Ethical Hierarchical Polyamory... An ethical alternative.
Updated: Apr 28
Now I’m sure the title alone will cause confusion, as I was initially confused myself as I was preparing to write this article. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons I decided to share my insight and hopefully give others further clarification on the topic. After having endless conversations with fellow polyam friends, they suggested I add my two cents in the standard Hierarchy vs Egalitarian vs Ethical Hierarchical approach to polyamory… Let’s start with the basics (the definitions). By definition, a hierarchy is defined as: “a system or organization in which people or groups are ranked one above the other according to status or authority.” So by default, this same definition would apply to those who practice standard hierarchy in their romantic relationships (sexual and/or emotional). This can also apply to platonic relationships, but the purpose of this article is focused on romantic ones. Now on face value, there’s nothing inherently wrong with standard Hierarchy Based Relationships…. That is until you cross into the realm of Polyamory.
Polyamory is defined as: “creating and/or maintaining multiple loving relationships simultaneously, with the knowledge and consent of all involved”. It is not defined by marriage, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc. Polyamory is a form of ethical non-monogamy, and is becoming increasingly popular as a relationship structure alternative. In some cases, people even identify Polyamory as a “lovestyle” and who they are versus something they do. Polyamorous relationships are extremely diverse, and sometimes there can be disagreements about what’s “ethical”. Which brings us to the question of standard Hierarchy Based Relationships in polyamory. The basic understanding from the many discussions had about this topic is that those who practice HBRs, are giving power over their additional relationships to their primary partners (in some cases secondary partners). The most notable is what is called “veto power”. Veto power is the ability to end a relationship that your partner is involved in (even if you’re not a part of that relationships). There are many other complaints like the primary partner and/or primary dynamic gets more time, resources and other support.
One could argue that standard HBRs sound restrictive and unfair. Especially those who have had bad experiences, as well as those who may practice Egalitarian Polyamory. Egalitarian Polyamory is defined as: multiple simultaneous loving relationships where no hierarchy exist. Each partner is said to be equal — thus receiving equal time, equal resources and no one person has influence nor veto power over another relationship. This form of Polyamory is very popular, although they too get many complaints related to the “equal versus equitable” concept and many still have primary and/or nesting partners with different relationship agreements that appear biased (even without veto power). However the promise of equality for all makes this form poly attractive to many people.
As you can see, things can get extremely nuance in Polyamory as the freedom to love big comes in many variations. This brings me to the the final term to be discussed “Ethical Hierarchical Polyamory”. This term is relatively new to the polyamorous community and was first coined by the founders of Black Poly Nation™️ (Devon White and Daniele Stokes-White). The term Ethical Hierarchical Polyamory was derived from the need to make space for those who still desired to maintain a since of ethical structure within their relationships — but without the negative impacts of existing partners having influence over relationships their not involved in (veto power), as seen in standard HBRs. People who practice Ethical Hierarchical Polyamory also want to avoid the confusion surrounding “equal treatment” and prefer to utilize “equitable treatment” among their various relationships and/or dynamics. The main reason being is that no two relationships are truly equal, as each relationship requires different things from each partner in order for them to be successful. This term can apply to almost any polyamorous relationship dynamic (solo, open, tribes, etc).
The idea is that Ethical Hierarchical Polyamory has less to do with ranking, but moreso the relationship agreements made between all involved. Contrary to popular belief, but many polyamorous people have no issues with primary/secondary/comet relationships. It’s only frowned upon because there hasn’t been any effective or consistent representation of how these relationships can be successful, and are successful for many people. It’s usually looked at from the narrow lens of “my existing relationship is more important because they were here first”. When in fact many polyamorous relationships (especially open and solo poly) already consciously and unconsciously operate in a manner that’s in-line with those who practice Ethical Hierarchical Polyamory. This is mainly because people were limited to either identifying with only standard HBRs or Egalitarian Polyamory. Now there is a choice and a better way for those to articulate what they’re seeking or doing.
Ethical Hierarchical Polyamory is essentially defined as: a form of Polyamory that is based around prioritizing relationships at the moment, while still allowing space for equatable treatment throughout each individual relationship. There is no veto power or influence from exterior relationships, and each relationship/dynamic develops independently. EHP style relationships can be seen in solo poly, couples that date separately/together, and various other small and large polycules. Example: “R & M” are dating “K” together in an open triad. “K” also has her own primary relationship with “P” who is solo poly. “R & M” are also dating separately with various comet/secondary relationships. All parties are aware of each other’s prioritized relationships and nobody has an issue because they all have equitable treatment throughout each individual relationship.
Polyamory can be difficult sometimes, but at the end of the day we should all love how we choose. Hopefully this sheds light on the diversity found within the polyamorous community and the nuances we sometimes encounter. Love big, and love often…..
Devon White- Co-Founder: Black Poly Nation, www.blackpolynation.org