Why I say “non-primary,” not “secondary”


November 30, 2012 by aggiesez

I’m a writer and editor by profession, so I choose words carefully. In this blog I deliberately refer to “non-primary” partners — rather than “secondary,” the more common term.

First, let me define what I mean by non-primary:

Non-primary relationship. An intimate (romantic/sexual) relationship that by mutual agreement does not have the traditional relationship escalator role or goal of becoming primary life partners (married or equivalent) who share a household. These relationships can be monogamous, polyamorous, or otherwise. Non-primary relationships can be very long-term and significant, or not.

CAVEAT: As with all terms I define in this blog, this is my personal perspective. Others disagree, and that’s fine. Polyamory has a huge language problem — all the common terms we have to discuss non-monogamous relationships pretty much suck. So we either have to invent neologisms (like metamour) which feel weird, or repurpose existing common words that inevitably carry a lot of baggage (like “secondary”). Whatever. I’m just trying to roll with the awkwardness and baggage. Eventually new, better language will emerge and feel natural. It always does.

Why I draw this distinction between primary and non-primary

Earth vs. Jupiter size

Primary relationships (here: Earth) are important — and they get most of the attention in and out of the poly community. But there are vastly more options for how non-primary relationships (Jupiter) can exist, and work..

In my view, whether a relationship is non-primary does not depend on the existence of other overlapping relationships. A relationship can be non-primary even if neither partner also has a primary partner; or indeed even if neither partner has any other partners at all.

For instance, some people (especially many solos, including some monogamous ones) prefer only to have non-primary relationships. That doesn’t mean their relationships can’t be important, valued or long-lasting. Consequently, the primary/non-primary distinction is more about structure and logistics than emotional investment or personal commitment.

The key point is: decisionmaking, priorities, and social pressures usually are very different for non-primary vs. primary relationships. It’s not about the number of partners in a relationship network, or who was there first. It’s definitely not about how much you love each other. It’s about roles.

For instance, a long-term cohabitating triad relationship where everyone co-owns the house and shares financial commitments and child-rearing duties probably would be a primary relationship — just with three partners, instead of the conventional two.

This distinction has a big gray area, of course. For instance, there have always been long-distance marriages, and some people (poly and otherwise) consider themselves to be primary partners even though they maintain separate households.

However, whether a relationship is non-primary is not solely about how invested the partners involved feel, or even what words they use to describe their own relationship.

For instance, there are plenty of poly primary couples who firmly believe that they do not practice hierarchical polyamory — some of whom are in fact truly committed to their other relationships and treat those partners with exceedingly fairness and respect. Yet they still handle decisions, priorities, and logistics quite differently for non-primary partners than they do with primary partners.

This differential is neither good nor bad — it simply exists. Just like hierarchy in intimate relationships is not inherently good or bad. If you aspire to avoid hierarchy in your relationships, that’s a laudable goal. But simply saying “I don’t believe in gravity” won’t make your airplane fly.

Therefore, calling a partner non-primary is no denigration. No one is inherently discriminatory or unfair for acknowledging this distinction. So using this term should not undermine anyone’s aspirations for changing societal views of relationships.

Look — I’ve been around the block in relationships, especially poly ones. And I’ve learned through hard experience that intimate relationships (especially long-term, significant ones, of any configuration) work much better when they acknowledge and adapt to reality, rather than cling rigidly to romantic or philosophical ideals. After all, we can only live in the world as it exists, not as we’d prefer it to be.

That doesn’t mean we can’t work to shift social norms and make the world (including the poly/open community) a better place. That’s why I’m writing this blog, after all.

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.

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.

Ultimately, all relationships are comprised of individuals who decide to partner. Discussing the various ways we choose to partner, and the implications of those choices (including external factors such as social bias), doesn’t mean we aren’t still responsible, accountable individual adults. But talking about how “equal” everyone is without addressing our real differences reminds me of a certain book

Why I don’t say “secondary.”

I have two reasons for this decision. One is about logic (set theory, actually), the other is about baggage:

non-primary vs. secondary diagram

Yes, there are lots of secondary relationships in polyamory. But they are also all non-primary ones. I’m siding with the more inclusive set.

1. All secondary relationships are non-primary — but many non-primary relationships are NOT secondary. I prefer to use the broader, more inclusive term since it applies to more people and allows me to illuminate issues that are not predicated on the primary-couple perspective. “Non-primary” gives more weight to the perspective of individual agency in relationships.

