Running Out of Side Quests on the Quest for Primary

the shadow of what appears to be a man holding a lightning bolt, like the god Zeus
Image by vasse nicolas,antoine / CC BY

“If you asked most people whether they believed in love or not, they’d probably say they didn’t. Yet that’s not necessarily what they truly think. It’s just the way they defend themselves against what they want. They believe in it, but pretend they don’t until they’re allowed to. Most people would throw away all their cynicism if they could. The majority just never get the chance.”

-Alain de Botton, On Love

The Other Half

There’s a love story that’s at least a couple of millennia old. Aristophanes of Plato’s Symposium tells the story of an original human being with four arms and legs. Hermaphroditic. Essentially a form composed of a man and woman, joined as one, before Zeus split them in half when humanity’s might threatened the gods.

And because of the resultant longing, this search for our “other half,” the gods were able to keep humans in our place.

This is myth of course. But nonetheless, many people are on the quest for their other half. The deep, entangled relationship. Two lives that approach one another so closely that one person is essentially subsumed by the other. Or perhaps even a mutual subsummation. What matters is the joining. A reunion of that which was once divided.

In the literature of a society that idealizes monogamy, this has often been described as the Quest for True Love.

In polyamorous circles, this might well be called the Quest for Primary.

According to the terms of the relationship escalator, a common cultural model for romance, we’re raised to believe that relationships follow a particular pattern. A template whereby they progress automatically from stage to stage. You meet someone, fall in love, define the relationship clearly, engage in regular contact, commit, and become entangled in predictable ways: Sharing a home and finances, legally marrying, and perhaps even having children.

Typically, the relationship escalator assumes monogamy. It’s part of that commitment phase (or perhaps even the definition phase, depending).

So pursuing polyamory entails a certain degree of diverging from the template of the relationship escalator. How much though? Well, it varies based on the individual.

Many of us never get out of those patterns, polyamorous or not.

Skyspook Never Thought He Would Get Married

I look to my own life for an example. My anchor partner Skyspook never thought he would get married. He didn’t believe in this “other half” business. Thought the romantic ideal either didn’t exist or was rather rare. That idea of perfect compatibility.

Plus Skyspook? Was an unusual person. A loner. “I didn’t think he would ever find someone,” his brother told me. “Someone who could keep up with him mentally and that would geek out like he did.”

Skyspook underwent a string of odd dating experiences couched in monogamous ideals before stumbling onto a polyamorous and kinky social group. He’d always been interested in non-monogamy and kink, but theory was one thing. Watching it unfold before him with actual people? Well, that was another case altogether.

As he interacted with his new friends, it dawned on him: He hadn’t been able to find everything he was looking for in a partner in one place. But maybe that was the whole problem. Maybe he was asking for too much from one person. Why couldn’t he find one thing with this partner? Another thing with a different partner? And still more with other partners?

And so he leapt. It was an exciting foray, full of ups and downs.

A Pile of Secondaries

“But I reached a point,” Skyspook said. “Where I felt like there was something missing.”

He had fun but still often found himself spending nights alone. And some of his connections were profoundly unstable, with lovers ignoring texts and ghosting on him in quick succession, only to reemerge months later confused that he had moved on to other people and things. He wanted something stable and ongoing. Something intimate. It became evident to him that a pile of secondaries (with a habit of blinking into tertiary territory) wasn’t going to emulate that.

“I’ve been giving it a lot of hard thought,” he told me one evening, as we chatted. “And I think what I really want is a primary partner.”

“That makes a lot of sense,” I replied, my heart sinking a bit. I was intensely attracted to him. Cared for him deeply. But I was sitting in Maine while he spoke to me from Ohio, awaiting a cross-country move out there in 3 months, to live with one of his poly friends. I wasn’t just committed – I was multi-committed. A girl who already had not one, but two primaries.

I respected him and what he wanted. But I knew I couldn’t be that for him. I was so busy and entangled as it was.

Little did I know that we would be married in a year and a half.

The Quest for Primary

And it isn’t just Skyspook.

I’ve heard Skyspook’s story many times, from polyamorous friends and lovers. So many times that I’ve almost come to expect it when I’m watching friends go through things.

It’s like the Quest for Primary is the main quest. But it’s just like a video game. You’re cruising along until you come upon a boss encounter that’s too hard. One that blocks your progress forward. You cannot beat this particular fight. And frustrated by this obstacle, you instead go exploring off the beaten path of the main plot. Level up. Knock off some side quests.

