Secondary’s Guide

Secondary partners have rights too…

[Thoughts on becoming a secondary] [Secondary Bill of Rights]

With grateful acknowledgement to Maya and all the others who have contributed to this page.

Things to consider before entering a relationship as a secondary

Many polyamorous relationships follow a “primary/secondary” model, in which one couple, the “primary” relationship, supercedes other “secondary” relationships. (It’s also possible for a relationship to have multiple primaries and multiple secondaries; the difference between a “primary” and a “secondary” often is most directly connected to matters such as time, priorities, finances, physical cohabitation, and so on.)

In this model, the core couple (or group) may have certain rights and privileges (such as cohabitation, sharing mortgages or child rearing, and so on) that are not afforded to secondaries.

Not everyone is well suited to being a secondary. Secondaries sometimes cannot expect their relationship to meet all their needs; their role may be circumscribed by rules designed to protect the safety and security of the primary relationship.

If your true desire/need is to have (and be) a primary partner, but the only relationship your lover can offer is of a secondary nature, then you should probably figure out whether you can be happy in that role either temporarily or permanently.

For instance, it may be possible for the relationship to evolve into a primary (or co-primary) form over time—but that does take time, and during that process, you will have to find a way to make peace with a role that is more secondary than you might prefer.

It’s also possible that the relationship won’t ever evolve out of secondary status—is that something that you will be able to be happy with? It’s very important for anyone entering a romantic relationship as a secondary to think carefully, and understand fully, what his or her expectations are—what is necessary for you to be happy, and will your relationship be able to give you that?

Also, if you are getting involved as a secondary with a person who has an existing primary relationship where some form of veto power is in effect, you should probably figure out whether you can live with the possibility of having an important relationship ended by a third party.

What are your expectations and limits, as a secondary? At what point would you have to admit that the relationship is not meeting your needs and not healthy? Are you hanging around mainly hoping that circumstances will change, or can you find a way to accept and embrace the situation as it exists? What rules are in place which govern your secondary status, and what are these rules designed to protect? These are all things you’re well advised to consider.

The best tool you have as a secondary partner is information. One of the defining characteristics of a secondary relationship is a power differential, and it’s vital to understand how that power differential will manifest itself in your relationship. As a secondary partner, your needs may not be given the same weight as those of the primary partners, but that does not mean that your needs are not important. It also does not mean that your needs should be disregarded by the primary couple. It is up to you to decide where your limits are, what needs are non-negotiable, and what you want to get out of your relationship. Bring these things to the table, and all the relationships involved will be healthier.

Coming into a secondary relationship, it’s important to know not just what the rules, guidelines and limitations are, but why they were created. What function do they serve? What is being protected? Sometimes rules are set up to protect insecurities the primary couple isn’t even aware of. It’s important that everyone understands what all the rules and boundaries are, and what they are for. Two secondary relationships can have the same rules, but the reasons behind the rules can make an enormous difference in the experience of the secondary partner.

When the core relationship originally set the guidelines, what was the motivation behind the guidelines? Was it primarily to make one or all partners feel safe? Safe how? What is it that is threatened by other relationships? What is it that they are trying to protect? The rules are frequently set up in an effort to preserve the form of the primary relationship as it exists before additional relationships are added. They may try to preserve it to the point that they do not treat their secondary relationships ethically.

What are the reasons for the primary/secondary division? Are they primarily practical, or emotional?

Some possible reasons to define a relationship as secondary

  • The secondary partners don’t live together and their lives don’t allow them to spend a regular enough amount of time together to meet primary needs
  • The relationship is new and hasn’t progressed enough to form a primary commitment
  • There are children involved or something else that creates demands on time that is non-negotiable
  • There is some kind of upheaval (custody battle, financial issues, family illness) that requires too much attention or resources to allow for a primary relationship
  • There simply isn’t enough time or resources for a primary relationship
  • The people in the primary relationship believe that the rules will keep their relationship safe
  • There was some kind of violated trust in the past, and the rule is in place to keep that from happening again
  • The primary couple wishes to remain special to each other in some kind of tangible way
  • To guarantee that in the event there are problems, the primary relationship gets the most attention
  • They are afraid that without definition, their relationship will end, or change in undesirable ways
  • To preserve the majority of sexual, financial, companionship, and time resources for the primary partnership
  • The relationship may be long-distance, and thus may not allow the people involved to spend the same amount of time together that one might normally associate with a primary relationship
  • The people involved want a relationship without the level of practical hassles or practical concerns typically involved in a primary relationship
  • The people involved want a fairly light or casual relationship
  • The relationship is successful as it is but the people involved have reason to believe it might not be at a primary level

Of these reasons, some tend to be more successful than others. Examples of reasons I personally am skeptical about, and consider to be red flags, include concerns about being special (because I believe it’s based on an attitude that fosters insecurity, feeds it, and helps it grow), past issues within other relationships (I do not believe in holding one person’s mistakes against a different person), and concerns about keeping the relationship “safe” (if the people involved are committed to nurturing their relationship, then they do not need rules in order to keep their relationship strong and healthy; if they are not committed to nurturing their relationship, then rules won’t save them).