2. Secondary carries worse baggage than non-primary. Yeah, both terms kind of suck, I know. But in my perspective (and this is my blog!), “secondary” directly implies a lesser role, and thus may encourage a lack of consideration or respect for these partners and relationships. I feel like “secondary” supports the presumptions of couple privilege too much. True, it can be an accurate label within a network of relationships that includes a primary partnership — so it’s not necessarily incorrect. But for the purposes of this blog, “secondary” not only misses the point; it makes precisely the wrong point.

Many poly/open people prefer to say “secondary.” That’s fine. Many people also think “non-primary” carries negative lesser-than or divisive othering connotations. I agree: It sure does. I fully admit that “non-primary” is an accurate but stll flawed term with baggage of its own.

Still, given the topic of this blog, I needed to have a term I could use consistently and feel good enough about to discuss the type of relationships that are central to my world. So I picked non-primary — and I’m sticking with it.

Feel free to hate on non-primary, if you must. I don’t mind. Know that I’m not completely happy with this term either — but I chose it, and use it, for good reasons.

Your mileage may vary, of course.

12 thoughts on “Why I say “non-primary,” not “secondary”

  1. Kitty says:

    I just wanted to finally comment and say that I really love your blog. I’ve come across it at a particularly appropriate time in my life. I do wish there were better words than primary and secondary/non-primary, but I do like non-primary better, at least for the subject matter of your blog. I currently refer to my two core partners (and LDRs) as my primaries, but they live in different cities and next year, I may be moving in with one and not the other, which begins to strain my use of the same term for both of them.

  2. […] other but related new, I’ve come across this article about poly terminology, specifically “secondary” vs. “non-primary.”  And […]

  3. Lily says:

    This is a wonderful post, Aggie. I linked to it in a long thread on Fetlife that came up — a thread discussing the terms “primary” and “secondary.”

    I think one of the things people are struggling to get at when they try to talk about this is figuring out a way to recognize and express the fact that some of their partners have more “skin in the game” in a practical sense than others. For instance, if I neglect to pay the light bill, my girlfriend’s lights do not go off, but my husband’s do. I think when some people use these terms, they’re not necessarily trying to indicate that Partner A is more valuable than Partner B but that Partnership A has more value tied up in it, in a practical, roof-over-the-head, food-on-the-table kind of way, than Partnership B.

    I do get annoyed when people say “Oh, we don’t use those words — I see all my partners as equal” — my bullshit meter goes off. It’s a way to derail a conversation about something real by saying, “Oh, it’s just words.” True, but it’s words about a REAL ISSUE.

    There’s a BDSM axiom that talks about this: “equal in value, not equal in power.” That is, even when one partner voluntarily gives greater authority to the other partner in a BDSM relationship it doesn’t make the more authoritative partner “better” or more valuable as a person. Their priorities do not come first automatically. Nor do they get everything they want all the time (unless they’re a jerk).

    In poly, it might be something like: “partners are equal in value, but partnerships are not”?

    I often feel like people are making choices not to favor Partner A or Partner B but to favor Partnership A or Partnership B, and which choices they make are very predictable when you consider where the balance of their investment is (investments that often have nothing to do with emotional or romantic feeling) when they make that decision. It’s the poly version of “follow the money.”

    • aggiesez says:

      Thanks Lily

      “Skin in the game” is an interesting concept that applies to many kinds of relationships, not just primary life partnerships. For instance, since you are one of my closest and most steadfast friends. If you need anything and I could offer it, it would be yours. That includes taking a bullet for you. I’m just sayin’ 😉

      That said, I know I can count on you for a lot. But you’ve got kids, so I’d never expect you to take a bullet for me. Although I bet you’d probably break out an Uzi, return fire and smoke the motherfuckers 🙂

      But when earlier this year I was surprised by the sudden and harsh breakup of a long-term relationship I’d treasured which happened under bizarre circumstances, you were the very first person I called to cry to. And you gave me a lot of your time, in the midst of a workday. I appreciated that more than I can ever tell you, because right then I needed someone who really knew me and cared for me and would be my ally. I knew I could expect that from you, and ask it of you. Still, if you couldn’t have given me your time and support that day for some reason, I do have other close friends to call (and indeed I did, that was a horrible day).

