What’s a primary partner? On my terms


September 20, 2012 by aggiesez

Polyamory definitely has a language problem. So I’ll start defining how I’m using certain terms in this blog…

One of the first things that anyone who’s new to poly/open relationships notices is that we seem to have our own language: primaries, metamours, compersion, etc. That’s because words come with baggage which we have to work especially hard to unpack.

Our society generally recognizes only a few standard types of relationships, which means most people in the mainstream don’t lack for terms to describe and discuss their relationships. Usually they don’t have to explain to anyone what a “wife” or “boyfriend” means.

But relationships aren’t one-size-fits-all. Not even relationships in mono culture. Ever known someone who refers to their intimate partner as their “girl/boyfriend” — but their partner does not see it that way at all? That’s what I mean.

People tend to slap simple labels on relationships rather than really discuss how they do and perceive the relationships they’re in. Worse: often we tend to expect that other people use relationship terms the same way we do. Much drama results.

So this is the first in a series of posts where I’ll define some of the terms I use in this blog, and what *I* mean by them. Other people are welcome to have their own definitions and terms. But I’ll try to be consistent here as best I can.

So, with that…

Primary partnership: When two or more people in an intimate relationship have made — or are making plans for — significant commitments to merge the everyday infrastructure of their lives in a spouse-like fashion.

This type of relationship has lots of external markers. You’re probably in a primary partnership if:
– You have formed a household (living together) with someone with whom you have an emotional and/or sexual connection. At least most of the time — military deployments, etc., happen.
– You share finances (at least pay bills jointly)
– Everyone in that relationship is on the mortgage or lease for the shared residence.
– You have or raise kids together
– You have a legally recognized marriage or domestic partnership.
– You’re likely to list someone as “spouse” on insurance and tax forms.

A primary partnership is mostly about how people arrange to share their lives, not just how they share their hearts. It need not indicate anything about the intensity of your emotional or sexual connection. Do you know any married couples who haven’t had sex in years and barely speak except to argue? I do. They probably still consider each other primary partners. Just not in a good way.

In mainstream mono culture, people skip the “primary” part of life partnership because if you  have one life partner, you’re not supposed to have any other intimate partners. Not legitimate ones, anyway. But for people who are polyamorous or in open relationships, “primary” becomes a key distinguishing trait.

From my perspective (which counts here, because this is my blog after all!) people who are poly/open and who have established a life partnership relationship with one or more of their partners (i.e., a triad where everyone lives together and pitches in on bills and cleaning and the kids’ college fund) can be said to be in a primary partnership even if they don’t describe themselves that way.

…I hesitated to write that, because who am I to define other people’s relationships for them, to impose a hierarchy they deny?

In “Animal Farm,” George Orwell nailed the absurdity of simply denying a hierarchy, rather than making choices and taking steps to counter hierarchy. If you have a relationship hierarchy, embrace it.

The thing is, from the perspective of someone who does not have and/or does not want a primary partnership: if you’re getting involved with someone who has one or more established life partners, that will strongly influence the type of relationship you have with them. Because life partners are imbued with couple privilege.

That’s not inherently bad or wrong, and having a primary partner entails a lot of responsibilities as well as benefits.

But this is why a lot of solo poly people snicker when they hear a married poly couple declare, “We don’t do hierarchies, of course you’re not secondary!”

Of course there’s a lot of gray area surrounding “primary partners.”

For instance, not all primary partners live together. Some keep separate finances, file taxes separately, etc. On the flip side: If two good friends who never had a romantic/sexual connection live together and share many of the logistical connections and life commitments that spouses do, are they primary partners? Maybe.

Also, what about people involved in a long-term, committed intimate relationship that involves a lot of emotional connection, time together, and mutual support but does not involve any of the logistical merging I listed above? Might they still be primary partners? Sure, maybe.

Again, as I mentioned, my definition is how I’m using the term “primary partner” on this blog. Your mileage may vary. I don’t let gray areas stop me from using certain words — I just recognize that all terms are limited and imperfect, and I muddle through. Welcome to language.

How do YOU define primary partnership? Please comment below. I’d love to hear others’ take on this.

29 thoughts on “What’s a primary partner? On my terms

  1. deejsylvis says:

    That’s pretty much how I’ve always looked at it. I would consider a primary partner (and I don’t have one at the moment, just a secondary who is long-distance) someone(s) I was committing to share a home and hopefully, the rest of my future with.

