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.
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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