Some Thoughts on “Primary” and “Secondary” Labels

For those unfamiliar with the terms, “primary” and “secondary” are labels sometimes used by poly folks to identify the nature of various relationships. “Primary” relationships are typically marital or marital-type, cohabitational relationships, whereas “secondary” relationships would generally be more casual in nature. Personally, I’m not a big proponent of such labeling, and the following is a list of the ways I find “primary” and “secondary” designations to be problematic.

1. They imply a hierarchy of relationships.

I think we can all recognize that we have different relationships that have varying degrees of importance in our lives. My relationships with–and responsibilities to–my daughter and my partners are central to my life, and I can acknowledge that in a sense they are of “primary” importance to me. But I would never look at my friendships or my relationships with my extended family and label them as “secondary” relationships. They are simply each unique relationships that are valued as individual connections with individual humans, and I don’t view them in a hierarchical sense in relation to one another. Even among friendships, like most people I have some that are incredibly central to my life and others that involve more occasional contact; many of those relationships have organically shifted to various places on that spectrum over time. But I would see no need to “classify” them in a way that implies a hierarchical order of significance. If it doesn’t feel natural to “rank” our platonic friendships in this way, I wonder why it should be any different with relationships of a romantic nature. Certainly, there are some people who are seeking relationships of a specific variety, with lower expectations of things like time, availability, and commitment. But I believe there are ways to openly and honestly communicate these particular desires without treating relationships as something hierarchical.

2. “Primary” and “secondary” seem to contain an assumption that relationships will be at odds with one another.

Many times, when I hear people describe their reasoning for using these labels, they seem to be thinking ahead to potential conflict, as if being in two or more relationships means constantly having to choose between meeting the needs of two or more people. Designating someone as a “primary,” then, becomes a way of saying “when forced to choose, I will choose you.” But I think, first of all, it’s a rather pessimistic view of relationships to assume that there will constantly be this problem of butting heads. To me, it makes a lot more sense to strive for relationships that co-exist harmoniously, instead of assuming that poly relating means constantly choosing between two conflicting sets of needs and desires. And second, even in situations where there legitimately is a conflict of needs or desires between two relationships, I believe in a much more situational, contextual way of determining which choice to make, rather than a blanket “person A has priority” kind of policy. Again, while I can acknowledge that my daughter and my partners “come first” in a broad sense, there might be times when a friend is in crisis and needs me badly at that time; in that situation, I would prioritize the needs of my friend. Or, there might be times when two different partners want two different things, but one of them is behaving unreasonably or irrationally. Again, I would weigh out the context of the particular situation, rather than giving one person an infinite trump card based on their designated “role.” But again, I find that in situations where everyone involved is committing to harmoniously co-existing, these kinds of “choose between person A and person B” situations are really a rare occurrence, though people seem to imagine that such conflict management must be a constant struggle in poly relationships.

3. These labels imply static, fixed relationship roles.

While I recognize that this isn’t the case for everyone, I personally don’t feel comfortable circumscribing any relationship I enter into by saying that it can only contain such and such degree of commitment/seriousness/time spent together/etc. When my boyfriend and I first started dating, my husband and I had been together for well over a decade and were living together along with our daughter; it would have been easy to view those relationships in a “primary”/”secondary” way. But I was very clear from the start that I had no preconceived notions on the limitations of this new relationship, and I wanted the possibilities to be as open as they would be in a “typical” context. Two years later, those relationships don’t in any way resemble a “primary”/”secondary” division, and they were free to evolve that way at their own natural pace. I realize not everyone is open to the possibility of two or more relationships having equal levels of commitment, but for those of us who are, it seems inauthentic to pigeonhole relationships into pre-defined roles.

4. Such labeling seems to indicate that one partner has authority over relationships with the other(s).

This might not always be the case with folks who use “primary” and “secondary” designations, but at least to me, they seem to often be hierarchical not just in terms of a hierarchy of value/time/commitment, but in terms of an actual hierarchy between partners. I’ve written previously about my feelings about rules in poly relationships, so I’ll avoid going on about them in depth here. But to summarize, I’m not personally in favor of arrangements where one partner is given the ability to dictate the minute details of relationships with others. Oftentimes a “primary partner” label carries with it things like “veto power” (the right to “veto” a partner’s choice of significant other) or the right to micromanage a partner’s other relationships. For me, being polyamorous is about respecting one another’s autonomy, and also loving and respecting one another enough to treat one another with fairness and to recognize and validate each individuals needs without being forced to do so by a set of rules and regulations.

5. These labels reinforce monogamy-centered views that polyamory is all about one central  “couple,” with other relationships on the side.

Many people try to project a rather mono-normative set of expectations onto poly relationships, by assuming that there is always one traditionally committed pair at the center, and all other relationships are inherently more casual “fun on the side.” This phenomenon reminds me of the heteronormative tendency to look at same-sex relationships and assume that one person is more like the “man” and the other the “woman,” rather than recognizing that relationships exist outside of that binary. The reality is that a large number of polyamorous relationships do not fit that model; many include three or more people sharing homes, raising children, and existing as a unified family that cannot be reduced to a central “couple.” Non-poly people seem to often find it easier to relate to polyamorous relationships when they see something there that resembles a more “traditional” pairing. But that view is often far from accurate.

Now, I want to be clear that I do realize not everyone who uses the labels “primary” and “secondary” to describe their relationships is actually behaving in what I would consider to be problematic ways; I understand that sometimes those labels simply seem to make sense for the shape that certain relationships happen to take. But I also believe language has power, and it does make a difference how we choose to describe things to the world; the list above are all factors that, if nothing else, I think folks should take into consideration when deciding what terms they’re comfortable using to identify the people they love.

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