    • aggiesez says:

      Thanks, glad my definition resonates with you.

      • ed fast says:

        Thank you for taking up the problems of polyamory language. Generally for me, any language can get lost in the translation into my speak and often my understanding proves elusive. I am poly but still trying to understand the meaning of poly. I thought a polyamory ideal is to try to love as many as one can. So I look at the primary/secondary concepts as being in conflict with the mentioned ideal. The notion that a partner in a primary has power to end the secondary relationship implies to me a conflict with the poly ideal of freedom from possessiveness. Indeed the primary concept has for me the possiblility of being a variation on the monogamy theme. Perhaps further evolution will yield relationships closer to the polyamory ideal of love multiplying rather than pairing off and/or dividing. Maybe the way we relate is a spectrum reflecting our biological range of character or trait that is true of any species. Another guess then would be that some individuals would tend to be close to one end of the range of the behavior of relating while most would be between the extremes. How individual or group selectivity would operate evolutionarily at an end point is open to question. Sure wish someone would try to define compersion and take on its etymology. I will value any thoughts on my search for enlightenment even if they are specious or brimming with non sequitur. Of my meaning, it’s based on Merriam-Webster 9th despite its flaws.

  2. Rodrigo says:

    Makes sense to me. 🙂

  3. Melanie says:

    I was glad to see this post. I am not at all interested in having a primary partner. I am seeing two men who have primaries, and we all get along swell. I know all the terms but I only use them to describe to mono friends how our relationships work. I think everyone uses terms in their own way to an extent. I am really glad a friend turned me on to your blog. I really like it.

  4. Caprica says:

    I have long distance partner of 2 1/2 years. I’d like to have one or more primary relationships, but the fact remains that they aren’t suitable at this point. I’ve come to think of my LDR as my primary, as ridiculous as that sounds!

  5. […] while he was a significant partner of mine, he was never my primary life partner — nor did I ever want him to be. We were never on that “relationship escalator,” […]

  6. Si says:

    I am not against labels as a way to start discussion or put a relationshp into the right ballpark. But I also recognize that labels often are a rough sort and additional info is needed to describe a nuanced relationship. And poly relationships are nothing if not nuanced. I don’t use secondary as I feel it does have purjorative connotations. I prefer life partner to primary.

    I think it is possible to call someone a lover or a sweetie, and then talk about the ways in which we are connected beyond the sexual – activities we enjoy, projects we are working on, etc. That gives a more nuanced picture in a fairly efficient way.

    • aggiesez says:

      Thanks Si. Yes, I realize some people chafe at terms like “primary” and there are valid alternatives.

      At the same time, if one person in a relationship has a spouse/life partner/primary etc., and the other doesn’t, that will probably affect their dynamic in important ways. When people use relationship language or labels to try to deny or obscure that difference as a way to avoid acknowledging or dealing with it, that can be a problem.

  7. SHG says:

    Interesting definition. I usually don’t go out of my way to use primary/secondary terminology, but not because I expect every relationship to be equal in every way. I just find that, most of the time, the words “primary” and “secondary” are too vague to convey information that is significant to me.

    However, I have at times described my relationship as being “a primary type relationshp” when I was trying to explain that we were very important to each other, even though we don’t live together or share finances, nor do we plan to. We plan for long term futures together and are very intertwined. In that conversation I was trying to explain that we’re not just casual buddies to each other. We are life partners, whether we live together or not.

    • SHG says:

      Oh, I forgot to mention that my partner does have a live in spouse. The two of them are definitely more interconnected than he and I are. They’ve got shared assets and debts. They pay bills and budget together, etc. And they love each other deeply.

      However the level of commitment between him and I is at a point where I would feel comfortable using the term “primary relationship” if I had to pick an heirarchial term. And most of the time I don’t because they mean so many different things to different people. Some people would say that my relationship can’t be primary, since he has a partner he is even more interconnected with than he is with me, or because we don’t live together. And that’s fine if they want to define it that way, but it does not have relevance to my life because I don’t want to live with somebody and merge finances, but I do want long term commitment. I’ve got exactly what I want, so life’s good, whatever terms I use.

      • aggiesez says:

        Thanks SHG. I agree, it’s totally possible for a solo person to have a partnership they’d consider to be primary, even if it doesn’t involve living together, etc. As I said, there’s a lot of gray area around this.

