November 27, 2012 by aggiesez
SPECIAL NOTE: This blog post touches on one of many themes I’ll be covering in my forthcoming crowdsourced book on unconventional intimate relationships: Off the Relationship Escalator. Please subscribe to updates about this project.
Recently a poly friend observed, “There are no secondary people. Be careful how you treat everyone in relationships.”
…Fine, but how do you actually pull that off? Where’s the list of what to do?
I decided to take on this challenge, with help from SoloPoly readers and many others in the poly/open community. Here’s why:
There’s a huge gray area between hookups and marriage-style life partnership (society’s standard relationship escalator model). Our society lacks roadmaps for how to conduct ongoing relationships of varying depth/commitment in this space. When you’re not just seeking casual sex, but you’re also not seeking someone to live, share finances, and potentially raise a family with (a primary partner), it can be very hard to figure out how to honor your own needs and boundaries while respecting others.
(By the way, here’s why I say “non-primary,” not “secondary.”)
This blind spot afflicts all types of intimate relationships, but it’s especially troublesome for people who have more than one partner at a time. In society at large, multiple simultaneous relationships occur most commonly through cheating — a model which inherently sets up everyone involved to be treated badly. Fortunately, more and more people are choosing to have honest and ethical concurrent relationships (polyamory or open relationships).
But these unconventional relationships don’t exist in a vacuum. Since monogamous life partnership (or at least, serial monogamy) is the default societal goal (practically obligatory!), most people attempt to live that script first. Many are content with traditional monogamy — but as divorce, breakup, and infidelity statistics clearly show, traditional monogamy doesn’t guarantee happiness, stability, fulfillment, or longevity. Even lifelong monogamous people often die alone.
Consequently, most people come to polyamory and open relationships by “opening up” an established primary (and formerly monogamous) relationship — or by getting involved with someone who’s already in a poly or open primary couple.
…But there’s a catch: Our society is set up to venerate and support primary relationships — while ignoring, trivializing, or vilifying non-primary relationships. According to society, non-primary relationships by definition are not supposed to be “serious.” This creates inherent obstacles for any significant non-primary relationship; but especially for those where at least one partner is also part of a primary couple.
The result: too often non-primary partners end up not getting treated very respectfully or fairly in the long term. This usually does not spring from conscious neglect, disrespect, or malice. Rather, the people involved usually are inventing how to manage their non-primary relationship as they go along — typically with scant support, few positive models, and tons of ingrained baggage from standard social models of relationships that don’t fit (indeed, that are designed to avoid) their very situation.
The problem, in a nutshell: There’s an overwhelming social narrative which says that anything other than monogamous life partnership is wrong or invalid — which in turn casts the perspective of non-primary partners as less important. This discourages people from developing skills to nurture healthy long-term non-primary relationships — and also to end or transition these relationships honorably. It also makes it easy for people who have (or desire) a primary partner to unilaterally write their non-primary partners out of the script, or at least recast them as threats or minor characters, when uncomfortable issues arise. This is why, very often, non-primary partners get summarily axed or shafted when a pre-existing primary partner gets insecure, or when a non-primary partner decides they want a primary relationship (with you or someone else).
Yeah, that sucks. But that’s just how social conditioning works, despite good intentions or deep feelings. Also, it sucks for everyone — even people in primary couples.
We need better models for how to conduct non-primary relationships — especially in the poly/open community. Because sadly, right now polyamory (or any approach to significant non-primary relationships) simply isn’t a very safe place for non-primary partners; not in the long run.
That needs to change — and it can change, through the conscious attention, goodwill, and courage of non-primary partners and the people who love us.
Several non-primary partners responded to my recent call for tips on how they like to be treated in poly/open relationships. Here is the advice they offered, along with some tips from my own extensive experience as a non-primary partner.
If you are in a non-primary relationship — and especially if you also have a primary partner — these do’s and don’ts might help you navigate these relationships in fair, responsible, considerate and mutually rewarding ways. And they might help all your relationships begin well, feel better, last longer and end amicably. Follow the links in the following list for more details.
Also, these tips work both ways! Any non-primary relationship involves (at least) two people — BOTH of whom are non-primary partners. Even if you have a primary partner, if you also have a non-primary partner then you’re a non-primary partner, too. These guidelines would apply to both perspectives.
