There is sometimes a desire within polyamory to define types of relationships. Monogamous definitions fall flat because there are lots of assumptions around who one can have sex with or spend time with or be committed to that don’t work for polyamory.
There seems to me to be certain aspects of relationships that need including when defining relationships with others:
person I have sex with
person who I have strong feelings for
person I invest in
These things overlap in different ways for different individuals in our life. For example: you might have a friend who you have sex with, who you have strong feelings for but which does not extend to romance and you spend some investment on them, eg trying to see them regularly but not being too bothered if that fails from time to time. There might be someone else who you invest lots of time into, eg an ex lover who parents your child, but you do not have sex with them and your feelings have waned for the person. You might have a lover who you have sex with but have little feelings/attachment to and invest little time in them. Words like “friend”, “ex” and “boyfriend” really don’t cut it in these scenarios.
So, many poly people have relationships in their lives that are clearly more (or less) important than others, and that is as it should be, since a “fuck buddy” need not have as much importance (nor would desire as much importance) as a parent of one’s child.
In this post I am going to talk about the desire to label more important relationships as ‘primary’ and less important relationships as ‘secondary’. Let us leave aside our irritation for the implied hierarchy in these words, accepting that they are just words (which are always inadequate) and not judgements.
It occurs to me that it is easier to know which relationships are less important, or secondary – fuck buddies, friends you rarely see any more, distant extended family, the corner shop man you flirt with – are all easy to peg as secondary to more important relationships, whether there is sexual content or not.
So, for the most part in this post I will talk about primaries.
To return to the list of things that need definition in relationships, a ‘primary’ would often (not always, but often) have all three elements of sex, emotion and investment, none of which are uncomplicated. However, I will focus on ‘investment’ since even conventional relationship training in monogamous/western societies allows for the idea of sexual feeling and emotional content waxing and waning which can, hopefully, be greeted without undue alarm.
In a definition of primary I recently read, there were included two notions that seem related to investment: that of spending time and that of making plans. The author argued that a primary partner deserves investments of time and is a person with whom to make future plans. They simultaneously expected those things in return from their partner(s) and if the partner was unwilling to return these investments, then that relationship could not be called ‘primary’.
I find these notions perfectly reasonable and yet intensely problematic.
In some ways it is obvious that one would spend more time with a primary partner than a secondary partner, however there seems to be many scenarios when that notion must be suspended. For example if distance becomes a factor, such as a partner living in another country, ‘time spent’ would reduce to zero. I would also allow for the idea that if a primary starts a new relationship, then the fire, excitement and obsession phase (often called New Relationship Energy or NRE in poly circles) might require spending much less time with that primary so that they have room (and time!) to explore the new person. These are just two examples that could happen more than once over a long relationship. During these periods of “less time spent” is the partner no longer primary?
The notion of ‘making plans’ has a more personal flavour for me. I’m at a time in my life where very serious life plans, such as having children, are not really on the cards. I see other ‘serious’ plans, such as cohabitation or moving country as less serious because I believe in maximum flexibility and maintaining possibility of change. I would happily co-habit on a whim, but would never, for example, sign a tenancy contract that made me solely liable for a year’s rent, on the trust that my partner will pay it to me and not run off part of the way through.
This may be what the desire for ‘primary’ partner future plans are: the ability to believe (trust?) in a shared future. However, so much of what draws me to polyamory is the notion that we can be stable, secure, self-sufficient individuals, and we strive to be those things to enable maximum pleasures with maximum people. If there are dependencies, such as financial, marital or simply promissory, these potentially lock people into relationships that they may in the future not want to be in. Dependencies close down opportunities for change. They limit freedoms.
I think the majority of future plans don’t require dependencies: financial contracts, in particular, can always have more than one name on them. Even a marital contract can be negotiated without dependency: my brother recently decided to marry his boyfriend to improve their options for visas, and part of their explicit agreement with the contract was that, if things start to not work, they can always get divorced.
With regards to emotional dependencies, one might argue it is harder to make future plans. What if a primary desired you to move country in order to be with them? The change to your life would be a large one, it is definitely a ‘serious’ future plan. In that scenario I would agree to move if it was feasible in my own life (ie I have nothing better to do/there are no conflicts) but as a person who believes in self-sufficiency and freedom, for myself and others, I would also only agree to move if I was emotionally prepared for the fact the inviting lover might decide after a week that they no longer want to be in a relationship with me. I should feel quite happy about being there without them. If I were emotionally dependent on that person, and my entire self worth/reason for moving was wrapped up in their continued relationship with me, then freedoms for us both are lost, and both are putting the other in a vulnerable position.
Some might argue that being emotionally independent all the time is too difficult, or closes down opportunities. Yes, it might be difficult, but asking a person to include you in their future plans, as a ‘primary’, to attempt to relieve your insecurity about the future (and in so doing leave your dependencies unexamined) is surely more dangerous in the long run. One can even apply this idea to children. It is far better to allow for, plan for, the scenario that at the moment of the birth of your child, your partner runs screaming from the room never to be seen again. And more than this: allow for the idea that if they did that, you would still love them. Or, that action is okay with you. If that action is not ok, then you have no business making a new person together. This, in my opinion, is the best way to guarantee freedoms and indeed for the relationship to be as long as it can be, and happy throughout its longevity.
My boyfriend and I once rented a flat that at the start we were unsure of taking. We were attracted by the contract style: it was a contract initially of six months and became “rolling” after that, whereby both ourselves and the landlord had to give one month’s notice of departure before moving out. There was a risk that our landlord could make us lose our home with just a small amount of notice, but it also meant that we could leave at any time. As I said, we were unsure how long wanted to be in the flat.
We lived there happily for over four years.
It seems to me that future plans are best done without emotional or financial dependencies and these can be done (presumably) with any partner, regardless of the longevity or intensity of the relationship because there is always implicit freedom (changeability) built into the plans. ‘Time spent’ is broadly allocated to some partners more than others but this may not apply to the most important relationships that we have due to various factors. This makes the use of the word ‘primary’ an unnecessarily confusing one.
What other motivations are there for using the word ‘primary’? In terms of emergency decisions, it might be useful. If a secondary knows in advance their status, then there are few hurt feelings when a secondary partner’s date is brushed off due to a primary partner’s emergency. But for the most part emergency decisions come up rarely.
If a person is desiring to be called ‘primary’ because they want to be sure of their place in another’s affection, then it sounds to me like a “I want to feel special: what about me?” kind of argument, and everyone knows how I feel about those.