        That said, doesn’t fact that your partner does have a live-in spouse significantly influence the dynamics of your network of relationships, and how the three of you make decisions and set priorities? What I’m getting at is, regardless of the words you use, every relationship pair within a relationship network has distinctions. So it’s helpful to think clearly about what those distinctions are — and how they might shift over time, or in different circumstances. That makes it easier to negotiate, to understand each other’s assumptions and expectations. And it may reduce blindsiding that can happen when people haven’t thought this through and talked it over.

      • SHG says:

        It’s true that his relationship with her does influence his priorities and decision making signficantly, which in turn influences my prioritis and decision making. But I’ve got other factors in my life – family members, dear friends, my personal goals and dreams – which influence me signficantly, and therefore influence him. I’ll have other relationships at some point (although not live in ones, probably) and they’ll play a part also. It’s a two-way street.

        I know she has more influence with him in some areas. For example, he talks about job decisions with me but doesn’t ask for my approval because my livelihood is not directly affected. However, in the relationship between the two of us, I do feel that he and I meet as equals. We both have other responsibilities and those responsibilities do, in part, shape our interactions, but they do not grant one of us power over the other.

        I understand your basic point, Aggie. I agree that couple privilege can and does exist, and I agree that its existance should be acknowledged. I just wanted to point out there are situations where everybody involved in the dynamic can feel empowered.

  8. River says:

    I understand your definition of primary, and I feel it is better than some other definitions I’ve come across. I would agree 100% if primary and secondary didn’t have the hierarchical connotations that they do.

    However, since they are there, I will never start describing my relationships on those terms, and I feel uncomfortable with that kind of a hierarchical worldview being imposed onto me. I hate that my girlfriend is labelled as less important than my husband, even if only in the connotations of the term “secondary”, simply because I don’t happen to be married to her. And I hate that other people, whether poly or mono, insist on seeing hierarchy in things that are simply differences. Just like monogamous culture refuses to see her as a “real partner”, poly culture will label her as just a “secondary” partner. Based on the same things which supposably define the importance of a relationship. It’s not really any less offensive/imposing.

    Also, I see many negatives in the fact that so many poly people use those terms without actually being in hierarchical relationships. E.g. what kind of message is sent to the monogamous people? I see it as further enforcing the myth of a couple, or upholding it while making only superficial changes. That is, in poly you can have another romantic relationship but your husband/wife is still your number one. Even if that isn’t what is meant, it is what is conveyed when the primary/secondary terms are used to describe all poly relationships.

    I have given some reasons why I would like there to be more consideration in what terms are used. I am not arguing that there aren’t very real differences between live-in partnerships and ones that don’t involve cohabitation. I simply feel that the hierarchical terminology further enforces culturally supported views about what is really important in a relationship (legal recognition, cohabitation) and what is less important (connection, quality). They support couplehood.

    Thus, I would like to ask you to consider perhaps using another, non-hierarchical term. Primary/secondary are handy, since they are widely used and immediately recognised by poly people. But there are other ways of saying more specifically what is meant, such as live-in partnership, married, etc., that don’t have all that baggage.

    • aggiesez says:

      I hear you, River. I thought a lot about this issue.

      When I choose words (and on this site, I’m clearly referring to how *I* am using these terms, I’m not trying to make decisions for how other people use terms to define their own relationships), I try to focus on which words I can use that will get the most important points across first. And quite frankly, when describing the kind of live-in life partnership and — more importantly — the prioritization that kind of partnership typically entails, “primary” is indeed the clearest term that requires the least explanation.

      And speaking as a solo poly person who had had long-term relationships with people who have an existing primary partnership: Yes, that distinction does exist even if the primary couple avoids or dislikes that term. I’m sorry, that’s just how it is. To hedge on something that such a key part of a poly relationship dynamic is like saying “race shouldn’t matter, so I’m going to pretend it doesn’t exist in our society.” And then the reality of race issues and privilege will smack you in the face.

      As far as I’m concerned — and I’m speaking only for myself here — It’s better to deal with the world, and society, and relationships, as they actually exist — not just how you would prefer them to be. Even in relationships that break the social mold, such as poly or open relationships.

      Ignoring power dynamics doesn’t make them go away; it just makes people less equipped to deal with them constructively

      Notice, though, that I do not choose to use the word “secondary.” Instead I refer to “other” or “additional” or “non-primary” partners. Because these partnerships need not be less important, or unimportant. But these additional relationships do typically occupy a different space in terms of collective decisionmaking.

