioritize me in the way that is right for them at that given moment. If someone needs to focus on a different relationship or on themselves for a time, I don’t want to stand in the way of that. I happen to like partners and friends that are whole, well rounded and taking the best care of their own needs and relationships as they’re able before I enter the picture.
I find relationships are much easier (and rewarding) when we’re all acting individually, and taking the lead in our own lives. And resiliency to change is far easier to manage when we haven’t built our lives around a system or person that might not be there forever, or might not feel the same about us. I believe that being prioritized by someone that really wants to focus on a relationship with me feels far better than being prioritized out of obligation.
So I ask myself the challenging questions, and I fight not to default to a relationship hierarchy mindset because it’s the easy thing to do. I want to dig underneath the surface- to understand my true intentions in relationships. To understand what influences our decisions and empower myself and others to choose what's really right for them.
Because I find the most rewarding adventures are the ones we choose together.