Tag Archives: forms of polyamory

Q & A: Is Adding a Third Life-Partner a Realistic Goal?

Disclaimer: all answers given here are the opinions of one person. There is no one correct way to “do” poly, nor is there one correct way to conceptualize it.

Q: For the last year we have just been out to have fun with other people outside our relationship but we recently agreed that we would like to find someone to add to us in the next five years. Ideally this would be someone both of us would love and they would live with us, sleep in the same bed, everything. Five years isn’t a deadline its just a guideline, like we want to be moving towards having something like that.  The question is, how do we do that? Its hard to meet people and even harder once they know you’re poly so is it naive to think we could ever meet someone who could fall in love with both of us and actually desire and be happy in a three (or more) person relationship?

A: If you’ve spent any time around polyamorous discussion groups, you’re probably aware that a lot of couples are looking for what you’re looking for. And actually finding it is so rare that there’s a term for what you’re seeking in poly circles—a unicorn.

Happy, successful triad relationships do exist. But the vast majority of lasting ones I’m aware of did not begin with two people dating as a couple, and expecting someone to fall in love with both of them equally and at the same pace. Instead, most of the long-term triads I know of began as a romantic/intimate connection between one member of an existing couple and a new partner and eventually evolved to include the other member of the couple as well, or they arose from a situation where both members of a couple already had a deep, shared friendship with someone, and that friendship developed into something romantic.

I don’t think that it’s impossible to find what you’re looking for. But I do think you’ll have better chances if you’re open to dating separately and allowing things to evolve naturally, rather than dating only as a couple and expecting someone to have exactly the same level of attraction and interest in both of you at once.

If you do attempt dating as a couple, it’s important to be conscious of the feelings of your prospective partners. Many people don’t feel comfortable dating couples because it feels like they’re being viewed as a fun “accessory” to the existing relationship, rather than an individual of equal importance. The pressure to develop feelings for both members of a couple at exactly the same pace can feel very inauthentic to many people. And many are put-off by what feels like a very “couple-centric” approach, ie., the existing couple will always be central and will always come first. To at least a fair amount of people, the expectations attached to dating a couple feel a lot less like a true openness to develop loving relationships on one’s own terms and a lot more like applying for a job. There can also be something that feels very objectifying about the way couples go about looking for a “hot bi babe” to join them; I’ve seen folks describe what they’re looking for in a “third” in terms that sound more like a “M/bi-curious F looking for a hot lady to share fun sexy times with” personal ad than an attempt to find a true partner to fully share in a couple’s life. That’s not to say that you’re approaching this in a way that’s at all objectifying, but I think it’s important to know where some of the inherent apprehensions and misgivings might come from if you encounter potential partners who feel uncomfortable or who make negative assumptions about the scenario.

I think you can date as a couple in a way that’s fully respectful of your potential partners, but it requires consciousness of the pitfalls. Ideally, you should be comfortable with the possibility that someone won’t connect with both of you to exactly the same degree and at exactly the same pace, and make it clear to anyone you’re dating that this is totally acceptable. It might even happen sometimes that you begin dating someone as a couple and only one of you really hits it off romantically with that person, and I would encourage you to be open to situations where one of you continues romantic involvement with that person while the other develops a friendship instead. And throughout this process, I think you’ll find a lot more satisfaction if you also remain free to date as individuals as well.

Finally, while there’s certainly nothing wrong with being hopeful about bringing a shared partner into your lives and your home one day, you might also want to give serious consideration to other forms that an expanded poly family can take. I share a home and a life with my two partners, but they are not romantically involved with one another. And many other happy poly households are made up of more “zig-zag” type configurations rather than fully-shared relationships. Don’t close yourself off to the possibility that long-term happiness could take a very different form than what you’re envisioning right now.