      I’ll do another post later going into why I personally don’t say “secondary,” even though I do refer to primary partners.

      Also, I’ve noticed that usually (but not always) it’s people within a primary couple who usually seek to eschew the “primary” label; whereas the solo people who have relationships with them often find the term useful, if not always desirable or comfortable. Kind of reminds me how people of color tend to be more at ease discussing race than white people are. When you lack privilege, it’s easier to spot it and talk about it. When you have privilege, it can be hard to admit to it. However, admitting to privilege is the first and best step to undoing its effects, at least in terms of how you conduct yourself and your relationships.

      IMHO, of course. YMMV.

      • River says:

        I totally agree with you about couple privilege existing. I will need to think about your race analogy; I see your point but I am not sure if I see those things as completely comparable.

        I do see myself having more agency in relating to people on individual level than I do in shaping society. No matter how much I would like it, racism won’t be eradicated by my actions alone. Nor will couple privilege of course. Yet, by referring to my legally recognised partner as primary I do think I would be contributing to that in my own life…

        Food for thought, most definitely.

        I appreciate that there is right away a difference when you don’t use the term secondary at all. I would actually see it as a bigger difference if it weren’t for the fact that people will probably link it with the use of primary.

  9. […] 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 […]

  10. Gned the Gnome says:

    An interesting example I read – You get an irresistable job offer you can’t refuse, but it’s across the country. Your primary says “when do we move?” Secondary says “when can I visit?” Tertiary says “I’ll miss you!”

    Lately, though, I’ve thought of using the terms “live-in” or “nonresident” instead. Granted, they don’t always correlate right e.g. residence vs. financial or other real life involvement etc. but most of the time they do, and it seems simpler and sounds less hierarchical to me. What do y’all think?

    • aggiesez says:

      Well, whatever you call it, you’re creating a distinction that influences your priorities, decisions, plans, and actions. More often than not, that difference creates a functional hierarchy, at least in some contexts. IMHO it’s more constructive and practical (and easier to treat others fairly) when you’re honest enough about it to be able to discuss it clearly with the people involved. Hedging on that tends to frustrate and disappoint people more in the long run.

  11. […] people, for instance here, use ‘primary’ to mean ‘building a life together’ and such. I would […]

  12. […] people, for instance here, use ‘primary’ to mean ‘building a life together’ and such. I would probably use ‘life […]

  13. Yes! Clarifying terms – another great reminder! So many of these words are loaded for people and everyone I speak to has their own definitions. If the terms are not clarified then there is a great chance we are talking to each other and having different conversations. This happens to me often.

  14. Picky Poly says:

    For the purposes of communicating with monos or other polys, I use a definition not unlike yours. However, in my view, one’s primary partnership (there can be only one at any given time, IMHO) is just the partnership in which you tend to put the most time/effort and gain the most benefit. Regardless, because the term is so typically associated with spouse-like logistical life entanglements, I prefer to avoid using it to describe any of my own relationships. I’m much more likely to use it when referring to the outside relationship of one of my partners. Though I do wonder, does giving credence to a partner’s outside relationship by application of the “primary” label implicitly communicate devaluation of one’s own relationship with that partner?

  15. Al Cantwell says:

    I think of a primary partner as being the person in whom you have the most invested, whether it be history, effort, money, emotions, effort, or whatever. (It isn’t *necessarily* about living together or sharing finances or paying for the kids’ education.) The primary typically comes along first, chronoligically speaking. But the primary partner can change over time (in a triad or quad, say) if the relationship dynamics change; for example, when a baby is born. This year’s primary may not necessarily be next year’s primary. Like any term we use, “primary partner” can be a useful tool for conceptualizing; but also like any word, it’s important not to get too hung up on sticking labels on people’s shirts because it can pigeonhole and limit creativity/adaptability. Just my two cents’ worth!

  16. […] is that we generally do not have intimate relationships which involve (or are heading toward) primary-style merging of life infrastructure or identity along the lines of the traditional social relationship […]

  17. […] is that we generally do not have intimate relationships which involve (or are heading toward) primary-style merging of life infrastructure or identity along the lines of the traditional social relationship […]

  18. andrew Richardson says:

    i wish there was a hotline.. i am being asked to be a primary.. Never been in this lifestyle

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