The PolyBureau
by Alan Wexelblat

Ranking Stinks
or, Whose Night Is It, Anyway?

In previous columns I've referred to the concepts of primary and secondary. This time I'm going to take a shot at what those terms mean in some more depth, and talk about how one might go about dealing with these kinds of relationships. As always, readers should remember that this is not some kind of definite Word, but just one approach to the problem. Some people may find the ideas useful but reject the terms because they don't like to give a lover the feeling that s/he is less important. That's fine; I'm less interested in terminology than I am in exploring how relationships might be structured for everyone's benefit.

The concepts of primary and secondary lead one to think in terms of ranking; clearly the primary is first or she wouldn't be primary. But to say someone is first is one thing, to actually quantify who has what priorities is quite another. It's not often the case that one partner completely out-ranks another in a poly situation; rather, there's usually some areas where one relationship dominates and others where the other relationship does. So, what makes these terms mean what they mean?

First off, let's discard the legal stuff. Just because someone is married in a legal sense (or hand-fasted or pair-bonded or whatever) does not mean that the partner of that union is automatically the primary. People have primaries without any particular piece of paper. Of course it's more likely that a partner to whom one is married in some legal sense will be primary, but it's not a given and certainly legal bonding is not a precondition.

So, what does it mean for someone to be primary?

I don't claim to be perfect about it, but I do try to follow this. It was also the basis for my assertion that my true primary was my Ph.D while I was working on it. Everything I did was considered in light of how it will affect that. That's a little unusual, but in my case it helped set expectations for my other relationships. When I was inspired to work on the dissertation, other plans were put aside; when my advisor gave me a deadline, an all-nighter might be needed.

Different primaries do this differently, up to and including veto power -- that is, the ability of the primary partner to absolutely forbid certain activities or certain people. In my case, my secondaries are told who I'm having intercourse with, as a matter of courtesy, honesty, and health. They can decide not to continue being involved with me as a result of this, and they can express that they do not feel comfortable with so-and-so in advance -- advice I sometimes heed. But none of the secondaries has the level of privilege given the primary.

While I do many things with many of my secondaries that I don't do with my primary, that's a matter of time and interest. Often my secondaries like to do things with me that they don't do in their other relationships, such as see silly shoot-em-up movies. The things I do with my primary that I don't do with secondaries are a matter of choice -- chosen by myself and my primary -- and in some sense serve as ritual formalizations of the level of importance given to the primary.

Keep in mind that "primary" does not always equate to "couple." There are many relationship situations where three or even more people may regard each other as primaries, with the associated considerations and privileges. Sometimes the presence of multiple primaries prevents there being secondary relationships; other times multiple primary and secondary relationships may exist.

Now, let's look at some things being primary is not. Once again, these are for me, based on my experience, and may not necessarily generalize well.

This is part of my overall way of living; I don't think love is something that can be quantified and ordered. Can you imagine a world where someone could say:

"Oh, yes, I love her 1.0, but I only love him 0.7?"

In some ways it's like asking a parent which child she loves more, or a child whether she loves mommy or daddy more. The question is somewhere between nonsense and insulting or hurtful. Each relationship is unique in the way that fine art is unique. People, including and perhaps especially secondary lovers, are not interchangeable parts.

Indeed, one of the things that allows my primary to be my primary is her ability to be unselfish of her and our time. Time-possessiveness is a form of possessiveness, which I feel is antithetical to polyamory in general. As I said earlier, people are not property.

I put a lot of time and energy into making my secondary relationships work, into adapting the relationships to fit our mutual needs and desires. Sometimes secondaries take more work than the primary; sometimes it's the other way around. To say that a secondary is a lesser form of commitment is probably an error, though I've seen situations where the commitment to a secondary relationship was taken more lightly.

It's hard to explain just how important secondary relationships can be to a primary relationship. I'm incredibly blessed because my primary has formed her own friendships with some of my secondaries, but even without that, I could fill an entire page just listing the things that my secondaries have done to help me and my primaries over the years.

One of the changes in my thinking over the years has been to come to the idea that the secondary relationship must support the primary. I have been very lucky to have secondaries who take this idea seriously. Without that support I'm quite sure I wouldn't be where I am today.

One of my friends explained that she expects her lovers to be supportive of her in whatever she chooses to do, including having other lovers. I like this formulation, but I would say that for a secondary to support the primary relationship goes a step beyond supporting me. Sometimes it means taking me aside and giving me a good swift kick in the butt because I'm doing something stupid.

Sometimes it means going away because the primary needs more time or energy at the moment or because that's where my attention is focused. Sometimes it's being someone who can listen to my complaints about my primary, then think How can I make that better? and feed back ideas to me.

The most important, and hardest, part of all this is that the secondary person has to actively interact with the primary person. This is not to say that the two people have to be best buddies or anything like that; rather, this is to say that the secondary is not allowed to pretend that, or act as if, the primary doesn't exist. When I am with my secondary lovers, I am not a different person, nor am I some fraction of the person I am at other times. I am a whole person at all times and the only way for a relationship to work is if all the people involved acknowledge this reality. In this sense, I want a higher standard from my secondaries and I try to live up to that standard when I am the one who is secondary. It's often hard, but the alternative is too potentially messy to be comfortable.

Of course, this also works in the other direction: the primary needs to support the secondaries. That often involves time management or taking an active role in befriending these people who are important to me. In a sense, my primary supports me in all that I do, but she goes a step beyond that; she supports my secondary relationships as well, putting in the extra effort without which I could not possibly manage.

The bottom line is: treat each relationship as a different and special thing; the labels should be useful shorthands, not straightjackets.


This column grew out of discussions on a social mailing list to which I belong. I'm indebted to the members of that list for inspiration and particularly to several people who wrote to me with clarifying questions.

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Copyright © 1996-2001 Alan Wexelblat
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.

Last modified: Wed Jan 15 06:55:05 2003