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?
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.