Equity in Non-Hierarchical Polyamory
This post is part one of a four-part series on poly in practice. Look for part two next week.
Inspiration comes in odd places sometimes. I’d hardly expect the kind of mandatory culture-building sessions I take part in from time to time at work to have an effect of how I think about practicing polyamory, but I’m finding an interesting parallel. We talk a lot in my organization about equity versus equality: how the goals of social movement work aren’t grounded so much in a straight-up definition of equality (i.e., everyone is “the same”) but rather in a desire for equity (solutions that make sense for the actual humans and communities involved in a problem). I’m finding this framework to be equally useful in addressing the challenges of practicing non-hierarchical polyamory.
My knee-jerk tendency, I’ve realized, is to look for equality in relationships. Particularly when I find myself in what I would consider a similar position to a metamour’s (we started dating a partner around the same time, we have similar relationship desires and needs, etc.) I have a hard time not drawing comparisons and setting the bar down on a level playing field. The problem with this approach, which may be obvious, is that the level playing field isn’t really something you can see when it comes to relationships. So this approach has a tendency to create a couple of different problems—when I’m with a partner who does practice hierarchical poly and has a primary, it leads to the feeling of not being treated “equally” because of that prioritization, and eventually to resentment. Even when my partner also practices non-hierarchical poly, this approach can lead to insecurity or a fear that my partner is starting to lean towards the hierarchical when some relationship “milestone” happens: i.e., “you don’t feel that thing or aren’t at that milestone with me, and therefore we’re unequal and your other partner is really first.” Though I know those feelings don’t make sense in the non-hierarchical poly model, it’s still hard to get past them.
And so I’d like to start thinking about relationships in a slightly different way: thinking about whether I’m getting my needs met in non-hierarchical poly should actually be about equity, not equality.
While the equality framework looks for points of comparison, the equity framework focuses on individual circumstances: is everyone involved (including partners, metamours, and other people tangentially related) getting their needs met? Given everyone’s circumstances, are we meeting whatever expectations we’ve set for ourselves? The nice thing about this framework is that it acknowledges when two metamours have different needs (so the milestone a metamour meets with my partner doesn’t have to be a milestone for me) and also acknowledges that there can be a benefit to a shared partner to meeting needs that are the same. Not only does my metamour not “win” by getting somewhere first, but we can do similar things and have similar experiences with our shared partner and there’s no need to directly compare the experiences (at least in theory—I’ll be the first to admit that this will probably require some practice!)
Recently, I faced a relationship challenge where I felt hurt because I felt unequal, and therefore lesser, when my partner and my metamour had an experience that is commonly considered a milestone on the relationship escalator. Though I both knew that they do not participate in said escalator, and don’t have a particular interest in that experience myself, I had trouble not falling into the trap of believing that their relationship is now going to be more important/better/more significant than mine and my partner’s because of societal expectations around that experience.
According to the relationship escalator, that experience and others like it are endgame goals that create a hierarchy based on whether you’ve “achieved” the goal(s). But in fact, I remembered once I’d thought about the situation and applied an equity lens, there is no
spoon hierarchy. My partner and my metamour were having a specific experience that had nothing to do with me. When I thought about what was going on within an equity framework, it became easier to hear and believe my partner’s words when she described her experience of our relationship as different, not less. I’ve also noticed that after trying this framework on for size, I feel lighter in a way when spending time with my partner. While I hadn’t been actively spending time thinking about comparisons during our dates, I still think there was some degree of psychic burden there of which I may not have been fully aware.
These aren’t exactly radical ideas to polyamory, of course. I’ve known logically all along that every relationship is different, not better or worse. But the focus on equality that I’ve been conditioned into makes it hard for the heart to listen to logic. It creates a fear of missing out where it’s easy to try and quantitatively measure relationships against each other, inevitably finding failure. A focus on equity, by contrast, is more creative and more centered around our actual needs and circumstances.
When I re-centered my focus to the specifics of my relationship with my partner, I realized a few important, central things that have nothing to do with comparison:
- My partner cares for me, is protective towards me, and enjoys/has explicitly asked for a specific relationship dynamic with me that I also really enjoy.
- My partner allows me to care for her and have a significant place in her life.
- She recognizes the emotional risks I’ve taken in our relationship and is open to my risk-taking.
- We communicate our concrete needs well and are working constructively on challenges such as how to get more time together (everyone’s favorite poly dilemma!)
- Everyone involved in these situations cares about the health and happiness of everyone else involved.
- My partner is open to creating rituals that are specific to our relationship.
- She’s shown no signs of pulling away or withdrawing and in fact wants more quality time together where we can find it.
So hey, that’s all pretty awesome! I’m going to be going back to this list as I experience the inevitable wibbles and temptations to return to the old familiar equality framework. I also plan to try to cultivate an awareness of times when I want to be special or first or unique in any of my poly relationships and pay attention to how those desires map to quantitative values that I don’t actually hold. With any luck, a greater awareness will help to dissipate said desires over time.
Stay tuned for the next post, in which I’ll broaden out from this specific experience and look more at the impact of broader societal norms on relationship practices. Advance TLDR: Capitalism is just kind of terrible for everyone.