Relationship Hierarchies, Bandwidth, And Traffic

There are — whether we like to talk about it or not — hierarchies in our relationships. From categorizing who our "best friend" is in elementary school, the old "top 8" of MySpace, to hierarchical ENM relationships, we seem to like putting things in ranked categories.

Which is a childishly simplistic way to look at the complexity of human relationships. That kind of "hierarchy" is exactly why it has a bad name in ENM circles; it reduces people to roles, not humans.

In reality, it’s more like packet prioritization in networking, or dealing with traffic at an intersection.

At an intersection there’s often some sort of queue. Two simple types of queues follow "stop sign" or "stop light" kinds of logic. {3} A stop sign is great for a low-volume traffic situation, where there’s roughly equal amounts of traffic coming from all directions. Every vehicle gets the same priority, and is treated equally.

A stop light is much more efficient overall when you’re dealing with higher traffic volumes, or situations where there is a lot more traffic coming from one direction than another. A side road intersecting with a four-lane thoroughfare will have a longer green light for the road carrying more traffic. As a result, some traffic gets a higher priority, e.g. it is higher in the hierarchy.

This is where most conversations about hierarchy begin and end. One road gets a higher priority, no matter what.

But what happens when a fire truck comes out from the side road? An ambulance? A regular car with its blinkers on and the passenger leaning out the window yelling "She’s having a baby!"?

Most people would agree that, no matter how heavy the traffic is on the main road, the ambulance, fire truck, and even the "regular" car racing to the hospital should get priority over the main road. {4}

This is how a descriptive hierarchy works. Yes, in normal conditions, more bandwidth is dedicated to certain relationships. But that can — and shouldtemporarily change when events warrant. Sometimes, a relationship (romantic, platonic, professional) will need to take priority over others, and that is good and appropriate. You’d think someone was a real jerk if, while driving to the mall, they blocked off an ambulance racing to the hospital because they had a green light and the ambulance didn’t.

This concept is so well understood in our society that there are laws and fines (or worse) for doing exactly that. But we do not uniformly apply this concept to our relationships. While it is more obvious in ENM relationships, it exists everywhere. Some examples:

"You’re always spending time at work instead of with me."
"Since you started dating him, we don’t see you anymore."
"What do you mean you’re going out with your friends?"
"Studying again? What about our time together?"

In all of these hypothetical cases, there’s something pressing that is taking up more bandwidth for a period of time. This can be extremely upsetting for the person who is experiencing less bandwidth, particularly if they don’t fully know or understand why it’s happening. {5} It’ll also feel bad for them if, when the crisis has appeared to pass, they’re still sitting in the metaphorical slow lane. But that’s where the hard work of communication and telling the others in your relationships — again, of any variety — what your needs are.

The straightforward "hierarchical" model appeals due to its simplicity and the lack of effort needed. It runs on "automatic", if you will. A simple example: "My job comes first" means that you don’t have to evaluate your partner’s needs and requests — the job comes first, they come second, end of story. That exact scenario is pretty universally depicted as being an inconsider jerk in our cultural narratives.

Real life — and healthy relationships — are harder, take more empathy and consideration, and conscious thought than a simple rule like that. A childhood friend you’ve not seen for a decade is back in town for the weekend? I wouldn’t blame you at all for taking a mental health day from work and shifting "movie night" at home with your spouse to a different day. A friend needs emotional support during a tough time? I’ve skipped a movie to be there for someone, and people have done that for me.

It is a lot more complicated than selecting your "top 8" or your "best friend" on the playground.

But it is also a lot healthier for you and your relationships — whether platonic, familial, romantic, or professional.


{1} Everyone who remembers baud speeds before cable and fiber, groan with me and be sure to stretch so you don’t get back and knee pain.
{2} I wrote about the comparison between relationship bandwidth and networking bandwidth previously.
{3} I’m skipping roundabouts — as well as the safety factors of different signaling methods — for simplicity’s sake here.
{4} Can this concept be used by bad actors? Of course — just as someone can use false lights and a siren (or misuse real ones; I’ve seen more than a few cops over the years toggle their sirens just long enough to go through a red light when they got tired of waiting). Someone who simply "cries wolf" every time they are inconvenienced is a different story entirely.
{5} Ever get upset at a delay in traffic, only to feel awful when you get to the horrible accident that caused the slowdown? That’s what I’m talking about.


Featured Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.