Primary, Secondary: The Misunderstanding of Hierarchy in Polyamorous Relating
June 25, 2014
Being polyamorous in a mono-centric and dominator culture can be at times confusing. Often people lack the language, skills and mindset to understand their own feelings and complexity of their relationships let alone explain this to others. To cope with some of these issues the polyamory community has created language and constructs to help in dealing and explaining some of the issues faced in polyamorous relationships. One of these constructs, the terms primary and secondary, has received somewhat of a bad rap among people in the polyamory community and even critics of polyamory.
The terms primary, secondary and even tertiary are terms often used to classify different types or commitments in polyamorous relationships. Critics of these terms often point to them as treating people as unequal and somehow less than. Much of this is based in believing that people using the terms are assigning some kind of value on people and love. But do these terms really represent the hierarchal concept of one person being more valuable than someone else or having a higher rank than another? Like many terms and issues in polyamorous relationships, it depends on the people involved and how they define not only primary and secondary but even polyamory.
Society as a whole is a dominator culture so it is not surprising people take these terms as a ranking system of importance and indeed they do imply a hierarchy. Many polyamorous people seek to move away from dominator mindsets toward a more egalitarian system. For some they see any form of hierarchy or ranking in the context of dominator values of one person having power over another. In the book Sacred Pleasure, a book about partnership and dominator culture, by Riane Eisler, she writes about the concept of “authoritarian hierarchy” vs “actualization hierarchy. One kind is a hierarchy based on fear of pain through force or other means. The other is more flexible and far less authoritarian.” In dominator culture leadership is determined by power over another where as in partnership culture leadership is done through cooperation and empowering others. It is not domination over but based in cooperation and respect of people as human beings.
For some primary, secondary and/or tertiary are used as a way to define how different relationships fit in to their life and not as a ranking of importance or feelings. Others do use the terms to clearly set up a rank of relationships. The important thing is not the terms but the meaning behind it and what the individuals involved have defined it as. This is why probing deeper, asking questions and communicating what someone means is so important.
Setting aside terminology for a moment, it is crucial to look at what is behind the descriptive at the motivations and paradigms people are operating from. Many people come into polyamory married and acting from a monogamy paradigm. They are looking to spice up and enhance the marriage or couple centered relationship. Unfortunately they do not consider the implications of relating in this way. They set the marriage or couple relationship as the most important at all costs and don’t think about the feelings and well-being of the people they get involved with. They often believe they can control their feelings and put stringent rules on how outside relationships are conducted. The challenge is the same couple’s approach others with the attitude that they should also put the couple first and the couple can treat any relationships as disposable; that is they can and will end outside relationships any time the marriage or couple is threatened in any way. Society supports this view, and so many feel justified in conducting their outside relationships in this way.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong in opening a relationship this way, however, it is important to remember that relationships involve people and people deserve to be treated with love and respect. Honesty and communication is crucial. Letting a third or fourth person know that the couple puts each other first no matter what and/or that they are just looking to spice up the bedroom not an equal partner can allow individuals to make an informed decision about being involved. All too often none of this is spoken or communicated and people end up hurt and feeling unvalued. It is this way of relating, a couple as primary and everything else secondary or less important, that has given the use of primary and secondary a bad reputation.
Looking at the Loving More® website definitions of primary, secondary and tertiary, the terms have less to do with ranking and more to do with ways in which a relationship fits into a person’s life. For many using the terms this is precisely what they are attempting to define. It is about where someone fits into their life, do they have a commitment, live together, spend many hours together, have children, see each other occasionally, just enjoy a good romp occasionally or many other ways in which people are part of each other’s lives. For most people the terms are not meant to define a person’s importance but rather where they connect.
Example: Maya and James live together, own a home and have kids. Maya is involved with Tim who lives with Jay and Mary. Maya considers James a primary partner as they made a commitment to children and a home together. Tim is a secondary relationship even though Maya loves Tim deeply; they don’t share their lives day to day. Tim is in a primary relationship with Jay and Mary. Tim loves them both and loves Maya. Jay and Mary share a home with him and a business they all run together. Tim is intimate with both Mary and Jay but only has a romantic sexual relationship with Jay. Though they are in a V-Triad they consider each other as a primary relationship. Mary, Jay and James all respect the relationship between Maya and Tim and know that the love they share is important. All are aware and have agreed that the relationship could shift and change over time. Maya and James have agreed to remain committed as parents first until their children are grown.
In this example the terms are used simply to help make sense of numerous connections and how they fit in to each individual’s lives. There is a mutual respect and agreements between all the individuals involved.
Another area of big confusion is the idea that is a person can only have one primary relationship. This is one that again comes from the monogamy mindset. It takes time to de-program oneself from the dominant message of monogamy and one true love. Even people who have been polyamorous for many years can be challenged by the subconscious constructs of monogamy. Many people who use the terms primary, secondary and tertiary are open to many possibilities and the terms may not carry the meaning that many people assume.
Some people in polyamory reject these terms as putting a higher value one person over another, and at times that is exactly how they are being used. Some people have the approach that all relationships are equal, fluid and love should be the same for everyone. The reality is that some people and relationships play a more significant role in our lives than others. Shared finances, children or other considerations demand a different commitment or importance than other relationships that don’t share these things. It is vital to be clear and realistic about what works for an individual, what doesn’t and to know what one wants.
Words are just that words with different meanings and connotations within the context they are used. Actions are what matter most. Approaching love and relationships with respect and consideration is what will, in the long run, make or break good relationships. Being clear and honest about wants, needs and preferences allows people to make informed decisions and co-create amazing relationships. People who treat others as disposable or undervalue individuals will often find their relationships, poly or otherwise, difficult and challenging to navigate. Human beings are important and respect goes a long way in helping to smooth out the issues facing multifaceted polyamorous relationships.
In the complexity of polyamorous relationships many people are simply trying to navigate their connections in a conscious way. The terms primary, secondary and tertiary may imply a hierarchy and it may not. Regardless of using terms, hierarchal or not, it is crucial to communicate and clarify meanings. Explain what a term means, ask how people feel about the meaning and navigate something that feels agreeable to all involved. One person hierarchy is another person’s flow chart of connections to figure out who is responsible for cooking dinner and picking up the kids from school.
Robyn is the Executive Director of Loving More Non-Profit, a national leader for polyamory awareness, polyamory counselor, workshop facilitator and writer. Since 2004 Robyn has worked to expand media awareness of polyamory appearing in numerous articles, radio shows and TV. Robyn and Loving More were instrumental in the formation of Polyamory Leadership Network. A national speaker and advocate for polyamory she has been a speaker at conferences, taught at universities and been a featured keynote speaker. Robyn has been openly polyamorous for 23 years, raising three children in a polyamorous family. Robyn has been running polyamory support groups, teaching and facilitating relationship and sexuality workshop since 1999. In addition she counsels polyamorous individuals and families. Currently Robyn is working on two polyamory related books.