Lately, the terms ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ have been popping up rather more often than usual in the Poly blogosphere (at least in the part of it that I read) as well as in some of the recent discussions I’ve had with people in the community.
In essence, I understand the usefulness of the terms ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’. Not always, but often enough, a polyamorous setup will include one pair that has had a longer relationship with each other than with any of their other partners, and this older relationship will include shared finances, kids, property, etc. Often, but again, not always, this relationship will have started out monogamous and then become polyamorous over time. With the shift to poly will have come some questioning and reassessing of the time spent by the original couple with each other, shifts in responsibilities, and adjustments of different kinds within the relationship, all of which will have been dealt with in whatever way seemed best to the couple at the time. One way of dealing with it is to set up the original relationship as the ‘primary’ relationship and to count all other relationships as ‘secondary’.*
On the face of it, that’s pretty reasonable – the older relationship seems the most ‘real’ or even ‘grown up’ one given the presence of financial investments in housing and other kinds of property, shared living space, shared family, shared children, shared goals, and the mutual support that all of this entails. This casts a newer relationship as less ‘serious’ because the people involved are only just starting out and can’t really say for sure whether it’ll last or end up filed as a pleasant diversion. The amount of time invested in each relationship is also (usually) in proportion to the number of places where the lives of each pair intersect – the more points of contact, the more time given to (and needed by) the relationship. This then also leads to the conclusion that the first relationship – the primary in this case – is more important, more worthwhile, more permanent, more serious, etc. than the second – or secondary – relationship.
This bugs me for a number of reasons – some of which I realize are specific to me and my situation. I’m sure the above can and does work for many people and I don’t mean to imply that there’s something inherently wrong or bad with they way they do things. It’s just not, I’m beginning to understand, the way I want to do it.
First of all, in this kind of situation, one relationship will always be older than the other, but I think casting one as less serious and one as more based solely on that is a mistake. Eventually (however far down the track) I think the relative ages of the relationships in question cease to matter very much. Using the sibling analogy, there’s a bigger gap between a two-year-old and a four-year-old than between a twelve-year-old and a fourteen-year-old; by the time they’re reach twenty-two and twenty-four, the gap has shrunk even more, and so on. Each relationship grows and matures at its own pace, but, assuming it lasts, it does get there.
Another thing that puts me off the terms ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ is the implication that one must maintain this dichotomy and pull back if the ‘secondary’ relationship starts to stray into ‘primary’ territory. Privileging one relationship over the other, while perhaps reasonable at the outset, can soon start to limit the ‘secondary’ relationship unfairly. Obviously, not all relationships automatically bloom into always-and-forever type scenarios, but assuming a connection that feels lifelong is made, I don’t think it makes sense to deliberately stop it from developing. As I understand it, the whole point of polyamory is the ‘many loves’ idea, ie, the freedom to have multiple committed relationships. A primary-secondary setup seems, to my mind, to limit that unnecessarily.
Speaking of privilege, there’s also the assumption that primary partners have a say in each other’s secondary relationships. Again, while that may make sense at the beginning when you’re only just beginning to figure out your desires and boundaries – and is probably very useful in some cases – I don’t think it’s sustainable in the long term. Once begun, relationships can and do take on a life of their own and are intensely personal and specific to the individuals involved. Interference from a third party is just that: interference. To give a third party veto power over the relationship after a certain point is grossly unfair as well as disrespectful to all involved.
No two relationships are identical so you can’t really expect them to be equal in all respects, but you can value each for what it is. Terms like ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ are unnecessarily limiting and impose a structure that may not actually suit the nature of either relationship. I’ve heard over and over that each relationship finds its own level* and I have found that to be true. Sometimes, relationships move levels quickly, sometimes slowly, sometimes not at all. And sometimes they end up at the same level quite unexpectedly and it can be something of a challenge to figure out how to make it all work. But I’d rather have the challenge than put relationships into artificial cages and not allow them to grow as they will.
*That may be a quote or a paraphrase from The Ethical Slut.