- Honor time commitments and dates.
- Listen to, validate, and be flexible toward your non-primary partner’s needs and concerns.
- Make your non-primary relationship a priority.
- Offer reassurance and understanding.
- Embrace your non-primary partner’s world.
- Keep your promises.
- Support good metamour relations.
- Invite non-primary partners into negotiations and decisions that affect them.
- Clarify your boundaries and commitments BEFORE you begin a new relationship.
- Fully disclose your constraints, agreements and boundaries.
- Expect to be surprised by your own emotional reactions.
- Trust what your non-primary partner says about their relationship goals.
- Speak up about fairness toward non-primary partners.
- Assume good intentions.
- Don’t bail at the first bump.
- Don’t violate agreements.
- Don’t conflate “fairness” with “equality.”
- Don’t default to playing the go-between.
- Don’t foster competition or conflict among your partners.
- Don’t pretend the dynamic of your existing relationship(s) will not change.
- Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be.
(Got your own tips? Here’s how you can contribute to this list, since it’s a work in progress.)
DO these things if you intend to treat your non-primary partner well:
1. Honor time commitments and dates.
In non-primary relationships, time together is always limited and precious. Consequently, last-minute changes and cancelations often bother a non-primary partner more than they might a primary partner. Avoid suddenly canceling or postponing dates for non-emergency reasons, including if your primary partner is feeling anxious or is having a bad day. One reader observed: “Hearing ‘my partner’s date flaked so I now have to cancel/not have sex with you’ is pretty goddamned shitty.”
Also, take responsibility for spotting and helping to resolve schedule conflicts. One person suggested: “Give reminders of changes or conflicts; don’t assume your non-primary partner recalls something mentioned in passing several weeks ago.”
2. Listen to, validate, and be flexible toward your non-primary partner’s needs and concerns.
Every human being has needs — including a need for respect, consideration, and being valued in intimate relationships. A few months ago, I asked a poly primary couple about how open they were to addressing or accommodating the needs of their non-primary partners. They responded that, being fairly new to polyamory, they hadn’t yet had any partners who made “demands” on them, and that they “tend to shy away from people with too much drama in their life.”
The problem is: Reflexively casting the basic human need for respect and consideration as a burdensome “demand” or “drama” is itself a guaranteed drama-generating strategy — and almost always a relationship killer.
When non-primary relationships progress beyond the purely casual level, it’s a certainty that at some point a non-primary partner will have needs that would challenge a primary couple to stretch, be flexible, or give up a default “we always come first” stance. This is a good thing! Dealing compassionately with such situations, and working constructively with discomfort, furthers the development and fulfillment of everyone involved. It ends up strengthening all relationships in the network. It’s what makes polyamory work better for everyone in the long run.
So: Listen to, validate, and try to honor your non-primary partner’s (or metamour’s) needs and concerns. At the very least, acknowledge and attempt to address them, even if you cannot address them fully. Be willing to be flexible; you always get what you give in relationships.
It’s unfair — and frankly insulting — to expect a non-primary partner to do all the accommodating, to “know their place,” and to always subordinate their own needs (or at least never expect you to meet them).
Similarly, ask about and honor your non-primary partner’s preferences, constraints or boundaries. They get to set rules, too. These might include boundaries on texting/phoning your other partners for non-emergency reasons during dates, not always being the one whose date gets canceled in a schedule conflict, preferences for contact modes or frequency between dates, respecting their time spent alone or with others (including other partners), introducing or acknowledging them in public, etc.
3. Make your non-primary relationship a priority.
Non-primary partners understand that we won’t always come first, but we need to see through your actions and choices that we do matter and that you’re willing to sometimes put us first — or at least not automatically put us last, or throw us under the bus.
This includes standing up for your non-primary relationship as needed, including with your primary partner. It’s reasonable for your non-primary partner to expect flexibility and consideration from you and your primary.
Additionally, celebrating anniversaries, sharing vacations, and creating traditions with non-primary partners can be good ways to recognize the significance of non-primary relationships. Also, being publicly out about your non-primary relationship can be a way to demonstrate that partner’s significance to you.
Ask your non-primary partner which sorts of recognition or consideration they value, and try to honor that — or be honest if you can’t.
