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How polyamorous relationships are structured are often simplified for illustrative purposes into geometric "configurations" that explain who is romantically involved with whom. Sometimes these configurations are not geometric in origin, but take their roots from Latin or Greek languages. Initials for the genders of those involved are often tacked on to the configuration term to clarify the genders of those involved, but as we can see below, sometimes we need a visual chart to get all the connections.
A relationship involving two people has several names: dyad; couple; pair. This forms the basis for all other relationships. All group relationships are built upon various arrangements of two-person relationships. A dyad can consist of male/female, male/male, female/female, or any combination of alternative gender types (such as transgendered). A dyad can be a casual relationship, a "serious" relationship, a primary, secondary or tertiary relationship, or even a platonic or NSSO relationship. For the most part, the various terms for relationship configurations focus on romantic relationships, whether the relationship includes sexual activity or not.
A vee is a group of 3 people where one person has a relationship with two other people, but those two people do not have a romantic relationship with each other, although they can be friends. You can have a vee with any arrangement of genders, depending upon the sexual orientation of those involved. The graphic here shows what would be known as a FMF-vee, which means a vee relationship that includes two females and a male. Since the order of the letters is "FMF", it implies that the male is the person in the "middle", the "pivot", or the person that the other two people "share".
A triad is a group of 3 people that consider themselves all equally involved with each other. Sometimes two members of the triad are not sexually involved with each other, such as a FMF-vee where the two women are not having sex together, but they still consider themselves a "family" or one group. Again, you can have any arrangement of genders, depending upon the sexual orientation of those involved. The order of the gender initials is mostly irrelevant, since all participants consider themselves "equally" partnered to each other. The letters could designate who is speaking, based on how they see themselves in relation to the other people. Or in the event that emotional or romantic connections are used to define the relationship and the sexual connections are not necessarily identical, sometimes the gender initials can be used to indicate who is having sexual relations with whom, as in the given example of a triad where the two women are not having sex with each other. But with families where each member is identified as "equal", it is better not to make any assumptions about sexual connections unless stated specifically. The only real way to know if the order of the letters means something is to ask the person using them.
As I mentioned above, all group relationships are built upon the dyads that form them. So, with one dyad, that includes 2 people, you have one relationship - that of the two people. With one triad or vee that includes 3 people, you have 4 relationships! You have the relationship between each couple and also the triad as a whole. See each line of hearts in the triad graphic? That's 3 dyads. Now add the relationship of all 3 people together, which has its own special dynamic and its own needs separate from the relationships of each dyad involved. But wait! It gets even more complicated than that! As we will see, not everyone in the group may have a romantic relationship with everyone else. However, romantic or not, it is still a "relationship" of some sort. That's because, in polyamory, you can't hide your relationships. Each person affects each other person to some degree or another.
Next up we have "N" relationships. This is a poly relationship involving 4 people. It usually starts with two seperate couples and then one person from each couple gets involved with each other, thereby linking the two couples. Let's say that Bill is married to Suzy. John is dating Lucy. One day, Suzy meets John and they begin a romantic relationship. In the graphic, you can see why this configuration has its name. When you draw the lines connecting the romantic "dots", you get a picture that looks like the capital letter N. Sometimes this is illustrated as a capital letter Z, but they're both the same idea. (For the record, the number of hearts in each picture mean absolutely nothing except that's how much room I had when I made the picture)
Another type of 4-person relationship is called a quad. Like a triad, this assumes "equal" status for all 4 people to each other. Again, there are groups that consider themselves a family even if every individual is not having sex with every other individual. So, regardless of genders or sexual orientation, each member of a quad considers him- or herself to be romantically involved, or a "family", with each other member. In this graphic, you see the romantic connections, but just as in the triad, assumptions about who does what with whom should be avoided.
So now, in a relationship with 4 people, one might assume we have 7 relationships to maintain, right? One relationship for each dyad and one more for the whole group. Nope! In a group with 4 people, you have those 6 dyads. Each one of these couplings has its own unique characteristics and dynamics. But wait ... there's more! Not only do you have 6 different dyadic relationships, you also have 4 separate 3-person relationships! To take the above example, you have the following: Bill-Suzy-John; Bill-Suzy-Lucy; Bill-Lucy-John; Lucy-John-Suzy. Each of these triplings have their own characteristics, dynamics, and interactions. Then, you have the quad itself. When you add it all up, a group of 4 people includes 11 different relationships ... all of which need time and energy to maintain and all of which have different requirements from each other.
