Hierarchies – It’s the Meg-John & Justin Podcast

hierarchies and why they are bad for relationships

We often talk on the podcast (and in MJ’s excellent book Rewriting the Rules) about the dangers of putting romantic relationships at the top of a hierarchy of relationships. But maybe this is also true for other things too?

So placing romantic relationships at the pinnacle of a hierarchy means that we can expect this one relationship to give us everything. That a romantic partner needs to fulfil all of our sexual needs, to be our best friend, someone to talk to, someone to live with, someone to raise kids with, our head cheerleader, someone who provides practical support but also is able to give us surprises and be playful. This means that at that point when we don’t get one of these things in the relationship then we can question the whole thing. It also puts so much pressure on that relationship that it makes it really difficult to maintain.

This person is ‘The One’ and here is that graphic at Bish that Justin was talking about.

Despite this idea of ‘The One’ sounding so obviously bad, it’s something that we both admit to having done and struggled with. It’s hard because the cultural scripts of ‘The One’ feel ingrained in us.

The other reason that privileging romantic relationships above all others is bad is because it then makes everyone else feel lesser. It can make anyone who isn’t in a romantic relationship feel crap about themselves. And there’s a risk that it can devalue other kinds of relationships, like friendships and family relationships. A friend might feel crap, or jealous, or insecure, if their friend can talk excitedly about seeing their romantic partner next but not talk about them in the same way.

Also people may not treat the times they spend with their friends as special as the times they spend with their romantic partner. The difference between hanging out with a friend and ‘date night’ for example. Facebook at least encourages us to think about different relationships by telling us about facebook anniversaries.

So this is a problem for when we put romantic relationships above all others. But there are other examples of where putting different relationships above all others can be a problem. For example with a group, or a gang or a community. The problem with this is that they can devalue any relationships outside of that group as well as being more important than any one-to-one relationships within that group. It requires everyone within that group to sacrifice their own relationship needs for the good of the group.

It also creates a pressure for the group too, which can be unsustainable where everyone has to stay in the group for the lifetime even when the group doesn’t serve them anymore. It also requires people to remain the same kind of person within the group as it can ‘fix’ people into a role that they always bring. So some people are the fun ones, others the organisers, others are the pragmatic ones. So in this way it means that we might forget about our relationship with ourselves if we are just serving a group.

We also talk about parenting (neither of us are parents). We say that it’s understandable that having kids can take up a huge amount of time and energy and that relationship can feel like it’s the most important relationship to a new parent’s life. We’re not saying that we shouldn’t see relationships as being not important, but when (like with romantic and group relationships in our examples above) they are seen as being the most important and always being more important than other relationships then it can be a problem.

We might find it easier if we are friends with a new parent to accept that we are going to see them less or that they might be too knackered to do some of the things with us that we did before (that’s the cultural script anyway). However, putting being a parent at the top of the hierarchy of relationships might still not be the way to go.

MJ talks about the historian Simon May who wrote a book about the history of love  and he says that we are moving away from romantic love as being the most important (previous to that it was probably religion) because many of us have experienced the breakdown of romantic relationships and the pain that that can bring. Instead as a society we may be moving more to the parenting relationship as the most important, the most pure, and the one most able to give you so much of your needs. So imagine here the pressure that this might put on a child.

Also, as Simone de Beauvoir said, parents can often put so much of their own identity into the parent child relationship that as well as putting pressure on the child to be who the parent wants them to be it also takes away from the parent’s sense of self too. So (remember we aren’t parents so probably should be the last people to give parental advice) it might be worth thinking about the effect that putting the parent/child relationship might have on the top of a hierarchy. Think about the effect that it has on the individuals in that relationship but also on those that are outside of it. Maybe there are different ways that people can be involved in that relationship and different ways for kids to be brought up and supported.

We just mentioned relationship anarchy again here (wish there was a better term for that). This is the concept of trying not to have a hierarchy of different kinds of relationships. We say here that valuing different kinds of relationships similarly doesn’t mean spending the same about of time, or energy, or money, or having the same amounts of intimacy – there are probably always going to be some differences there. Being a parent is a good example – you probably need to spend a lot of time and effort with kids or you’re probably not doing it right.

But even then there is a lot of cultural diversity around who brings the kids up. It’s not always just parents (or even a parent) bringing up kids: but maybe also siblings, friends, other partners, grandparents etc. Justin brought up an example of when he worked with young people directly in a project in London where there were a lot of teenage parents – many of them raised their kids in the family home with their parents, their siblings, their cousins all pitching in. See also polyamorous relationships where more than one partner might be involved.

We also talk about the model of the best friend, which in many ways is used a precursor or training for the inevitable ‘The One’ relationship. Kids are taught that they should get a best friend but then they discover the pain of losing a best friend (or someone else becoming more important) when they get their first romantic relationships. Also one thing that is often taught in sex education is that the best way to get a romantic relationship is to become really good friends with them – which can lead to so much sadness.

As MJ said in their book ‘Rewriting the Rules’ what if we can treat our friends like romantic relationships and our romantic relationships like our friends. How would they be different? How can we incorporate this into the rest of our lives with all our other relationships: self, family, God/gods/humankind, pets, colleagues, co-authors. (At this point Justin bristles at the thought of MJ having more than one co-author relationship. “It’s fine, it’s fine” he says as if to say that it actually isn’t fine.)

So hierarchies – question them. We aren’t saying that everyone should be a relationship anarchist but what would open up if you could start to think about all of our other relationships. Remember that this isn’t just for the sake of all the other relationships and people but it’s also for the relationship that is on the pinnacle. Because if there’s less pressure on it to do all the things then it’s more sustainable.

Also remember that when something is at the top, it can fall off. This is where we can get into really painful break up territory of a relationship being either on or off: being together or estranged. Where there is less pressure on one relationship to ‘succeed’ it’s much easier for it evolve or change into something that is more manageable and valuable.

There’s lots of stuff in our ‘Make Your Own Relationship User Guide’ that you might find helpful here. Instead of hierarchies you might like to think about things like concentric circles, or comets.

Then MJ made Justin collapse into laughter by comparing us to The Beatles. That’s quite the bold claim. Also Justin thinks we’re probably more like The Velvet Underground. #hubris

We hope you enjoyed this podcast! If you did please let every single one of your relationships know and even shout about it at the bus stop. Also please buy our book and/or zines which are available at megjohnandjustin.com/publications