Non-primary partners tell: How to treat us well78
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.”
Earlier this year Cunning Minx wrote eloquently on this theme and also discussed it in Polyamory Weekly podcast episode 333.
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.
Category: Input needed, Lessons | Tags: best practices, dating, equality, ethics, fairness, marriage, monogamy, nonmonogamy, open relationships, polyamory, rights, social norms, society
This is one of the most brillant pieces that I have read in a long time. I think it should be required reading for poly relationships.
Thanks! I worked hard on it, and was thrilled with the great ideas and views others contributed. To you have anything to add? It’s a living document, a work in progress.
all good suggestions. my only criticism is that in reading this, one would assume that the non-primary partner is always blameless. what about when the non-primary is the person who has trouble honoring time commitments and dates, or who violates agreements?
this is a great list – but it needs to be clear that these suggestions go both ways.
Thanks. In my thinking about this, a non-primary relationship involves (at least) two people — BOTH of whom are non-primary partners. These guidelines would apply to both sides.
That said, when at least one of the non-primary partners is also in a primary partnership, that shifts the power dynamics in a pretty significant way which ends up giving a primary couple disproportionate advantage, control, and power vs. the non-primary partner who lacks a primary of their own. That’s the dynamic which I’ve personally seen cause a hell of a lot of heartache in the poly community, and scare off a lot of solo people who believed in polyamory and tried it for awhile but found it too difficult and painful without a primary partner of their own.
I’ll try to clarify that these tips work both ways, and I may do another post later on responsibilities for non-primary partners. But I don’t want to downplay the serious problems the power disparity I described can cause.
I’m sorry, but I don’t think I’m helping you with your list. I am enjoying the conversation.
I believe that the power inequality that you’re describing is an extremely important issue to deal with. In poly relationships, there is often an elephant in the living room–an unacknowledged factor that is in truth way bigger than the sofa, and the power differential issue is one of those elephants that show up regularly.
As a married person, I cannot deal with that power differential if there is no possible path to becoming a triad of equals. If there is no path to potential equality, then the power differential is already set in stone before the solo person comes along. To me, that feels icky.
But what’s equally true is that this power dynamic is ubiquitous within the relationships. In my mind as a married person, I either have a wall erected against falling in love and creating this conflicted dynamic or I don’t. If I don’t have a wall, that means I have to have a mental path to equality–even if it’s never discussed. Whether I have that wall or not is part of who I am in the relationship. It’s like a karmic decision I’ve made in my soul, and it’s therefore part of who I am at my core.
If I do have a wall against falling in love at that deep level, then the same rule that creates the wall will keep me from being authentic and available on a deep emotional level. That wall means that parts of my soul are off-limits. The wall that enshrines inequality also encloses me and my heart behind a barrier and causes me to remain aloof.
This whole dynamic is also ubiquitous within my relationship with Ashara. As equals, Ashara and I need to be clear about our agreements about whether we have that wall inside of us. It is no good for one of us to have the wall and not the other, because neither of us can authentically remove the wall to falling deeply in love with a third person without altering our fidelity agreements with each other–especially if the other relationship has any potential of becoming a co-primary relationship, which is only possible if one of us has taken down the wall.
And here’s a complicating aspect of it. A third person can’t possibly know the clarity of our agreements about that wall unless the third person is in deep communication with both of us. So Ashara and I have explicit agreements about conversations that we will have together with potential partners.
We did poly relationship coaching with quads, triads, and poly couples in the poly community in the SF Bay area for years. We were not always able to solve the problem of the elephant in the living room, but our observations about that elephant tended and tend to be accurate and prescient. We learned a lot from what we observed, and we’re still learning.
There’s another point that I think needs to be made, and I think it’s a corollary with “#6. Don’t pretend the dynamic of your existing relationship(s) will not change.”
That is “Relationships don’t stay in the well-defined boxes you might have put them in at the beginning.” When I started dating G, I had no idea that she and I would soon end up living with each other half of the week when I was at work, and that I would be living with Ashara on the weekends, which essentially balanced it out.
