“Primary/secondary” is one of the most common polyamorous relationship configurations. In a primary/secondary relationship, a person has one “primary” relationship (or possibly more than one primary relationship), which is a close, interconnected relationship such as a spouse, and one or more “secondary” relationships, which are romantic relationships that typically have fewer expectations with regard to life partnership, financial entanglement, emotional intimacy, or some combination of these things.

The title of this page,”Care and feeding of secondary relationships,” is a tongue-in-cheek reference to one of the problems I see most often in this kind of relationship—a secondary partner being treated in some ways more as a pet than a partner.

Well, of course. A secondary partner is secondary–that’s what the word means! The primary comes first, then the secondary!

Yes and no. Yes, there are differences between a primary and a secondary relationship; the problems with this relationship structure arise when you try to tell a relationship what to be.

For example: if you have a relationship whose natural form is to be secondary (that is, the relationship’s natural form is casual, without expectation of life partnership and so forth), then trying to force it to be a life-entwined, primary relationship is probably a mistake. If, on the other hand, you have a relationship whose natural form is to be an extremely close, life-entwined relationship, then trying to force it to be a more casual, secondary relationship is a mistake.

You can’t always predict the natural form a relationship will take; trying to dictate the form of a relationship, or force a relationship to fit a mold that’s not natural for it, is almost certain to cause tension and stress. The greater the difference between the most natural form of a relationship and the form you force it to take, the greater the stress. Polyamorous relationships benefit from flexibility.

The single most common mistake I see in polyamorous relationships is that people decide in advance what they want their relationship to be, then try to make the next relationship they enter fit that mold. This approach works fine when you’re looking for car parts, but not so well when you’re looking for partners.

So you’re saying don’t do primary/secondary relationships?

No.

What I’m saying is that primary/secondary works best when it’s descriptive, not prescriptive. That is, it works well when you say “Alice and Betty are my partners; my relationship with Alice took a primary form, my relationship with Betty took a secondary form.” It doesn’t work so well when you say “Okay, I have a primary relationship with Alice, so that slot is full. Let’s see here…hmm, I have two slots left, and each of them can fit a secondary person. I’m starting a new relationship with Betty, so she’s going to be my first secondary partner.”

If you try to tell your relationships what to be, and they fit that mold, then coincidence has entered the picture. What often happens is you say “Okay, I only have a “secondary” slot left, and I want a relationship with Betty, so I’m going to make my relationship with Betty be a secondary relationship”—and then the natural form of your relationship with Betty is not secondary, so you try to force it to be secondary, and the needs of the relationship aren’t met well, and people are unhappy.

It’s intuitively obvious, I think, why it’s a mistake to take a light, secondary relationship and force it to be a deeply entwined, primary relationship; what surprises me is that it seems not to be intuitively obvious why doing the reverse can create problems as well.

But my spouse is already my primary partner, so of course my other relationships are going to be secondary!

That does not necessarily follow, though it seems at first glance like it does.

It’s important, and often revealing, to look at the reasons why people force their relationships to fit primary/secondary molds, and think about whether those reasons are sound, and what effect they may have on your partners. In my experience, people often try to coerce their relationships into primary/secondary molds for reasons that break down when they’re examined closely.

What do you mean? It’s obvious why I want secondary relationships—I want to keep my relationship with my primary!

That’s a common argument in favor of enforcing a primary/secondary distinction: “This model is the only way to ‘protect’ the primary relationship.” This idea rests on a large number of unspoken assumptions that are poorly founded. For example, it assumes that a new primary relationship will always threaten an existing one. It also assumes that there is only enough focused time and attention available for one primary relationship—something that is true only if one subscribes to the “resource competition” model of polyamory, and believes that anything that is given to one partner must be taken away from another.

Furthermore, it assumes that if the natural course of a relationship with Betty is a primary relationship, then forcing it to be secondary, which is likely not to make Betty happy, won’t threaten the existing primary relationship with Alice. In my experience, existing relationships are more threatened by unhappiness or instability within new relationships than by the natural form of those new relationships. It’s pretty simple, really; if you create rules and structures that hurt your partner, then you’re not actually making your relationship with your partner stronger.

Another argument in favor of primary/secondary relationships is simple incredulity: “You have to have a primary/secondary relationship, because only one person can be primary—only one person can be ‘most important.’ How can you have two primaries? That’s impossible!” At its core, that’s really the same argument often made against polyamory in the first place; “How can you really love two people? That’s impossible!”

