On Finding a "Good" "Secondary" Relationship.

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 14.472% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I’m not a fan of the “poly is just like being married, with bolt-on attachment relationships!” model, even though I’m in one. Poly is fluid. Poly is people loving other people, and the relationship webs can get as complicated as a cat’s cradle.
But a lot of poly people are “core couples.” And one of the cries I hear from couples is, “Why is it so hard to find a secondary partner?”
Well, maybe it’s because you’re calling them secondaries.
Look, falling in love is tough enough without being told up-front that you are the ablative shield that will be tossed aside, should the “real” relationship need to be protected. And I see a lot of couples concerned that they can’t seem to find a nice, obedient girl to have sex with them both and smother them in affection then go away on demand, and why is this all taking so much time?
It’s taking time because you’re asking for really specific behavior, and you’re going to have to flip through a lot of people before you fill that slot.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to the idea of core relationships – I have one with my wife, Gini. If push comes to shove, anyone I date knows that Gini will come first in an emergency.
Does “coming second to someone else’s needs” make it a bad relationship? I sure hope not. Because if push comes to shove, I’ve been informed that if there’s a fire and she can save only me or her children, well… I’d better prepare to roast. I married her knowing that if there was an irreparable conflict with the children-units, I’d be summarily jettisoned.
Yet we have had a lovely relationship for fourteen years. How?
Well, the trick is that while Gini values her children, she doesn’t see me as disposable fun, either. So in conflicts, she didn’t automatically take anyone’s side – some days she was pissing off our daughter by defending me, other days she was pissing off me by defending the kids, and on certain haggard days she was pissing us both off by pointing out we were all pains in the ass.
And she prioritized space for me, depending on who needed it. There are very few days the house is on fire, but there are tons of days where I needed cuddles more than the kids did, and vice versa. She didn’t use the fact that the kids would ultimately come first as an excuse to ignore me when I became troublesome, and more importantly, she didn’t use me as a vacation to get away from the kids when they become a hassle.
It’s entirely possible to have a fulfilling, emotionally-wonderful relationship knowing you come second to someone else. It’s how most of my good poly relationships have worked myself, since most of the people I date have kids or a spouse or both.
If you’re one of those couples, you might have a harder time finding new people.
Look, I dig that poly is a scary time. And the quickest and easiest way to create an artificial feeling of security is to form rules that bar this new partner from fun activities: You can sleep with him, but you can’t sleep over. No holding hands when I’m around. No dates on our special weekends.
Those aren’t bad things in a void – hey, they keep you together with the person you value most. But don’t kid yourself: it’s also a very overt and alienating sign to prospective new lovers: We have rules, and they are designed so that you have less fun than we do. Know your place.
And if that happens, well, can you really blame the vast majority of people for kicking the tires, coming to the correct conclusion that this is just going to be a continual battle for control, and moving on?
I dunno. I hate the term “secondary.” I hate the idea that someone is less deserving of love because they came in later. Yes, there’s a reality on the ground that if push comes to shove, I’ll have to choose Gini as my Pokemon-in-battle…. but my whole job should be ensuring fairness, not reinforcing a hierarchy. Anything I’m doing on purpose to minimize a lover’s involvement in our lives, whether they’re dating Gini or me, is a wretched thing that should be done scarcely, if at all.
So when I hear “It’s so hard for us to find a good partner!”, what that often means is, “It’s so hard for us to find someone who will fit into this narrow box we have carved out for them!” Which, hey, if you can find them, great. I’m all about happiness. There’s someone for everyone. Doubtlessly, there’s someone in this big world who feels comfortable jumping through the hoops you’ve set, and genuinely doesn’t want to be a quote-unquote primary, and will settle into the narrow restrictions you’ve enabled.
(And hopefully, you’re following rule #1 in finding new lovers.)
But if you’re very concerned about finding new partners soon, then maybe you want to look at how you come across to new people. I’m not saying rules are bad – Gini and I have our own little quirks, like how only we can have sex on our impossible mattress – but I am saying that you have to acknowledge how offputting all those rules are, and maybe think about handling your jealousy in other ways. Or settle in for the long wait as you sift through hundreds of people to audition the right person for you.
Or maybe you just consider not being poly, and becoming swingers, or even monogamous. There’s nothing wrong with that, either.


