The Heart of Polyamory: Primarily Secondary
By Millie Jackson
Although contentious, commonly used terms in polyamory are “primary”, “secondary” and “tertiary” which represent different levels of relationships. The controversy stems from how the terms are used and if they imply status for lovers or simply reflect the degree to which a lover is involved with the day-to-day life of a partner. Many people object to the hierarchical implications but begrudgingly use the terms because of a lack of good alternatives.
“Primaries” typically live together, share expenses, may raise children together and, whether married or not, are usually overtly acknowledged by friends, family, co-workers and the like as being a couple. “Secondaries” tend to be romantically and sexually involved without sharing as much of the practicalities of day-to-day living associated with a “primary” relationship and may not be publically acknowledged as lovers. “Tertiaries” have even less if any involvement in day-to-day living, often live out-of-town and/or have other circumstances that cause contact to be infrequent, sometimes with visits limited to a few times a year or less.
Just as with people’s varied uses of the term “polyamory”, it is important to understand what is meant when they use these relationship categories. I have found that a REALLY important distinction is whether the person is speaking quantitatively (as with the descriptions above that reflect the degree to which everyday practicalities are shared) or qualitatively (as in the type and depth of feelings experienced for a lover).
When I decided to determine once and for all if polyamory is for me, my unwitting career as a serial monogamist was solidly intact. The timing was perfect to pursue polyamory when my last monogamous relationship ended. I believed that initially being unpartnered would give me the best opportunity to discover polyamory without the concerns and possible limitations that an existing partnership could create for me. I wanted to know that I was doing what felt right for me in each moment without consulting and negotiating based on an existing partner’s fears or perceived need for reassurance, security and comfort. Prior to exploring polyamory within the context of an existing relationship, I desired to first understand how it translated into a healthy life-style for me as an individual. This ended up being a wise strategy.
In all of my polyamorous relationships thus far, I have been a secondary. Given my fondness for triangulated energy and my desire to share a male and female lover, I pursued established male/female couples. In poly terms, I am the quintessential “unicorn”—the supposedly rare and elusive bisexual who will round out the happy trio sought by oh-so-very-many couples.
Employing this strategy meant that I was always the one entering an established relationship. Talk about hitting the ground running! This is like starting three relationships at once—one with him, one with her and one with them. I wouldn’t have had time for a primary lover during this time of exploration.
Initially, this dynamic worked well for me since I very much enjoy my personal freedom and independence. I liked living alone and was not ready to “play house” with anyone. I was comforted knowing that my new lovers had each other. We all experienced excitement and greater fulfillment without much disruption to the aspects of our lives that we wanted to maintain.
Even after four unsustainable attempts at dating couples over as many years, I still very much enjoy the dynamics of a triad. I am now aware of the potential pitfalls associated with joining existing relationships. I find myself in the frustrating place of being clearer than ever about what I like and seek in this relationship dynamic yet wondering if it is actually attainable.
Although being a secondary meets my short-term goals, it has not offered me what I want in the long-term—a committed relationship as equal partners. Even when that was the spoken intention of the couple, it did not seem probable.
It is difficult to walk away from the fun, excitement and relative satisfaction that a secondary relationship with a couple offers me. However, as I become older and wiser, there is a growing importance to focus on my long-term goals. The time has come for a new strategy.