Treating a non-primary partner well: 2 tips from SHG


November 23, 2012 by aggiesez

Earlier this month I put out a public call for non-primary partners in polyamorous or open relationships to share their thoughts on how they prefer to be treated — especially when their partner also is in a primary partnership.

Several SoloPoly readers and non-primary partners elsewhere offered advice. I’ve compiled that into a list of do’s and don’ts — which is a work in progress. (More input welcome!)

In the meantime, I did get one thought-provoking note from a reader that I’m sharing here as a guest post (with her permission).

SHG does have a primary partner in an emotional sense, but she doesn’t live with him. Her boyfriend is married and lives with his wife. But SHG and her boyfriend have described themselves as being in a primary relationship, which currently has endured for a few years.

She says: “I don’t perceive a hierarchy in the emotional component to both relationships. My boyfriend is in two deeply loving, committed relationships. However, that wasn’t always the case. We’ve grown into this relationship over time. When I was first with him, there was obviously a contrast between a long term marriage and a few weeks of dating.”

SHG’s tips for treating a non-primary partner well

1. If you’re in a primary partnership and are trying to decide whether you’re behaving well in your non-primary relationship, imagine how your behavior would seem if you did not have a primary partner.

For example, my boyfriend has come to me saying: “I know we planned a date tonight, but my wife is distraught over something out of her control. Is it okay with you if I stay home to comfort her — and you and I make sure to schedule extra quality time next week?”

Were he not married, and had he uttered the exact same sentence about a brother, friend, or even a neighbor (instead of his wife), I would consider that request completely appropriate. Everyone needs a shoulder to cry on sometimes, and it doesn’t always happen according to schedule. So, of course, in that case I was fine with postponing a date so my boyfriend could tend to his wife’s emotional emergency.

On the other hand, it would be a different matter had he said something like: “My wife says that I cannot go on a date with you without her permission, and she reserves the right to refuse permission at any time. So sometimes I may have to cancel on you at the last minute.”

If my boyfriend wasn’t married, the equivalent of that statement would be: “I may flake out on you at any time based on parameters that will be completely unpredictable to you.”

That would not be acceptable to me.

2. Remember that solo people are the center of their own world.

Back when I felt my relationship with my boyfriend was definitely not primary, I felt happy and reassured when I was invited to be part of his family traditions. I felt the potential for a deep connection and I wanted to be family to him.

At the same time, it also was important to me that my boyfriend understand that I did not only want to join his family. I also wanted him to join my family — even if that consisted of just me up to that point.

It took me a while to realize this concept myself.

When we began our relationship, I was pulling away from my parents for personal reasons. My sister and I weren’t doing as many things together as we did when we were both single. I had no other romantic partner. So at that time I felt that I did not have a family to bring him into, in the same way he was able to bring me into his family with his wife.

When I realized that I — on my own — am a family unit, I felt liberated. I was truly honored to be included in my boyfriend and his wife’s family traditions. And it was equally important to me that also he take part in traditions important to me — even if they didn’t have the weight of repetition over years.

In other words, if I felt that I was only being adopted into somebody else’s family, then I would always feel “secondary” in a not-good way. In contrast, when I feel confident in being the center of my own world and the core of my household, and that having relationships expands my family through wonderful additions, then I feel strong and secure and am able to enjoy the love in my life.

From this perspective, whether a relationship ever starts to feel “primary” to me, it won’t ever make me feel “less than.”
Many thanks to SHG for her thoughtful input. If you are (or have been) a non-primary partner and would like to share your tips on how to treat non-primary partners well in poly/open relationships, please leave a comment on this post or e-mail Aggie.

2 thoughts on “Treating a non-primary partner well: 2 tips from SHG

  1. Week Bi Week says:

    SHG’s summary: “I may flake out on you at any time based on parameters that will be completely unpredictable to you.”

    That is a terrific and succinct argument against veto power. Many people do not consider that reasonable behavior from partners in monogamous relationships, so why would it be acceptable in non-monogamous relationships, primary or otherwise?

  2. […] articles on Polyamory Weekly and SoloPoly have me thinking about one very important difference between good swinger practices and good […]

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