There were no secrets–we were all poly–but after a year, it was like I had two wives who didn’t talk to each other very much. (When I went shopping in SF, I sometimes loaded up two shopping bags, so I could keep groceries for each family separate. (Amusing to tellers if I told them why.))
G did not have it in her to build a relationship with Ashara, but she felt so vulnerable in the situation that she dumped me to protect her own heart. This was not my desired outcome nor Ashara’s.
This is an extreme case, but in my experience, it is impossible for me to create a rule that keeps me and another lover from falling in love or moving towards a primary-type relationship. I have a soul mate who I’ve been with for 13 years, yet she has been unable to negotiate a poly relationship with her husband. We’re still in love, we have deep conversations by phone regularly, but we’ve only broken the rules occasionally. For most of our time, we’ve identified as “platonic lovers,” and although we love each other dearly, this does not fit what either of us want.
I have had three other lovers who fell in love with me and promptly wanted me to ditch Ashara–and this was not what they had planned when they started dating me. What was most painful about those situations was that I had also fallen in love with them, so there was no easy response to the situation.
The approach that Ashara and I now take is that it’s likely that if we’re authentic and truly open in our relationships, it’s at least possible that we’re going to want to live together at some point. If we don’t create some sort of mental road map by which that could happen, and if we don’t make that road map available to everyone involved, then it could end up like the five situations I’ve just mentioned–unsatisfying for all.
Relationships morph. You can never predict what they will look like. With G, it seemed as if she treated me as a faux single man, even though she was well aware that every Friday morning, I was kissing her goodby until Monday evening. This meant that there was no road map available.
I believe that being responsible means being realistic.
To be clear, I think that being realistic does require rethinking the shape of marriage. If you are the sort of person that creates deep, in-love relationships, the concept of “marriage equality” means that marriage has to be available as an option.
When polyamory only exists as a form a “extreme dating”–in the same category as extreme sports–I don’t think it’s sustainable long-term.
“Extreme dating” — LOVE THAT!
I don’t think that long-term sustainability is or should be the goal of every person or relationship, poly or otherwise. But if it is your goal, that means taking responsibility for the care and feeding of a long-term relationship.
Thanks, Cougar. That’s a good point, I’ll think it over. Not sure how I might adapt that point to include this interpretation without making it unwieldy; I want this list to be practical. Could you suggest wording that might achieve that goal?
[…] …Fine, but how do you actually pull that off? Where’s the list of what to do?” Non-primary partners tell: How to treat us well (SoloPoly, via Charlie […]
” “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.”
I think a problem with this is that 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 ok, and sometimes you think it won’t be a big deal but when it’s real you find yourself flipping out.
Thats a good point, Chris. I’ll have to add a “Do” item — “Do expect to be surprised by your emotional reactions, and commit to working through them constructively as you refine/update your needs and boundaries..”
…Or maybe that would be a corollary to the “Don’t bail at the first bump” item.
What would you suggest?
I think it’s worth having it’s own section. I’ve been amazed how many people I’ve known who thought they had it all negotiated and sorted until it actually became real, at which point it exploded in a horribly messy way and became nothing like anyone involved thought it would be (including people who had claimed to be devoted to polyamoury suddenly saying they actually thought it never really worked and wanting to be monogomous). I’m also amazed that this difference between theory and practice comes as a suprise to anyone.
Good point not. Will add that sometime this weekend, thanks!
Really liking this. If you don’t mind my self-linking, I wrote a post a while back about what I see as one of the most common misconceptions about hierarchies here. Very similar to some of the stuff you’ve said above.
It really seems like in a nutshell, a lot of this boils down to the idea that everyone should consider that they have real responsibilities toward secondary partners just like toward primaries. If someone doesn’t feel like they adding responsibilities to their life by taking on a secondary partner, they probably shouldn’t be doing it.
Reblogged this on neutralobjects and commented:
Wait, so…everybody has to be on a path to becoming an “equal,” cohabitating committed triad/quad/whatever?
Well, that’s not what I implied (or at least, that’s not what I meant to imply). Could you explain what exactly you’re referring to? Do I need to clarify something?
No, I was trying to parse @Cougar’s comment, which I’m not really sure I understand.
Thank you for this.