My Personal Poly Ideology: A Summary

I’ve probably said a lot of these things in the past on this blog at some point, and the topics I haven’t addressed here yet will probably get their own entire post here at some point in the future. But I thought it might be nice to write a fairly concise little post summarizing my general poly ideology—not the daily practicalities of poly relationships, but my core poly beliefs. I get a lot of google hits here from people who seem to be newly exploring polyamory, and sometimes I think it can be useful for folks in that situation to read a brief overview of how others approach poly rather than reading lengthy pieces about each finer point. And additionally, I think it can also be useful for people to understand the perspective this particular blog is coming from. So with that, I’ll offer my own personal “poly in a nutshell,” which I’ll also be adding to an “about” page here on the blog.


I believe that polyamory means, by definition, having the ability to romantically love multiple people simultaneously. And by “ability,” I mean not just the personal capacity, but also the freedom. If you’re in a relationship where the agreement is “you can have sex with multiple people, but don’t get emotionally attached,” that’s great if it works for you, but it’s not polyamory. I don’t think being poly means you can’t ever have more casual sex, or that all of your relationships must be of the deep, committed variety, but identifying as polyamorous should signal that you’re at least open to the possibility of maintaining multiple loving relationships.

My more extensive thoughts on defining poly can be found here and here.

I don’t agree with “rules” within relationships. I think sometimes people need to make agreements, but unlike rules, agreements are mutually consensual, not about one person dictating the behavior of others. I believe that being free to love others necessitates personal autonomy, and that becomes impossible if someone else is given the power to micromanage the details of your personal relationships. I believe people are always entitled to have personal boundaries, ie, “I’m not willing to do ______.” But this is not the same as saying “you’re not allowed to ______.” I’m of the opinion that genuine love and respect in relationships make rules unnecessary, and that without genuine love and respect, rules aren’t ultimately going to help you.

More of my thoughts on rules can be found here and here.

Along the same lines as my feelings about rules, I don’t agree with “veto power,” where one partner has the right to “veto” another’s choice of partners. I believe this is both completely unfair and dehumanizing to the third-party in these situations, and is possessive and controlling in a way that runs counter to everything I value about being polyamorous.

I also do not agree with any kind of double-standards within poly relationships, especially the far-too-common gendered double standard wherein a man allows his wife/girlfriend to have female partners but not male partners, while he is permitted to have female partners himself (in poly-jargon, the “one-penis-policy”). Even setting aside the obvious patriarchal connotations of these arrangements, if what we’re talking about when we use the word “polyamory” is actually love, I don’t believe love can be made to answer to such terms. “You can only fall in love with people of my choosing” is not how love actually works. I believe love must be freely and autonomously given—without being subject to the rules, regulations, and permissions of someone else. This is not to say I believe in imposing an artificial “fairness” on the situation; if a woman is only interested in dating other women outside of her relationship with a man, for example, that’s great. Plenty of people in poly relationships have different numbers of partners than one another, or relationships that are at different levels of seriousness and commitment. This is all well and good, as long as each individual is free to relate to others however they choose. Wanting different things is not the same as an externally imposed double-standard; equality simply means that all members of a relationship have the same freedoms.

I am not in favor of using hierarchical terms like “primary” and “secondary” to designate one’s relationships. Again, I don’t believe that any kind of artificial equality should be imposed, and it’s natural and normal for different relationships to take different forms and have different levels of meaning and commitment. But that does not require identifying those relationships in a way that hierarchically ranks them against one another.

More on the use of primary/secondary labels can be found here.

Finally, I believe strongly in viewing polyamory in a broader sociopolitical context. Society’s enforcement of compulsory monogamy is deeply tied up with patriarchy and other systems of oppression, and I think any work we do to increase awareness and acceptance of poly relationships should be done with mindfulness about the intersections between various forms of oppression in our society.

More of my thoughts on poly in a broader context can be found here, here, and here, as well as in a multitude of other pieces on this blog.

It’s important to note that this is all just my personal ideology, and it is often said that there are as many ways to “do” poly as there are poly people. But so often, “how-to” poly advice treats things such as rules, primary/secondary labels, and veto power as though they are absolute givens in polyamorous relationships. If nothing else, I like to offer an alternative point of view, and perhaps some comfort for those who are wondering whether things like rules and veto power in poly relationships are really necessities.