If you are going into a relationship as a secondary partner, especially in a situation where you’ve been told that your relationship must be secondary, it’s important to learn as much as you can about why that is. Find out what you can expect from the relationship and what is expected of you. Is it possible that you can ever be a primary? How much of your relationship, companionship and sexual needs can you expect to have met? If there are problems in the secondary relationship, can you expect that resources will be dedicated, even if it takes resources away from the primary relationship?

How are you viewed as a secondary partner? Are you someone who is seen as a beneficial part of the lives of the primary partners? Are you seen as someone who is ultimately competition and needs to be kept within certain boundaries? Are you seen as someone who is part of the family or someone who needs to stay outside the family?

In many cases, each person in the primary relationship has a different view on what guidelines should be in place and why. They each have a different agenda, different priorities, and different insecurities. Sometimes the rules are different for each partner. No matter how different their views are, it is up to them to come up with a compromise that works for both of them, and present those definitions, guidelines and rules as a unified front. If you are getting different ideas about what the rules are from each partner, then gently remind them that they aren’t being fair to you and need to do a little more work.

Rules to be cautious about

A primary partner cannot love a secondary partner, or cannot love a secondary partner as much
The problem with this premise is that it isn’t really possible to stop yourself from falling in love or control how much you love. You either do or you don’t. If you don’t, things work out fine. If you do, then it can cause a lot of trauma to all relationships involved. What this rule suggests is that the only way the primary couple believes they can preserve their love is to prevent any other love. It criminalizes love, and isn’t really what polyamory is about.

The secondary relationship is completely separate
Usually you’ll get something like this when the primary couple is insecure about the whole poly thing and doesn’t want to have to think or look to hard at what it means. One of the ways they avoid looking at it is to make rules that keep the secondary relationship separate from their lives. Big red flag: if you are dating one half of the primary couple, and the other half won’t meet you…run away! The person you are dating is either cheating, or their partner is extremely insecure with what they are doing.

Both primary partners must be involved in some or all aspects of the secondary relationship
This might be as far reaching as “you have to date both of us, or if you date one person, both people must be there.” Or it can be more specific, such as “both primary partners must be there if there is any sexual contact.” This suggests that the primary couple is prone to jealousy and insecurity, and I don’t think this is the healthiest way to address that. This can be a way of controlling the relationship, and can make it difficult to establish healthy relationships of any depth.


The Secondary’s Bill of Rights came about as a result of many poor experiences that people I’ve known have had in secondary relationships, especially to couples. In such relationships, some couples often reserve many special privileges for themselves, while treating secondary partners with suspicion or indifference.

Ideally, the things in this list would be rights that everyone in any kind of relationship has. It seems that in practice, there is greatest need to be aware that even secondaries can and should reasonably expect to be treated well.

In a nutshell: I have the right to be treated with dignity, respect, consideration, and courtesy. This is true of any relationship, regardless of its form and regardless of its status. Using the word “right” in this context means “This is something that it is reasonable and normal for me to expect, and reasonable and normal for my partner to give me.”

If these “rights” look like ideas that any relationship, monogamous or polyamorous, primary or secondary, ought to embody, that's exactly the point. Often, it’s easy to forget that a secondary relationship is still a relationship, and the people in it should really keep that in mind.

I have the right to be treated with honesty, integrity, compassion, and sensitivity to my needs.

I have the right, and responsibility, to clearly understand the terms of a relationship. When I enter a new relationship, I have the right to have rules and the reasons behind them clearly explained and to have my questions answered. “Because that is how things are” is not an answer; if I do not understand the reasons for the rules, then I may unintentionally violate the spirit of those rules even if I remain within the letter. Rules should not be added or changed without explanation. I cannot be expected to discover the rules governing my relationship by breaking them accidentally and having them explode in my face.