  1. Stephen Eley
    Aug 22, 2013

    Good post. I linked this on FB with a comment that, on further thought, I’d like to retract. I had said:

    Regarding the word itself, I’m on the fence — I don’t _like_ calling myself or anyone else a ‘secondary,’ it does imply a negative value judgment, but it’s sometimes hard to find a better word to describe a given practical relationship dynamic. If I could think of some term that implied, e.g., “My spouse is my priority if there are conflicts” but did NOT imply “My spouse is important and you’re not,” I would use that instead.

    That’s what I thought five minutes ago, but I’ve realized I was falling into the trap of assuming there has to be a word. That everything has to be classified.
    If the relationship with my spouse (hypothetical) is the thing that has special cases, I don’t have to relabel everyone else. When it’s actually relevant, I can call my spouse a ‘primary’ without calling everyone else ‘secondary.’ And when it’s not relevant for a given context (which is most of the time) I can just say ‘lovers’ or ‘partners’ or whatever about everyone.
    I think that’s where I’m likely to go with that. Thanks for the thought seed.

    • TheFerrett
      Aug 23, 2013

      I think there has to be a term, if only for shorthand purposes. I want that shorthand, as a starting place.
      I just wish it was a better place.

  2. Pete Butler
    Aug 22, 2013

    It’s not just a crisis thing, though. See, I actually LIKE the term (and I’ve been a secondary in a number of relationships) because it helps establish boundaries. It makes it clear that there are roles in each other’s lives it just wouldn’t be appropriate for us to fill.
    Do we love each other? Absolutely. Are we going to move in together? Nope. Your husband and I get along fine, but the “roomies” thing would be pushing it. But that’s okay, because I’m your secondary.
    Will we be there for each other in a crisis? Damn straight. Am I going to help you raise your kid? HELL no. I’m not a parent, I know this, and I have no desire to pretend otherwise. But that’s okay, because I’m your secondary.
    If your husband suddenly decides he feels threatened by our relationship or where it’s going emotionally, am I screwed? Ayup. But that’s okay(-ish), because I’m your secondary. Yeah, it’ll sting like a motherfucker. I knew the risks when I signed on.
    It is the responsibility of the two people in the secondary relationship to make sure everybody feels valued and respected despite whatever boundaries are appropriate for that relationship, regardless of the terminology being used. If you find the word insulting, by all means use a different word. But if it’s the boundaries the word represents that are the real problem — and I’ve been there — you’re in for a rough ride.

  3. A. Nonamouse
    Aug 22, 2013

    I’m posting anon. for profesional reasons, but I don’t dissagre entirely. I beleve the primary/secondary has more to do with the reality of living in the world, and less to do with the amount of love and affection. In the real world bills need to be paid, food cooked , dishes washed and laundry folded. The dividing line ( for me at least ) is the recognition that the entanglement is different in these cases. I have even seen people who, under this definition have more than one primary and it’s OK. I also have tertiary relations, essentially friends with benefits. I don’t love them, at least not in the romantic sense, however we are physically compatible and emotionally supportive.

  4. Kim
    Aug 23, 2013

    I love this so much! I’ve been trying to make this point in unicorn debates a lot lately and it really, really pisses couples off. This is SUCH GOOD READING!

  5. meamoi
    Aug 24, 2013

    My wife and I have the similar but reverse problem…
    She’s bi, I’m straight. She want’s a full-on equal-in-the-relationship person to join us (and I’m cool with this) that’s female. She’s not satisfied with just me, or just a girl, but emotionally needs both. And we want to fully accept such a person into our relationship. Not as a secondary, not with me or my wife as “the primary”, but as full equals in a trio that’s equal. And we want it an actual *relationship*. However, it seems most of the people we meet are more interested in one-night-stands, or no-strings relationships.

    • TheFerrett
      Aug 26, 2013

      That’ll happen, too. The swinger community is large and eager, and so you’ll find a lot of quick fucks.
      Same principle, though: You want something more specific, you’ll have to be patient and kiss a lotta frogs.

  6. Wendy
    Aug 25, 2013

    Maybe part of it is that they are looking?
    I don’t see my husband and I reaching a point where I would be comfy in a poly relationship but I’m not saying it would never happen. As you said relationships are fluid.

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