Thursday, 7 February 2013

Relationships as Microcosms of Culture: Hierarchy

I've been thinking a lot about the idea of relationships as microcosms of culture. I think there are endless possibilities of directions to go on that, and I hope to get to some more of them, but I'm also interested in compiling a zine on the topic, from many voices. If you're interested in writing (or talking to me) about how relationships reflect capitalism, class, racism, patriarchy, "democracy," nation states, or any other cultural institution/phenomenon, I'd love to hear from you!

The following doesn't really get into hierarchy on a broader level than relationships, and therefore doesn't really show how this is a microcosm effect, but I think you probably all can look around you and see how the issues of hierarchy apply to your daily life. Anyway, blogging is an infinite resource so it's okay that I don't cover it all in this one post.
So here goes-

Hierarchy vs Horizontality, not Monogamy vs Polyamory

I’ve been thinking a lot about monogamy and polyamory lately, about what does and does not work for me, and a common thread keeps coming up - that of hierarchy.
I don’t think that either monogamy or polyamory are superior to the other. What I know, is that any relationship model based on the idea that certain relationships (usually the ones involving sex or “romance”) are more important or of greater inherent value, really fucks with my head.

While the word monogamy generally gets used to mean the condition of having only one sexual and romantic partner at a time, polyamory or non-monogamy means the condition of having multiple sexual and romantic partners at one time, or at least the freedom to do so.
Neither, fundamentally, implies a necessary hierarchy. That said, our culture has ascribed a whole host of additional meaning onto the term monogamy (often used as if synonymous with “committed relationship”) which I personally find so difficult to shut out, that I must avoid the term so as to avoid the myths and biases that go along with it.

What are some of those myths? That in a “committed relationship” it is wrong to desire sex or “romance” from people other than your one partner. And not just sex, but also certain kinds of support and care, certain kinds of hang outs, a high level of excitement, or pretty much any other super awesome thing
(at least if it is perceived that the other person in these roles could possibly be attractive/attracted to you - from here we get a whole bunch of subtle homophobia and so on...).
That true love means that one person can pretty much satisfy all your social, intellectual, emotional, and physical needs, and that if you are wanting it is because you do not love as much as you should, OR because your partner is just not perfect enough. Again, getting bits of these needs met from people who are perceived as out of the question for you to be attracted/attractive to (read: not a threat to this ridiculous hierarchy) may be acceptable.
Add that commitment is synonymous with sexual exclusivity, and that love is a finite resource which we must hoard.

Now, this last one, about love as a finite resource, is complicated. I actually don’t ascribe to the "love is an infinite resource" idea, and I’ll explain why.

First of all, how can we talk about any of these issues without figuring out what we mean when we talk about love? My definition is ever evolving, but is currently heavily influenced by the words of bell hooks in All About Love.
She suggests that love is an action, not a feeling. To love is to nurture someone’s spiritual growth.
Spiritual is a word that I don’t always connect to, so I think of loving as the act of nurturing someones personal growth; challenging them with kindness, compassion, and deep self-reflection so that we ensure we are not simply trying to make them grow like a bonsai bush into our favourite shape.
Many people think of love as a feeling, and I think there’s room for that within the discourse as well. But it’s not a feeling independent of the action. You could think of it like “runner’s high.”
There is no limit to the potential for the feeling of runners high for any individual or for the world, but you can’t experience runner’s high without running. Can you run infinitely? I certainly can’t. So to feel love, I must be doing the act of loving. To do the act of loving, I must have the time and energy to honestly nurture someone’s personal growth. This is a fairly energy intensive activity in my experience, and just like I run out of breath when I’m running, I use up all my loving energy sometimes and need to recharge alone, or in less love intensive social interaction.

Okay, time to return to the original topic of this post: hierarchy.
The main reason that monogamy and it’s cultural meanings (read: myths) fuck with my head, is that it reduces the value of the relationship to the maintenance of the hierarchy associated (through those aforementioned myths). I know folks who identify as monogamous and do not ascribe to those hierarchical ideas, and I’m super impressed and think that’s fucking great. The way my brain functions, I ascribe huge meaning to words and have a really hard time disassociating from the meanings that are culturally ingrained, so I can’t use the word monogamous without internalizing the cultural values that go along with it. I quickly associate so strongly with the relationship and with my partner, that I lose my sense of self, and my sense of self-worth other than that implied by the hierarchy. And because (in my experience) that hierarchy is VERY unstable (because we can’t actually be everything to our partner, or their absolute priority in every way, or the only person they find attractive, and so on) I start to feel very unstable myself. And that fucking sucks.
So, although I’ve been learning about non-monogamy and practicing it in different ways since I was a teenager, I still tend to forget it all when I really like someone, and start believing the myths again. I think, “oh yeah, i know i’ve identified as non-monogamous for 4 years, but that’s just ‘cause i didn’t like those people as much as i like this person (read: when love is true, hierarchical monogamy is magically realistic)” but also “well i don’t want to throw all that cool poly stuff out (or, my partner likes someone else so i better be okay with it) so we’ll be primary partner model non-monogamous (read: hierarchically non-monogamous).”
and then I face all the same issues around unstable hierarchy, only with the twist of putting my self (semi-) consensually in the position of constantly facing the threat of my partner meeting someone who will climb the ladder of hierarchy and replace me.
And then I fall apart and beg my partner to be monogamous so I don’t have to face that fear all the time, but that only makes me feel even needier, less stable as an individual, stronger in my identity as a partner not a person, AND like I am indebted to my partner for sacrificing their other desires to calm my nerves, which isn’t working anyway. Read: the past 1.5 months of my life.


I need to change the framework, create a new world, not try to change or fit into the flawed one I’ve been born into. Why would this be true for all my other beliefs, but not relationship? I don’t believe that by making capitalism “green”  we will solve the problems of infinite growth on a finite planet, so why would I believe that making hierarchical relationships “open” could solve the problems of placing hierarchy on something as complex as human relationship?

I am not advocating for relationships without conditions, or commitments, and if one of those commitments is that you and your partner save much of your loving energy or all of your sexual energy for each other because you don’t have enough of it to spread out too thin, then that’s just fine. I do think that most of us do have it in us to love more than one person, and that not all loving relationships need take up tons of time and energy (and none will ever look just like another). Regardless, a relationship that includes sex, or “romance,” or a lot of love, isn’t necessarily any more fundamental to a person’s thriving than their relationship with themselves, with friends whom they have a major intellectual connection to, someone who is very easy to be around when they are low energy... etc! All of these kinds of relationships are important.

Why have our conversations about relationship models so often been reduced to a comparison/contrast of monogamy and non-monogamy/polyamoury? I see this as a huge simplification. It's the underlying values that change the issues and our experience, more than the shape our relationships actually take. As with most things, I think we all benefit from a willingness to recognize the complexities of ourselves and the world. Relationship is too fundamental to human experience to allow it to fall into the pit of things we'd rather not deeply examine.

Everything I've written above has been greatly influenced by reading and conversation.
If you're one of the (many!) people I've spoken to about relationship recently, thank you.

Here's some of the writing that influenced my ideas, and that I think is super valuable as further exploration:

on hierarchy:

on love:
All About Love by bell hooks

on commitment:

a song i've been listening to on repeat (not that is is what Feist had in mind...):

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