A Common Dynamic that Causes Problems in Primary/Secondary Poly Relationships

Not all polyamorous relationships have a primary/secondary structure, but many do. For those not familiar with poly lingo, this means a person who has two or more relationships, and considers one of them to be “primary”, meaning that relationship takes priority over all others.

Every relationship structure has its own particular challenges, and primary/secondary is no exception. In today’s blog, I will discuss a particular pitfall that can create a lot of mischief in any open relationship, but particularly those with primary/secondary structures. This pitfall is the result of a combination of involving a combination of triangulation, a perception of lack of control, and undifferentiated communication. This problematic dynamic can be easily remedied by understanding why and how it creates problems, and how to set things up more clearly and cleanly.

Consider this statement: “I can’t keep our date this week because my wife is having a hard time and says she isn’t comfortable with us seeing one another tonight.”

First, I want to acknowledge that nobody wants to hear that from the person they are dating. This is an example of something many secondary partners have heard more than once. I also want to say it is extremely reasonable to take into consideration the preferences of the primary partner (or any partner!) when making plans, and it is to be expected that plans will change once in awhile.

My problem with the above example is not the conclusion (canceling tonight’s date). Rather, the issue is the lack of differentiation in the statement itself, which sets up a relational dynamic that is bound to be hurtful for all involved.

The main problem with the above statement is that it sets up tension between the primary partner (in this case the wife) and the secondary partner. Additionally, the person who actually made the decision is neither the primary nor the secondary partner, but rather the partner in the middle. Unfortunately, they may not even realize they did make the decision. It can sometimes feel like everyone else makes the decisions, and the person “in the middle” just acts them out. In this type of dynamic, everyone feels bad.

  • The primary partner feels bad because their partner is making them the “bad guy”. They may or may not be all-in with poly, but they expect their primary partner to keep their relationship agreements, which very likely include helping out when things are rough. They don’t want to feel like their feelings and desires are unreasonable, nor do they want to be typecast as needy or having a problem with poly.
  • The secondary partner feels like their life is being controlled by the primary partner, who may be someone they don’t even know. It’s hard enough to have a date canceled at the last minute. Nobody likes feeling like decisions are being made for them, by someone they don’t know, without consideration of their point of view. This dynamic tends to result in secondary partners feeling powerless, sometimes resentful, and often frustrated.
  • The person “in the middle” feels like they are in the middle. They feel pulled between the preferences, fears, feelings, expectations, and disappointments of their two partners. They may feel invisible, like their own feelings and preferences are not important to either of their partners. They often feel like they are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t, trying their best and “in trouble” with everyone.

This relationship dynamic understandably results in a lot of dissatisfaction and hard feelings for everyone. If this dynamic can’t shift, the relationship is unlikely to work for any of the people involved. But there is nothing in this story that is either unusual or un-workable EXCEPT the way the interaction is being played out.

So, what could be done differently?

The “middle person” heard the concerns of the primary partner, and likely also the concerns of the secondary partner, and made the decision to cancel the date and spend the evening with the primary partner. It is nearly irrelevant what decision was made, so don’t get distracted wondering if the decision was “correct”. The most important thing is that the person who made the decision is aware they had a choice, made a decision, and is able and willing to own their decision.

This particular challenge revolves around the level of differentiation of the “middle” partner. That person is in a difficult position; they may be hearing things they don’t particularly want to hear, probably from both of their partners. And any decision that needs to be made rests on them.

They will need some skill at holding steady. They must be able to see clearly that they are not a pawn on someone else’s chessboard. They must know they can figure out what they themselves want, believe, and prefer, and then trust themselves to speak up about it when it is important to them.

It is very helpful if they feel comfortable weighing their own preferences with those of other people they care about. It is also helpful if they can hold steady with some emotions (theirs, and those of their partners) swirling around. In the ideal world, both the primary and secondary partners are helpful, even-handed, and not overly opinionated about the issues that are arising. But in the end, the person “in the middle” will need to be the leader in this kind of situation. This is not a “dispute” between their partners, it is a relational decision they need to make.

Consider the difference between the following statements:

  1. “I can’t keep our date this week because my wife is having a hard time and says she isn’t comfortable with us seeing one another tonight.”
  2. “I apologize for the late notice; I want to cancel and reschedule our date this week. My wife has had a hard week, and it feels important to me that I be with her right now. I’m also really looking forward to spending time with you; can we reschedule?”

In the first example, it is not possible to identify what the speaker wants, or even if they know what they want. The wife is cast in a negative light, and it is easy to make any number of assumptions about what is going on between the speaker and their wife. None of these assumptions are helpful to creating a strong collaborative relationship between these three people.

In the second example, the speaker owns their own preferences, and shows up with integrity as a person who has empathy and kindness for both partners, and makes their own choices to the best of their ability. The end result is the same; the date is canceled. But there is much less emotional fallout in the second example.

Next week I will share some ways I support secondary partners in therapy.

Making Relationship Agreements That Support Growth

I’m a big fan of the trend towards couples writing their own marriage vows. When a couple writes their own vows, they are opening up an opportunity for a series of differentiated conversations about what kind of relationship they want to build.

Here are some examples of what differentiated marital agreements look like:

  • “I commit to support your growth.” (Because I don’t believe in holding you back.)
  • “I commit to do good in the world in partnership with you.” (Because together we can do more.)
  • “I commit to be honest with you.” (Because I believe in transparency.)