The Importance of Being Critical

I spend a lot of time writing and talking about polyamory: here on my blog, in other publications, and in discussion groups and forums. And as anyone who follows this blog has gathered, I can often be critical of some things that occur frequently within polyamorous relationships: hierarchical structures, rules and regulations, veto-power, etc. Frequently, I’ve been accused of saying that some things are more poly than others, or that there’s a “right” way to do poly. I don’t like it when others are poly-police, saying what is and isn’t more “perfectly” poly than something else. But I want to take a minute to talk about how that kind of policing is different than being critical of some tendencies within a lot of poly relationships.

I engage a lot with social justice, in a variety of ways. To me, a huge component of that is turning a critical lens on the dominant social structures of patriarchy, heterosexism, racism, classism, and hierarchies of all kinds. But just like I challenge the system of compulsory monogamy, I’m also going to challenge problematic things I see happening within polyamory. There is no free-pass given just because we are both poly; if you are doing something I find to be patriarchal, problematically hierarchical, heterosexist, or any other oppressive thing, I am going to talk about that. That doesn’t mean I’m saying anyone is doing poly “wrong.” Poly means being open to the potential of loving multiple people simultaneously, nothing more and nothing less. I don’t think you’re more poly or less poly if you have a closed triad relationship, if you have seventeen lovers you only see once a year, if you have no lovers but know that the idea of loving multiple people sounds and feels right to you, if you have threesomes or foursomes or more or if you don’t, if you’re asexual and think polyamory works to describe the way you connect with others in your life. None of these is a more “correct” way to do poly, and I disagree with anyone who tries to tell you otherwise. But if I see behavior within poly relationships that I think is hierarchical or oppressive, I’m going to talk and write about that. And I think those kinds of challenges to the status quo are not only acceptable, but necessary.

A lot of my freelance writing outside of this blog is centered on feminism. Part of that involves dealing with problematic hierarchies that often exist between men and women in heterosexual relationships. When I am critical of patriarchal power dynamics, it doesn’t mean I’m saying that relationships between men and women are in some way inherently wrong. It means I’m criticizing the way that patriarchy plays out in some of those relationships. A lot of radical queer activists are very critical of more mainstream LGBTQ politics. That doesn’t mean they’re accusing anyone of being “less gay” or of doing queerness wrong. It just means that they’re critical of some of the priorities and tendencies within the mainstream LGBTQ movement. These kinds of criticism create important dialogue. And it is not about insulting individuals, but about challenging power structures that play out in very real ways, and that have very real and harmful consequences. When I write about what I see as the problems with hierarchies, restrictive rules and regulations, veto-power, or gender imbalances in poly relationships, what I want is to ask people to really think about the reasons they’re making the choices they’re making. I want to call out the social structures that cause us to behave the way we do, to question the status quo. I don’t want to tell anyone that they’re a horrible person or that they’re not poly enough. I want to have a conversation. I want to give people things to think about. Most of us have already accepted the fact that compulsory monogamy is a problem, that too many people are coerced by society into “choosing” monogamy without ever considering any alternatives. And I want to ask whether—even once we’ve broken that particular mold—some of the choices we make within poly relationships are rooted in similar unconscious social conditioning. These are questions I think we all must be willing to confront. And anyone who understands how pervasive the system of compulsory monogamy is should also be willing to turn a critical eye toward other social structures, as well.

I’m never going to tell anyone that their poly relationship is structured “wrong,” or that they’re less poly than someone else. But I’m always going to challenge hierarchies, wherever I encounter them. “To each their own” is a well-intentioned sentiment, but it’s not a worthy excuse for letting oppressive structures go unchallenged.

Definitions and Dichotomies

Any veteran of polyamorous communities and discussion groups has heard plenty of squabbling over what does and does not meet the definition of polyamory, and typically this debate is centered on a question of love vs. sex. And as someone who is in two loving, life-committed relationships, I can tell you that it’s frustrating when people portray polyamory as something that’s all about sex and nothing more. I understand why some people feel the need to assert that poly is about forming more meaningful connections; I’ve certainly made arguments along those lines myself. However, I find it equally frustrating when people take that argument to such an extreme that they look down on any sexual relationship that is not deep, emotional, and meaningful. To me, polyamory is about the potential for loving more than one person simultaneously. Just as people who are inclined toward monogamy do not necessarily only have sexual relationships within the confines of long-term, committed relationships, poly people, also, want different things with different people at different points in their lives. If someone has a rule saying “you can have sex with others, but no meaningful relationships,” I have no problem saying that definitionally is not polyamory (though that’s not meant as a value judgment). But as long as someone is open to more meaningful relationships with multiple partners, and along the way happens to enjoy some connections with others that are strictly sexual, I’m not about to kick them out of the poly club.

