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.