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.

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.