I have the right to be a part of discussions about decisions that affect me, wherever possible and practical. It is unfair to be told about changes in the form and rules of my relationships after the fact. While it is not reasonable for me to expect full decision-making partnership in all aspects of the primary relationship—for example, I may not have decision-making power in whether or not the primary partners decide to move away for a better job—I do expect to be part of any negotiations that directly impact the form my relationship takes.

I have a right and responsibility to set clear limits on the obligations I am making. A lack of primary or even other secondary partners does not mean all of my time and resources are available. Just as I as a secondary cannot expect to monopolize all of my partner’s time, my partner can not expect to monopolize all of mine.

I have the right to ask my partners to compromise and seek to reach a middle ground when possible. I should not always be the one and only one to make changes and do all of the bending.

I have the right to have relationships with people, not with relationships. That is, I have the right to conduct my relationship with a living, thinking human being rather than with an established relationship or a set of rules. I have the right to time with each individual separately as well as in groups.

I have the right to expect that plans made with my partner will not be changed at the last minute just because a primary partner has had a bad day. As a secondary, I deal with most of my bad days alone and have the right to expect last-minute changes in plans to happen only in rare and unavoidable situations.

I have the right to a balance between what I give to the relationship and what is given back to me.

I have the right to be treated as an equal individual (which is different than being an equal partner). I deserve to have my partner spend time in my world as well as visiting his/hers/theirs. My likes, dislikes, desires, hangups should not be dismissed simply because I am secondary.

I have the right to enjoy NRE (within reason), passion, and special moments with my partner without guilt or apologies.

I have the right to privacy. The details of physical intimacy and emotionally intimate conversations should not be shared without my knowledge and consent. This does not mean I have the right to keep secrets from the other people involved; it merely means that whatever rights to basic privacy they may enjoy, I may enjoy as well.

I have the right to know information that impacts my sexual health. This includes information about other sexual partners or high-risk sexual behaviors the primary couple may have or engage in.

I have the right to be told the truth at all times. This includes a right to know about fears, doubts and concerns as they arise, not after they become insurmountable. Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear; tell the truth—that is what I need to hear.

I have the right to have and express all of my emotions. I knowingly and willingly accept that being secondary may place limits on many things (e.g., sharing family holidays or vacations with my partner, having my partner with me in a time of crisis or celebration). My acceptance of that possibility does not mean that I won’t be disappointed or even sad during such times. Further, being secondary comes with some built-in challenges to security (especially in the beginning) and there may be times I need reassurance as to how and where I fit into my partner’s world. I promise to do my best to keep things in perspective and to avoid guilt, drama, temper tantrums, and pouting, but I ask that my partner and his or her partners accept reasonable expressions of doubt, disappointment, etc., on my part.

I have the right to be not just tolerated, but actively wanted by everyone in the primary relationship. I have the right to feel that I am not a problem or a compromise, but that I add value. This may sound unreasonable to some people, but the fact is, if I’m not wanted by my partner’s partner, that has an effect on me.

When I am in a relationship with one person, I am in a relationship with all the other people that person is involved with, especially the primary partner(s)—even if there is no romantic connection between us! If I am resented in any way by them, that resentment serves to undermine the secondary relationship and keep it from being “real.” It creeps into the rules that are created and the definitions that are set in place.

When one partner has problems with a poly relationship, it can tend to negatively affect a secondary partner, creating unhappiness for everyone. Compassion demands that everyone involved work to resolve any resentment that may exist on the part of any of the members of a primary relationship toward the secondary relationship.

I have the right to have a voice in the form my relationship takes. I am a person, with my own needs and my own ideas about what’s important in my life; even when I am joining a pre-existing relationship, I have a right to have some say in the time I can spend with my lover and other things about the form and structure of that relationship. If my partners attempt to impose pre-existing agreements about the form, time, or circumstances under which I may spend time with my lover, I have a right to speak up if those agreements do not meet my needs, and I have a right to have my partner and my partner’s partner hear me and consider what I say. That doesn’t mean they have to do whatever I say, but it does mean that I can and should have a voice.

I have the right to walk away. Healthy relationships are voluntary. If I decide the relationship isn't working for me, I have the right to leave.

I have the right to pursue independent friendships outside the primary couple. I am an independent person; I get to choose who my friends are, and make choices about the connections I form. That means I can have friendships outside the primary couple. It also means I do not have to be friends with all the couple’s friends. Being secondary does not mean I am giving up my social circle nor my right to choose who I allow into my intimate sphere.

I have the right to set boundaries, including boundaries on my space, time, and emotional intimacy. Being a secondary doesn't mean I am at the primary couple's beck and call.

Last updated: Tue May 12, 2020