      And six months before that, having you and our friend S literally by my side helped give me the courage to to break up with another guy who’d been jerking my heart around in a pretty irresponsibly evil way.

      On a day-to-day basis, do I expect much of your time? No. We have patterns of catching up, sometimes more often than others depending on life. But I do indeed have “skin in the game” with my friendship with you — lots of it. I don’t structure my life around you, co-parent with you, share a mortgage with you — but you, S, and some other close friends are people I’d fight for. None of you are getting thrown under the bus, ever. Not by me, not for anything.

      Of course, as friends we’ve earned that skin in each other’s game over time. Often in sexual/romantic relationships (especially ones on the relationship escalator) people make a lot of immediate assumptions about time, attention, exclusivity, recognition, etc. That’s not usually the case with friendships — and I agree with you, a new friend who made those assumptions would be a red flag for me too.

      • Lily says:

        Well, and this goes back to the Anon in the thread about “How To Treat Us Well” who was mourning the fact that people tend to privilege romantic partnerships over nonromantic partnerships.

        I guess the common denominator is that all relationships require some level of investment, and that heartbreak comes when one the investment one person expects is different than what they get (that can be too much investment or too little, I think, though how those two manifest would be quite different).

        But it’s an interesting concept: how do friends “rightsize” the level of investment between them? In its own way, friendship seems to have more subtle ways of doing this, and there’s less explicit communication about same.

        I mean, to me, you are family. I have more “you can come live in my house/I will go see you if you’re in the hospital/people who fuck you over are on my shit list big time” kinds of feelings for you and S than I do for my blood relatives. (That’s a peculiarity of my personal history, but it’s true that my chosen family has ended up being closer and more significant to me than my family of origin).

        Plus I probably would have been sleeping under a bridge and suffering from malnutrition if you hadn’t helped me out during that big entrepreneurship thing 🙂

      • aggiesez says:

        Yeah, it’s funny. I don’t know whether I ever made a conscious decision “Yeah, Lily? I’ve got her back.” But I guess at some point I did make that decision. Interesting point to ponder.

        You, homeless under a bridge? Never. Not in a million years. I know you better than that. Running an evil underworld empire headquartered below a bridge? Now maybe….

  4. Darrius26 says:

    I think several of the comments here really hit the nail on the head. For me the distinction of “primary” vs “Secondary” is all about logistics and future planing and when making decisions in those areas that is what I think about.
    My primary partners are those whom I plan on spending the rest of my life with, they are the ones whom I make plans for should I get his by a bus,they are the ones who have access to my bank accounts, etc
    My non-primary partners are those whom I love just as much and as dearly as my primaries however, I do not plan on spending my whole life with them

  5. Rose says:

    I am very, very new to poly. I’ve been educating myself on non-standard types of relationships since I became single through widowhood two years ago. I’ve known since long before my husband died that if I ever got a “do-over” on a a love relationship, I definitely wouldn’t do it the standard way a second time.

    So I’ve read many books and blogs, etc. I began dating a man in a poly marriage a month ago. I adore his wife, she’s a beautiful woman. I am not sexual with his wife.

    When he and I started dating, I started reading about polyamory again. The more I came across the word “secondary” in the context of poly relationships, the less I liked it.

    For some time, I have been blessing my step-siblings and my childrens’ friend with the title “bonus”, as in “bonus sister” instead of step-sister, or “bonus kid” instead of “my daughter’s best friend.”

    So I texted my lover on day and asked him – “How do you feel about the use of “bonus relationship” or “bonus partner” rather than the word “secondary”?

    He’s good with it – but now teases me for calling him my “poly lover” instead of my “bonus lover”.

    I would also be good with terms like “supplemental relationship” or “additional relationship”. When we first met, my lover told me polyamory, if done right, can be a multiplier, if done wrong, it can be a divider.

    So I guess I’d also like the phrase “multiplier” partner.

    I mean, since we’re spinning poly anyway…

  6. Reblogged this on stormyalexxia and commented:
    I really, really like this a lot. It’s a word switch i am working to implement myself.

  7. turbohappy says:

    What do you think of the terms layed out in the “More than Two” book such as “nesting partner” and “non-nesting partner”?

  8. […] but rather an unintentional partaking of general harm within poly would be the alienation of a ‘secondary’ relationship  within the polyamorous doctrine where an established couple either seeks a partner for one or both […]

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