The Solo Polyamorist is Secondary to None, Thank Goodness

Note: This column by Maria originally published on Feb. 23, 2013, but the “secondary/second class” question in polyamory is not going away anytime soon. And if you’re not poly, it’s a good reminder to step back and see if you’re taking anyone in your life for granted and acting out of habit. — Amanda

By Maria Padhila

About a year back I wrote about a friend who had broken up with her boyfriend and had someone wonder if she was going to make her ‘secondary’ boyfriend into her ‘primary’. At the time, we laughed at how it sounded like bringing a pitcher up from the minor leagues.

Poly Paradise at Burning Man. Photo by Eric.

Well, the boys are back in spring training, and it’s looking like the concept of ‘secondary’ itself has been cut from the team — and a good thing, too.

The Solopoly blog (“Life, relationships, and dating as a free agent”) — a really well-designed and very clearly written blog — is the perspective from a solo polyamorist woman who may or may not develop any number of different kinds of relationships at any time. But they won’t be ‘secondary’ ones. She recently created a post that went viral: Tips for Treating Non-Primary Partners Well.

Intended as a ‘living document’, it has already gotten updates and feedback from people all over. It has plenty of ideas as well as ways to become aware of your own bad habits as a ‘primary’. And it doesn’t use the s-word at all. (See? Everything about it says ‘number 2’. That’s not how you treat someone you love.) Does changing the term to ‘non-primary’ really make a difference? To me, it does.

Solopoly’s author, Aggie, defines ‘primary partner’ as a partner whom you live with, share finances with, and raise (or intend to raise) children with. As with every definition, someone’s gonna hate it, but there’s enough to it to make it a practical working one.

The “Tips” include a very important one — “Assume good intentions” (e.g., the non-primary is not out to “steal” anyone!) — as well as simple things such as “honor time commitments.” As another blogger pointed out, the “Tips” are at heart just ways to treat someone you love decently — but when there are a lot of relationships going on at the same time, and not too many instruction books on how to do it, people can use a reminder.

People like me, that is, could use a reminder. I usually spend Fridays with Chris, because we don’t work during the day and my daughter is in school (one of our rules is not sticking anyone with childcare if we want to have a date. It’s not that we don’t like childcare; it’s that it’s not fair. You’ll see how it works out in a minute.).

But in the bleak days of winter, Tobi, Isaac’s and my daughter, had a four-day weekend; days off school both Friday and Monday. I knew Issac wanted to spend one of these days with Tobi; they have regular days when they go out together and do sports, go to a movie or museum. This isn’t childcare — it’s an active day deliberately spent having fun together.

We had been chatting as we were getting ready for something, and I was telling him about the whole ‘secondary/second-class’ concept. We started tossing our scheduling details around, and I asked: “So, do you want to have a day with Tobi on Monday, since you don’t work during the day on Monday? And then maybe on Friday, you and me and Tobi can do something as a family, because I won’t be able to see Chris.” We both thought that sounded good, and went on to other things, and then I went in to take a shower, and realized what I’d just done.

I had just assumed that because Tobi was home and Isaac didn’t have to work, I would of course be with them. I had just classified time with Chris as lowest-priority and the first thing to be jettisoned when there was a change in the schedule. Oh, I thought, he’ll understand.

He’ll understand, all right. He’ll understand that he’s at the bottom of the list.

But he’s not!

But that’s how you’re acting, I thought.

Now, understand that it would be fine for Chris, Tobi and me to do something together one of those days, too. Just because Tobi was out of school didn’t mean I couldn’t see Chris. But the point of our three hours or so on Fridays is to be together as adults, just the two of us. What we choose to do with that time differs depending on what we feel like, but that’s our time.

Isaac and I don’t get nearly enough ‘date nights’ — but we nonetheless do get our time alone together as adults, when Tobi is asleep, doing her homework, off with friends or, sometimes, when she’s at school. Far more time than three hours on Friday — and then, when we’re lucky, we get date nights too. We sleep together and wake up together nearly every night and day of our lives.

But I’d sold out the three hours on Friday for a scheduling inconvenience.

