Relationships can have many levels of closeness and intertwinedness — from casual fuck buddies to regular, serious girlfriend or boyfriend to long-term live-in life-long committed partners. The category that we think our relationship falls into affects the way we interact with that partner today and the vision we have for the future of that relationship. In the monogamous world, we talk about dating someone casually or say that someone is marriage material. In the poly world, people talk about primary and secondary relationships.
Some poly people are very comfortable with those labels, but many in the poly community reject the primary/secondary model. The people who object to that model say it is hierarchical and attempts to rank relationships, which is hurtful. They also argue that it's an attempt to dictate what form the new relationship will take, something that can't be easily done and doesn't allow for free growth. I think the words primary and secondary are useful and can be neutral or harmful or even helpful depending on how they are used. In our quad there has been some dissent about using the word primary.
Julian objects to the term outright, although it does describe the practical realities of his relationship with Hanne – they live together, plan things for the future together, share some finances, fill most of each other's companionship needs. I sympathize with the idea that using a primary or secondary label can be harmful when it is used proscriptively, but I've come to terms with the fact that on a practical level it does describe the reality of the relationship I have with Alex. So I'll refer to Alex and myself as a primary relationship and Hanne and Julian as primary as well for descriptive purposes. Julian and I have a non-primary relationship, as do Hanne and Alex. The question of whether it's possible to have multiple primary relationships and how that would work is something I'll leave for a future post.
Most people understand what a primary relationship is and how it works. It's what our society assumes we are all seeking when we go out into the dating world. It's a relationship where we live with our partner, share household chores and often finances, where we plan for the future with our partner and intend to be with them indefinitely. Because the focus in our culture is on seeking a primary relationship, we tend to believe that non-primary relationships are not as good or less desirable. What is infrequently acknowledged or understood is that there are many advantages and benefits to a non-primary relationship as well. Here are a few benefits that I've found:
1. It's easier to accept the non-primary partner as they are, without conditions.
There are a lot of expectations when you are dating someone with the thought or intention that it might turn into a primary relationship – a relationship that would involve living with that person, relying on them for daily support, perhaps parenting children with them, and hoping they will be your primary source of companionship for the rest of your life. When someone has those type of hopes or dreams for the relationship, that person often tends to be critical of potential personality flaws in their partner. On the other hand, if the partner is non-primary, the same traits may be easily accepted. If a partner is chronically late, someone who considers them a potential primary may ask themselves, “Do I want to rely on this person to run my household and raise my children for the rest of my life?” On the other hand, if the partner is non-primary, the person may not be bothered at all by this character trait.
In our quad, we see this all the time. The vast majority of the conflict between couples is between primary couples. It is often a situation where one person is distressed by a behavior their primary partner has. That person's non-primary partner may see that trait very clearly, but it just doesn't affect them in the same way. One example is that Julian tends to say things when he's upset that are phrased in a way he doesn't mean, or later on when he's calm he finds he doesn't truly feel that way. The problem is that when he's asked about them a day or two later, he doesn't remember saying those things when he was upset. I think his brain tends to remember what he meant to say or the way he feels when he's not upset, and forgets he said sometimes hurtful things in the heat of the moment. I see that he does that behavior and I wish he wouldn't. But I also see it as an exaggeration of a behavior that all of us have and just one of those quirks that we all work around with our partner. It's just not that big of a deal. For Hanne, it is a big deal. Why is it a big deal for her? One reason might be because she's living with him and counting on him to fill more of her daily needs for support. I can just accept that as part of his personality (while gently encouraging him to improve), but that’s seems to be much more difficult for her.
2. A non-primary relationship can be focused
In a primary relationship there is the expectation that you will share almost everything. Does your primary partner have a contentious relationship with his annoying mother? You are going to have to spend time with that woman and hear your partner complain about her. In a non-primary relationship it is much easier to negotiate to remove the things you don't like and focus in on the things you do. Do you have a really great time with your non-primary partner when you go out to restaurants, but hate long road trips with her? Then just arrange things so that most of your dates involve lovely meals out at restaurants and let her know you're not interested in road trips. It's much harder to make that kind of arrangement in a primary relationship. A non-primary relationship can be all about fun events, if that's what you want. Or all about deep sharing. Or all about sex. Or all about doing projects together. Or any combination of those things. There are fewer options for tailoring your primary relationship in the same way.
For example, although there are many things I like about my relationship with Julian, our physical connection is one of my favorite things. So when we see each other we make sure to spend a lot of time touching and kissing and cudddling and holding hands and having sex and talking about all kinds of things while curled up around each other naked. I don't get enough of that in my life and I really value that part of my relationship with him. If we were in a relationship where we lived together and saw each other all the time and had to take care of children together, it would be harder to enjoy and indulge that part of our relationship as thoroughly. Our motto of “Sex first!” works because we see each other a couple times a week. Probably wouldn't work as well if we saw each other four times a day.
3. It's easier to be your best self in a non-primary relationship
Because you often see a non-primary partner less often and you don't live with that person, when you do see them it is a special occasion! You can primp for the event, make sure you look good, and make an effort to be in a good place mentally and emotionally. You can make it a point to be ready to engage your partner, to be present for them, to be prepared to interact. Your non-primary partner will mostly see you at your best.
When you live with someone and see them several times a day, it is hard to treat a date with them in the same way. When you just spent two hours making lunch for your primary partner and your two children, it's difficult to take a step back and change your mindset and approach that primary partner from the same fresh perspective you might approach a date with a non-primary partner. Yes, absolutely, to keep our primary relationships happy we need to strongly make an effort to have meaningful date nights where we primp and prepare and come at the event with a fresh perspective. But it's just not going to work every time. Sometimes you're going to come into those dates with baggage from the little fight earlier in the day or frustration about the way your partner didn't clean the kitchen or one of the million other little things that arise in the course of a day-in-day-out relationship. And even if you're successful in having an amazing date night, your partner is still not going to see you at your best almost all the time, as could be true for your non-primary partner.
4. You are not the person who knows your non-primary partner best
Now, at first glance this seems like a drawback to non-primary relationships. We all want to be the person who knows our partner the best, right? Although it makes sense to feel that way, on a practical level it's not the ideal position to be in. When you hit a snag with your partner, think of how helpful it could be to have someone to turn to who knows him better than you do! When your partner forgets your birthday or has trouble hearing you when you ask for support it can be a real asset to have someone to turn to and say, “Does he do this with you too? Why does he do that? What can be done about it?” Of course, all this presumes you have a relationship with your metamour (your partner's other partner) that is positive enough to allow this kind of communication to happen. One reason among many to make sure you stay on good terms with your metamour!