Primary, Secondary, Tertiary & Worthless.*

July 15, 2011 at 10:19 am (Polyamory, Relationship) (, , , , , , , , )

*Title stolen from a Tweet by @BadPolyAdvice.

I know there is no right or wrong way to “do poly”. There’s no rulebook everyone must adhere to. I’m not going to say that poly people should all think the way I do about how they refer to their relationships. I’m admittedly new to poly and doing a lot of thinking, exploring, and wondering, so I’m no expert at the practical application of the poly philosophy to real life. That said, I do have a point I want to make, and I think it’s valid. Regarding relationships and labels, we need to think carefully about why we use the labels we do, and what that says to others, and how it affects our thinking.

Many of us are resistant to certain labels, or labels of any kind. But there are some benefits: labels serve to identify people and things in ways that can be commonly understood, and I don’t think that, as a society, we’ll ever stop using them. I do think that we need to use all labels with care, because the words we choose can sometimes say much more than we mean. And by using words that carry so much weight, we may be limiting our thinking about the things we are labeling, and this applies particularly to polyamorous relationships.

The way we label our relationships is troublesome for me.  In poly relationships, it’s very common to refer to your partners as primary or secondary.

Primary: first or highest in rank or importance; first in order in any series, sequence, etc.; first in time; earliest.

Secondary: Next after the first in order, place, time, etc. belonging or pertaining to a second in order, rank, etc; derived or derivative; not primary or original.

There are a lot of reasons to use the primary and secondary labels for your relationships. It sets a clear rank and hierarchy; it establishes who is most important to you, and therefore who will get the most of your time, which is a finite quantity; it helps manage expectations among everyone involved; it establishes boundaries. Frankly, it’s just handy to put your lovers in order. Right?

For a lot of reasons, I have a general resistance to hierarchical definitions. I find them belittling. To see them used in terms of intimate relationships irks me. To me, it says, “I have compared Partner B to partner A, and Partner B comes up wanting. Partner A is better.”  This seems like a value judgment; and because A is primary, he/she gets the most, and B gets a little less. Do value judgments and comparisons have a place in polyamorous, open relationships? I don’t think that they do.

Ranking implies a decrease in value the farther down the rank you go. It also implies there is less to give for the lower ranks. With time, yes, we are all limited, and we have to make choices between work, self care, chores, friends, lovers. But is love a finite quantity? Do we have less love to give each successive partner?

Isn’t that what we’re arguing against by being poly in the first place – that starvation mentality, that there’s only so much love to give and then it’s used up?

I also wonder if using the primary label closes one off to possibilities. If I say to each new potential partner, “I have a primary and he’s most important”, that does help towards setting expectations about the amount of time and attention another potential partner could receive. But to me, it could also say, “I’ve already compared you to someone, even though I don’t know you as well as I know him, but I already know that you can’t measure up to him, even though I don’t know you as well yet.” That immediately erects a wall: you can come in, but only this far. It could restrict how that relationship might grow.

But the fact is, I don’t know what might develop with a new partner.  I may have met my primary first, chronologically, but it’s certainly not inconceivable that there might be another person out there who is also compatible with me. And I could potentially have – gasp – my primary become my secondary. Ouch for him! (1) So do I use the primary label to protect my chronologically first lover from outside threats?

Is it inconceivable to have peer relationships, with equivalent amounts of love being exchanged?

Polyamorous: pertaining to participation in multiple and simultaneous loving or sexual relationships.

That’s a really fundamental definition, but I think sometimes it’s good to go back to the fundamentals. Multiple and simultaneous. Not greater/lesser. Not superior/inferior. Not primary/secondary. Multiple, simultaneous. No ranking of one against the other. No comparison. Just concurrent.

Human beings have value. It can take a while to discover exactly how much value any given person brings to your life. My argument against using hierarchical labels is that it creates a barrier that could prevent you, and your new/potential lovers, from experiencing organic growth in a relationship. When you tell them from the outset that the possibilities are limited, regardless of what qualities this new person might bring or what potential they might have, you’re closing yourself off. That’s not loving behavior, to me.

Being open means being without limitations. When I use words that erect a hierarchy, I’m setting limits. I’m not open.

I’m sure there are many arguments to the contrary of what I’ve expressed here. This is all my own opinion, based of course on my own limited experience. For me, personally, I know labels of some kind are needed, and I’ve taken up the terminology suggested in this article from Loving More: anchor and ancillary. They feel less loaded to me; they’re not as commonly associated with hierarchy, but still carry weight. I like them, and you’ll see these terms used in this blog in the future.

(1) To be honest, however, I admit this is unlikely. Since I’m married and have the legal, financial and other entanglements that come with marriage, I’m not sure how logistically my husband could become a secondary partner. I suppose we could remain married but live apart; or we could have additional partners live with us in a group marriage. But knowing myself as well as I do, I feel like these configurations would be unlikely, at least anytime in the near future.

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5 Comments

  1. Joel Palenychka said,

    I can understand this concern, and this is from the person who has gone through the aftermath of a “primary” becoming a “secondary”, except that nobody became my new “primary” so it’s kind of hard to explain it using these labels.

    In all honesty I feel using the primary/secondary/tertiary labeling system is a holdover from monogamy, a subtle but dangerous reassurance to our initial partners that they will still retain primacy even as we open up our relationship. The truth is, in a truly open relationship, there are no guarantees of position. Importance can be situational and fluid in my experience.

    • Alice Digitalis said,

      You bring up a great point – in any relationship, there are no guarantees. That’s really scary to face, but it is reality. Clinging to a label that superficially places me at the top of the heap could just be a way to avoid the very uncomfortable notion that relationships change over time. There’s scope for a whole ‘nother rambling post right there.

      Thank you for reading and commenting!

  2. Darkmage said,

    In my experience, the best choice is to avoid the Primary/Secondary set of labels as much as possible. Every relationship is different, and every one has its place in your life. If a partner is insistent on needing those labels, that is usually a sign of an insecurity that is the real issue that needs to be dealt with, before it festers and grows.

    Or, in much shorter words, I agree completely. :)

    • Alice Digitalis said,

      Thank you for stopping by! I agree, it could very easily mask insecurities. I’m trying to overcome them myself as a developing “secondary” in a relationship.

  3. Anne S Morgan said,

    I am very much the secondary in terms of my lover. I suppose my husband feels secondary in our primary relationship, it is very complicated. The insecurity I feel is very hard to overcome and using words to describe my position in the relationship only seems to make it worse and more complicated. I think I will try to avoid these in future.

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