Moving in Together: Social Dynamics

CW: Most anarchists will not like this post. Deal with it.

Especially in the US, we tend to fetishize freedom and equality. We congratulate ourselves on how egalitarian our society is, get really het up at any suggestions that we are not the freest people on Earth—and then we go and cheer the Patriot Act. God bless America because we surely need it.

I bring this up for a reason, and not because I am taking this blog political.

I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but in the US our fetishization of freedom and equality leads to many, many attempts to erase hierarchy. Now, I am generally in favor of doing away with hierarchies, but humans are good at self-delusion. Insisting that we can get rid of all hierarchies simply by declaring everyone is equal is like insisting that we can get rid of racism by being colorblind. It don’t work that way.

Human beings are social animals. And like all social animals, we form hierarchies. Not just the big obvious hierarchies like government and corporations where the elite rule over the plebes. Every time you get two or more people together, they will establish an unspoken social hierarchy.

Scientists who study social behavior say that human social interaction is a mix of troop behavior, similar to other primates, and pack behavior, similar to wolves and dogs. Given the way humans and dogs have evolved together over a couple thousand years, the mix actually makes a lot of sense.

But what does this have to do with moving in together?

Everything. When your and your poly partners get a home together you are creating a new social unit, and that new social unit will evolve a new hierarchy.

No, not a poly hierarchy of primaries and secondaries. A social hierarchy. The social hierarchy is usually based on a complex combination of factors I will short hand to “assertiveness of personality.” However someone who is skilled in playing social games can gain prominence over others who on the surface appear to be more dominant (not in the BDSM sense, though there can be overlap).

The social hierarchy of a group can be static, especially if you and you poly-partners are widely varying in how assertive you are. In a group where members are close together in assertiveness and trust/like/respect each other, the hierarchy can shift on a daily basis, with one person taking the lead and then another.

How can this affect your polycule?

Last week I talked about schedules and life patterns. Very often, the preferred schedule and patterns of the socially dominant member of a group will get precedence over other group members. Someone who is less assertive, less socially dominant, may have their schedule destroyed without anyone realizing it because their “voice” in decisions is smaller. Not because people are deliberately ignoring them, but because we (humans) automatically give less weight to the words of people at the bottom of the social heap and more weight to the words of people at the top of the heap.

I do not care how egalitarian you think you are, I do not care if you are a flag-waving, card-carrying, tattooed-on-your-genitals anarchist. You cannot undo this basic aspect of human nature. Deal with it.

These automatic social hierarchies can slide by unnoticed if they work well, and be a disaster if they don’t. And if you aren’t aware of what is going on, the disaster can sneak up on you and leave your relationship in a billion pieces.

The Husband Swap, which I reviewed earlier this month, contains a beautiful example of the way a socially dominant person can take control of a relationship, have everyone dancing to her tune, nearly destroy a less socially dominant member viewed as a rival, and have everyone blaming her victim for the destruction of the relationship.

For a less extreme but still painful example, in my first triad, Partner B and I were very assertive, constantly jockeying for control of the relationship. My Partner A was very passive. Because he was socially passive, he rarely spoke up about things that were bothering him. When he did say something, the fact that it “obviously” wasn’t a problem to Partner B and I, combined with Partner A’s inability/unwillingness to stand up to us meant that Partner A’s problems were usually dismissed and glossed over, and so remained a constantly simmering source of tension, unhappiness and resentment in the heart of our relationship. While it didn’t destroy our relationship outright, it did directly contribute to our unraveling slowly over a number of years.

How do you deal with it?

First, by being aware of it. Learn to pay attention to the subtle clues as to who is socially in control. Who always drives (if they want to)? Who always gets stuck in the back seat? Who strides into the room ahead of everyone else, and who holds back to let everyone go ahead of them? Who takes control of the conversation and who only speaks up when asked for their opinion?

When you learn to see the social dynamics going on around you, you can also catch the power-players who are deliberately or maliciously using those social dynamics to manipulate and twist things to their way.

You also learn to recognize who is not being heard, and who is disproportionately “loud.”

Once you have done this, you can create a safe space in your home for those who are on the bottom of the social hierarchy to talk about their feelings and their problems. Those who are on top of the social hierarchy can be aware of the power they wield in the home and can be careful not to overwhelm or overwrite the voices of others. You can be aware of when the status quo is shifting, and why. And you can catch many problems before they start. Or at least, before they become destructive.

This is nearly twice as long as most of my posts, and I’ve barely touched on this very complicated topic. Consider this an introduction and a warning: be aware and communicate, damn it.

For a surprisingly good introduction to pack-based social dynamics, check out Patty Brigg‘s Mercy Thompson series. I’m still looking for a good fiction/story-based introduction to troop-based dynamics.


Learn More: The Polyamorous Home


(Recent research may have changed the understanding of just how human social dynamics work and how they compare with social dynamics of other animal species. The fact of social dynamics remains.)