Once More, With Feeling: Secondaries and Thirds in Non-Monogamy

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Love triangle drama of two girls and one guyA couple of weeks ago I wrote about the difficulties of being a third and a secondary partner; or more precisely I set out to write about it, and then entirely chickened out. What I ended up posting was a rather rose-tinted, perhaps even vapid picture of relationships that can actually be incredibly challenging – as all relationships can be. The reason I cowered and bowed out in the end was largely down to the fact that my partners often read what I write here, and writing with true honesty comes at a cost. It sparks sometime uncomfortable conversations, seeming to beg that my relationships be re-examined. No-one wants that, least of all me. If and when I really want these conversations, I’d like to hope I would be brave enough to initiate them myself. On the other hand, there’s really no point in my keeping this column alive if I’m just going to skate over issues and write empty sentences to fill my word-count quota, and if my partners read something they wish to query me about, they have every right to do so.

So, dear readers, let me redress the disservice I’ve done you in writing such pointless pieces and offer you a glimpse of reality, as honestly as I can bear to write it.

The truth is that as a third/secondary, I am rarely in a position where my desires and needs are the priority. Such is the nature of these relationships – I am always secondary to someone else’s requirements; and I don’t wish to complain about that: after all, I consented to this set-up willingly, and with my eyes open. But all the knowledge and understanding in the world doesn’t take away from the very real difficulties therein.

For example, sexually speaking, and particularly when it comes to being a third, I am often along for someone else’s ride. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy it immensely nor that I don’t feel utterly honoured to be allowed into that space, because I do! and I wouldn’t give it up. But there is absolutely something to be said for the fact that it’s still not mine. Likewise, due to the nature of our interconnected, online lives, when I am not with my partners I am often still afforded a glimpse of their activities. Which certainly stirs up some conflict because on the one hand I am always happy when the people I love are getting the things they want and deserve, but at the same time – if I’m really being honest – there is a hint of envy. Rarely based around specific acts, but just a general malcontentedness in the knowledge that my desires are rarely met quite so fully.

When it comes to being a secondary, I find the discontent is less sexual: since he and I spend our time alone together, the ride (as I seem to have dubbed it) is absolutely ours. However, sometimes emotionally, and especially when it comes to the amount of time he and I have together, I am in a position where I am often required to step back and wait for news before he and I can make our plans. Whilst, on a wider scale, this hasn’t been much of an issue, it is undeniable that within this set-up, I absolutely cannot be the priority, and actually time-constraints can impact our sex lives as well. For example, we may not be able to play as intensely or as roughly as we’ve like if we do not have time afterwards for sufficient aftercare. Once again, I still wish to impress that this is not something that happens to me; it is something I chose, something I continue to choose, and something I am old enough to handle. Nevertheless, it is true that I only get what I need as long as someone else has got what they need first.

In fact that’s really the pinch, simplified and distilled: my needs and desires are, for the most part, reliant on someone else’s being met first. Such is the nature of being a third and/or secondary partner.

So why not find my own primary partner? Why not seek a relationship where my needs are the priority, at least half the time? Well besides time constraints and busyness (about which I have written endlessly here), I don’t actually want to. Which – happily – may be read as evidence that I am not quite as wholly lonely or unfulfilled as this piece might suggest. There is something to be said for the fact that if all the difficulties outlined in this piece were as serious as they might sound, I would be far more determined to find my own primary relationship. Therefore I’d like to think my complacency is a good sign that what I have isn’t all that bad. Not that I wish to undermine what I’ve written here: everyone has difficulties in their relationships, and being loved but not prioritised is mine. But it would still be remiss of me not to say, in the end, that the two relationships I am in now, are the best I have ever had. And I can only hope that statement continues to outshine the moments in which I am quietly waiting, just to one side.

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Harper Eliot is a writer and podcaster whose work mainly centers around eroticism and social observation. You can find an archive of work, and links to all her other projects, on her website Harper Eliot. Harper lives in London, but rarely sees her own house, spending most of her time on public transport, listening to podcasts and tweeting too much. Her vices include cigarettes, lubricant, Earl Grey tea, opera, nail polish, and pinwheels.

6 Comments

  1. Avatar

    “everyone has difficulties in their relationships, and being loved but not prioritised is mine.”

    Since being a “Primary” partner usually also involves significant commitment, whereas the other two types of partners don’t necessarily have to, is the real underlying reason why you decline the Primary role. I don’t think that time constraints and busyness apply since one can always “make the time” if it is truly desired. I may be wrong in your case – just an observation.

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      Hm… it’s an interesting question. The thing is, I don’t usually consider myself a “secondary,” I’m just using those terms as shorthand for writing. I think I offer as significant an amount of commitment to my partners as I would otherwise, and I always seek to be involved and support them. So that’s tough to answer.

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    Interesting article that touches on very real issues for people that live a non monogamy lifestyle. I understand your feelings.

    My wife and I find it a challenge to find additional partners who are willing to share themselves with us in a completely open way. Our experience has shown us to date that it takes a very special individual to share in love unconditionally where all involved feel valued and feel their own needs are being met.

    Most are happy to be our part-time lovers (one on one) but find it hard to embrace us as a couple. Men tend to want to feel like the Alpha and so do women.

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    I very much understand, and identify with, many of the thoughts and feelings you’ve expressed here (I’m late on the uptake here). Although I have also willingly and voluntarily made this decision on my own and I was/am fully informed about the realities – and of course I’m doing it because I’m very, very happy to be in my partner’s life this way – it definitely doesn’t change the fact that sometimes it is difficult and lonely and it sucks. I can almost hear myself saying the same things in my own head as you said here – almost as if I’m readying myself for counterpoints. There are a lot of people with the mindset of “you made your bed, now lie in it and you’re not allowed to complain because you asked for it” which is maddening because it’s just plain old invalidating of the natural feelings anyone would have and that others – maybe a “primary” partner, for example – don’t have to justify. Sometimes you just want to be able to express the way you feel and not feel compelled to rationalize your emotions or fear that a partner(s) will question whether you’re able to “handle” it. So thanks for being honest and brave with this post!

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      I guess I’m just new to this whole thing. I do feel it’s hard being a secondary and I feel like my emotional needs are not being met. I’m not sure if this is the way it is supposed to be or not. I feel like at times I can’t be completely honest with my partners.

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