It really sucks when you get the sense that someone is not prioritizing you in the way you are prioritizing them. It seems to be one of the most frequent problems in all types of relationships not just poly ones. Early on in a relationship, prioritization mismatches seem to loom much larger than later in relationships. I surmise this has a lot to do with lacking a history of connection with the corresponding sense of confidence that the waxing and waning of prioritization isn’t a lack of interest but a natural flow of our complex busy lives. My best relationships (friends or loves) have shared the characteristics of being able to connect deeply, on broader aspects of ourselves, over a sustained period of time. It is easy to miss remember that the mutuality of these connections evolved over time with a typically uneven frequency of connection.
Poly folks suffer the twin challenges of potentially busy dating lives and too easy comparisons to other relationships in their orbit. The former sets up prioritization as a persistent challenge. This forces us to improve our skills at navigating across conflicting demands and communicating clearly with those involved. The mental habit of making comparisons can increase our dissatisfaction when we might otherwise be content. Jealousy easily arises for some of us when we see our partners prioritizing other partners… emotionally reinforcing the notion that they are romantic rivals. I find that allowing myself to feel the jealousy or discomfort in whatever form it arises without believing too strongly in the story I’m telling myself. A little emotional intelligence goes a long way. The goal is to not let the emotional train get momentum without challenging the assumptions behind them. Does this really mean what my body is telling me it means? The answer is often “nope.” The other challenge is being able to communicate your discomfort to your partners without putting the burden of your feelings on them… without them being left feeling responsible for how you feel. In this way, knowing that I have intense “feels” about my partner’s prioritization of another does not necessarily require them to fix it for me. Polyamory can make the prioritization challenge and our emotional responses to prioritization exceptionally tricky. We need tools (shared calendars, group messaging and polycule syncs are awesome, for example) and improved skills in order to avoid the kind of drama that demolishes our joy.
I like to think about priority problems that are not simply early stage “forming” in two ways. And, it’s important to figure out which kind of prioritization problem you are confronting because approaches to resolving them are very different. The first consideration is “do we have different expectations or needs that are showing up as prioritization differences?” For example, I’ve been confronted with not prioritizing someone when I thought we were clear that I couldn’t at that time. So, in essence, the expectation of how much time I could devote to cultivating that relationship was part of the conversation before getting into the relationship. But, her expectations shifted without explicitly re-engaging in that dialogue. It’s important to understand that “priority” was being used as a proxy for “important to you.” And, my response was that my priorities change radically for various reasons (for example, due to an acquisition a few years ago, the priority related to work trumped most things for around 8 months), without any relative change in how important anyone was to me. So first, understand in what ways your sense of lack of prioritization is being expressed (for example, getting time with someone… or someone keeping a date when another opportunity presents itself). And with that, make sure you have similar expectations on what is available (today), possible (future) and desirable (now and future). It’s okay if a relationship can’t form because of incompatible expectations.
No one is a bad guy/gal here (a ‘bad guy’ is implied by the aphorism “Don’t prioritize people who don’t prioritize you.”). I won’t, for example, date someone who doesn’t see the possibility (future) and desire (future) a deeper connection. They are not bad, we’re just not looking for the same thing. I WILL date someone where our desires (future) match but we have an availability (today) mismatch. That’s just a time and logistics problem. I like to say that “time is the enemy of desire.” Many people will read this phrase as “familiarity kills passion.” However, the meaning I give to it is that we will never have sufficient time to satisfy all of our desires. When major re-prioritization is not possible, the solutions available are patience, luck and the motivation to seek and exploit opportunities as they arise. A deeper connection can still be cultivated – prioritized – through taking the moments that are available to express and support one another’s vulnerability, finding ways to embolden each other’s passions, and helping each other experience the fullness of life (both bad and good) when we are together. I don’t have to see you every week to jump in the fire with you (or you with me). I can still forget that I’m supposed to hold myself back from the inevitable pain of loss and engage heart-deep with you. If I lament so deeply the limited availability today, it is easy to miss these moments of connected joy.
OK. The above was first because we seem to frequently under-estimate how differences in expectations (today, future, & desired state of both) drive these presumed problems of priority. The second aspect to consider then is the situation when someone agrees to and yet fails to respond in-kind prioritizing you. The first thing I would do is to make sure that the other person feels it is really ok to express what they really want/expect out of the relationship and what they realistically have available right now (yep, back to the previous paragraph). Sometimes, people will tell you what you want to hear because they’re afraid that you’ll walk away. Maybe they don’t yet know how to communicate their challenges in navigating conflicting priorities. This is a very common growth edge for people new to polyamory. If that’s the case, gentle insistence is required to open up the right dialogue. Still tricky… It also might be a situation where some other actor is interfering with a person’s attempt to appropriately prioritize you. A metamore’s last-minute requests for time interfering with time with your partner… a meta’s excessive neediness resulting in the same high demands of time… when these are more focused on preventing growing closeness with another than needed (temporary) nurturing, it is a simple act of not so subtle sabotage. The question here is “despite how great someone might be, do you want to have that in your life?” Because you can’t count on your metamore’s behavior going away or getting better. It might. In my experience, it will probably only get worse.
Last is the case of someone who is not sufficiently interested. I think we think this is the most frequent scenario. I’m not so sure. So, maybe you’re a placeholder in their life; someone to hang out with until the next great love comes along. Or, maybe they like the sex but not the connection. All kinds of potential reasons for limited but unsatisfactory interest and investment. But with all of these potential reasons, the approach is the same:
- Be realistic about someone’s true interest/connection not just by what they say but also by what they do. And, be willing to talk to them about any disconnects between what they say and what they do.
- Decide how you feel about their level of interest/connection. And,
- Either say “I’m okay with that” and put the relationship on the same implied investment level OR say “I’m NOT okay with that; I will always want more and resent not getting it” and DTMFA! (Dump The Mother Fucker Already!).