Groups above 4 people are rare and so do not have such widely-recognized terminology, but any geometric term that includes the total number of people is generally understood, such as "quint" or "sextet" (I'd imagine that one is popular, whether it has a chance to be often used or not). Also, when you get above 3 or 4 people, unless the group is "polyfi", the geometric organization of the group tends to be somewhat fluid. The umbrella term for any group over 3 or 4 people, particularly if the configuration is considered "open" (each individual is allowed to add partners who may or may not join the larger group), is "intimate network" or "network" for short. This is the relationship model I prefer.
A network is sort of a catchall term to refer to many people who are all connected through romantic relationships, but everyone is not romantically connected to everyone else. Networks range from groups that look like straight lines to groups that look like spiderwebs and everything in between.
To give you an example of what a network can look like, here is a graphical representation of the Amorphous Squiggle, my romantic network:
Now, back to the original point, information about poly configurations. As I was saying above, each individual impacts every other individual within the group to some degree. As we saw with our group of 4 people, there are 11 total relationships to keep up with. What happens in larger groups, such as my network? The number of relationships multiplies exponentially. In a group of 6 people, you have a total of 57 relationships! In a group such as mine of, say, 15 people you get ... 32,752 unique relationships! Whew! That's a lot of relationships! That seems a bit extreme. How did I come up with that number? By using the Poly Formula:
This was created at a party that I attended, which included an abnormally large concentration of poly math geeks who tried to count the number of people in the Squiggle at that moment. This formula is intended to give you the total number of all possible relationships for a group of any given size. Yes, there is a simpler formula of 2^n - n - 1 but I like the above formula better because it illustrates the complexity of multi-person relationships. Also, it looks great on a T-Shirt. Yes, t-shirt ... we're geeks.
When a person is part of a multi-person romantic relationship structure, it is beneficial to remember just how many people are affected by that person. Even if you don't remember the actual number, remembering the idea of this formula and the intricacy of the network chart is helpful in keeping things in perspective. In any relationship, the strength of the overall group is highly dependent upon the strength of each individual pair, even (and especially!) the non-romantic pairs. Each of these individuals affects everyone else, and can radically change the dynamics of all other relationships within the overall group including the overall group itself. Because of this, I often find when an individual does not consider how a new partner affects the existing partners, the entire group structure can implode rather spectacularly.
Imagine you want to throw a party. You have a rather ecclectic group of friends. Most of them have met before and usually get along rather well, socially. The party is off to a great start. People are talking and laughing and drinking and socializing, the food tastes great, the music has people dancing, everyone is having a good time. The door opens. It's your buddy John. John brought his new girlfriend, Julia. She's never met anyone here before, this is her first introduction into the group. She takes a drink to relax. She takes another one. As the night goes on, she is single-handedly ensuring there will be no alcohol left-overs. As Julia relaxes, she starts to have difficulty filtering her speech. She has some pretty contrary ideas that not many other people at the party share. One minute you're in the living room, flirting with Dave's girlfriend Lucy, the next you're in the kitchen trying to rescue your good brandy glasses as Julia and Stephanie get into a "disagreement" that involves shattering crockery. You manage to seperate them and while you're calming Stephanie down, Julia and Peter start shouting at each other on the back deck, while your neighbors' bedroom lights are starting to turn on. One by one, Julia manages to piss off your guests, although there are a few people who happen to agree with her point of view. Suddenly, you're perfect party is divided with people taking sides and no one is having a good time.
So, the solution is to ask John to take Julia home, right? Well, first John protests, getting angry that you don't like his new girlfriend. Then Julia gets offended and during the wrestling match that ensues, several of your other guests leave first. Another option is to keep Julia from drinking at the next party. Well, it turns out that Julia likes to drink and takes offense at anyone who tries to prevent her from drinking. Plus, she's pissed off a couple of people to the point that they refuse to attend any parties where she might be there. So, you ask John not to bring her anymore because, frankly, you like your old friends better than Julia. Well, John was one of those people who agreed with her and is now mad at you for blacklisting his girlfriend. He writes in his livejournal and tells all your mutual friends how you are biased against Julia and skews the facts to make you out to be a monster. Now the division from the party is not limited just to that one night. Your friends are all taking sides and lies and fabrications (not all intentional) are destroying the very fabric of your social circle.