So when I got out of the shower, I sucked up my courage and talked to Isaac. I wanted to spend my usual time on Friday with Chris. And it didn’t seem fair to cancel for our convenience. It’s not the way I wanted to treat him, like a second-class partner. In a way, not seeing him made it seem like the other Fridays were sneaking around, as if it were fine for me to spend Fridays with him as long as it wasn’t obvious to anyone.

So, could Issac do his daddy-daughter day on Friday, so I could see Chris, and then we could do a family day on Sunday?, I asked. And on Monday, maybe he could do another daddy-daughter day — or I could work something out and handle childcare.

One of the many things I love about Isaac is his sense of fairness and kindness. Among the three of us, someone has to have been raised in a semi-sane family environment. His childhood left him secure and confident in a way that is rare to encounter. He got it. He understood that it wasn’t the way to treat someone.

And he really likes spending time with his little girl.

There have been plenty of times that I’ve skipped my time with Chris, with good reason — and that reason has even been to do something with Isaac or Tobi or both. But this time I was skipping it out of habit — the habit of having his needs come second.

The ‘primary partner’ model didn’t get that way just because it’s the main relationship form in the places where most of us spend most of our time. It happens because we poly people buy into it, or because we haven’t checked into our own assumptions, or because, hell, we’re busy.

How a lot of us got into this was through having a monogamous relationship and finding it didn’t work — the old ‘I’m not myself/coming out’ model. So one or the other or both, having gone a ways down the line as a couple, acts to do things another way. Often this is simply because people didn’t know there were any other options.

But those kids today! With every college newspaper publishing an obligatory poly article once a month, and every alternative newspaper doing likewise, there’s no excuse for them not to stay informed and up on current events. More and more of them know there are more and more ways to live out there. So the whole problem with couple primacy might solve itself.

One way Isaac and I have been spending some of our adult time is in watching small chunks of Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States. When he — Isaac, not Oliver Stone — gets home late at night, it just seems to be kind of relaxing. This is no slam on the show, which is fascinating and done with no small amount of visual flair, as well as a Christopher Walken-esque pacing in the narration by Mr. Stone, but we get so relaxed we usually end up falling asleep. In fact, it’s become a couple-joke: we should get some sleep — let’s put on Oliver Stone.

Seriously, it’s either laugh or cry. But there are a few things that strike me as I watch the tragedies unfold. One is that for all the stupidities, horrors, evils and running backwards we’ve done, there is one place we’ve really done good: gay rights in particular, and all the rights that radiate out from this place. Whether you think it’s gone far enough (wrong) or not, whether you think other relationship rights and acceptances should radiate from that place, you’ve got to give us that one for the win column.

Another is how important it was to shut down, buy up and demonize the “liberal media” (oh, and as always, let’s not forget the anti-Semitic undertone to these criticisms, which lives on in the right-wing denunciations of “Hollywood liberals”) from the tail end of Vietnam onward. The cameras on soldiers, on Civil Rights marches, on the women, on the student protests, made the difference. Even with censorship and limited media access, people couldn’t avoid some knowledge of current events, and that changed things.

So even as exhausting, competitive, demoralizing or annoying as the sheer wild numbers of mommy bloggers and poly bloggers can be, I will still draw attention to them, promote them in the small ways I can, and support them and their rights. Enjoy commenting — it’s world-changing.

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5 thoughts on “The Solo Polyamorist is Secondary to None, Thank Goodness”

  1. And some of us “like” the bondage of “wife” or “husband;” relish it and find comfort and contentment in it. Different strokes for different folks as they say. That’s what makes the world and the people in it a fascinating place; we are all different.

  2. Of course, people are checking out the values of others all the time. Most folk get disturbed by others having significantly different values to themselves.

    I think the way to get past that (it takes discipline) is consciously to practice fostering tolerance of radically different values by noting and processing one’s emotional complexes around security found in similarities.

    I don’t think this is primarily a question of sexual proclivities, so much as comfort in individuation, regardless of sexual orientations.

  3. This takes us beyond unspoken rules and ungrounded expectations. What we’re discussing here originates in the ‘world’ of poly but will positively influence every relationship style.

