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But Who Comes First? The Difference Between Prescriptive and Descriptive Hierarchy

The argument over hierarchy is one of the most contentious ones in the polyamorous community. Many people find it important to label their relationships Primary, Secondary, and sometimes even Tertiary. Others are militant in stating that terms like that are unfair to those labeled Secondary or Tertiary. Some have used terms that attempt to remove the hierarchy, such as nesting partner or anchor partner, sometimes in place of the term Primary. The argument has been made that a nesting (cohabiting) relationship or a marriage automatically enforces a hierarchy, and those in nesting relationships are unable to be non-hierarchical.

This argument is rehashed constantly, probably second only to the argument over unicorn hunters. Something I’ve realized, however, is that often those that argue will end up agreeing on everything except what the term “hierarchy” even means.

There is a solution to this argument, and it lies in the concept of prescriptive hierarchies versus descriptive hierarchies.

For clarity’s sake, we’ll start by defining both words. The word prescriptive, according to Mirriam-Webster, means “giving exact rules, directions, or instructions about how you should do something.” In contrast, descriptive means “giving information about how something or someone looks [or] sounds.” These define the two ways the word hierarchy is used very well.

Prescriptive Hierarchies

Prescriptive hierarchies are those that use terms such as Primary and Secondary to clearly mark the difference between the relationships. Confusingly, they will sometimes instead use the terms nesting or anchor partner in place of Primary, when these terms are usually used for non-hierarchical relationships. The difference is, these relationships often have rules over the level of involvement of the Secondary, and that a Secondary relationship cannot evolve into a Primary relationship. When you’re thinking of Unicorn Hunters, a prescriptive hierarchy is what’s involved.

Primaries are often cohabiting, and often involve a relationship that existed monogamously before becoming polyamorous. Secondaries rarely cohabit.

These can also include the concept of a veto (when a Primary partner has control over whether the other Primary’s Secondary relationships can continue), though not always. Vetos rarely exist in non-hierarchical relationships, as no one partner has more “power” than the other(s).

Many people assume that marriage or cohabitation by default makes that relationship a Primary one, with no wiggle room. This is not true, as many married couples in polyamorous relationships can attest. While there is often a different level of commitment, this does not mean the relationship is hierarchical.

Descriptive Hierarchies

Descriptive hierarchies, on the other hand, can still happen in relationships with people that state that they’re non-hierarchical. Almost all prescriptive hierarchies include a descriptive hierarchy, but descriptive hierarchies don’t include prescriptive hierarchies. Confused? Let me explain.

All relationships are different. There’s no doubt there. This means that some relationships are closer than others, in the emotional or practical sense. You may say “I love you” to one partner, and not to another. You may cohabit and share finances with two partners, but not the others. You may even marry one partner, and have other partners without those legal ties. At the same time, you may be open to this arrangement changing, and letting relationships evolve as they want to.

Commitments are very different in all of these scenarios. These commitments are descriptive hierarchy, and are not what is considered a hierarchical relationship, though they usually exist in prescriptive hierarchical relationships as well.

Emotional commitments often correlate with the length and intensity of a relationship. You may feel more love for your spouse of ten years compared to the love you feel for your partner of one year. On the other hand, you may feel far more lust for the partner of one year. This isn’t always the case; some people feel less or even no love for their longer relationships, or may no longer have a sexual relationship, but stay in the relationship as partners for other reasons such as raising children and having platonic love for one another.

The commitments are not always emotional, and very often include practical commitments. They often involve cohabiting relationships, though not always, and can often use the terms anchor partner or nesting partner if it involves a cohabiting relationship. If you share finances with one partner, you may want to check with them before you make a large purchase, but you probably wouldn’t check with another partner with separate finances. If you cohabit with one partner, you may make them aware of plans because they affect the household, and you may not have to mention those plans to your other partners. You may share childcare responsibilities with your nesting partner, but other partners are not involved.

When Hierarchies Collide

It is here that the argument usually emerges. From the outside, the various commitments can make it look like the relationship is hierarchical. When someone encounters a descriptive hierarchy, they may label that relationship hierarchical by default, but a relationship with these commitments can still be considered nonhierarchical, in the sense that the positions in the relationships are not set in stone. In a non-hierarchical relationship, you are not set in the boxes of Primary or Secondary; the relationships may evolve, grow, or fade naturally. This is the most important distinction between the two; that a prescriptive hierarchy attempts to enforce that relationships will stay within their boxes and not change.

When it comes down to it, for the most part when people are talking about hierarchical relationships, what they really mean is a prescriptive hierarchy, but will push against the idea that a descriptive hierarchy could exist. In actuality, both exist, but the only one that should be called a hierarchical relationship would be a prescriptive hierarchy. Now you know!

Chelsey Dagger

Chelsey is a relationship anarchist, with multiple wonderful partners across the United States. They are in IT during the day, and at night they are currently in school for psychology, and on their way to being a therapist, with focus on polyamorous individuals, couples, and families.

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