Thoughts on poly labels and hierarchies

When discussing polyamory with anyone – monogamous or otherwise – one of the things which often helps to explain what you mean is the use of labels. Like a verbal shorthand, labels are a great way to get your point across in fewer words… providing you are 100% sure that the person you are in conversation with has the same definitions of those labels as you do. If you think it means one thing, and they assume another, that’s where it’s easy to confuse matters. You say “polyamory”, they think you mean “polygamy”. You say “triad”, they assume “threesome”. The world of non-monogamy is full of potential pitfalls, even before you get as far as trying things out.

Perceived or actual hierarchies are where things get really complicated though. Many people will ask “what do you mean by that?” if you say that you’re poly-but-single, or non-monogamous in theory, but pretty much everyone assumes they know exactly what you mean when you use words like “primary” and “secondary”. I have written before on types of non-monogamy and their definitions, but have only briefly covered hierarchies in an article on secondary relationships. I was so pleased with an analogy I used in that piece that I’m going to shamelessly quote myself here:

There are many reasons for one partner to be called primary – e.g. length of relationship, shared assets, children – and these reasons could mean that particular relationship has to be considered first and foremost when making important decisions regarding the activities of anyone involved […] Don’t forget that secondary education builds on what is taught during primary education. Where primary gives you the basics, secondary can add value. Secondary education can enhance the primary – adding depth, confidence and fun, but also making sure you truly value what you gained from it. They compliment one another perfectly.

A partner referred to as secondary isn’t necessarily second best or loved any less than a primary partner. Love relates to a person, and not their place within your life. After all, you can love someone on the other side of the world way more than someone who lives just down the road – convenient circumstances don’t always make for the best connections. I guess what I’m saying is, always ask what people mean when they use a certain term. Or, maybe, just don’t use labels. It seems as though the labels we use for our relationships are often as misleading as the ones we see on our clothes.

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month seven bloggers – ALBJ, Delightfully Queer, An Open Book, More Than Nuclear, Post Modern Sleaze, Rarely Wears Lipstick, and The Boy With The Inked Skin – will write about their views on one of them.

10 thoughts on “Thoughts on poly labels and hierarchies

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  1. ‘You say “polyamory”, they think you mean “polygamy”. You say “triad”, they assume “threesome”.’

    Oh god yes. See, we come up with all these words, but we have to explain them all anyway… the problem isn’t with the facts, it’s with two people using the same words and meaning something totally different!

  2. I think you’ve made the point that labels cause problems when we assume that our rigid definitions apply to everyone else very well! The problem isn’t really the labels, but the assumptions we bring to them. We should use them as starting points for our definitions, not conclusions.

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