Sound a little far fetched? Actually, this sort of thing happened at a party I attended once. Someone's new girlfriend was a little too belligerant and offensive and by the end of the night, the guests had seperated into two distinct cliques. Her behaviour continued past the party and affected quite a few people in the group. Now, imagine what can happen in a romantic circle, where those involved have much deeper emotional connections to each other. It can actually take very little to seriously hurt and offend one or more people when you have emotions and individual insecurities tied up in the dynamics of the group. If no resolution is found to the satisfaction of all involved, the hurt feelings can grow and feed upon good feelings and security, causing an ever-tightening spiral of pain and anger. And when one person is hurting, their reactions and behaviour will affect other people in the group and eventually you will have the romantic equivalent of the party scene, with partners taking sides, and threats and insults hurled, and some people proclaiming that they refuse to be in the same room with that person ever again. Those caught in the middle will sometimes try and simply keep the offending parties seperated, but my sweetie Tacit has an awesome journal entry about the perils of that method. I prefer not to have to seperate my partners like naughty children. But more on that in the How I "Do" Poly section.
There is no One True Way to organize your poly relationships. The most successful relationships are not successful because they found the right configuration, but because the configuration they ended up with works the best for those particular people involved. Many newcomers to polyamory come up with some idea in their head that they think they would be happiest if their relationship looked a particular way, such as "I think a quad is the most balanced configuration" and "I think a polyfi triad would make me feel the most secure". This is always a mistake. If you set out to find a person who will fit magically into this slot you have created in your life, you will have much difficulty finding that magic person. But if you allow your relationships to find their own natural path and listen to the needs of everyone and of the relationship itself, you may find yourself in a particular configuration that seems to work for you. This is the difference between "prescriptive" and "descriptive" relationships.
Prescriptive and Descriptive relationships are usually attributed to primary/secondary relationships, but can be used for any type of configuration. First, let's discuss what a primary/secondary relationship is. A Primary relationship is one that involves the highest degree of entanglement, usually partners who live together, share finances, consult each other when making life decisions like moving or changing jobs, contribute to parenting duties (if there are children present), and/or includes a deeply emotional intimate connection. It is not necessary for all of these elements to be present, sometimes only the intimate connection is required for partners to consider themselves "primary" - think a military couple, where one or both spouses are stationed overseas and they do not share a household or finances, but love each other and are married. A Secondary relationship usually has none of the elements listed in a Primary relationship, but it can include some degree of emotional intimacy and very occasionally can include some shared finances or shared living space - think housemates with "benefits".
These designations have very fuzzy borders, and there may even be some overlap. Basically, a "primary" is spouse-LIKE, and each individual may define what they mean by "spouse". Maybe that means they are legally married. Maybe it means they had some sort of commitment ceremony. Maybe it means they live together, have a shared bank account, are co-parents. But maybe it might look like a "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" to someone outside of the relationship, where they love each other a lot, but they don't live together, don't intend to live together, don't share finances, don't have children, etc. And a "secondary" might look a lot like that boyfriend/girlfriend type where they don't live together, don't share finances, etc. but they love each other a lot. Or maybe they don't really "love" each other, so much as they are very fond of each other. Or maybe they love each other but they don't have any long-term intentions or committments. Or maybe they look more like friends who like to have a little "adult" fun when they get together. So you can see that one end of the "primary" spectrum can resemble one end of the "secondary" spectrum so it might be difficult to really pin down what relationships are "primary" and which are "secondary". As with anything else, don't assume, just ask. If you're trying to decide for your own relationships, if it feels "primary", then go ahead and call it that, and if it feels "secondary", then call it that - it's your relationship, label it what you want.
At this point, people often take sides on whether or not one can have more than one "primary". The answer is, of course you can. The issue comes from the use of the word "primary", which is a numerical designation used for ranking. Some people feel the need to protect their existing dyad and so designate their partner as "Primary", as in, "this partner comes first and foremost in everything, above and beyond any other partner". This is based on an assumption that a new relationship will threaten and damage an existing relationship unless strictly controlled. And *that* is based on some assumptions about why your partner is with you in the first place. But more on that later.