Still another argument in favor of primary/secondary relationships is the argument from insecurity; “I want to know I’m first. I want to know I’m best. I don’t want you to have any other primary relationships because I want to know you love me the most.” So what happens is the couple creates rules and covenants designed to micromanage new relationships and steer them around the insecurities of the original couple, rather than trying to confront those insecurities head-on and resolve them; and, as you might predict, new relationships don’t go so well if they develop in a way that challenges the existing insecurities.

So you are saying you don’t like primary/secondary relationships and only insecure people have them, then.

No. I’m saying two things: first, that trying to decide in advance what your relationships will look like—trying to decide in advance, for example, that Alice will be a primary relationship and Betty will be a secondary relationship—is often unwise, and creates tension and conflict; and second, that if you feel you must enforce a primary/secondary model, it’s wise to examine the reasons why.

Say that, for whatever reason, a couple decides to be polyamorous but also decides that it will make sure that all new relationships take some predefined form. And then a new person comes along, and a new relationship develops, and its natural progression doesn’t match that predefined form. Now they can have serious problems.

At this point, their options are limited. They can try to force the relationship to fit that form; when people do this, they often find that it makes one or more people unhappy. It’s quite reasonable to expect someone in a relationship to be unhappy if that relationship is not getting what it needs—and yes, relationships, like people, do have needs. So now what do they do? They can go on forcing the relationship to fit a mold that’s not natural for it, and go on making people unhappy; for extra bonus cruelty points, they can be a completely unfeeling cad and twist the knife in the secondary partner by saying something like “Well, when we met, you knew the rules and you knew I only had space for a secondary partner,” thereby effectively holding the secondary partner hostage by his or her feelings.

Or, they can say “This relationship doesn’t fit the mold I had available, so I’m breaking up with you,” thereby proving that they treat partners as expendable, interchangeable commodities, designed only for filling a certain slot, and they suck.

Or maybe, just maybe, they can examine their reasons for trying to dictate what form their relationships can take, and see if maybe, just maybe, those reasons are poorly formed or are built on a foundation of insecurities that can be addressed.

Relationships, like people, can and do have needs. In a relationship between two people, it’s important to listen to three voices—the needs of each person involved in the relationship, and the needs of the relationship itself. Ignore any of these needs at your peril.

That means I should do everything with my secondary, and have no time alone with my primary!

No. It is not too much to ask to be able to spend “alone time” with either of your partners, primary or secondary. In fact, almost any romantic relationship does need a certain amount of “alone time.”

What I’m talking about here is a matter of basic worldview, rather than a question of who should spend how much alone time with whom.

There are two basic models of multiple relationships I’ve seen. The first of these is the “exclusive” model, which says “Alice needs to spend 10 hours a week with me, Betty needs to spend 15 hours a week with me, I need to be at work 40 hours a week, I need to run errands 7 hours a week…hmm, let’s see, that means that Alice gets this, this, and this time, Betty gets this time over here…” It’s a resource-competition model; you have so much of a resource, your time, and Alice wants this much, and Betty wants this much, and they are both competing for the same resource. The resource-competition model is zero-sum; every hour Alice gets is an hour that Betty doesn’t get.

The other model is the “inclusive” model; the idea that time spent with Alice does not need to exclude Betty, and vice versa. While any relationship should reasonably be able to have some alone time, the heart of the inclusive model is the idea that it is possible to spend time with one’s partners in a way that includes everyone, while still being “quality time.”

Indeed, a corollary of the inclusive model is that if your partner has another lover, it’s possible for you to spend quality time with your partner without excluding your partner’s other lover, even if you have no romantic connection with your partner’s other partner.

The inclusive model, however, does not work for people who believe that their partner’s time is a commodity that rightfully belongs to them; “But I shouldn’t HAVE to spend time with Betty! I’m the primary partner, that time belongs to ME!” It also does not work for people who feel challenged or threatened by their partner’s other partners; “I can’t stand to see you kiss Betty! It makes me insecure!” Nor does it work for people who feel that any time spent in the physical presence of a partner’s other partner is not quality time by definition: “You never spend any time with me!” “But honey, we spent the entire afternoon together, remember?” “That doesn’t count; Betty was there!”

Ethical primary/secondary relationships require compassion and consideration of the needs of everyone involved, including the secondary. No person should be forced to fill a slot in your life; a person is a person, not a pet and not a commodity. Any healthy relationship must recognize that people have feelings and people have needs of a relationship—even if those relationships are secondary—and for the relationship to work, those needs and those feelings must be treated with respect.

It’s a fallacy to think that a primary relationship can always cater to the insecurities and fears of the people involved regardless of the consequences that has on the secondary relationship; it’s hurtful to treat a secondary partner poorly or to micromanage a secondary relationship around the insecurities of the primary partners, and it also hurts the primary relationship as well.