4. Offer reassurance and understanding.
Since our relationships are at an inherent social disadvantage, non-primary partners can be keenly sensitive to indications that we might not be valued or given fair consideration. We’re also socially conditioned to believe our own relationships are less valid or deserving of respect. As one person observed: “I still have a hard time with sometimes feeling like I’m getting the primary’s leftovers.”
Some non-primary partners may be reluctant to get deeply emotionally invested before a relationship has endured through time and challenges — especially if we’ve been treated shabbily in prior non-primary relationships.
Please don’t take this wariness and insecurity personally — it’s a reaction to the fallout from biased social norms. One person said: “Recognize the complexity of your relationships and offer the additional reassurances and gestures that need to come with it.”
Another suggested: “Remember that the non-primary partners are real people with real feelings and treat them 30% better than you want to be treated to allow room for error.”
5. Embrace your non-primary partner’s world.
Non-primary partners have lives, friends, interests, careers, traditions, commitments, and families of their own. Theirs are as important as yours — even if they do not have a primary partner of their own.
Remember: Your non-primary partner is not just seeking to join your world; they’re welcoming you into theirs as well. Don’t expect them to do all the accommodating, and don’t be a tourist in their life (acknowledging or participating only in the aspects that interest, comfort or please you). Take an active and ongoing interest in their whole world and become a part of it to the extent that they invite you. (For more on this, see SHG’s guest post.)
6. Keep your promises.
Be circumspect about what you promise your non-primary partners, explicitly or implicitly — especially regarding future plans, holidays, social recognition, evolving relationship roles, etc.
When new relationship energy is running strong, possibilities seem boundless — but life rarely is. Demonstrate good judgment by not over-promising early in a relationship, and keep the promises you do make.
Also keep your promises to non-primary partners about how you will handle bumps and challenges in the relationship. For instance, if you’re new to poly and you promise a non-primary partner that when inevitable difficulties arise you (and your primary/other partners, if any) will stick with the relationship and work through them collaboratively, don’t renege on that promise once you start feeling insecure, uncomfortable, or threatened.
One person said: “Be realistic about how much time and emotional energy you have to offer. Don’t reach out to a new partner in a way you can’t follow through on.”
7. Support good metamour relations.
If you have more than one partner (especially a primary partner), it’s up to your partners to decide how, and how much, they want to relate to each other. You should not expect or require them to become friends or lovers.
That said, you can and should support their connection by introducing them (in person, if possible) and perhaps suggesting get-togethers or other opportunities for them to get to know each other as people, not roles. Also, making sure they know how to contact each other directly can be helpful and reassuring.
Reality check: Since you care for both/all of your partners, and they for you, then they probably have more in common than just you!
At the very least, don’t obstruct or ignore your partners’ direct communication and connection. Don’t require them to only communicate through you, or with you present. (Such arrangements do exist through mutual consent, but they shouldn’t be presumed.) Give them room to sort things out on their own and build mutual trust through experience. Don’t panic when they have disagreements; trust that they can resolve them.
Also, one person noted: “Don’t expect your non-primary partner to relate to (or put up with the same treatment from) your primary the way that you do.”
8. Invite non-primary partners into negotiations and decisions that affect them.
This is a very touchy point for many primary couples since it involves surrendering a key aspect of couple privilege: the presumed power dynamic for who gets to make decisions about, or dictate the terms of, an existing relationship. Often couple who prefer the popular monogamish approach to relationships specifically don’t want to give up this power — reinforcing the primary/secondary hierarchy is a big part of what they want from nonmonogamy.
Still, the vast majority of non-primary partners who contributed to this post indicated that they do indeed want (or even require) to be included in decisions that affect the conduct or continued existence of their relationship. Some prefer to have a voice or vote in some decisions, but defer to primary couple’s judgment in others. A few prefer to not be involved in such decisions; they’d rather just roll with whatever the primary couple decides (or bail if that doesn’t suit them).
The key seems to be: Ask your non-primary partner how they prefer to be involved in decisionmaking about that relationship. Invite them into the process up front (ideally well before significant emotional investment or conflicts happen), and honor their preference.
Conversely, if you have a agreement with your primary partner which codifies primary/secondary hierarchy in your relationships — such as veto power or that your primary relationship always gets top (or sole) priority — be very clear about this up front! If you’re unsure whether this might be the price of entry to a relationship with you, be clear about that, too. Non-primary partners deserve to know the main potential risks as well as rewards of getting involved with you.
