It is one of the most often misunderstood truisms of hierarchical polyamory that stable and highly functioning primary relationships are essential for successful (hierarchical) poly life. It’s not the truism itself that people misunderstand; it’s that most people misunderstand *why* you need a stable and highly functioning primary relationship for a successful hierarchical poly life.
For the rest of this post, I’m going to rely on a metaphor of architecture and houses. In this metaphor, hierarchical polyamory tends to involve building a house with someone (your primary), and then coming up with ways to incorporate other partners (a guest bedroom; four guest bedrooms; a cottage in the back; a shed in the back; a dungeon in the basement… you get the idea).
Fact: You need a firm foundation so the house doesn’t fall down
When most people think about the idea that you need a strong primary relationship for your poly life, they think that it’s only for this reason. And Goddess knows it’s important. Almost any relationship stress will threaten to compromise an unstable relationship–from the death of a loved one, to a sick pet, to having a baby, to losing a job, to a partner getting a lover. (By contrast, lots of things that could be stressful—such as having a baby or a partner getting a lover–can become a bonding mechanism for strong relationships). If the foundation isn’t firm, then any outside pressures threaten the stability of the house.
In my experience, people rarely say to themselves, “Well, yeah, we’ve got some serious problems in our relationship, but we’ll be fine being poly together.” Far more frequently, people say to themselves, “Well, sure, we’ve got some problems in our relationship, but everyone does. We’ll be fine being poly together.” It’s easy to underestimate how big those small problems can become as those niggling insecurities and lack of faith and trust can erode the things holding your house up. Sure, the plumbing doesn’t work during the day, the floors are uneven, there are mice in the walls, and there’s duct tape on half of the windows, but none of that’s going to make the house fall down, right? I mean, it’s cozy, and it’s home. But bring someone else into the house, and you end up seeing it with new eyes. Suddenly, those small problems can start to feel a lot bigger (probably bigger than they actually are) when compared to the shiny glow of New Relationship Energy with another partner. You end up seeing the house through a stranger’s eyes, and all those comfortable imperfections start looking a lot less homey. And just to make it even harder, the guest room has carpets over the uneven floors, frilly curtains to hide the duct tape on the windows, and a canopied bed so it’s easy to ignore the rest of the house… Which only makes the rest of the house feel more derelict by comparison.
And of course, none of that even begins to encompass what you’ve done to the house by trying to build on that guest room/cottage/shed, etc. Some houses accommodate the additions easily, and others find that the cracks in the foundation were spectacularly compromised by the building process alone. I could keep elaborating on this metaphor, but I think it’s relatively intuitive: if you want to keep your primary, you’d better have a pretty fucking solid relationship with them if you want to do poly with them. The things that matter most here are a sense of real relationship trust—the belief that your partner loves you, is good for you, that you’re good for them, and that they know all of these things too. Everyone has occasional doubts, but anything more than that is likely to start nibbling away at the foundation of your dear domicile.
Fact: You need a sizable well-built house to accommodate those new people
It’s easy to see how having boyfriends and girlfriends could further de-stabilize a rocky marriage. What most people miss is the major problem that your unstable primary relationship will jeopardize your OTHER relationships. Oh, it won’t happen overnight. It probably won’t happen for several months or possibly longer, depending on how serious those other relationships are. But given time, any guest who spends long enough in your house is going to step on a mouse in the middle of the night, get annoyed that the damned toilet doesn’t flush half the time, and try to open those duct-taped windows. Tolerance on the part of guests is, of course, essential. However, you will probably notice over time that it gets increasingly difficult to attract partners with high self-esteem to stay for long in your derelict domicile. The people who will stick around in your guest room are the people who (at least feel like they) don’t have anywhere else to go.
You and your primary are the ones who build the guest room, but if you don’t clean it (sometimes together) between relationships, it can accumulate an astounding amount of junk. People are used to talking about “relationship baggage” as an individual property, but in Poly World, the relevant baggage can accumulate between you and your primary, not just you. A series of annoying and possessive ex-boyfriends can make your husband incredibly mistrustful of the newest one, because he just looks like another one in a long string. And if your husband is still mad about Boyfriend #2 and you’re on #5, you’d probably better do some spring cleaning. Constantly tripping over the open suitcases from your exes isn’t going to endear you to your new significant others.
