October 31, 2014 by aggiesez
It’s still pretty common to hear people habitually use hierarchical terms such as “primary/secondary” when discussing any polyamorous or otherwise ethically open relationships. I sometimes hear this even from people who have been in poly relationships for years, who understand that hierarchy is just an option (not a requirement) — and who may even avoid hierarchical relationships themselves.
So: Why do people often talk as if polyamory = hierarchy?
Recently one poly person told me they do this because it’s “easier for most people to understand, and you need to meet people where they are.”
OK, what’s the problem with that?
As a writer and editor, normally I agree with “meeting people where they are” for effective communication. But sometimes that’s not the right thing to do — if meeting people where they are ends up supporting social biases or presumptions that end up hurting people, or fundamentally misrepresenting a group or issue.
The words we choose to describe relationships can be a simple but powerful clue to people (inside and outside the poly community) that polyamory does not equal hierarchy. Hierarchy is just an option. This small, subtle insight can profoundly affect how people understand poly/open relationships and treat people.
So when people describe me as “a secondary,” or say that my writing “tells people how to be a poly secondary,” here’s what I say:
I am not, nor will I ever be, a “secondary” partner. Nor do I wish to be a “primary” partner. I do not engage in hierarchical relationships, period.
Nor do I write about “how to be a poly secondary” — similar to how someone writing about feminism is unlikely to tell women “how to be a good wife.” If anything, my writing is intended, in part, to encourage people to see a bigger picture than a rank-based framework tends to permit.
Personally, I only engage in nonhierarchical, nonexclusive, fully honest intimate relationships. Also, because I prefer solohood, my relationships do not follow a relationship escalator toward a goal of cohabitation or deep enmeshment of life logistics (which does not preclude deep feelings, commitment or long-term relationships). This is why I call myself “solo poly.”
I always expect to have a full and equal voice in the conduct of my own relationships. I don’t enter or remain in relationships where this is not honored. My needs, wants, goals and priorities matter as much as anyone else’s.
I do prefer to consider how my relationships and choices affect others, but I never defer by default to other relationships — even when I’m in a relationship with someone who also happens to be in a primary-style or nesting partnership. Nor do I expect anyone to defer to me or my relationships by default. Where conflicts of priorities, needs or resources are concerned, I prefer to negotiate situationally and directly with my partners and metamours. I’ve found that this approach typically yields creative, constructive solutions that are far more satisfying to everyone involved than “relationship/partner X always comes first.”
Yeah, that’s pretty different from what most people assume when they hear “secondary.”
I hesitated to write this post. Normally I don’t like to tell people how to talk. However, I find that when people habitually use (or mostly hear) hierarchical terms like “primary/secondary,” it reinforces conscious and unconscious rank-based assumptions (rooted in socially imbued couple privilege) that tend to put people like me at a disadvantage in our own relationships. That’s a problem.
Caveat: I’m not trashing hierarchy, or people who choose to self-identify as “secondary.” I’m totally fine with people self-applying the “secondary” label if they feel it accurately describes their role in a conscious, mutually voluntary hierarchical relationship structure.
My point is that habitually saying “secondary” as a catchall term for nonprimary poly/open relationships tends to support crappy treatment of nonprimary partners, due to unfortunately common social presumptions. Worse: it can encourage nonprimary partners to devalue themselves, or their own relationships.
Words are powerful things. The more people hear nonhierarchical relationship terms (like “nonprimary,” or just “my partner” or “my sweetheart”), the more it normalizes the concept that hierarchy is an option and a choice, not a default. That’s a crucial mindset shift. Because if anything, the more ethical default is to assume that every person matters, and has full rights in their own relationships. Unless they specifically consent otherwise.
As a wise friend once told me: There are no secondary people.
…Ok, that’s the semi-short version of why I don’t refer to myself as a secondary partner. Here’s the long version: Why I say “non-primary,” not “secondary”