This is rarely pleasant news to give or receive. However, revealing this rule up front is far more respectful and less painful than discovering it during a hard, vulnerable moment — or implying that even though it exists, you would never really use it. (Fail-safes and kill switches always exist for a reason.)
One person suggested: “Even if the non-primary partner doesn’t get a vote, keep them in the loop.”
Also, if you’ve agreed to include non-primaries in direct negotiation, don’t withdraw that right during a conflict because your primary partner feels insecure.
9. Clarify your boundaries and commitments BEFORE you begin a new relationship.
Don’t just wing it with polyamory, expecting a new partner to be your crash test dummy.
If you have a primary partner, discuss what “poly” or “open” means to each of you; and also how you intend to handle your differences on this matter. This should happen before before seeking new partners — and check in about it again before starting any new relationship, or periodically. People change.
One person suggested: “The primary couple should be able to present a united front to new partners. They don’t have to agree on everything, but they do have to agree to disagree and have guidelines in place to deal with their differences.”
Another wrote: “Don’t wait for a new partner to come along before hammering out what you and your primary are and aren’t comfortable with.”
And: “Trust me, it can really be a pain in the ass for everyone involved if you wait until your partner is seeing someone else to tell them that you weren’t happy with the established rules.”
Clarify your flexibility, too. One person noted: “Know before getting involved with any new lovers exactly which boundaries you have with your primary that are non-negotiable and which are more flexible. Be prepared for the possibility that some adjustments to your boundaries and renegotiations with your primary may be necessary.”
10. Fully disclose your constraints, agreements and boundaries.
Volunteer up front (or at least when a relationship progresses beyond casual) all information that would help a non-primary partner understand how they might fit into your world, what they can reasonably expect from you, and what room your relationship might have to grow.
Aside from issues like fluid-bonded sex, whether you’re able to have overnight dates, contraception or sexual health, or whether you’ve agreed to allow your primary partner veto power, this also includes clarifying how “out” you are willing/able to be about your non-primary relationship (and in which contexts), whether you expect your non-primary partner to be at all closeted or “discreet” about your relationship (which can be awkward to discuss), whether non-primary partners will have a voice in decisions that affect them, and whether your default assumption in conflicts is that your primary partner always gets top priority.
It’s also important to explain why your relationship considerations or rules exist. Often there are multiple ways to achieve relationship goals, and intent can make all the difference in whether a given constraint is something a non-primary partner is or is not willing to accommodate, whether there might be other options, and whether that constraint might change over time. One reader observed: “Have a reasonable idea of what your primary relationship means to you, so that you can express the spirit of the boundaries and requests.”
If you’re uncertain what your emotional, sexual, hierarchical, logistical, or other constraints might be, say so up front — and disclose and address issues promptly as they emerge.
11. Expect to be surprised by your emotional reactions
Reader Chris Little Sun observed in a comment to this post: “Sometimes you don’t know how you’re going to respond to a situation until you’re actually in it. Sometimes you think you’re going to freak out about something but actually it’s okay — and sometimes you think it won’t be a big deal but when it’s real you find yourself flipping out.”
That’s true: Some boundaries we discover only when we trip over them; other boundaries we think we see ahead prove to be mirages.
The first key to negotiating these bumps is to accept that they absolutely WILL happen. That’s true for any relationship, but especially when you’re trying to do relationships differently than you’ve done them before. Also, every person brings something new to the mix, which means there will always be unexpected issues unique to any relationship — even if you have lots of experience with non-primary or other nonstandard relationships.
When you are pleasantly surprised by your emotional reactions, share that informaton with others — and consider dropping or relaxing rules, boundaries, or restrictions that don’t seem quite as important. And when you are unpleasantly surprised by your reactions, it’s important to commit to working through it, rather than automatically bailing or pulling back.
As your relationships survive bumps (or crash on them), be sure to revisit and update your needs and boundaries — and communicate these revisions clearly to your current and prospective partners.
12. Trust what your non-primary partner says about their relationship goals.
Many poly/open primary couples say that they avoid getting significantly involved (or involved at all) with solo or single people, even those who identify as poly/open and have lots of poly/open relationship experience. These couples assume that, no matter what solo people claim, in their hearts they must really desire “equality” with the existing primary partner — or at least more commitment, time, or status than the couple is willing to offer.
