March 17, 2011

Does the Secondary get the Shaft?

Posted in Matt tagged , , , , , at 5:36 am by Kathleen

My husband and I have a primary relationship. Period. But there is the possibility, eventually, that someone will come into our lives and become so important to both of us that they become a third primary in our relationship(s). Until then, no one has the priorities, the considerations, or the power in my life that my husband does.

That’s not to say that I don’t respect secondary relationships. In fact, I was a secondary (an interesting experience for me!) in my brief relationship with Matt. Okay, his primary relationship was wobbly and damaged, and it ended up costing me a potential relationship with him (and him one with me). But other than his wife’s super-special-crazy-sauce, I found the secondary relationship comforting. I didn’t have to be the primary source of love and affection in his life (okay, turns out I did, that was one of the many problems – but I shouldn’t have had to be), I didn’t have to commit tons of my free time to the relationship since we were both busy, and I still got plenty of affection and support.

BUT… I already have a primary partner. I can see how these things – which I thought of as so wonderful – can be a big downer for someone who is single. No attentive primary relationship, competition of a sort with the primary (for time, for attention, for affection), and possibly worst of all, the power that someone else may have over your relationship.

What do you think? Do secondaries get the short end of the stick?



  1. Miss L said,

    I have to agree. A secondary relationship does help relieve the pressure of needing to be ones focus. I think it’s as fulfilling as the secondary wants it to be.

  2. Amak said,

    I prefer multiple secondaries, and I prefer being a secondary. Maybe it’s because I travel so much, I don’t feel very grounded in a place for to long, and maybe just because my life so far (particularly as a grad student) involved/involves floating around so much… And maybe also because I am not willing (yet?) to commit to a primary. So I find secondaries so much better for me. And in the end, when I am too busy and/or I have to leave and move on to somewhere else, I don’t feel bad about “abandoning” my secondary, and we keep the bond that we have anyway.

    • Kathleen said,

      That’s a lovely point – I hadn’t thought of it from the perspective of a “secondaries only” type of lifestyle.

  3. Marie said,

    I’m similar to Amak – I’m a secondary to a married couple at the moment, have no primary myself and I really like it. It feels safer than any of my primary or monogamous relationships have been, and its just nice to have people that like you but don’t get too attached. That way if you have to leave you don’t hurt yourself or them.
    As their secondary as well they don’t get jealous when I’m with others, and thats been a problem before. So no short end of the stick for me 🙂

    • Kathleen said,

      Awesome, Marie, thanks for sharing your perspective!

  4. sarah said,

    I’m currently a secondary and things are going well. Just found out today that they are moving. I have developed feelings and don’t want to separate . What do you suggest.

    • Kathleen said,

      I suggest you talk to them about your feelings. What actions you take or don’t depends on your relationship with them, their feelings for you, etc. and there are way too many variables for some random person online to hand you the answers. Tell them how you feel, and discuss options with them. It may be the end of things, or the start of something more long distance, or maybe you are all in a point in your lives and relationship where you might consider moving too. I wish you luck.

    • Daisy said,

      I’m currently a secondary and, as much as I love my partners, I think that being in a “less than” relationship is hard, especially because our agreement has me being exclusive – I’m only dating them. I don’t really want only one partner, but at the same time, I wouldn’t mind a night alone with each of them once a month or something. I certainly don’t want equal time, but if I have to be exclusive, I think small things, like being affectionate toward me when we’re all out together, would be nice. (To be fair, it’s hard for them to show more than a friend’s affection for me when we are out with their daughter.)

      • Kathleen said,

        That sounds very challenging for you. Good luck with your situation.

  5. LAURA said,

    Never thought about it like that before, being a secondary and not being attached. I am a secondary of a person dating several. I hurt all of the time and never happy anymore. I am looking for someone just for me, to love me. I don’t want to end it, but at the same time I do. I get the “you knew the rules” all of the time and so many things that just eat at me. So in the situation that the secondary has feelings for the primary, yes, they do get shit on. This is m yfirst experience with this and more than likely my last…I can be in a one on one relationship and be hurt just as bad…..

  6. Karen said,

    I’m also single/secondary. I have loved every minute with him, but overall, the relationship, I think is not good for me. I think it’s natural to (gasp) actually have feelings and emotion in a relationship and that obviously becomes a problem when he’s married. The only way for it to work is for me to regard it as a passing fancy, something to do for fun, and that seems rather cold to me, and not really what a ‘relationship’ should be about. It seems close to using someone, when I know he feels very intensely for me. But I cannot afford to have those feelings for him. There is no good answer. Even saying I should have just said no isn’t a great answer because he has put a great deal of good in my life…yet I’m not supposed to have messy feelings that would create disharmony in his life and marriage. Yes, I’ve enjoyed my time with him. But I would never do it again.