I’ve realized, though, that the discomfort I have with this tendency to define polyamory as only about multiple loving, romantic relationships is much more complex than a simple wish to allow for people to have casual sexual relationships if they so desire. Ultimately, there is an entire dichotomy of relationships as either casual or serious, and another dichotomy of relationships as either romantic or platonic, that I am unhappy with.

I do understand the desire to define certain relationships as being traditionally romantic and committed. I’m not one to advocate for a paradigm in which we simply eschew all labels. It matters to me to identify certain people as my partners, to declare some relationships as being central to my life, and to publically recognize my significant others as the people I am sharing a life and a future with. I don’t want to be misunderstood as advocating for a complete abandonment of such identifications.

However, that being said, there are relationships in my life that simply don’t fit neatly into the socially-prescribed dichotomies. I have had relationships that are physically intimate and ongoing, but which still feel emotionally more like friendships than traditionally romantic relationships. I have a physically intimate relationship with a woman, who I care about very much as a friend, but am not romantically in love with. And though I have never felt that I was in love with a woman, and am not certain of my potential to ever feel that way in the future, an interest in women is definitely a part of my sexuality. I have a very close relationship with my ex-boyfriend that is not at all romantic or physically intimate, and yet it still feels as though it does not neatly fit into the socially-accepted bounds of “normal” relationships because it is a relationship with a former romantic partner that is a central, meaningful part of my life. And I have had other relationships with male friends in the past that were not explicitly romantic, and yet did not seem to fit neatly within the bounds of platonic friendship. To me, this is all a part of polyamory. And the beauty of polyamory is that it can allow for all of these nuanced forms of intimacy. It does not require us to make choices about whether a relationship is romantic or platonic, casual or serious. It allows each relationship to be—organically, authentically—exactly what it is.

When I hear people describe polyamory as only about committed, loving, long-term relationships, I understand where they’re coming from. But I think the discomfort I feel is similar to the radical queer discomfort at assimilationist gay and lesbian politics that place a “we’re just like you!” argument at the center of the gay rights movement. I understand an impulse toward seeking validation by comparing our relationships to those which are culturally sanctioned and recognized. But I don’t believe we need to seek that validation at the expense of everything that is beautifully queer and undefined about our relationships, our sexualities, and our lives.

To me, the defining factor in polyamorous relationships is that they are not circumscribed by any external constraints. That means some polyamorous relationships will look very much like traditional romantic relationships, but others will not. Some relationships might appear “casual,” but last a lifetime. Some relationships might appear to be friendships from the outside, but look like something much more than that to those involved. It is all very complicated. It is all very queer. It is all very human.

I don’t want polyamory associated with people who are in committed partnerships, and only seeking no-strings-attached sex outside of those relationships. But I am equally determined not to see poly associated only with a narrow definition of “committed and loving.” At the end of the day, I believe the vision polyamory has to offer is something far more expansive and nuanced than that.

Poly Without Rules: How Does that Work?

I’ve written in the past about my views on rules in poly relationships, and one of the most common responses I receive when discussing that part of my ideology is that it sounds great in theory, but can’t possibly work in practice. I think we’re really trained by a lot of the poly how-to guides out there that one of the absolute keys to making polyamory run smoothly is to sit down and draw up some kind of contract with a whole lot of specific rules and restrictions, and to a lot of folks the idea of embarking on non-monogamy without such clearly defined rules seems like a haphazard recipe for disaster. But for me, living without rules in my relationships isn’t just about ideology, it’s actually how we live and function (quite happily!). So I wanted to spend a little bit of time talking about the practicalities of how poly without rules actually works in practice.