Such thinking usually is an artifact of monogamous competitive presumptions which are rooted in scarcity models and automatic overvaluing of primary couplehood. Even if primary couples know of (or have experienced) some solo people eventually wanting something from a relationship that a primary couple cannot offer, there is a confirmation bias: if they assume everyone really does (or should) want a primary relationship, they’ll notice such examples far more than examples to the contrary.
Really: not everyone wants a primary relationship! And even if a particular solo person does want a primary partner of their own someday, that doesn’t mean they want to be your primary partner (or to “steal” your spouse, or become a co-spouse).
Also, choosing to only have non-primary relationships with people who already are in a primary relationship of their own will not necessarily protect you from someone eventually wanting more than you can give, or trying to usurp your role. Anyone at all — even a married person — is capable of such behavior.
Therefore: Don’t assume that a new partner must secretly desire a primary or exclusive relationship with you, if they say they don’t and if their behavior backs that up. (However, if their behavior seems at odds with their claims, that’s a topic to discuss. Don’t jump to conclusions about it.) Similarly, don’t assume that your non-primary partner secretly resents or is competing with your primary or other partners (or vice-versa).
13. Speak up about fairness toward non-primary partners.
This is especially important if you’re active in the poly/open community, in person or online — and whether you currently have a non-primary relationship or not.
A big reason why bad behavior toward non-primary partners persists is that often people in the poly/open communities buy into societal assumptions of primary couple privilege — explicitly or not.
As demonstrated by experience in the current struggle for marriage equality, as well as ongoing experience in the civil, women’s, immigrant, economic justice, and LGBTQ rights movements, uneven playing fields start to level out when people who have power and privilege openly ally themselves with those who lack it. When it becomes uncool for people to speak or act in biased ways, that behavior decreases. Individual, everyday statements and walking the talk of fairness in your own relationships are what helps make this kind of shift happen.
Admittedly it’s daunting to openly advocate for acceptance and recognition of non-monogamous relationships in society at large. (If you have the courage for that, kudos to you!) However it is very likely that individual poly/open people can significantly influence the norms within our own community simply by speaking up about fairness toward non-primary partners.
14. Assume good intentions.
Most of the time in poly/open relationships, everyone really is happy, does want to get along, and does care about the needs, feelings and welfare of others.
DON’T do these things if you intend to treat your non-primary partner well:
1. Don’t bail at the first bump.
All relationships require effort, adaptation, and patience — especially when they don’t conform to societal norms or goals. One person noted, “Some people think non-primary relationships shouldn’t involve work. You get out of it what you put into it.”
Also, a well respected leader in the poly community told me: “What’s really radical about polyamory is not that you have multiple relationships, or that everyone involved knows about it — but that you don’t automatically jettison new partners when there’s trouble.”
So commit (to yourself and to your partners) to try to work through bumps constructively and collaboratively — while keeping all relationships intact. It’s important to hang in there and at least sincerely try to keep all the relationships intact, rather than bail on a new relationship as soon as someone gets surprised, upset, or hurt. This is how you learn how to adapt and grow in relationships — because your existing relationship will indeed change.
Similarly, commit up front that you (or your existing partners) won’t respond to bumps by suddenly ending, curtailing or applying a bunch of new rules to limit the new relationship. Typically, such measures only create more problems. Give yourself and your partners some time to try to expand your comfort zones and collaboratively find solutions. Pulling back (or “pulling rank,” such as through a veto) should be a last resort after exhausting other options.
Of course, if you know up front that you (and your current partners, if any) probably are unwilling or unable to deal with unpleasant surprises or navigate bumps — that’s something new partners need to know up front, before anyone gets too invested in that relationship.
Everyone goes into relationships expecting that they are “worth the effort.” It’s unfair, demeaning, and even cruel to surprise partners by revealing only during a bump or crisis that you won’t actually put forth effort to help a relationship succeed or survive, after all.
2. Don’t violate agreements.
When you make agreements with non-primary partners, they are as important as those you might make with a primary partner. Lying to, cheating on, or otherwise dishonoring agreements with a non-primary partner is as reprehensible as with a spouse. So make agreements carefully, and revisit them as needed. Intimate relationships are a huge exception to the common trope: “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.”