When I read this, it resonated with me with things I’ve felt for a while, and hit some nerves that I hadn’t even articulated to myself yet. I am lucky to be the non primary partner of someone who is married to their other partner, but mostly is wonderful and does an excellent and conscientous job (and of the few things on this list that haven’t happened in our relationship, one of them is on me and my reluctance).
The raw nerve for me is really with being a non primary partner that is not a romantic one (or being a primary nonromantic/nonsexual partner that is automatically and abruptly bumped to nonprimary without any discussion as soon as a romantic partner enters the picture). That was what made my heart ache and eyes tear up when I read this and thought about my own experiences. Just as we need to question the dynamics of how non-primary partners are treated, and hope that people who think differently and believe in open relationships will embrace that challenge, we need to question the assumptions and community/social standards about how non-romantic relationships get subordinated to romantic ones. Similar to how this list includes not equating fairness with equality, this doesn’t mean that the non-romantic one should never be put below the romantic one – just that it shouldn’t be assumed and people need to think a lot more and do a better job of not treating people shitty.
How about we apply most of this list to friend relationships too?
Thanks much for this.
I hadn’t really considered how these tips might be relevant to close friends as well as non-primary romantic/sexual partners, but I suppose they could be, at least to some extent.
This is fascinating. As someone who had devastating unrequited friend-crushes in my early 20’s, I’m curious to know if the friend(s) who demoted you when a romantic prospect surfaced for them are friends that you have romantic feelings for?
Lily – The friends that I was talking about were close friends that I definitely did not have romantic or sexual feelings for. I thought I specified in my post that they were non-romantic – and that I am advocating for extending these ideas about respectful/conscientous relationships to the friend arena – maybe I wasn’t clear enough.
But I also think that the fact that you jumped to assuming that maybe I had romantic feelings for them is actually kind of representative of the issue – how we value romantic relationships and feelings over other kinds of relationships, and almost can’t see the depth and importance in those, and heartbreak that can come from those too. And I don’t mean to single you out – I think it is how we are encouraged to think in general and that is what I want to challenge. I think it’s related to the whole flawed “relationship elevator” hierarchy of relationships mentioned in the original post, and how we really devalue and often don’t treat well those people in relationships that are important but aren’t in the role of the elevator-track one.
I have also experienced the other thing, falling devastatingly in crush/in love with a friend. But that’s really not the situation I was thinking of here. It was several different close friends that I had no romantic feelings for that I’m talking about above.
Such great information !! Thank you ,I have been the non primary in a relationship with my sweetie who is married, for 14 years. We have addressed most of the issues you have mentioned.I wish we would have had a list like this for guidance. .
That’s a good point. Yes, it does basically boil down to being responsible — or at least being honest and forthright about how responsible you’re willing/able to be.
But also, for people who are in a primary partnership, there needs to be recognition of the power disparity between primary and non-primary relationships, even if you don’t believe in/want hierarchy in your relationships. It’s not just up to you; that’s a social thing.
A few months ago had a conversation explaining how to manage a variation of this. Essentially respect, trust, keeping them on the inside loop, feeling honored, taken care of, transparent, forthright, honest. Basically this article.
[…] perspective of the ”non-primary” in her latest blog post. Which led me to finding this blog post where non-primary partners give advice geared towards poly […]
[…] Solopoly has a list up of do’s and don’t's when it comes to treatment of a non-primary partner. The list: […]
I would add “take sides” to the “Do” list:
[…] this article and I find it a wonderful guide for how to show commitment to a non-domestic partner: Non-primary partners tell: how to treat us well. I particularly identify with the bits about keeping promises and involving a […]
[…] there is a brilliant article currently doing the rounds about how to treat non-primary partners well. I’m going to put another link to it at the end of this post so that you can go and read it […]
To @anon_nonprimary: If friendships are to be put on an equal footing with romantic or spousal relationships, how is a friend supposed to negotiate that with me?
I’d be very wary of being drawn into a friendship with someone who had unspoken expectations of me, or simply expected of me more than I had to give considering the commitments I have to my existing partners (and children, and work).
[…] How to behave to your non-primary partners: (TLDR: Don’t be a dick.) […]
ChrisLittleSun: Reading your comment made me think of the quote “The difference between theory and practice is greater in practice than in theory.” (Yogi Berra/Einstein).