These agreements are lovely because they embrace the fact that both partners are likely to change and grow over the course of a relationship. They leave room for the flexibility that resilient relationships require, and they challenge both partners to bring their best selves to the table. They also related to beliefs and values that aren’t dependent on what another person does, or on external circumstances.

To make a differentiated agreement, both partners need sufficient internal space to figure out what they actually think and want, and both partners need to be able to hold steady as they have a conversation about their preferences and desires, some of which might not be so easy to hear, or to reveal. Consider traditional wedding vows. Which do you believe in, and which don’t feel like a good fit for you? For example, traditionally we promised to “honor and obey.” Many people have re-written that vow to better fit their values. How about the other vows?

One example of a kind of agreement that is often glossed over without discussion is a fidelity agreement. Partners may assume that they know what the other person means by “fidelity,” or by “forsaking all others.” Also, we all know a discussion about fidelity might be a little uncomfortable. How many people ask themselves, “What do I believe in, what am I willing to forsake, and what if anything do I believe in asking my partner to forsake?” How many couples ask each other, “What does fidelity mean to you?”

I think it’s important to have a really good conversation about what fidelity (and any other kind of agreement) means in your relationship. That’s the best way to avoid inadvertently hurting your partner, or being hurt yourself, when later it turns out you weren’t on quite the same page.

Unclear agreements crop up when partners aren’t able to navigate a tough conversation and remain simultaneously loving towards their partner and grounded in themselves. Very often one person wants a particular agreement, because it would make them feel more comfortable and assuage their fears, and the other partner agrees in order to avoid conflict. That’s completely understandable, and also a set up for misunderstandings, resentment, and/or broken agreements.

As a therapist, one strategy I use is to keep an eye out for missed opportunities for differentiation. By this I mean noticing when someone makes an assumption about what their partner thinks or believes, halting the action, and supporting them in checking it out. It means helping clients ask questions of their partners rather than putting words in their mouths. It also means stepping in and helping someone take a minute to look inside themselves for an internal sense of knowing, BEFORE they speak. I say, “Don’t answer yet. Slow down. Go inside. What do you think? What do you believe? Are there feelings there? Are you of two minds? Or are you clear? If you are of two minds, state them both, not just the one your partner will agree to”.

I love helping couples form agreements because the process is such a rich opportunity to build skills for strong relationships BEFORE trouble starts. I try to slow the process down and make room for each person to consider what they think, feel, believe, and prefer, separate from anyone else. Only then can the deeper conversation happen. I let my clients know they don’t have to agree to anything they don’t want to agree to, and if they are interested in trying something that feels a little uncomfortable, they might approach it as an experiment that they will re-evaluate after a few months.

For more about making and keeping relationship agreements, check out these earlier posts:

There’s No Such Thing as a One-Size Fits All Relationship Agreement

Rules for Poly Relationships? It’s Not That Simple

Why I Hate the Concept of “Compromise”

Helping Your Clients Find the Courage to Make a Vulnerable Disclosure

Have you seen this scenario play out in your therapy room? One partner gathers their courage and shares something vulnerable, or reveals a secret, or a private desire. And then their partner feels hurt and freaks right out with a big emotional response.

The hurt partner’s feelings are usually perfectly understandable. But, at the same time, it is also understandable that their partner has not been eager to share deeply. It’s hard to come clean or get vulnerable when you have reason to expect an intense, dramatic reaction in response.

I think a really beautiful differentiated stance for any relationship is “I really want you to be honest with me, and I promise not to punish you for anything that you tell me.” That’s a big ask for a lot of people. It’s a courageous promise to make, and a difficult one to keep. But that’s the kind of courage that a differentiated relationship ultimately requires.

“Not punishing” means not blowing up, not sulking, not seeking revenge, and not holding a grudge. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have and acknowledge your feelings. But discussing your feelings and responses is an art form, especially when you don’t want to discourage your partner from honestly talking to you about hard things.

Some conflict-avoidant partners need a lot of encouragement to open up, and part of effective encouragement is getting skilled at managing reactive emotions in the face of distressing disclosures. One strategy might be to make a pact to thank one another for sharing, try to access curiosity, and hold the reactions and/or responses for a later time.

Or you could try saying something like “I’m having a bunch of feelings here, and I want you to know. I don’t need you to change anything, and I’m really glad you told me that, I just need a little time to think and adjust.” Compare these responses to “How dare you say that to me?” or “Don’t ever bring that up to me again.” One opens the door for further conversation and increased depth and connection, and the other slams the door shut and makes further sharing much less likely.

Taking the leap to the differentiated stance of welcoming disclosures, no matter how challenging, requires you to answer to this question: Do you want to know your partner? Really know them? Or are you ok with only seeing the sanitized, people-pleasing facade most of us present when we aren’t ready to really get vulnerable?

The facade might make for fewer uncomfortable feelings–at least for awhile, until something comes up that must be discussed. Many people can have a whole relationship without uncomfortable disclosures. But when the rubber meets the road, those relationships often end. Long term, healthy relationships, full of evolution, growth, and change, require deep trust in one another’s ability to share, and also to hold steady and get curious when the other shares.

This is the kind of challenge that calls on both partners to be their best selves: brave, patient, and compassionate.Think of it as the “growing pains” of a relationship moving towards differentiation. If a couple can get through it, they will emerge with a stronger, more resilient connection than ever before.