Imagine that your relationship with someone is a monster. Not a mean, ROARGH monster. A cuddly one, like an alot, or something out of Where the Wild Things Are. As your level of emotional intimacy with someone grows, the monster grows.
There are different styles of setting up relationship hierarchies, and I want to use this idea to talk about them.
First, prescriptive hierarchies (the kind I’m wary of):
“This person is my primary; any new relationships are required to remain secondary to this one no matter what.”
In this style of hierarchy, the monster gets put in a cave. At the beginning, your relationship with this person is a small monster. It fits easily in a nice, spacious cave. Over time, you keep feeding the monster with time spent together. Every story you tell, hug you exchange, call you make, it grows a little. For some friendships, the monster may never have the potential to grow as big as the cave. For others, though, eventually, the cave becomes constraining. The monster is so big that it becomes hard to move around, and eventually impossible to move at all. You’ve reached the level of intimacy that is perceived to be threatening to the primary relationship.
At this point, you have a few choices. (1) You can stop feeding the monster. Stop spending as much time together, and let the intimacy fade back to acceptable levels. (2) You can ask if moving to a bigger cave is okay. This may mean asking if becoming a second primary partner is okay, or it may just mean asking if the level of intimacy you’ve gotten is okay and can be allowed to continue to grow. (3) You can sneak into a bigger cave at night. I.e. keep the level of emotional intimacy in your relationship a secret, and let it keep growing without informing other people involved. I don’t recommend this one.
I strongly dislike prescriptive hierarchies. I feel intensely uncomfortable getting close to someone knowing that the level of intimacy we’re permitted to achieve has a cap on it. It feels like an axe hanging over the relationship. If I like someone too much, the axe falls. Who wants to have to think about that while getting to know awesome people?
Second, pragmatic hierarchies (the kind I’m not wary of):
“I need this much time and energy available to spend on Relationship A, and what’s left after that can be apportioned to other things or relationships.”
In order for a relationship to flourish, you need to feed it. You feed it time and energy. Hanging out, phone calls, emotional support, etc, etc. All relationships need some time and energy input (food) to survive. Unfortunately, time and energy are zero sum. You can learn to be efficient with them, but at the end of the day you only have so much to give. There is only so much food to go around.
If a prospective partner of yours is in a relationship, that relationship is going to need a certain amount of food. Your relationship with them, if it’s going to grow, will also need a certain amount of food. If they have 10 food, and their first relationship needs 6 food to be healthy, and their relationship with you also needs 6 food to be healthy, then there’s a problem. An aware person in a good relationship will generally deal with this by saying, “Look, my relationship with X is important to me, I only have this much food left for other things. If that’s not enough for you to be happy, we shouldn’t do this.”
It’s not always that simple, of course. Sometimes the amount of food a relationship needs changes over time, for example. It may go up or down, but it’s rarely perfectly static.
I prefer this style. In this style, I don’t feel that anything is happening that’s out of my control. If I’m incredibly lucky, my relationship will be a monster that requires very little food to grow lots, and I get to enjoy something very special with someone without impinging on their other relationships. In the cave example, a relationship that became intimate and special easily would be scary. A fast-growing creature in a space soon to be too small for it.
However, if my relationship takes too much food to be feasible, I can understand and make intelligent decisions based on that.
Similarly, a while back a relationship of mine ended due to my issues with depression. It was the only one I was in at the time, but it was too much. I needed all of the food I had for my relationship with myself.
Originally, this was going to be about how the latter style is simpler to implement, but I’m not sure that it is. At the end of the day, I think I prefer the latter because it’s practical. If there’s only so much food, you need to use it carefully. In life, there is only so much time and energy, so you do need to spend it carefully. As for living in caves, well, as long as my relationship is healthy and leaves enough time for yours to flourish as well, why do you want me in a cave? Caves are dark and constricting and have bats and shit. I don’t like living in them, and I don’t think there’s a truly pragmatic reason for being made to live in them. A bigger monster is only a threat to your relationship if that monster either (1) requires too much food, or (2) has no regard for your relationship. If I had no regard for my partners’ other partners, I hope they’d ditch me long before I got close enough to them to be a threat. I’d deserve it.
Sidenote: I also think this analogy illustrates why I sometimes experience discomfort in being good friends with women who are in monogamous relationships. I would never try to do anything to harm a friend’s relationship with their significant other, but I sometimes feel like good intentions aren’t enough–like just being close to someone’s significant other, if you’re of a compatible gender, is perceived as threatening. So, in effect, the put-in-a-cave thing happens. Where that’s the case, I find friendships with people who are monogamous to be difficult. Because intimacy is the thing I most want in all of my friendships, not just the ones that involve romance or sex.