Poly Means Many: Primaries and secondaries

A little background: a very common shape for polyamorous relationships is what’s known as the primary/secondary model, in which one relationship takes ‘primary’ status, and others are ‘secondary’. Primary relationships (it’s possible to have more than one) often share many of the common appearances of a monogamous relationship – living together, shared finances, marriage, child-rearing – and given that not everyone wants to be or can be safely out about polyamory, they can look remarkably like monogamy to the untrained eye. In many cases, and somewhat more contentiously, primary relationships are ranked by those involved as a higher priority than secondary relationships.

It’s quite right, of course, to prioritise a long-standing relationship or marriage over someone you’ve just started dating in terms of accommodating requests, making time etc. However, the difficulty – and one of the reasons some people choose to eschew hierarchical polyamory completely – is handling reprioritisation as relationships develop. To constantly be second-best, second thought, last on the priority list, cancelled on, perhaps vulnerable to a veto, unable to plan for a future together… for anything beyond an extremely casual relationship, that’s miserable and unsustainable. Writings such as the Secondary’s Bill Of Rights exist because those needs for respect and relationship autonomy are very real. A system of systematically and numerically ranking something as nebulous, subjective and changeable as loving relationships between individuals is one of the reasons some people make a deliberate choice to avoid this model entirely.

For me, the words themselves make me uncomfortable. Primary and secondary. They seem too blunt, too restrictive, to describe the complexity and range of relationships.

They also make me uncomfortable because of the way they are often used as prescriptive rather than descriptive – “I’m looking for a secondary” seems to imply that there is a predefined relationship slot into which a new person will be required to fit. My discomfort with this comes, in part, from my own experience – on the rare occasions that I’ve said something definitive about myself and relationships in this context, I’ve generally proved myself wrong! I was very happy being single and definitely not looking for a serious relationship, maybe ever, when I fell in love with The Rake. I was unwilling to claim the label ‘bisexual’ until I met a woman who was sufficiently awesome that I wanted to date her. I was convinced I was open but emotionally monogamous until I met someone (other than The Rake) for whom I fell utterly head over heels. I feel as if deciding on the shape of relationship you want before you’ve met the person you might build it with is short-sighted.

That said, perhaps it’s just the shorthand I dislike. I don’t see anything wrong with someone saying “I have substantial work/family commitments so I can’t look for a serious relationship, but I’d love to find someone I could go out for dinner with every couple of weeks” or “I’d like to settle down and have children so I want to meet someone I could do that with”. That begins to illustrate why the shorthand makes me uncomfortable – the latter statement seems perfectly legitimate, but “I’m looking for a husband” is a bit scary and assumptive. Perhaps it’s the implication that – rather than thinking carefully about what I want, what my goals are, how those might be met in a relationship, what reasonable expectations could I have of someone else – using the shorthand implies grabbing an off-the-shelf idea and its accompanying (hazy, debated) definition without thinking about the detail and implications for my own life.

I also don’t see anything wrong with recognising the practical reality of relationships – naturally, I have a different relationship with The Rake (we live together, we have a joint bank account, we plan to have children together) than I do with Fafhrd (we live in different cities, plan carefully when we can see each other, and aren’t financially or legally tied). I’ve occasionally come across a slightly superior attitude of “Oh, I don’t do hierarchical poly, all my relationships are of equal value”; that seems, at best, unrealistic. Are you honestly claiming that the relationship with someone you just started dating is of equal value to the relationship with your wife and the mother of your children? There is also an occasional corollary to this attitude, that it doesn’t count as ‘real poly’ unless you are hurtling all your relationships towards cohabitation and commitment ceremonies ASAP. Mind you, I’ve never actually met anyone with that view; I suspect it might be found online only.

Physical proximity, daily practicality or even length of relationship in themselves, though, don’t necessarily define the importance of a relationship. I don’t value my relationship with my sister less because she’s a long way away. I also wouldn’t necessarily want to live with her, awesome though she is, but again it doesn’t mean I value my relationship with her any less. She is essential to me, because she’s my sister and because she’s brilliant. I have another family member that I’m not in touch with, by choice; that relationship had lasted my entire life until I broke off contact, but that length of relationship doesn’t define its importance.

I’ve always loved the analogy that Lori came up with, comparing primary and secondary relationships to education; “Don’t forget that secondary education builds on what is taught during primary education. Where primary gives you the basics, secondary can add value. Secondary education can enhance the primary – adding depth, confidence and fun, but also making sure you truly value what you gained from it.” If only people experienced primary and secondary education concurrently too, it would even more effectively illustrate the way that the priorities and benefits of each flow back and forth and complement each other.

Using words to describe something as intangible and subjective as feelings and relationships can only ever be a starting point – I talked in another Poly Means Many post about the way love contains myriad meanings, and how you need to unpack it to find out what’s actually going on. Primary and secondary are only useful terms if you’re able to say “and what do you mean by primary?”

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month seven bloggers – ALBJ, Delightfully Queer, An Open Book, More Than Nuclear, Post Modern Sleaze, Rarely Wears Lipstick, and The Boy With The Inked Skin – will write about their views on one of them.

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7 responses to “Poly Means Many: Primaries and secondaries

  1. You always speak such lovely truths without being in your face or seeming biased. Always genuine and amazing. ❤

    • What a lovely thing to say, thank you! I hope that’s true. I can only write from my own perspective and experiences (one of the wonders of the Poly Means Many project is the variety and, sometimes, surprising agreement), but I hope it’s valuable and interesting for others.

      And if people disagree I totally want them to post and say why!

  2. Pingback: » Labels and hierarchies Poly Means Many

  3. Labels are so damn tricky, aren’t they? A handy shorthand… but then they so often need explaining that they’re maybe not so handy after all!

    This is a really great, thoughtful post (as always). I especially like this line: “I feel as if deciding on the shape of relationship you want before you’ve met the person you might build it with is short-sighted.”

    • Thank you! Yep – it’s weird, we’re constantly coming up with all these new words – or reuses of old words – to explain ourselves and perhaps to grant legitimacy to non-monogamous relationships, but maybe the words themselves are more of a hindrance than a help…

  4. “Primary and secondary are only useful terms if you’re able to say “and what do you mean by primary?”” Yes! Absolutely. I think this is true of all labels. Language can never be that precise. We are just expecting too much of words if we think that one (lexical) word can mean exactly the same thing to everyone.

    I mean, for most people, saying “my partner” would be interpreted to mean sexual and romantic exclusivity, and I doubt poly people are going to give up on that word! Any word used to describe any human relationship is only ever going to be a broad brush stroke, painting outside some of the lines we want.

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