    • Kathleen said,

      It’s not “obvious” because not every married couple who are poly frown on feelings in outside relationships. I would even hope that most don’t. I’m sorry it’s been such a rocky experience for you, however.

      • Karen said,

        Yes, developing feelings such that you want to build a life with someone IS a problem when that person is not available to build that life. I didn’t say the married couple frowned on feelings. He’s enjoying his feelings to the fullest, she’s enjoying having him occupied while she dates half a dozen other men. All the feelings in the world are great for them, as long as I’m content to go home and take care of my own home and everything by myself, and not expect to build a life or buy a house together or anything remotely like that.

  7. Jillian said,

    I’ve been a secondary to an amazing man for a number of years. In the beginning, his significant other was ok with our relationship, understood it as she too was polyamorous. But recently, that’s changed and she feels very threatended by his growing love and need for me. It’s making her really crazy. The high road would be for me to walk away from him, from this relationship but neither him nor I are prepared to do that. We are deeply in love with each other and are trying to weather out her storm but she is pulling out all the stops to make him reaffirm his commitment to her. It’s making us all crazy. She’s become toxic to all 3 of us. He’s never had the intention to leave her, nor have I ever asked him to. Now, after several years of loving him, and being loved by him, I’m scared that her antics will drive us apart. I’ve tried reaching out to her several times, but she misreads every word and has become quite paranoid about our intentions. Any words of advice? Continue to love him and focus on “us”, let him deal with her? Please help.

    • Kathleen said,

      That’s a tough one, and I’m sorry you’re stuck in the middle of it. I’d suggest looking for a poly-friendly counselor in your area, and having him and her attend some marriage counseling. It sounds like there is something she needs to work through, and doing it on her own is not working.

      • Jillian said,

        Thank you for your suggestion, Kathleen. She is in counselling but bottom line, she is full of paranoia and insecurities. She knows that he loves her, and he always will, but she hates that he is “in love” with me and his level of desire is much higher for me. He tries to force himself to feel that way for her again, but you know that cannot be forced or contrived, and she feels that too, hence the constant drama. I don’t know what the answer is. He says he will not stop seeing me just to make her feel better as both of our hearts will be broken if he were to do that, she just needs to find a way through. In the meantimes, yes, the secondary does get shafted…time, attention, affection does get redirected to who’s primary, even if that relationship is the same value. Primary is primary.

  8. Fae said,

    Right now I’m a secondary to a married man. And I’m positive it’s a mistake and I’m sure I love him. And I hate looking at myself and seeing a stereotype.

    He says he loves me, and I think he does. But in practical terms, he is there for me maybe 2 days per week. I find myself feeling obligated to go out there and find myself a primary, but that’s hard to do. And so, when I’m miserable, I blame myself for not going out there and finding what will make me happy.

    I’m not sure what good believe loved by someone is if it doesn’t mean care when I’m sick or sad, if it doesn’t mean I can depend on him at all.

    I kind of feel like I’m punishing myself. This is, in some ways, the most pain I’ve experienced in any type of relationship. I ask myself everyday what the hell I’m doing. And then I spend the day with him and I can’t imagine not being with him on some level.

    Then then I call myself a stupid girl for wanting what isn’t mine….

    • Kathleen said,

      I wonder where his wife is in all this. Is she supportive? Does she want to keep as far away from you as possible? The attitude of your partner’s other partners can be incredibly important to how your relationship functions.

  9. megan said,

    I am a secondary in a relationship with a woman who has been with her primary for five years. Recently there was room given in their relationship for us to grow closer and we have fallen even more in love. I feel like she is not loving me like a “secondary” and the whole structure of primary/ secondary when it comes to love is starting to feel really unfair and against the way our love works. She says that primary means that they have four more years of history, live together, and know each others families but I feel like if some one says they want a heirarchy of loving then they need to follow that with firm boundaries because otherwise to love as if there are no boundaries and then keep them in place is really confusing. I have at times loved being a secondary with her and others and found it to be ideal but now that we are in a deeper, more committed love its starting to feel awful. Yet now we are in a deeper, more committed love so its going to break my heart to pull away from her. Right now the very idea of secondary love seems humiliating and coming from a primary experience-focused power structure.

