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


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

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.

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:

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.