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.

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

In my work as a couples therapist, I’ve seen that successful, happy relationships come in all shapes and sizes. I’ve found that there’s no one-size-fits-all model for a good relationship–and that, in general, relationships work best when the people in them work together to create the agreements that make sense for them.

Working with polyamory, in particular, has shown me that there’s an infinite variety of possible ways to structure a relationship. That means that poly people are more likely to spend time actively considering and discussing what kinds of agreements best fit their unique situation, desires, and needs. This is a practice that I think a lot of monogamous people could benefit from.

Because monogamy is the norm in our culture, it’s common for monogamous couples to assume they’re on the same page about what’s acceptable within their relationship. But if you look beneath the surface, things get a lot more complicated.

Consider: can you define what, exactly, constitutes cheating within your relationship? Is watching porn ok? What about fantasizing about other people? Or flirting? If you feel pretty clear about these agreements, take it a little deeper. What constitutes porn that is and isn’t comfortable for your partner? Are there types of fantasy that are ok, and others that are not?  How about flirting? Where exactly does it cross the line? Can you say for sure, or is the boundary a bit fuzzy? If you asked your partner, would they agree?

There’s a reason that people often don’t have these kinds of detailed discussions about where the boundaries of their relationships are. It can feel quite uncomfortable. What do you do if you discover you’re not on the same page? What if you find out you have already done something that your partner isn’t comfortable with, or vice versa? Maybe it feels easier and less threatening to leave the boundary a bit fuzzy. But that just leaves the door open for a more dramatic disagreement down the road.

During these conversations, it is very likely that some differences of opinion will emerge between you and your partner. That’s okay. A difference is not a threat as long as you are able to respect and listen to each other’s viewpoints. Hold space for the difference, and resist the urge to solve it by changing your partner’s mind or giving up your own viewpoint immediately. Remember that by having this discussion now you’re providing yourself with ample time to discuss and discover where you are each coming from, without the added pressure of a perceived betrayal of trust.

Ask yourself: what kind of relationship agreements are congruent with my own values, my own moral code, and my own sense of self? Then try to listen, with an open mind and a compassionate ear, to your partner’s answer to the same question. Appreciate the common ground you discover, and explore the differences with non-judgmental curiosity. There is always more to learn about yourself and your partner.

If you want to learn more about building a strong relationship, here are some other pieces I’ve written on the topic:

Sexual Intimacy and Vulnerability: Paths to Personal Growth

Better Than ‘Better Half’

Sex and Differentiation of Self

What Polyamory Can Teach Us About ALL Relationships

How to Keep Fights from Damaging Your Relationship