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.