First of all, a lack of rules does not mean a lack of communication. If anything, not having formal rules necessitates clear, specific communication even more. I think it’s incredibly important for everyone to have the right and the ability to communicate their preferences to their partners. I don’t believe that we have a right to make rules to control the behavior of others, but I do believe that we all–as humans–have the right to tell others what we want, need, and prefer in our intimate relationships. The difference between these two things is more than just semantics; it’s the difference between seeking to dictate the behavior of others vs. being honest about our own desires/wants/needs and asking others to try their best to respect those desires/wants/needs.

For one example, one thing a lot of poly folks have firm rules about is when they must be notified of a partner’s new romantic/sexual interest. Some might have a rule that they must discuss it before becoming involved with a new person at all, some have rules that say kissing without prior notice is okay but anything beyond that needs to be talked about in advance, some people insist on meeting a partner’s potential partner before anything happens, and so on and so forth, in as many variations as you can imagine. So how do you approach such a discussion without rules?

For me, this is about communicating preferences. I can tell a partner “I’d prefer if you have the opportunity to let me know before something happens between you and someone else, especially sex. If you have good indications that something’s going on ahead of time, you should let me know. But I also understand sometimes things just happen, people get caught up in something, and I don’t want you to feel like you have to turn something down/walk away from a desirable situation because you haven’t had an opportunity to check in with me.” To me, this kind of framing is a lot more nuanced than a firm rule, just like real life and relationships are nuanced. My partners know that if things happen in a way that deviates from my preferences, I’m likely to struggle with it emotionally a little bit more. And that’s an awareness they can use to help make a decision about how to handle a particular situation. But if they do something in a way that doesn’t perfectly match my preference, it doesn’t mean they’ve broken a rule, it doesn’t mean they’ve betrayed me, and it doesn’t mean they’ll face any kind of punitive consequences.

If a partner were to continuously, time after time, blatantly ignore my communicated preferences and desires, that would demonstrate a lack of basic respect for me. But that’s a flawed relationship, not something that formal rules could have protected me from. I know that my partners love and respect me, and I know that they both generally want to behave in a way that won’t cause me any pain and suffering. This should be true in all relationships. I also know that we’re all human, and sometimes we’re all going to do things differently than what the others would find ideal. And I don’t need to be able to say “you broke such and such a rule!” in order to tell someone “this kind of hurt my feelings, and here’s how I’d appreciate you trying to do it differently in the future.”

People in relationships–poly or not–have all kinds of mutual agreements that they more or less abide by, about everything from who takes the trash out to whether they’ll call if they’ll be home late to how they decide on making major purchases. We don’t generally view these things as “rules,” but simply the mutually-desired dynamics that develop over the course of merging our lives with someone else. Agreements about how we form relationships with others don’t have to be any more daunting or complicated than this.

Again, I’ve heard many times that the distinction I would make between “agreements” and “rules” is merely a matter of semantics. But I have to disagree. Words have power and meaning, and declaring that something is a “rule” another person must adhere to is incredibly different from a mutually consensual agreement, or a well-intentioned request. There is a world of difference between saying to a person “you are not allowed to _______” vs. saying “I would appreciate it if you would ________.” And I am anti-authoritarian enough to find that difference crucial.

Poly without rules does not mean just sitting by while your partners do absolutely whatever, whenever, and silencing yourself if their behavior is painful for you. That would hardly be a happy, functional relationship. Poly without rules simply means communicating our needs and desires without turning them into some kind of mandates, and trusting our partners to love and respect us enough to want to behave in a non-hurtful way.

I hope this helps to demystify “poly without rules” at least a little bit, but I’d love to engage with further questions/concerns in the comments! Thanks, as always, for reading.

Q & A: Advice for Singles Seeking Poly Relationships

Disclaimer: all answers given here are the opinions of one person. There is no one correct way to “do” poly, nor is there one correct way to conceptualize it.

Q: “I was wondering what advice or information you might be able to share for someone single looking to step into the Poly lifestyle (in the true sense of being Poly, versus just the sexual aspects).”


