In previous columns I’ve referred to the concepts of primary and secondary. This time I’m going to take a shot at what those terms mean in some more depth, and talk about how one goes about dealing with these kinds of relationships. As always, readers should remember that this is not some kind of definite Word, but just one approach to the problem.
The concepts of primary and secondary lead one to think in terms of ranking; clearly the primary is first or sie wouldn’t be primary. But to say someone is first is one thing, to actually quantify who has what priorities is quite another. It’s not often the case that one partner completely out-ranks another in a poly situation; rather, there’s usually some areas where one relationship dominates and others where the other relationship does. So, what makes these terms mean what they mean?
First off, let’s discard the legal stuff.
Just because someone is married in a legal sense (or hand-fasted or pair-bonded or whatever) does not mean that the partner of that union is automatically the primary. People have primaries without any particular piece of paper. I have a primary now and I’m not currently married. Of course it’s more likely that a partner to whom one is married in some legal sense will be primary, but it’s not a given and certainly legal bonding is not a precondition.
So, what does it mean for someone to be primary?
- the initial, most important, thing is that the person who is my primary comes first in my thoughts. That is, when I do something I try to consider How will this action affect this person? or What will this person think of this thing? even when the primary person is not around.
I don’t claim to be perfect about it, but I do try to follow this.
It’s also the basis for my assertion that my true primary is my Ph.D. Everything I do is considered in light of how it will affect that. But for the purposes of this discussion, let’s leave that aside.
- the second thing is that the primary partner has certain rights and privileges that other relationships do not. For example, my primary has a certain degree of say over anyone else with whom I might get involved. Also, there are certain things done in the primary relationship with the primary person that are not done in any other relationship.
Different couples do this differently, up to and including veto power — that is, the ability of the primary partner to absolutely forbid certain activities or certain people. In my case, my secondaries are told who I’m having intercourse with, as a matter of courtesy, honesty, and health. They can decide not to continue being involved with me as a result of this, and they can express that they do not feel comfortable with so-and-so in advance (advice I sometimes heed). But none of the secondaries has the level of privilege given the primary.
- the third thing is that I do certain things only with my primary. One of the most visible is that I have unprotected sex with my primary and use condoms with everyone else. I’m told this is a fairly common restriction.
While I do many things with many of my secondaries that I don’t do with my primary, that’s a matter of time and interest. Often my secondaries like to do things with me that they don’t do in their other relationships, such as see silly shoot-em-up movies. The things I do with my primary that I don’t do with secondaries are a matter of choice — chosen by myself and my primary — and in some sense serve as ritual formalizations of the level of importance given to the primary.
Now, let’s look at some things being primary is not. Once again, these are for me, based on my experience, and may not necessarily generalize well.
- first, it’s not an issue of love more or love less. I don’t claim to love my primary more or better than others whom I love.
This is part of my overall way of living; I don’t think love is something that can be quantified and ordered. Can you imagine a world where someone could say:
“Oh, yes, I love her 1.0, but I only love him 0.7”? Bleah!
In some ways it’s like asking a mother which child she loves more, or a child whether she loves mommy or daddy more. The question is somewhere between nonsense and insulting. Each relationship is unique in the way that truly fine art is unique. People, including and perhaps especially secondary lovers, are not interchangeable parts.
- second, it’s not an absolute prioritization of time. While I spend more time at the moment with my primary than with any of my secondaries, that’s because we can. For a while my primary and I were doing the long-distance thing (which I do notrecommend) and I saw less of her than of some local people. That didn’t change the fact that she was my primary.
Indeed, one of the things that allows my primary to be my primary is her ability to be unselfish of her and our time. Time-possessiveness is a form of possessiveness, which I feel is antithetical to polyamory in general. As I said earlier, people are not property.
- third, it’s not an expression of greater or lesser commitment. I don’t believe in “forever” and I never promise such things. But at the same time I don’t get into relationships expecting them to end. When I start a relationship, I make a commitment to do the work to make that relationship continue, survive and grow stronger. This is true for both primary and secondaries.
I put a lot of time and energy into making my secondary relationships work, into adapting the relationships to fit our mutual needs and desires. Sometimes secondaries take more work than the primary; sometimes it’s the other way around. To imply that a secondary is a lesser form of commitment is probably an error, though I’m sure some people do treat their secondaries cavalierly.
It’s hard to explain just how important secondary relationships can be to a primary relationship. I’m incredibly blessed because my primary has formed her own friendships with some of my secondaries, but even without that, I could fill an entire page just listing the things that my secondaries have done to help me and my primaries over the years.
One of the changes in my thinking over the years has been to come to the idea that the secondary relationship must support the primary.
I have been very lucky to have secondaries who take this idea seriously. Without that support I’m quite sure I wouldn’t be where I am today.
One of my friends explained that she expects her lovers to be supportive of her in whatever she chooses to do, including having other lovers. I like this formulation, but I would say that for a secondary to support the primary relationship goes a step beyond supporting me. Sometimes it means taking me aside and giving me a good swift kick in the butt because I’m doing something stupid.
Sometimes it means going away because the primary needs more time or energy at the moment or because that’s where my attention is focussed. Sometimes it’s being someone who can listen to my complaints about my primary, then think How can I make that better? and feed back ideas to me.
The most important, and hardest, part of all this is that the secondary person has to actively interact with the primary person. This is not to say that the two people have to be best buddies or anything like that; rather, this is to say that the secondary is not allowed to pretend that, or act as if, the primary doesn’t exist. When I am with my secondary lovers, I am not a different person, nor am I some fraction of the person I am at other times. I am a whole person at all times and the only way for a relationship to work is if all the people involved acknowledge this reality. In this sense, I want a higher standard from my secondaries and I try to live up to that standard when I am the one who is secondary. It’s often hard, but the alternative is too potentially messy to be comfortable.
Of course, this also works in the other direction: the primary needs to support the secondaries. That often involves time management or taking an active role in befriending these people who are important to me. In a sense, my primary supports me in all that I do, but she goes a step beyond that; she supports my secondary relationships as well, putting in the extra effort without which I could not possibly manage.