A Trend I Notice in Polyamory

Polyamory is part of the cultural conversation now, and at some point you’re going to have clients who are either practicing or considering it. In my last blog post, I described the primary/secondary structure, which has historically been the most common arrangement for polyamorous relationships (for more details, see this post). 

However, primary/secondary is not the only possibility by far. There are infinite possible relationship structures. In fact, in the last few years, I’ve seen more and more people creating polyam relationships with a non-hierarchical structure. 

So what does that mean? In a non-hierarchical polyamorous relationship, each participant evaluates their own situation and connections, and forms agreements according to the needs and preferences of all, without the expectation that any one particular relationship will take precedence over another. 

In practice, sometimes this doesn’t look much different from primary/secondary. For instance, there may be one relationship where there are a lot of shared responsibilities, like raising a family. In that case, the needs of the children and the family unit may tend to be more pressing, and therefore take precedence, over a less encumbered love affair, regardless of whether there is an assumed hierarchy between relationships.  

However, in non-hierarchical polyamorous structures, no one has veto power over their partner’s other connections, and partners assess situations in which different relationships conflict with one another on a case-by-case basis, rather than prioritizing one relationship as a rule. In some situations, this is a very significant distinction. This way of conducting relationships requires a lot of self-knowledge, emotional regulation, and differentiation of self, and it can be highly rewarding when those pieces are in place. 

The advent of the internet means that although polyam communities may be small and hard to find in the real world, polyamorous people around the globe can easily talk to each other, share experiences, and develop community norms and guidelines for managing relationships. As polyam culture continues to evolve, it’s an exciting time to be a therapist who works with polyamorous people. Each relationship is unique, definitions vary, and specific situations demand individual flexibility and creativity. Therefore, I recommend asking your clients what their polycule looks like, and what relational agreements are in place, in order to better understand the particular challenges and strengths of each family system.

Why Would Someone Want to Be A Secondary Partner?

Every now and then someone asks me: “Why on earth would anyone want to be a secondary partner in a polyamorous relationship?”

For some context, many polyam relationships have a primary-secondary structure. Generally, this refers to a situation in which there is a pair of partners, one of them has a relationship with another person, and part of their relationship agreement includes prioritizing the “primary” partnership over any other (“secondary”). 

This type of prioritizing might come down to choosing to end the secondary relationship rather than the primary one, if significant relationship struggles arise. Or it might look like staying home from a date when the primary partner is having a really rough day. It probably means the rules and agreements of the primary couple will not be up for discussion with the secondary partner. It may be that the primary couple is open about being in a relationship, while the secondary partner remains a secret. 

One reason this setup is fairly common is because many people move into polyamory from a monogamous partnership. They may be interested in exploring having new partners and forming new romantic connections, but not want to lose the commitment and security of their existing partnership. They may also have significant shared resources and responsibilities, like a home, family, finances, and legal partnership, which they don’t want to lose or destabilize. From this perspective, a primary-secondary structure makes a lot of sense.

Some people are very happy being secondary partners, and I’ve even known some secondary partners who prefer it, and are not interested in having a primary partner at all. However, a primary/secondary relationship structure can cause a lot of strain on secondary partners. Some feel less chosen, less important, or like their needs come last. Some may want more time, closeness, or commitment than their partner, or their partners’ partner, is willing to provide. Some feel left out of decision-making discussions about their own intimate relationship future. 

So, why would someone want to be a secondary partner? There are many reasons, and of course relationships are infinitely diverse, but here are three:

  • If they already have another relationship that fills a primary role in their life. This is one of the most common setups–two people who already have another relationship, perhaps with a shared home, family, legal marriage, significant commitments, etc., coming together with the understanding that their primary connections take precedence. In fact, in this type of situation, the stability of the primary relationships may be the foundation that enables polyamory to work. 
  • If they have another kind of commitment that takes up a lot of time in their life–for instance, a highly demanding job, a commitment to frequent travel, a beloved time-consuming hobby, or an absorbing spiritual practice–which would make it difficult to commit to an intense long-term primary relationship. Being a secondary partner can be a great solution for people who want to experience romantic connection, but who also highly value and prioritize other aspects of their life.
  • If they just love their alone time, or prefer to avoid the complexities of huge, absorbing relationships with the accompanying demands and expectations they can entail. 

People are very different from one another; they have very different interests, beliefs, desires, and needs. It just doesn’t make sense than any one type of relationship, or relationship role, would fit for everyone. Polyamory is just part of the diversity of ways people can relate to one another intimately. I love being part of an open dialogue about diverse relationship structures, because I have a huge soft spot in my heart for people whose dreams and desires don’t fit the traditional mold.

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.