  10. troubled said,

    I am secondary with a lovely man. He has been happily married for 21 years. I kind of fell into poly through bdsm and I don’t think its what I want. But monogamy might not be what I want either. I do wish for a primary partner. Someone just for me. But at the same time I’m quite scared of it so I think this might be my safety net. He and I both love each other immensely. It has been absoluteoy wonderful for 5 months. We knew each other for a few months before dating but I wasn’t ready for a while. He prioritizes me. Makes me feel important and special. I get to see him almost every day for a bit with sleepovers about twice a week. I’m not comfortable with the idea of living with them and they have a child who does not know, so the future has been very unknown but we both have stated that we want to be in each others lives for a long long time. I elect to be monogamous with him, at least while things solidify and im not sure if i personally could have multiple relationships. I was OK with the uncertainty but then reality hit. About a month ago, an std was introduced into our group and that was a lot to deal with. Shortly after I fully realized that I was secondary even though he doesn’t make me feel that way. I realized that we can’t buy a house together, move together, have babies…build a life. Babies aren’t important to me but it was a realization. There is potential for a lot of inclusion but it is not the free life I imagined. I see so many compromises and it scares me. I can’t just say to my partner ” hey what do you think about moving here” or whatever the life change may be. I fear I will forever be stuck in the revolution of their relationship. I calmed myself down and decides to see how things play out for a few months and then I got a job offer in another state. Somewhere with much better weather. Not a great job and im resistant to take it regardless but it does pay more and I’ve wanted to be somewhere with better weather for a long time. But I am horrified. I don’t know what to do. I don’t feel I can not take an opportunity with the hopes of a beneficial future with this man. But he is by far the most wonderful person I have every been involved with. I don’t know if I could handle a future with limits with him…but I also don’t know what that future looks like yet and I don’t know that I can’t handle it. He is willing to have a long distance relationship. But I have been there before and I know how that ends. I know I could be more optimistic about this but it is very hard. If this ends, I don’t believe I ever want to do poly or be secondary again. Not without a primary of my own and many years in between. Does anyone have any insight?

    • Startrekera said,

      Not to sound harsh – but first of all, you really need to figure out if it is indeed monogamy, or polyamory that you want. You raise some excellent points about how it doesn’t seem like he belongs in your future for the long-term. You are very right – will he ever make a family with you (should you ever want children)? Will you ever have a house together? Heck, will you two ever even have an apartment together? And no, you are right… it is very difficult to be optimistic about something that seemingly doesn’t seem to have a future. He is married with a child. He is always going to prioritize them first. That is just the reality. Most importantly, you need to put YOURSELF first because all that is being seen from your comment is that you are just considering him. You need to consider yourself, your life, and your future, and what you want out of it. Remember: you CANNOT make someone happy without making yourself happy first.

  11. Melanie said,

    I was a secondary to a woman that has a husband. I was their very first attempt to allow her to explore her sexuality. It was the worst experience. We fell in love to the point that we talked, texted, and spoke of love and being in love with each other. However, every time I wanted to see her I had to do all the work because of scheduling conflicts, babysitters needed, and I believe her husband became very jealous of me.
    Needless to say the less time together I realized I wasn’t getting much more than a fantasy. I craved nights with her just sleeping and waking up next to her. I craved being with her but it seems every time we tried to meet something would happen and we would not meet. We found it a true challenge to physically see each other and I do not know if this was because she was torn apart between two lovers or if he was pressuring her to stop seeing me. Either/or polyamory is just not for me.
    It’s hard living one life, how can people live two and three and four? And what does it say about my self-esteem and intimacy issues to even accept being someone’s secondary? We all deserve love and our primary lovers.
    In the end I’m heart-broken, we do not talk anymore she does not answer my attempts to talk to her and it’s as if our love never happened. I got really angry last time I made every effort to see her and she didn’t show up or kept giving me excuses. It was obvious to me she was being pressured by him not to see me anymore. I will never ever allow myself to be used like this and for what? A fantasy?

  12. KM said,

    I have just broken up with the man I’ve been dating for two years. In the first year, I tried a few times to back away, knowing that feelings are naturally going to grow in a relationship, and that becomes a problem when the relationship cannot follow the feelings. But he got distraught, upset, pulled me back in. I went because so much of it was good.

    But in the second year, I believe his wife has, just as someone else said, felt threatened. Things changed. He denied anything had changed. When he realized I thought his wife had put up some limits, he denied it, got upset. Then it became obvious how much he wasn’t getting from his wife, how hard he was working to give her everything, and how he was beginning to lean on me for emotional support in all the hardships hitting him…hardships that would have been significantly less had she carried her weight. But he was determined to be the man whose wife never had to lift a finger. Then he explained to me how hard it is that I didn’t come and help him with a major job in their home–one that she should have been doing for the past month, but left to him.

    I’m tired of giving him the emotional support while she reaps all the rewards of marriage. I’m tired of being told how perfect their marriage is, how he lacks absolutely nothing at home, even as he’s clearly getting things from me that he clearly does not get at home. It feels like a real slap in the face.