Lily, the friendship/romance divide can be as tricky as the primary/non one. I have much higher expectations of long-term friends than new romantic partners, for example, and do get disgruntled when a new romance kills a friendship. I have experienced the “new partner makes rules about existing friends” problem a couple of times, and had one friend decide that he’d accept the need to dump a lot of his existing friends to satisfy his new primary partner. Even the few non-dumped friends were unhappy about that, but such is life.
I appreciate the couple of oblique references to non-primary partners other partners. One of the things I’ve found hardest to deal with is non-primary partners being bounced around by their other non-primaries. Sometimes in the ugly ways the above is trying to address. Often through failing to allow for the non-primary having desires, rules or other things happening in their life.
The flow-on effects can be hard to deal with. I’ve had a partner deeply unhappy about having their date night changed on short notice (to “our” night), leaving me the difficult task of standing up for our relationship while trying to be supportive when they coped with the primary couple being crotchwads. My inclination being to say “stuff them, that’s an unreasonable demand” but the actual person involved was much more wanting to accept it quietly in the hope that it wouldn’t happen again (that may be an over-cynical description). (oh dear, that one anecdote triggers basically all the rules above…). I’m getting grumpy again just thinking about it. How dare they presume so much!
One friend of mine has taken to never dating people who are in primary relationships to avoid most of the above. It works for them, but I’m closer to Cougar than that – I tend to feel very close to whoever I’m with right now, and seek people with whom I can feel that way. I also suck at explaining how I work, from experience, even to other poly people. But clear expectations of concrete stuff helps a great deal. Like your post above.
That’s a good edit on #2. Very often, when people say “drama” what I hear is “If your emotions aren’t convenient I don’t feel like dealing with it.” In a weird way, it’s the flipside of the “don’t ruin date night” phenomenon: a lot of people relate to their nonprimary partners as “fun date night partners,” and when it’s not fun, they act like they paid to see a movie and are disappointed when it sucks. But while I think it’s reasonable to expect a relationship to be enjoyable overall, people are not entertainment products, yanno?
I have been in non-primary relationships where equality would definitely be inappropriate. If I do not have equal responsibilities, the responsibilities that go with a marital contract, then I have no need to be treated equally in priority. One of the benefits of polyamory is that people who do not want, need or cannot handle marriage can still have good romantic relationships. By being the non-primary partner such people can relax and not worry that the partner who is in a marriage will havehis or her marital desires frustrated. The same variety exists with nonsexual friends. You call upon your best friend for acts of devotion in emergencies that you would not expect other friends to perform. The inequalities are a major appeal to me, and I don’t see that they put up a wall with regard to feelings. One can be in love with someone and still have limitations built into the relationship. With one relationship, perhaps you can let yourself go in terms of playing with the freedom of a child and actually go deeply into intimacy in that way, while recognizing that the partner cannot be called upon to visit you every day in the hospital. That may be someone else, who can do that, and would be so obligated, and perhaps can never be as deeply intimate to match his or her dutifulness and constancy. If you love someone for who they are, not for their potential to fit into a certain mold of relating, then one can have many relationships that have their own fairness without worrying about equality.
Yep, agreed — which is why one of the list items is: don’t conflate fairness with equality.
[…] few weeks ago I read Solo Poly’s blog on the Do’s and Don’ts for non-primary relationships. Poly Weekly also did an episode about the post. It was very well put together, and a great […]
Thanks so much for this! I especially agree with “entering your partners world” – I discuss this more on my blog: http://polyaphrodite.wordpress.com/2012/12/29/dos-and-donts-for-relationships/
Reblogged this on Shadow in the Mirror and commented:
I’m posting this for my friend, Seattlepolychick and for myself and others who could could use this information. Many of my characters are poly and I can only wish that they behaved so well as outlined here. I how my stories show both the light and dark sides of relationships in general and poly ones as well. This is just such solid advice, whether or not one is poly. People are human. 🙂
Thank you so much! I really appreciate your support. Please let me know if you have anything to add.
