Polyamory is part of the cultural conversation now, and at some point you’re going to have clients who are either practicing or considering it. In my last blog post, I described the primary/secondary structure, which has historically been the most common arrangement for polyamorous relationships (for more details, see this post).
However, primary/secondary is not the only possibility by far. There are infinite possible relationship structures. In fact, in the last few years, I’ve seen more and more people creating polyam relationships with a non-hierarchical structure.
So what does that mean? In a non-hierarchical polyamorous relationship, each participant evaluates their own situation and connections, and forms agreements according to the needs and preferences of all, without the expectation that any one particular relationship will take precedence over another.
In practice, sometimes this doesn’t look much different from primary/secondary. For instance, there may be one relationship where there are a lot of shared responsibilities, like raising a family. In that case, the needs of the children and the family unit may tend to be more pressing, and therefore take precedence, over a less encumbered love affair, regardless of whether there is an assumed hierarchy between relationships.
However, in non-hierarchical polyamorous structures, no one has veto power over their partner’s other connections, and partners assess situations in which different relationships conflict with one another on a case-by-case basis, rather than prioritizing one relationship as a rule. In some situations, this is a very significant distinction. This way of conducting relationships requires a lot of self-knowledge, emotional regulation, and differentiation of self, and it can be highly rewarding when those pieces are in place.
The advent of the internet means that although polyam communities may be small and hard to find in the real world, polyamorous people around the globe can easily talk to each other, share experiences, and develop community norms and guidelines for managing relationships. As polyam culture continues to evolve, it’s an exciting time to be a therapist who works with polyamorous people. Each relationship is unique, definitions vary, and specific situations demand individual flexibility and creativity. Therefore, I recommend asking your clients what their polycule looks like, and what relational agreements are in place, in order to better understand the particular challenges and strengths of each family system.