Why “Never Make Someone Your Priority When You’re Only Their Option” Is Misleading Poly Advice

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 0.603% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

There’s a quote that’s floated about the Internets for years, and it goes something like this:

“Never allow someone to be your priority while allowing yourself to be their option.”

It’s a good starter rule for monogamy, but I feel the advice often goes awry for the people who most need it in polyamory – because they’re often filtering their polyamory through the perspective of monogamy.

Because as I always joke about in my classes, monogamy has a secret win condition called “death.” There’s a hidden monogamous escalator – you date, you kiss, you go steady, you move in together, you get engaged, you get married, maybe you get yourself some kids along the way, and each stage is perceived as a higher level of commitment by society at large.

Get married until death do you part, and congratulations! You have won the game of monogamy!

….except you kinda haven’t. I mean, we all know that bitter fundamentalist couple who made a drastic mistake when they were nineteen but their religion won’t allow them to divorce, so they’ve endured in misery for fifty years. Or you’ve got that couple who can’t afford the split in property (or who don’t want to upset their kids), so they shamble along in a caricature of surface-level affection.

Point is, even though society’s keyed most people to see “living together forever” as the victory condition for monogamous relationships, it’s not really all that.

But if you’re not careful when you enter into polyamory, you can accidentally slurp that philosophy up like poison in the groundwater.

I did that a lot in the early days of going poly: I wasn’t looking for a girlfriend, I was looking for a secondary wife. I thought I’d find yet another soulmate to rival the woman I’d spent ten years building a relationship, and we’d come to rely on each other for all the emotional support that my wife and I gave each other, and we’d smooth down all of each other’s rough edges to learn to work properly with each other, and eventually we’d, I dunno, move in and get a triple-marriage and die happily in a nursing home cuddle puddle.

Most of these relations snapped like a shattered tibia under the weight of “must be wife material.” The truth was, what we shared was a good sense of humor and some sexual chemistry, and I would have been a lot better off letting those relationships grow organically, rather than treating our first serious disagreement be “Now, we’re going to be lifelong partners, so we have to correct even the slightest flaws because we will be two weasels locked in a paint bucket forever, so let’s map out a better and lasting communication strategy.”

Know what would have kept us together? A box of chocolates and a good makeup fuck.

So saying “Never allow someone to be your priority while allowing yourself to be their option” is good advice for monogamous people who largely have to learn to be priorities, and it’s excellent advice for single-poly people dating poly couples who want to dodge the toxic idea of “couples privilege” (where two people can dump you at any time for any reason any time you have a need that conflicts with theirs)…

…but if you’re still approaching polyamory through a history of viewing relationships through that monogamish lens?

Well, wiser minds than me have fallen prey to the idea that every relationship must be a five-alarm fire priority, and as such they kind of forget the idea that relationships can have optional parts.

Like, I’ve got friends who I woodwork with, and they’re completely reliable if I need to fix a bookcase I put together wrong, yet we don’t sit in a circle troubleshooting each other’s relationship troubles. I’ve got friends who will drop everything to talk me through a depression at three in the morning, but I would not trust them within fifteen yards of my finances. I’ve got friends who I go months without seeing, eventually catch a completely enjoyable beer and a movie with, and then not plan anything for months after.

Not everything in poly relationships needs to be a priority either.

This is most commonly expressed in terms of a classic Dom/Sub relationship, where someone goes to a tertiary partner for hot beatings and proper tears, but is reliant on a spouse for their finances and fundamental emotional checkins. But there’s all sorts of other shapes a poly relationships can take – I have comets who I care for deeply, chat with twice a week, and yet will never actively book a flight to go see them because that’s not how that works for us. I have partners who have neuroses that are hair-bristlingly at odds with my insecurities, and so when they freak out they have to go to their other partners or else we would implode.

You know how some couples are great until they move in with each other and it turns out they utterly can’t live in the same space? In poly, you don’t have to.

The beauty of polyamory is that your relationships can be custom-fit to whatever you need.

But to do that, you have to let go of the idea that the universal priority is inherently better than the option. It certainly is for some people, mostly monogamous ones, who need it – and there’s nothing wrong with that!

Yet that may not be you.

The way I phrase it is, “Never give something to someone who you’re quietly expecting a trade back from.” If you’re holding space, emotionally or Google Calendarwise, for someone who doesn’t prioritize that space back for you, then definitely take a step back.

But a lot of times, you can be forge a perfectly happy relationship with people who don’t prioritize you in all the ways you’d like to be prioritized – you just quietly say, “Okay, that’s not the kind of relationship we have, I can’t get that kind of support from them – is this still worth having?”

A lot of times it still is.

And the more you can remember that, the happier you’ll be in polyamorous relationships.

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous Alex
    Feb 18, 2019

    I feel like I’m missing something, here. I read this twice, and I agree with the concrete advice therein, but it seems to me to be consistent with the quote you start with, whereas you present it as contrasting with that quote.

    -Alex

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