Loving More Nonprofit

Towards a new nomenclature

I saw a cartoon on a poly website, where a woman gets up from her sickbed after a day of not checking her email, to find hundreds of messages waiting. She turns to a partner accusingly. “You posted about poly and swinging on the list again, didn’t you!”

Well, whether or not swinging is a subset of polyamory is certainly a question which can provoke lots of flaming. I have an opinion . . . but that’s not what I’m writing about. I want to take on another topic which is almost equally good at provoking a flurry of comment: nomenclature.

Some people in the poly community object to the use of the terms “primary” and “secondary” to describe relationships, on the ground that the hierarchical ranking suggested by those labels is disrespectful to “secondary” partners.

There are at least as many ways of “doing poly” as there are poly do-ers. Personally, I would choose a model in which I and my “primary” put our relationship first, and where each of us is free to have other partners. I call this the “square dance model” . . . you get to dance with your corner, your opposite, and your left-hand man (or right-hand lady), but the calls return you to your partner every time—unless you screw up.

I knew a woman who said of her husband, “I don’t care where he has lunch, as long as he comes home for dinner.”

The terms “primary” and “secondary” seem to me to do a good job of describing relationship types. A primary relationship is one to which you are committed: a relationship in which each of you covenants to put the well-being of the relationship ahead of anything except your own welfare. If your primary partner accepts a job on the other coast, you move. If your secondary does, well, now you have a long-distance relationship, that may even become tertiary. If your primary partner and your secondary partner have simultaneous myocardial infarctions, you spend most of your time at your primary partner’s bedside, and only visit the secondary when you can spare a moment.

Oh, of course, if you have a date with your primary, and you learn your secondary’s been run over by a truck, you break the date and rush to the hospital. A secondary’s emergency trumps a primary’s temporary convenience. A primary’s emergency trumps everything.

Nevertheless, just as I’ve taught myself not to use certain terms about race or sexual orientation, I’m sensitive to other people’s objections to “primary” and “secondary”, and I’ve thought some about what other terms might accurately describe the two kinds of relationships and not be objectionable.

One poly man I know uses an analogy with precious metals: he wants a “gold” relationship, but has had to settle for “silver” or “bronze” ones. I’m not satisfied that his terminology is much of an improvement over primary and secondary. I mean, everyone knows that the gold medal is for the winner and the silver is for the runner-up.

Recently, I’ve been using the term “anchor” to describe a “primary” relationship. An anchor relationship is the relationship which centers me. Which keeps me from running aground or drifting out to sea. Which provides location and security in the sea of life. As a sailor, I like the nautical reference.

I’ve been unable to come up with an analogous nautical term to use in place of “secondary”. But I have a few ideas which aren’t nautical. One possibility is “auxiliary”: additional; supplementary; reserve; used as a substitute or reserve in case of need; giving support; serving as an aid; helpful. Those definitions certainly work. There there’s “ancillary”: subordinate, subsidiary; auxiliary; assisting. The last two synonyms work. “Accessory”: aiding or contributing in a secondary way. Hmm. Some unfortunate criminal associations there. “Adjunct” is a another possibility. Some of its definitions include: joined or associated, especially in an auxiliary or subordinate relationship; attached or belonging without full or permanent status. Some folks will object to the “subordinate” part, but for me “adjunct” has a nice academic ring to it.

So here’s my proposal: ditch “primary” and “secondary” in favor of “anchor” and “adjunct”.

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