Primarily Secondary

Some people in polyamorous relationships use the terms “primary” and “secondary” to categorize relationships. Others steer away from those terms because they feel it suggests that love is finite if one is loved more than another or that somehow the love for one is not as deep or pure (or something) as for the other, thus being “secondary” in that sense.

In these posts, I generally use the terms “primary” and “secondary,” etc., to describe polyamorous relationships. Now that I actually have a beautiful “secondary” relationship, I’m seeing the limitations and the potential problems with these terms.

The issue with trying to communicate such profound concepts is that language is limited…much more limited than love. We struggle to articulate feelings and situations not only through the limited nature of language but also through the preconceived societal notions ingrained in our brains since childhood. It’s tricky. It takes a lot of patience, even more understanding, and an infinite amount of love.

There are so many forms of polyamory, since each couple (triad, quad) make their own rules as to what works for them, it’s difficult to define something on here without readers thinking it’s always this way. So please remember that everything I write about polyamory on this blog are either in general terms or specifically from my own experience/understanding.

Generally, for those who use the above terms and set up their relationships hierarchically, a “primary” relationship is usually a spouse or a long-term SO that was in place before the couple opened up or, at least, the one they build a complete life around. It can also be the person with whom you live, have children with, have finances entangled with, etc. Ask different poly couples and they’ll likely have different definitions of what this means. This is the person that has priority in time, importance, and perhaps even emotionally. This is your primary romantic relationship.

Same goes for the word “secondary.” A secondary can be just a fun, light sexual friendship on the side, but I tend to call that a “satellite” relationship rather than a “secondary.” A true secondary to me is a second serious, deeply loving, committed relationship, no matter how many other people you and/or s/he might be seeing.

Let’s take this scenario. Couple A are primaries, married for years. The wife is seeing another man regularly and they’ve become fairly serious and have fallen in love. He is her “secondary.” Now this man doesn’t have a “primary” of his own and is also seeing another married woman who he cares for but is not as romantic or serious with as the wife from Couple A.

Can a couple be secondaries if one of the two don’t have a primary?


That would depend on how each person defines the term. This woman’s “secondary” might have a very important job that comes first, perhaps he will never have the emotional energy or time for a full-time “primary” of his own, so his career is his “primary” relationship. Or perhaps he needs a lot of time and/or space to himself, unable to live with a woman on that level. Perhaps he is incapable of committing himself to another person that deeply and unwilling to take responsibility for each other’s hearts on that level, so he would be his own “primary” relationship. Is she still his “primary” romantic relationship by default, as theirs comes before any others on his side in time, importance, and emotionally.

This is just one possible example. Again…problem with language trying to describe fairly new societal concepts. We muddle through.

A woman can be a “primary” to two men, but only one of those men might be her “primary.” The more I use those terms, the less I like them, actually. Love is limitless, but as I said before, when I use these words, I’m not talking about loving one person deeper than another….because love begets love begets love….this is more about logistics, time, and responsibilities in my own private poly world.

Perhaps one day that “secondary” might merge into your lives so deeply that s/he becomes part of a “triad.” There are different types of triads, too. There is the “V” or “Vee” triad, where, in this example, the woman would be at the hinge (MFM), loving two men more or less equally, where the two men aren’t romantically or emotionally involved other than through her. There is also a true triad where a couple would date a third person, forming a triangle rather than a “V.” And it just gets more complicated from there…

Bottom line, don’t get too hung up on terms. Use them when it facilitates communication, but ensure that you and your partner understand and agree on the definition of that term as it applies to your relationship.  That goes for all terms, not just “primary” and “secondary.”

What does “serious” mean? Committed? Emotionally responsible? Sex? That’s a big one. What is sex and what isn’t sex when it comes to sexual activity? What does “I love you” mean? Can it mean “I care very deeply for you” or must it mean “I am madly in love with you”?

As in any situation of communication, it’s important to define your terms so that everyone is on the same page. This is especially important in romantic relationships. Don’t let anyone tell you what is or is not truly poly when it comes to how you define terms or how you choose to live your lives. Save one… The only thing that absolutely must be present for a polyamorous relationship is open and honest communication between all involved parties.

Lies. Deception. Manipulation. These have no place in polyamory, or any relationship, really. And that’s the only time I would call someone out as not truly poly, if they practice deception and/or lie to their SOs.

Most important, as always. Communicate. For polyamorous relationships (actually, all relationships) to work, there needs to be a lot of deep, open and honest communication. Frequently. No one said this was easy. 😉


~ by omgrey on January 25, 2012.

13 Responses to “Primarily Secondary”

  1. This blog ought to get a lot of interest. Much too complicated for me, though. I am crazy about my wife, Marlene, and Love is the best term. But I like other women a lot too–you included. Jimmy

  2. Cunning Minx over at Polyamory Weekly struggled with these terms for a while before settling on the non-hierarchical term “anchor”. She stopped classifying her more serious relationships into primary/secondary tiers, and started referring to them as her anchors. It’s not that they tied her down, but rather that they grounded her in the world. Their presence made anywhere feel like home. (Insert safe harbor metaphor here.)

    But you have to find the language that works for you.

    • Oooh! I like that! I like “anchor”! That fits quite well. Thank you for that. Do you have a link to the blog posts? Or are these on her podcasts only?

    • I think I would prefer the term “beacon” because the presence of these people lights up your life, lets you navigate, and without them there would be dark days ahead.

      Or I could just be belaboring the metaphor…


    • How funny~ That is what I call my husband St/Vk~ my anchor~ to my mermaid. He keeps me grounded when I swim off and always come back. I like beacon too~ And O.M.~ you really are the best~ Love this post~ going through lots of drama/hard work right now. Agonizing~ xoxoox

      • My heart is with you through the difficult times. Love is so very worth it. So pleased you like the post. And, yes, anchor to your mermaid. I love that!!! What do you call a deeply loving “secondary” relationship? It’s been a gorgeous journey so far with my sweet auctioneer. All the heartbreak of last year is a small price to pay if this with him becomes what I think it can. ❤

  3. No surprise dear, there’s not one word in here that is unwarranted. You have covered the various meanings & implications very well. Great stuff!

    If I may, I would add a paragraph or two on TIME as well. In a society such as ours of quick satisfaction & convenience, time and patience in an ‘unknown’ or unfamiliar emotional arena, it is often too easy to expect too much, or perfection, too soon. As the cliche goes, we must learn to crawl before walking, walking before running, et al, and more importantly, learn new and deeper dimensions to FOREGIVENESS! In many ways I consider myself a novice even though I’ve been practicing open/poly relationships since 2003. When I encounter like-minded people, they are inevitably at various points in their maturity & experience.

    Hence, your point about pigeon-holing aspects of open/poly dynamics is very well made. Thank you beautiful Lady! 🙂

    • Thank you, love! Patience, understanding, & forgiveness is very important, no doubt. I’m a novice as well! My sweet auctioneer & I are finding our way through these new paths. It’s beautiful & scary & fun & stressful & wonderful.

  4. This is a fantastic post…as a “single” woman currently in two relationships with partners who have “primaries” finding my place has been a struggle. I understand the concept of the heart is limitless but when one needs that practical, familial side of a relationship as well it becomes hard to justify the use of primary for myself in a relationship. Thank you.

    • Hope you have found your place. I went out of my way to let my OSO know my love for him wasn’t “secondary” in any way. Unfortunately, he’s now my former OSO. 😦

      I wish you the best in both your relationships, honest communication, and limitless love.


  5. […] Primarily Secondary […]

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