I reblogged this. 🙂
Thanks for a great article. I myself live in a polyhouse where I have moved in with a married couple. We all share everything together, finances, house, bedroom, everything a “normal couple” would do. I think what helps us is that we all play together as us girls are both bi. So I guess you can say that we are living the ultimate guy’s dream lol.
I often find it hard to explain how we all work together but this article explains it well and should leviate anyone’s fears in regards to starting one or answer questions if they know someone who is like this.
Keep up the good work on helping others knowing how unique situations work
Thanks, Velvet. I appreciate your support. Happy to hear your relationship is working well. Just wondering: is your triad closed or do you also have other relationships separately? If so, how do the relationships work?
Really good post with tons of advice. I feel like at times issues don’t address a triad, but I feel like after reading this I realized the same rules apply, just double. It is an excellent list for both new and experienced polyfolk. I especially like all the talk about “I’m not asking to be equal, just treated fairly.” My feeling is that you treat a non-primary the same WAY you would treat a primary, just not the same quantity or such? Thanks again!
My best friend, who is poly, says she avoids heartbreak in her non-primary relationships by not expecting anything in return from any of her lovers. Her love for them is its own reward; anything she receives she considers a bonus. And, when they cycle out of her life, she continues to enjoy the love she has for them in the knowledge they are receiving benefit they can only get outside of their relationship. I think this is wise, mature, and something to which I aspire.
I’ve heard several people say similar things. It’s great if people can honestly achieve that. In my experience, relationships always come with some expectations that you can’t out-think or avoid feeling merely by adopting a philosophical mindset. Honestly, I don’t think heartbreak can be avoided — in any kind of relationships, or even if you have no relationships — unless you’re a Zen monk (and maybe even not then).
Heartbreak is just part of life, and it’s always a risk whenever you feel strongly about someone. It’s not necessarily completely inevitable. Fortunately, it’s rarely fatal. Personally, trying to nurture my relationships so they can be the best they can be is more important and practical than trying to avoid heartbreak.
But maybe I’m just not philosophical enough 🙂
[…] DOs and DON’Ts from a « solopoly » (who doesnt do primary relationships). Non-primary partners tell how to treat us well […]
[…] been a lot of discussion among my friends about this article on how to treat non-primary partners, and I realized a few things about my own relationship model and how it’s […]
[…] controversial (?!) proposed secondary bill of rights or a recent post that went viral outlining how to treat non-primary partners well (note how these are not mainstream media articles). These posts make me sick to my stomach. Not […]
What a wonderful well thought out piece. As the “non-dating” member of a primary relationship I see these things from a slight distance. I love the new word metamour. I see how sometimes the metamour has not always been treated fairly and have tried to do what I can to help. This article might help my wonderful spouse to see some of these issues from someone other than me. Thanks.
Just wanted to say this is an excellent post. And very helpful. It was recommended by Lily *thanks* and I definitely see why. I have recently brought it to my husband’s attention that I’d like to have a girlfriend. And, well, I botched it with one date. And now I’m working through the mess I created, trying to find a way to work it all out. Anyway, you’ve given me a lot to think about as we move forward with this. So thank you. *hugs and kisses*
Thanks. Read your posts, Lily sent them. Struck me that you did not seen to ponder your situ from your prospective girlfriend’s view, only yours & your male dom lover’s. Might want to consider couple privilege there….
Unfortunately, “couple’s privilege” is a term I did not hear until AFTER this experience. And, if I’m honest with myself, I didn’t really consider any other perspective but my own, going into it, not her’s and not my husband’s. Yeah, I know, it was stupid. I have not discussed Paige’s view on the blog for multiple reasons, but I am (now) aware of it, and I will not make that mistake next time, if there is to be a next time…
Thank you for this. Over the past several days, I have been combing through your writings to find the words for understanding some recent trials between myself and my partner. I have been trying to find constructive thoughts for the needs I feel haven’t been consistently met.This pinpoints many issues I’ve been wrestling with (mainly items #1 and #2 of the ‘Do’ list). Thank you for both your contribution to this as well as your work on pulling together this collaboration. Just because I am not a primary partner, doesn’t mean I am not important or worthy of respect…
[…] secondaires » de Franklin Veaux, ou un post récent devenu quasi viral en soulignant comment bien traiter les partenaires non-primaires , (notons que ce ne sont pas des articles des médias dominants). Ces posts me rendent […]
[…] https://solopoly.net/2012/11/27/non-primary-partners-tell-how-to-treat-us-well/ […]
Just wanted to say thank you. Some much needed insight for this newb.