Also, don’t ask, involve, or manipulate any partner into helping you violate agreements you have with other partners. Often this arises around people in a non-primary relationship wanting to have unprotected sex, or perform certain intimacies around which there are existing boundaries or agreements. Also, don’t expect a non-primary partner to lie for you.
3. Don’t conflate “fairness” with “equality.”
Love was never one-size-fits-all. Non-primary partners understand that our relationship with you is not primary, and not on track to become primary someday — and the vast majority of us like it that way! That’s what we want! We aren’t seeking a primary relationship with you, and we understand that every relationship is unique. We also have our own lives, and often other partners.
Don’t assume that we want (or should want) to be treated “equally” to your primary partner — and don’t try to nudge us in that direction. The best way to treat us fairly is to ask us what we want and need, what matters to us, and try your best to honor that. Differences are natural, and okay. Indeed, embracing different ways of loving is a big part about what makes poly/open relationships wonderful.
4. Don’t default to playing the go-between.
If one of your partners has issues with another partner, encourage them to communicate directly and constructively. Take responsibility for your role in the conflict (if any), but it’s probably best to decline to try to solve issues that really are between your partners.
Of course, if all parties involved have explicitly agreed to indirect communication, and if you’re willing to play the go-between in that case, that’s fine. But don’t presume or impose this approach in the moment, especially without prior agreement.
Also, it’s usually not constructive carry messages or attempt to “represent” the perspective or requests of one partner to another.
In fact, no one should be a go-between (without their consent). Don’t expect your primary partner to serve as a go-between for you and your non-primary partner; or for your non-primary partner to keep the peace between you and your primary. Relationships usually make poor duct tape for each other.
5. Don’t foster competition or conflict among your partners.
Do not compare your partners. Don’t feed their insecurities or allow their misconceptions or judgments about each other to go unchallenged. Don’t say or imply that you want them to vie to “win” a “serious” relationship with you. (That approach makes for horrible reality TV, and it works even worse in real relationships.)
Also, since time is always a limited resource (especially so in non-primary relationships) it’s easy for time to become a source of competition or conflict between partners. So avoid “rewarding” partners for making you feel good, or “punishing” them for having issues or needs of their own, by increasing or reducing the amount of time you spend together. This behavior sucks for any partner, but is likely to have a disproportionate impact on non-primary partners.
6. Don’t pretend the dynamic of your existing relationship(s) will not change.
One person wrote: “No matter how you attempt to control (or wish to control) the feelings, behaviors, or attitudes of your partner, nor how you may attempt to limit their activities or time spent with a secondary or non-primary relationship, your relationship will never be the same. It cannot be stagnant anyway — but the fact that your partner is intimate with another will change the dynamic you previously had. This is not a bad thing. It should be expected, not avoided.”
Also, this point applies equally when someone in an existing non-primary relationship decides to begin a new relationship (primary or otherwise). All relationships exist in context; if you’re willing and able to adapt and accommodate, it’s likely that everyone will end up happier.
7. Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be.
One person observed that with multiple relationships, “It’s easy to get sucked into problem-solving all of the time — when really focusing on having a good time and living it will make things feel better for everyone.”
Or as one poly friend told me: “Do you love your non-primary partner? Do you treat them with respect? Do you have a great time together? If all of that is part of a healthy situation, why complicate it by thinking it should be the be-all-and-end-all of ‘true love?’ From time to time, relationships just are what they are. If you’re happy, don’t fuck it up by second guessing yourself if you don’t love your non-primary partner the same way you love your primary.” (Note: I’ll be posting his full thoughts on this as a follow-up guest post, stay tuned.)
One final bit of perspective: Remember that if you have a non-primary partner, then that probably makes you a non-primary partner too! How do you want to be treated as a non-primary partner?
WANT TO HELP? This list is a work in progress!
If you have additional tips, or comments or suggestions for this list of tips, please comment below or e-mail me. Be sure to indicate whether you are a non-primary partner in a poly/open relationship, and whether you also have a primary partner of your own. All input is welcome, but the point of this list is to offer tips specifically based on the perspective and experience of non-primary partners — especially those who don’t have a primary partner of their own.
Related guest post: 2 tips from SHG about treating non-primaries well.