What’s the point of being “primary?”


September 3, 2013 by aggiesez

Today a pretty popular webcomic about polyamory, Kimchi Cuddles, addressed the topic of being poly without a primary.

kimchi cuddles

A common myth about polyamory is that it defaults to hierarchy — which means that if you have any partners at all, then at least one of them must (or at least should) be your “primary.” That kind of presumption probably reflects ingrained monogamous thinking, which is hard for anyone to shake in this culture.

But many poly people (especially lots of solo poly people) don’t apply hierarchy to their network of relationships. It is totally possible to have several partners — even long-lasting, deeply committed relationships — yet none of them are “primary.”

Some people believe (consciously or not) that relationships must hold an acknowledged rank or status in order to feel or appear truly important, valid or meaningful. That’s not wrong: If that’s really the way you feel or what you really need, that’s OK. It’s a valid choice. Of course, on its own, a label can’t guarantee the strength, health, quality or longevity of a relationship. But as long as you’re not mistaking form for substance, go for it.

For others, importance is not signified by labels or defaults, but rather by how you focus your emotions, attention, and energy on a day-to-day basis; how you balance priorities in your decisions (ideally without throwing anyone under the bus). From this perspective, hierarchical labels can seem at best a distraction, and at worst potentially sabotaging. Not defaulting to a hierarchy provides flexibility: priorities can shift collaboratively in response to circumstances — which means no one partner automatically “always comes first.” Ideally everyone gives a little, and gets a lot — just not all at the same time.

Surprisingly, I stand a bit on the hierarchical side. I actually do have a primary partner: ME!

I'm writing a book about non-standard approaches to relationships. Want to help? Take this survey to share your views and experiences of relationships that aren't on society's standard relationship escalator.

I’m writing a book about non-standard approaches to relationships.
Want to help? Take this survey to share your views and experiences of relationships that aren’t on society’s standard relationship escalator

Considering my own needs and goals first is what allows me to be a great partner, lover, friend, and family/community member. That doesn’t mean I believe what I want/need should always trump what others want/need. But it does mean that I have a commitment to knowing and not ignoring or devaluing what I want/need, and to speak up for myself. Because when I know and accept myself, I then know what I can realistically offer others. Then, I’m really able to negotiate in good faith.

So yeah, being my own primary partner is a label — but for me, it’s a useful one. (YMMV, of course.)

6 thoughts on “What’s the point of being “primary?”

  1. I’ve really been enjoying your blog and your perspectives. I’d like to refer to one or more of your articles in some of my upcoming blog posts if that’s ok. 😀 Keep up the great work!

  2. Joreth says:

    That’s always been my take on marriage too. If you take out the legal benefits as a reason to get married (since I’m told it’s not “romantic” to marry for legal reasons, or something), then what does marriage confer that one can’t get without being married? You can love someone, you can live together, you can have kids together, you can share a mortgage and a bank account, you can entangle your lives together so that it’s too much effort to separate (that’s seriously a reason I’ve been told in favor of marriage), you can have people who are committed to you and who prioritize you and who stay with you for a long time, you can have a support network for old age, etc. all without going to the courthouse and signing a legal document that, frankly, very few people even know what it represents. I’ve never head anyone say “I married my husband so that I will never have to testify in court against him,” but that’s one of the things you get when you sign that paper.

    As far as I can tell, the only reasons to sign a piece of paper and get the government involved is for legal benefits and social recognition (although, when that was told to me as a reason, I asked how their neighbors knew for sure that they were married and not just *saying* they were “married” – did the neighbors ask to see the marriage license?).

    So, if someone wants some kind of symbol to show that they’re special to me, such as a label like “primary”, I have to ask “does this accomplish that goal, is this the only way to accomplish this goal, and is it the best way to accomplish this goal?”

    We should be primaries because I want to be important to you is not the only or best way to accomplish that goal. If anything, it works the other way around – you are important to me, therefore you are a primary. But we should be primaries because I want to be FIRST in your life, well, that seems to be one way to accomplish that goal. It just won’t work for *me* because I can’t prioritize one person over all the others.

    My prioritization is contextual, not relational.

    • aggiesez says:

      Good points, Joreth

      In general — by that I mean all of life — I’ve found it’s useful that when I (or anyone) wants something specific, to ask “why?” Often exploring that question gets at what you really want, or what you really fear, or what you’ve always believed but not really tested (at least, not lately). And then usually there are a variety of options to meet that goal. I’ve been through that process with a lot of things, including with “primariness.”

  3. robrecord says:

    YES – “me” should always be the primary – first rule of healthy relationships 🙂

  4. Picky Poly says:

    I love the concept of being your own primary. I’ve recently found it to be a useful tool for staving off feelings of loneliness and validating my own self-care. Thank you for mentioning it.

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