    << The ‘primary partner’ model didn’t get that way just because it’s the main relationship form in the places where most of us spend most of our time. It happens because we poly people buy into it, or because we haven’t checked into our own assumptions, or because, hell, we’re busy. >>

    I think that the primary/secondary model is a morph of the wife/mistress model; it’s staying as close to familiar territory as possible. I’ve often noticed that what people describe as polyamorous situations are actually what I call multiple monogamy situations, because the rules are more like monogamous rules that compromise free agency and choice.

    There is also the attempt to maintain order that many think is necessary. In the Kerista community in the Haight District of San Fran in the 70s and early 80s, where money and sex were shared communally, the attempted solution was a regimented sleeping schedule where you would check a chart on the wall to see who you would be spending the night with. I’ve never heard that described as anything better than annoying.

    My own choice is to be a free agent. This makes some people nervous. It implies that I am Mr. Heartbreak, because I make my own choices — and I’ve spent a lot more time alone than I have with the companionship of a lover in part due to this (the mono poly phenomenon). I know I can do this because I value my independence. I simply cannot be emotionally confined. I can only be where I want to be.

    I love with my whole heart whomever I love, and I am a loyal person. Those are my boundaries. I could see free agency being difficult without some deep and solid values in place. I think it’s also necessary to have the self-esteem to understand why people might choose to be with me — that’s taken me some time to cultivate.

    In the end, we are all free agents. Married or not, poly or mono or solo or whatever, we continually make decisions about who we are, and what we want. “I cannot do that because I am with that person” is a ruse; it’s the projection of responsibility, agency and desire.

    I think it’s important to remember that we are still in the midst of or very close to models of relationship that are based on people being chattel; that is, property. Usually that applies to the wife, though “husband” means house-bound. For many, freedom and the conscious potential for choice are like walking on thin ice. Speaking up about one’s sincere desires can indeed be terrifying — until one actually does it.

  4. Maria, this column made me think of how these rules of conduct can come into play even in non-poly relationships Take, for example, a conversation I had with a friend on Thurs nite. We were talking about my recent divorce and my own decision to revel in continuing my solo life. She said something like, “Good, because I will hate it when you meet someone and I lose you as my friend.”. Ugh! Is that what we all expect will happen to our friendships as soon as a lover comes along?

    This isn’t my experience with her in our friendship and I hate that the model of making any of our relationships automatically “second” stings each of us so much.

    In fact, I felt it last weekend w a different girlfriend and have been reviewing my own feelings/behaviors in the situation. I was visiting her in her city & we had agreed to spend Sat together. She picked me up at the hotel, we had plans to hike, do a spa thing and grab dinner. Then, she suggested adding in another person for dinner. I said OK, when really I wanted that time alone with her. Then, my friend’s husband also joined us. Our solo day together turned into a 4-some with two of the people being folks I didn’t really want to be with.

    My responsibility was to speak honestly (which I didn’t) and in hindsight it was because I know she burns the candle at both ends and is away from home for weeks at a time for work. Altho she & I had planned this visit for weeks, my sense is that she was trying to squeeze time in with all of us. I know I felt it and suspect her husband and other friend did, too. I would have preferred less time, but had it be truly ON between us. Now it’s about me getting honest with her about it and doing it differently on my end next time.

    It is also a great reminder to me to be clear with myself when I am making my choices, to speak clearly and honestly, taking into consideration that most of what we all want is to feel primary when we are with someone and to have our sense of “specialness” preserved.

  5. Maria, your article helps answer a question for me. I’ve imagined being in a poly relationship with some former lovers who chose to be with someone else, which meant in the mono world they couldn’t be with me anymore… She wouldn’t like it. I didn’t know poly was an option. I still don’t know if it personally is, but I felt the unfairness of my loss. The only option I could see at the time was to be a good sport, get over it, and move on. Which I did, though not without an emotional price, and lots of energy used in the getting over it phase.

    The question bugged me: Would I like being second fiddle in a relationship, ie, the other woman? Today you illuminated how it could work. In the light, I would have my space and time with my lover that was sacred to us both, and honored by the other lover(s).

    I am trying to figure out love relationships in later life, when my creative and professional life is so demanding and compelling, and the desire for a constant life sharing partner seems well, a mixed blessing. Doing without a love partner is out of balance. Casual is rarely a pleasing option. Regardless of how I do love, I want to eliminate jealousy and competition from my emotional life. I look to poly people to teach me more about this.

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