A: First of all, congratulations! You’re fortunate to already know you want a polyamorous relationship while single—in many ways, this is a much simpler starting point than the process of “converting” a pre-existing relationship from monogamous to polyamorous. But of course, there are still specific concerns that come along with dating and seeking poly relationships, and envisioning the poly life ahead of you. I’m sure this advice is by no means complete, but I hope it’s useful to you on your journey.


Think about what kind of relationship you want. Read books and websites and message boards where people are discussing their relationship configurations, and think about what sounds like the best fit for you. Do you want to become involved with someone in an already-existing web of relationships? Do you want to be the third member in a closed triad with a married couple? Do you want to focus on building a relationship with one person with the knowledge that you’re both open to additional relationships in the future? Do you envision yourself building a life and a home and a family with two or more long-term committed partners? Having at least some idea of what your ideal relationships look like can help you to know if a potential partner is a good fit for you. At the same time, however…

Remain flexible. There might be some things you’re certain you would never want, and it’s cool to know your own boundaries. But remain open to the idea that what you end up wanting might look different than what you thought you wanted in the beginning. Back when I was still monogamous, I used to think my ideal was to have only fairly casual romantic relationships outside of my marriage. But in practice, I quickly learned that I wanted something much more serious than that with an additional partner.

Communicate, communicate, communicate. If you start dating someone, be upfront about the kind of relationship you’re looking for. Even if this person is already identifying as poly, that can mean a lot of different things to different people, and different poly folks are looking for different things out of particular relationships. It’s difficult, but talk about your hopes and desires for the relationship as early on as possible. Of course, you can never know precisely what the future holds. But a simple clarification of whether you’re seeking a deeply romantic partnership, a friend to have fun with with few expectations attached, or anything in-between, can go along way in ensuring that you’re both on the same page.

Don’t limit yourself to only dating already-poly-identified people. Some poly folks disagree strongly with this, and swear that the best way to avoid drama is to stick to relationships only with others who are already living polyamorously. While I understand their reasoning, I also recognize that poly is something many, many people are entirely unfamiliar with, and there is always a possibility that you could introduce the concept to someone who thinks it sounds like a wonderful idea. Be willing to have conversations with others about poly, and to share sources of information that you’ve found useful (I always recommend Franklin Veaux’s website to poly newcomers). If you do date non-poly folks, though, be sure to disclose your poly desires right away. You don’t want to hurt anyone by being dishonest, and you also don’t want to spend time getting invested in a relationship if someone is going to be absolutely unreceptive to non-monogamy.

Remember that you have a right to express your feelings and needs. This particularly applies in a situation where you start dating someone who’s already partnered, particularly if they’re looking for more of a “secondary” relationship, though it can be relevant in a variety of situations. Of course, you should always be respectful of the relationship that existed before you came into the picture, and treat your partners’ other partners well. But that doesn’t mean that you are no longer a human being with needs and desires of your own. You’re still entitled to talk about what you want and how you feel, and you should never be made to feel like you don’t have a right to express those things.

And finally, the number one biggest piece of advice I would give all people about to embark on poly relationships…

Expect challenges. Even though you know this is what you want and you’re totally committed to it, chances are there will be times you struggle with it. I can almost guarantee that at some point in the future, you will feel jealous or insecure, and you will need to work through that. This isn’t a matter of how truly poly you are or how ideologically committed you are to the idea of being in poly relationships; emotions don’t always answer so neatly to ideology. If you think the fact that you’re enthusiastically choosing to partner this way means you will never struggle with the realities of living polyamorously, you will be completely blindsided by these feelings when and if they do occur. It’s also easy to fall into a trap of silencing and dismissing your own feelings because they seem irrational or don’t fit with your concept of yourself as a poly person. It’s far better to be prepared for these feelings in advance, and to realize that it won’t always be easy. When challenges do arise, acknowledging them and dealing with them head on will be far more productive in the long run than trying to repress and deny any negative feelings you have.

Good luck, and I hope your process of finding poly relationships is a fulfilling one!

Have questions you’d like to see answered here? E-mail them to angi.becker.stevens@gmail.com, with “Poly Q & A” in the subject line.

