Working With Secondary Partners

Last week, I wrote about a common pitfall that can crop up in poly relationships with a primary/secondary structure. This week, I’m going to be sharing some of my strategies for working with secondary partners.

Being a secondary partner in a polyamorous relationship can be rough. For those not versed in poly lingo, that means being in a relationship with someone who has another relationship that they consider “primary” and prioritize over their relationship with you. Not all poly relationships have a primary/secondary structure, but many do.

Being a secondary partner can work really well for some people–for instance, people who have a lot of other things engaging them in their lives (like creative projects, demanding careers, or other relationships). It can also work well for people who like their freedom and autonomy, or for those who aren’t interested in having a primary commitment, relational obligations, or a time-consuming connection in their lives.

At the same time, being a secondary partner can be very challenging. It often involves sitting with uncomfortable feelings, like uncertainty, jealousy, and loneliness. Dealing with lots of discomfort is nothing if not an invitation to examine desires, goals, values, and dreams. It can be an opportunity for self-discovery and personal growth–while also being demanding and sometimes painful.

When you have a client who is a struggling secondary partner, it can be a challenge for therapists too. We live in a culture with a strong bias toward monogamy, and it is easy to hear about this kind of relational uncertainty and/or distress and leap to the assumption that the clients problems would be easily solved by leaving their poly partner. However, this “solution” side-steps several important things, including:

  • The client has chosen to be in this relationship and presumably has some desire to remain in it. Working with the client where they are, with the goals they have, is not just important to the therapeutic alliance, it also shows respect for their individuality, and honors diversity.
  • Secondary relationships are often quite workable and, for many, even ideal. With a little help and skill-building, this may be your client’s dream relationship.
  • The same skills that help secondary partners are also part of building a solid self in relationships of all kinds. Strengthening differentiation of self is a great relational investment.

Many clients, including some secondary partners, find building the following skills helpful:

  • Sitting with uncomfortable emotions and letting them come and go, rather than fanning the flames of jealousy or disappointment.
  • Understanding that meaning-making is optional, developing skill at identifying what stories they are telling themselves when things feel uncomfortable, and doing reality checks with their partner(s) to check their assumptions when needed.
  • Developing engaging, effective distractions and individual interests so that time spent separate from their partner offers opportunities for positive experiences, rather than having their life revolve around their partner’s schedule and availability.
  • Recognizing their power to make their own choices, and, ultimately, their ability to choose to leave the relationship if it isn’t working for them.

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.