I have found that if you need to "rank" or categorize your relationships by using the primary/secondary designation, it helps to attach the words "primary" and "secondary" to the relationship and not to the partner. In this way, it is easy to understand how it is possible to have more than one "primary". When you say "this is my Primary Partner, Jill", it can imply that Jill herself is Number One, higher than anyone else, most important, she comes first. If you have someone in your life who comes "first", it is understandable that you might have difficulty grasping the concept of more than one "first". However, if you say "Jill and I have a Primary Relationship", you are no longer ranking Jill, but rather you are describing the level of entwineness and entanglement you share with Jill. You are making a statement that explains the nature of your relationship with Jill, implying that you most likely share finances and living arrangements and that you are very emotionally intimate. This could mean that your relationship with Jill does have more priority over some of your other relationships. But since you are describing the nature of your relationship, that being one of entanglement, sharing and emotional intimacy, you can begin to see how it is possible to have more than one person share their life with you in this manner. You can have a checking account with 3 people on it. You can live in a house with 4 other adults. You can co-parent with 2 other people (divorced parents do it all the time with step-parents). You can be emotionally intimate with more than one person. Therefore, you can have more than one Primary Relationship.
As mentioned above, even if you use "primary" to describe the relationship rather than the partner, a primary relationship still often has "priority" over secondary relationships, in terms of how much time is spent together, how much input you seek when making life decisions, and it even explains the level of emotional intimacy you share. That's OK. It's totally natural for different relationships to have different levels of need and time and intimacy. Where people get into trouble is when they use relationship configuration designations Prescriptively rather than Descriptively.
A Prescriptive relationship is one in which an individual (or a couple) decides ahead of time what their future relationships will look like, before even meeting any of their future partners. This is usually done by an existing couple who is approaching polyamory for the first time, or coming from the swinging culture. What happens is that a couple decides to "open up" their relationship and allow their partner to develop romantic relationships with someone outside their relationship. But the couple usually has some kind of insecurity or assumption about their existing dyad. They seek to "protect" their existing dyad by controlling or limiting what their outside relationships will look like.
This point of view has tacit assumptions about what the relationship with each partner is and why a person's partner is with them. It assumes that the couple's existing relationship cannot stand in the face of a new relationship, because a new individual will cause the existing partner to lose "importance" or time and attention, and that designating someone else as "secondary" is a means to keep a hold of that time and attention of their partner that they believe rightfully belongs to them, the existing partner.
Many people feel special in a relationship because of the things their partner *does*. When you limit the activities or time or emotional intimacy your partner can do with another person, you are in effect placing your "specialness" on an action that someone else can do, and therefore can take your "specialness" away from you. If your hubby's new girlfriend can have sex with him without you, then what does he need you for? You can be replaced.
But when you realize that the reason you are special is not because of certain activities you do with your partner, you are special because of who you are, then you can understand that it doesn't matter *what* your partner's other relationships look like, they can never replace the relationship that you have with him. Tacit has written a whole essay on the concept of specialness, and Tacit, Pepper Mint, and the InnKeeper discuss "Who Gets To Be The Primary" on Poly Weekly episode #232.
When you use a configuration term Prescriptively, you are dictating what all your relationships will look like, completely ignoring the needs of the individuals in the relationship (yourself included) and of the relationship itself. People are notoriously bad at predicting what will make them happy in the future, and attempting to predict what configuration will make you happy when you haven't met everyone who will be part of that configuration, and haven't consulted their feelings, is a recipe for disaster. But when you use the terms descriptively, you are merely explaining the nature of that relationship as it is right now. You are not dictating the place in your life a partner should have, you are explaining the place the partner happens to have. This is a much healthier way to conduct your relationships and you treat your future relationships with integrity and ethical consideration. I will touch on this subject more in How I "Do" Poly, where I talk about a Secondary's "rights" and feelings.
To avoid a lot of the issues that comes with ranking and hierarchy and prescriptiveness, many poly people are moving away from the numerical primary/secondary labels. Many people are trying to find other words that more accurately describe the level of entanglement and committment and love that is shared without any implications of who is more important than whom. Cunning Minx of the Poly Weekly podcast uses the term "anchor" in place of "primary" because she views these relationships as sort of the anchor in the storm, the people who keep her grounded and form the foundation of her family. I use the terms "core" in place of primary and "satellite" in place of secondary, because my core people are the very heart of my family, the center of my world, and my satellites are people who kind of float around the edges of my family affecting and serving an important role but not nearly as central to my life.
More writings on the ideas of primary/secondary, and on "hierarchical" (the prescriptive ranking of partners), and on the inherent Couples Privilege that all of these things are wrapped up with can be found in the following essays and articles:
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