Call me a slut, whore, cunt, or bitch. Call me stupid, crazy, fat, shallow, or lazy. But don’t call me “secondary”.
I’m not particularly sensitive to word use. They’re just words, right? It’s pretty hard to push my buttons with word choice, and I tend to be the one offending people by using words without thinking and then having to pick up the pieces afterwards. But words are containers for meaning, so the words we use areimportant. That said, let’s examine what’s contained in the word “secondary.”
Some history here- I’ve been consciously polyamorous for over a decade. I’ve been with my long-term partner, Stefanos, for 9 of those years. And until a few months ago, I fully accepted the “primary/secondary” model that seems to be the basis of the way many (if not most) people practice poly. I had other partners I casually dated, a few I defined as “family with benefits,” some who were just fuck buddies, but nothing overtly romantic or emotionally entangling.
Then, for the first time, I fell in love with someone other than my “primary” partner. My other partner has a “primary” as well. I was his “secondary” and he was mine by self and outward definition for months, and though it made me feel like shit, I never really questioned it. That’s the way you do poly, after all. That’s the accepted lexicon. Then, at what I would define as a nadir in my feelings about being a secondary, I had a serendipitous conversation with a particularly astute friend. She has two serious partners herself. In the same matter of fact, must-be-one-or-the-other way the supermarket checker asks “paper or plastic?”, I asked her which partner was her primary. She looked at me like I was a bit off in the head and said something like, well, partner A is my life partner, we’re going to get married and we’ve been together for almost a decade. But I love partner B, and I would never call him “secondary,” because he is very important to me. We’ve been together less time, but we have an apartment together, and he isn’t “secondary” in any way.
This was an “ah-ha” moment for me. Why hadn’t I thought to question this before? If this label, “secondary”, makes me feel like shit, why am I accepting it for myself?
Again, words are containers for meaning, and in some ways my relationship with Stefanos is “primary,” whether I want to call it that or not. We’re legally married. We have kids together. We’ve been together for years and I fully trust that we will be together for the rest of our lives. We are working towards common, long-term goals. Given this, should I call him my primary? Is there value in “calling a spade a spade” and using words that may be accurate on some objective level, but don’tfeel correct? I used to think so. But I’ve changed my mind.
To me, secondary=less, and primary=more. Do I love my other partner less than I love Stefanos? Are there degrees of love? I think love can have dimensions more than degrees. My love for Stefanos is deeper. My love for my other partner has more breadth, is more acute, at this moment. I know this will change over time. Is one less than the other? I wouldn’t say “secondary,” and I wouldn’t say “less.”
I am not interested in organizing my lovers into some sort of hierarchy. What is the motivation for doing so? When I identified with the primary/secondary model, I think it largely came from a place of insecurity- there was some sort of solace in having veto power (which I exercised only twice, years ago, but would not do again), feeling some control over Stef’s other relationships, feeling that I was at the top of the priority list somehow. I think the sense of security that came from that was ultimately as false as the security people get from being strictly monogamous, and issuing dire pre-emptive “if you cheat on me I will leave you” threats. I want to relate to all my partners as one autonomous individual to another, not under anyone’s control but my own, without the fiction of factors beyond the choices we make. Because ultimately it is a fiction- the choice to comply with one partner’s rules at the expense of another is still a choice that you’re responsible for.
Time management has been one of the biggest poly issues we have to deal with. The important thing to me isn’t that there is “equal” time given to myself and other partners- it’s simply not logistically possible that this would be the case, for us, given the demands of life in general. So if my partner has 10% of his free time to give to me (and me to him), what’s important is that I get 100% of the 10% he has to give. What’s important is that he can love me in the moments we are together, and it isn’t a “less” or “inferior” love.
And it isn’t secondary.
**Various disclaimers: My way does not have to be your way, this is not the “one TWUE way”, your mileage may vary, manufactured in a factory that also processes peanut products, opinions expressed herein reflect only my personal experience and are not intended as a judgement on what others may choose to do or how others identify, and objects in mirror may be closer than they appear.
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