[…] -A GREAT blog for people who are coming at this, well, solo. I don’t know of another resource that caters to them in this way, and it’s fantastic. (And for people coming at this as a couple, this post is the most important one people can read about “secondary” relationships: https://solopoly.net/2012/11/27/non-primary-partners-tell-how-to-treat-us-well/) […]
[…] controversial (?!) proposed secondary bill of rights or a post that went viral outlining how to treat non-primary partners well (note how these are not mainstream media articles). These posts make me sick to my stomach. Not […]
[…] Franklin Veaux wrote an excellent post called A Proposed Secondary’s Bill of Rights, and Aggie wrote another great post called Non-primary partners tell: How to treat us well. […]
[…] de le faire "bien", en accord avec tout mon tas d'autres valeurs et convictions: Non-primary partners tell: How to treat us well | SoloPoly Bon, c'est en anglais par contre. Pour les non anglophones, et pour illustrer un peu, je vais […]
[…] been reading about solo poly and what it means to be non-primary, and I think it has something to do with that. It has something to do with an accumulation of […]
[…] plein la figure. Voici quelques pistes de moins mauvaise conduite, largement inspirées d’un article publié par Aggiesez sur son blog […]
Reblogged this on Dolly and commented:
Reblogging to keep this handy.
Here are my thoughts: I agree with the opening statement… “there are no such things as secondary partners.” My personal experience with polyamory (I am monogamous) has been quite “hellish” so to speak so I have nothing positive to say in terms of my own experience. However, I am very much aware that for some people, it works out, and more importantly, if it is what they truly *want* and makes them happy, then that is what matters. The reason I agree with the statement that there are no such things as “secondary” partners because by definition, doesn’t poly-amory mean “many loves?” By the very virtue of the fact that you are polyamorous means that you are capable of *loving* more than one person at a time. If it is simply about recreational/ casual sex, or “just having some outside fun,” then that is no longer poly-amory. That then becomes simply an open-relationship or swinging. What I have seen is that the primary partners remain the primary focus of a relationship – hence the term “primary” – and everyone else outside of the primary relationship are there to accommodate the needs of the primary. Of course, I am hoping that not everybody in a poly relationship is like that because that would just be awful. My intention here is not to attack people who are leading a poly lifestyle; but more so just to highlight that if you truly want to be “polyamorous,” you are making the decision to “love” more than just one person AT a time and if you are doing that, then ALL your partners deserve love, attention, respect and devotion.
I liked this text very much. I would like to translate it in order to upload it in an Argentinian website concerning Poliamory and relationships. Can I do that? Please let me know as soon as possible.
Sure. Please link to the original post, thanks.
[…] Source: Non-primary partners tell: How to treat us well […]
A huge thing, for me as someone in my own primary relationship and also as a non primary partner, I find that primary partners can make rules about non primary partners that they would never accept if the tables were turned. In one relationship, I wasn’t allowed to go to new places with my non primary partner until he and his primary partner had been there together. I’ve also found that I’ve been slut shamed far more often when I’m in my role as a non primary partner than I am as a primary partner, even when the situation is exactly the same.
Some of this is really good, but I don’t understand how this part has to be true “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.”
Just because on of my partners in not my primary partner does not mean that I am not their primary partner. In my life I don’t use the term primary, but I am married to a partner I have lived with for 12 years and share finances with. Most people would call that primary. I also have a partner that I have been seeing for 3 years that I am madly in love with. When compared to my husband he is often considered non primary, but to him I am his primary partner, even if I have another more established relationship.
That may be true. That said, often poly folk assume that if you have only one partner,that makes them “primary.” Actually, no one needs to be primary; hierarchy is not mandatory, nor is it a default. It’s just an option.
If your non-primary partner considers you to be their primary partner, you both might want to discuss why that is,and what effect applying hierarchical language to your relationships might have.