I recently astounded a long-term poly friend with the observation that he couldn’t expect his girlfriend to get along with his wife better than he did. I pointed out that as long as he and his wife were arguing (especially about things that tangentially or actually related to his girlfriend), the girlfriend was bound to end up accumulating irritations and resentments at one or both of them. But as long as she actually liked him, most of that resentment was likely to end up at the feet of his wife (probably unfairly), since the wife came across as the person interfering with their relationship. Moreover, the girlfriend lacked the background to fully contextualize the arguments, and didn’t get any make-up sex either. And I further pointed out that if his wife didn’t trust him, is it really likely that she’s going to trust his girlfriend? It’s possible, but unlikely, even if she likes her. Succinctly put: if you try to build serious, close relationships with other people, your primary relationship is bound to affect and impact those other relationships. It’s a transitive property of relationship tension: if things are tense between you and your primary, isn’t that likely to make your secondary feel tense about your primary, too? And then to make things tense with your secondary too?
Put the house in good repair before you invite guests into it. Otherwise, their stay isn’t going to be very comfortable, is it?
Some people try to circumvent this problem by having a metaphorical cottage or shed in the backyard for guests—by trying to compartmentalize their relationships and shield them from each other. In some sense, this strategy can be pretty successful (it’s the only way to have any hope of trying to sustain relationships with other people if your primary relationship isn’t so hot). But usually, it turns out that the cottage is missing a few walls, or alternatively, that it’s so damned cramped in there that no two people—no matter how claustrophilic—could possibly fit. After awhile, this strategy a. this starts to feel a lot like cheating (“I know he has a wife, but he almost never talks about her… It’s weird”) and b. it usually seriously curtails intimacy and trust (“hey, it’d be great to be fluid-bound with her, but I’ve only met her husband once and I have no idea how he’d feel about it. Also, I’m not even sure they still have sex…”). (For a more humorous take on this arrangement, see my friend’s tumblr)
Fact: You need to respect the threshold
When it comes to both real and metaphorical poly households, threshold maintenance is a helluva tricky affair. You and your primary build the guest room, but your primary has to leave you and your secondary to mostly decorate it yourselves. If you and your secondary have a really different decorating style than you and your wife, that can require some major adjusting. The biggest problems arise if people are criticizing the décor on either side, or trying to deliberately rearrange things on either side of the threshold. It’s especially hard because one of the things that makes for successful poly is if your relationship with your wife is distinctively different from your relationship with your girlfriend, but that’s exactly the thing that can make it hard for everyone to get along unless they are all very respectful of those differences.
For primaries, there’s such a fine line between making sure the guest room is tidy, and interfering with the decorating scheme. For secondaries, there’s such a fine line between politely requiring that the room remain decorated to your tastes, and making unreasonable demands. And no one should be doing things that could damage the integrity of the structure as a whole!
Fact: You are very unlikely to be able to build your house over your guest room
It is one of the great puzzles to me of poly architecture that I have never even heard of anyone building a primary relationship (even one that quickly failed) around a stable very serious secondary relationship without the secondary relationship promptly falling apart (and I’ve rarely even heard of people getting that far. Usually the secondary relationships were a disaster before the primary relationship appeared). I know a lot of people with very serious secondaries who really want primaries… and all of them have literally been looking for years. It feels like the poly equivalent of “always a bridesmaid, never a bride.”
But consider the construction process of hierarchical polyamory: you can imagine building a house over top of some pitiful shed in the backyard, but it’s pretty hard to imagine building your own house over the fancy guest quarters you have set up at someone else’s house. How do you have time and energy to build a house with a potential husban when you keep spending lots of time in your nice guest suite at your boyfriend’s house? There are a whole host of reasons why it’s hard to build a primary relationship over a preexisting sturdy secondary one. But perhaps the most salient of these is that your very hypothetical starter home with someone can look awfully pitiful compared to the comfy guest quarters you already have.
In conclusion, for better or for worse, hierarchical poly life is almost always a trickle-down affair. Successful hierarchical poly really has to start with a stable primary relationship (please, by all means, someone tell me how wrong I am, but I know of no examples), and the stability of that primary relationship is the groundwork for all the other relationships. Primaries come first, literally and figuratively, in hierarchical poly life, and all poly relationships have to be built with care. Of course, all relationships should come with a “Warning: Under Construction” sign, but I think we all know that some relationships have a lot more repairs and maintenance to do than others.
Build your nice, sturdy home. Then build your guest room(s). You and your guests will be very glad you did it in that order. Then make sure that everyone is committed to keeping it running well.