On “Having Your Cake and Eating it Too”

As someone who happens to be the “hinge of the V” in my relationships–I’m in two relationships and my partners are only in a relationship with me–one of the judgments I encounter a lot from others is this notion that I’m “having my cake and eating it too,” that our relationships are somehow unfair because I have two partners and they each only have me. I’m not exactly sure what people envision, perhaps that I just lounge around in bed all day while men lavish me with attention and feed me chocolates. But regardless, I’d like to take a minute to dissect this particular complaint about relationships like mine.

First and foremost, I think a lot of people take the notion of “balance” in relationships far too literally when considering poly relationships. “Fair” does not mean that everyone does exactly the same things, and that because I have two partners, the only way for our relationships to be fair is if they each have another partner as well. To me, “fair” means that everyone involved has the equal right to do whatever makes them happy. My partners are both free to have other relationships if they want, and, at least for now, that’s not what they want. I, clearly, do want to be in two relationships. So everyone is doing this the way they want, and everyone is happy and fulfilled. The same goes for what’s “fair and balanced” within poly relationships. One of my partners hates sleeping with someone else in the bed, and the other is quite fond of snuggling at night (as am I). So what’s “fair” is that the people who like to sleep in the same bed get to sleep together, and the other gets his bed all to himself. It wouldn’t make anyone happy or comfortable if we felt the need to impose some “perfect balance” in which I alternated who I slept with every other night. That kind of “balance” would mean rationalizing our relationships to an extent that totally denies the reality of our individual wants and needs.

Second, I really don’t understand this attempt to place human relationships into some kind of mathematical equation. The way people seem to view it, I get 100% from both of my partners, while they each only get 50% from me. But I just don’t believe human relationships are quantitative like that, for one thing. And if we are going to try to use numbers here, no one gets 100% from anyone. We all have other important things in our lives: work, school, family, friendship, hobbies, activism, creative pursuits, any number of things that matter to us. Why do people see it as though my husband has to “share” me with my boyfriend, but I don’t have to “share” him with the time he spends playing guitar or riding his bicycle? We’re all juggling multiple interests and multiple relationships (even if they’re not romantic); this is healthy and normal. No one in their right mind would pity one of my partners because I sometimes spend time alone writing, so why should they be objects of pity if I sometimes leave them alone to spend time with another person? And while we’re at it, I find it a pretty flawed assumption that either of my partners want 100% of my time and attention. Personally, I think 100% of anyone’s time and attention would be a pretty overwhelming thing.

The last thing I find perplexing about this way of thinking is the implication that I just get all of the “perks” in this situation. As anyone who’s ever been in a committed, long-term relationship can tell you, such relationships take time, energy, and effort. My husband jokes all the time that there’s no way on Earth he’d ever want to deal with two of those at the same time. It’s a little tongue-in-cheek, but he’s still got a point. I don’t mean to make it sound like my relationships are just work, because that’s not true at all; they’re both completely fulfilling and joyful and fun. But it would be a lie to say that there’s no investment of time and energy involved. I don’t just passively receive love and attention from both of my partners, I give those things, too. And I don’t think my relationships would be so great if I gave only half of what they each give me. It’s interesting that when we look at, say, a mother with three kids, we don’t say: oh, she gets all the love and adoration of three children, but they each only get a third of her love and attention. No, we generally praise the mother for being able to love and nurture three kids. Or, when we see someone with a large circle of friends, we don’t say: oh, she’s so spoiled, having that many people who care about her. On the contrary, we probably assume she must be a good, caring friend to be able to maintain all of those relationships. Why, then, is the person with multiple romantic relationships thought to be “spoiled,” “having their cake and eating it too”?

It would be ideal, really, if people would look at my relationships–and all poly relationships–without the basic assumption that someone must be benefitting and someone else must be suffering. There are all kinds of configurations of relationships, and I find the reasonable thing is to assume–unless given actual reason to believe otherwise–that all the people involved in any particular configuration are there because it works for them, because it’s a happy and fulfilling situation for all involved. What could be more fair than that?

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.