    • Kathleen said,

      That does indeed sound like your former boyfriend is deep in denial. I’m sorry you had to deal with that hardship.

  13. Elsa said,

    I think it all depends on the flexibility of the primary relationship to allow the secondary relationship to be what it is.

    I started a secondary relationship with a man with the intention of keeping it light and casual. However, we fell deeply in love and went primary REALLY quickly in terms of emotional commitment. He wanted me to move in and make family with him and his primary within six months. And that sounded great!!! Except… his primary then made the stipulation that in order for her to feel secure in relationship, he and she and I would have to form an equilateral triad.

    Whew! This put a lot of pressure on my relationship with her (which was always secondary in nature) to get what I wanted with my other partner. And ultimately (of course), it didn’t work – no matter how much I loved her, it wasn’t enough to make up for the fact that she felt threatened by how much in love her partner was with me, and how she wasn’t getting “enough love” from him…she wasn’t “first” with him.

    Ultimately her insecurities made her stop wanting to pursue making family with us. This means that my partner and I can no longer pursue family together, which has basically fucked our relationship. I’m in too deep to want a secondary relationship with him anymore. But if he stays with her, I can’t be primary or have family…so I sit on the outside of their relationship, wanting more, wishing that I could be family with them. And every time he talks about the things that they are doing together, the future they are building, I feel heartbroken because I am no longer included in that.

    Of course my partner wants me, still. The sucky part of all of this is that our relationship is super strong and awesome. But it has no place to grow because of the restrictions his primary partner has placed on us. I’m in the process of deciding whether or not I can do this anymore…feels right now like the answer is “No.”

    So. Here’s my take. I will only get into a secondary relationship again if I know there is space from the primary relationship to allow the secondary relationship to develop into whatever form it naturally feels like being, or if I truly believe I only want casual with the person.

    Also, you need to be 100% clear with the new partner about restrictions from the get go. In the case of my current relationships, the primary couple was not on the same page about what was possible in their secondary relationships, and so then we skipped merrily down a pathway towards family only to have the door slam in our face. Being secondary is really difficult if there are lots of insecurities in the primary couple. And there is nothing a secondary can do to fix those, except suffer.

  14. Troy89 said,

    To be perfectly honest with you, and realistically speaking, yes: I DO think that secondaries get the shaft. And not in the good way either. Lol. Okay, jokes aside, think about it: you yourself just said that your husband gets all the consideration and importance in your life. Period. No ifs, not buts – he is your number one. Therefore, a secondary would be exactly that: a secondary. Before I say anything else, I would like to make absolutely clear that my goal here is not to chastise polyamorous relationships; but more so just to emphasize on how I think that the hierarchy system of polyamorous relationships don’t work out in the real world. You can label, clarify, “negotiate” (a word that I honestly feel has been worked to death in the polyamorous community) all you want… but once you apply those rules in practicality, no matter how careful you are, no matter how hard you try… someone just always ends up getting terribly hurt. Now I *also* understand that getting hurt is part of being in love; I mean, I don’t know one person who hasn’t been hurt, who is part of a loving relationship. But labeling a person as secondary, essentially TELLING that person that no, no matter what, they will ALWAYS come secondary… how do you think that that person is supposed to feel? One thing we all need to understand is that love shouldn’t be about having someone “fulfill our needs.” We either accept them as they are, and make room for them. If not, then simply don’t involve yourself with them.

    • Kathleen said,

      I have been thinking about this a lot lately because my best friend is dating my husband. I am very conscious of how fair/comfortable things are for her, but at the same time she’s extremely conscious of the fact that Michael is married and that his wife (me) “should” get priority. It’s been very interesting balancing things, and it’s very clear that the relationship between the three of us is not an equal one. So far no one is upset by that, and I think that things might evolve more toward equality over time, but there are some bonds (legal marriage, shared children, shared finances) that just plain carry a lot of weight.

  15. Elsa said,

    I think it’s wonderful that you and Michael and your friend are exploring your developing relationships further and that it’s going so well so far. However, I’d caution you all on your assumption of “shoulds” in your relationships. I’d recommend reading Franklin Veaux’s amazing blog on couple privilege as food for thought – sometimes it’s incredibly difficult for people to see their privilege from the inside out :). And it sounds like your friend’s buying into it as well. I’m not saying people shouldn’t grant whatever relationships they would like priority…but it would be amazing if we all did it thoughtfully instead of habitually, with an understanding that making someone first and someone second has effects and taking responsibility for it.

    I think what frustrates me reading through the comments here is that so many people simply say primary/secondary is “the way it is” and don’t acknowledge that they are making a choice. And that their choice to privilege one relationship over another has an affect. And the secondary who agrees to that situation should chose out of knowledge as well, rather than believing again that couple privilege is inexorable.

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