And sometimes the game is more like a sandbox style, where you can do this indefinitely. The content is so compelling and so immersive that you never return to the “main” quest. You just explore and finish “side” quests forever. Because to you, they aren’t side quests. They’re the game you actually want to play. You won’t be railroaded by the developers. You’ll create your own experience. (Solo polyamorists find terrific joy in a free agent approach.)

But for others? The unfinished plot will nag at you. Or you’ll run out of side quests. Become bored in your wandering. And you’ll jump at the soonest opportunity to rejoin the Quest for Primary.

A Universe of Longing

“It’s time to face it,” another friend says. “I thought I’d be happier unattached. But if I’m being honest with myself, I want a primary relationship.”

“It’s understandable,” I say back to her. I’ve been expecting it for a while, watching the smaller frustrations pile up.

On the drive home, I wonder about the way that all things with mass tend towards one another.  Gas coalescing to form stars.

I think idly of how profoundly lonely my boyfriend CC seems. That persistent longing. What he’ll likely need that I can’t give him.

And most of all, I think of the ache I feel when I go without companionship for too long.

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8 Comments

  1. Hmmm…. equating solo polyamory with “side quests?” If that’s what you intended to say, that just doesn’t sit right with me.

    Many solo polyamorists do indeed like to have deeply emotionally invested, stable, long-lasting intimate relationships. We just don’t want to live with those partners, marry them, or join finances with them. That kind of intertwining of life/identity infrastructure isn’t necessary for emotional investment/commitment, or relationship stability or continuity — even though many people (even many poly people) assume that if a relationship is at all “serious,” it needs to involve at least a shared household.

    Relationships need not be ranked hierarchically — whether by calling them primary/secondary, anchor/satellite, or main/side quest.

    I’m hoping I’ve misunderstood you here, that you didn’t mean to imply that the relationships that solo polyamorist have are somehow inherently lesser. You might wish to clarify that further.

  2. “equating solo polyamory with “side quests?” If that’s what you intended to say, that just doesn’t sit right with me.”

    Oh heavens no!

    “I’m hoping I’ve misunderstood you here, that you didn’t mean to imply that the relationships that solo polyamorist have are somehow inherently lesser.”

    That is *certainly* not what I intended. I don’t feel that way at all.

    Thank you so much for commenting and pointing this out. I’m going to revisit the paragraph where I invoked solo polyamory and add more nuance.

    I was more trying to invoke the idea of moving off the stage maps and playing the game you actually want to play, rather than being forced into levels by a “developer” (which would be societal ideals in the video game analogy).

    Clumsy analogies, my bane.

    I really do appreciate your bringing this to my attention.

  3. I had been looking at that same section as well. Glad the person most known for solo poly said something.

    I think I understand what you’re getting at, but the terminology and way it was portrayed does make me a bit uncomfortable.

    I can see the analogy in terms of people often seeing one particular thing as a life goal (hence escalator) And perhaps if we want to change the analogy life is a sandbox game where we decide our own goals and many do decide to go for a primary partner. Some others don’t see a primary as a goal at all and their primary goal is to collect all the food recipes, or to write a novel. In either case, there isn’t a railroaded storyline that has to be done. However it’s true that to many a primary and kids is often their escalator goal and that they do set this goal aside for other goals. And it could be inherent to society or biology.

    As a solo poly, I do like the part about the finding joy in the free agent approach, but the nagging bit is the view that there is some other main quest, or that other relationships are side quests. Admittedly it’s worse because I’m one of those people who want to complete all the side quests in a video game.

  4. Great comment. What you’ve both written has really contributed very positively to the piece here, and for that I’m grateful. 🙂

    “Admittedly it’s worse because I’m one of those people who want to complete all the side quests in a video game.”

    Ha! Same.

    And like… with the game Morrowind, I never played the “main quest.” Of course, I just ran around killing NPCs and stealing their armor… soo….What ever would THAT mean?

    It’s kind of a janky analogy maybe. 🙂

    I love this:

    “I can see the analogy in terms of people often seeing one particular thing as a life goal (hence escalator) And perhaps if we want to change the analogy life is a sandbox game where we decide our own goals and many do decide to go for a primary partner. Some others don’t see a primary as a goal at all and their primary goal is to collect all the food recipes, or to write a novel. In either case, there isn’t a railroaded storyline that has to be done. However it’s true that to many a primary and kids is often their escalator goal and that they do set this goal aside for other goals. And it could be inherent to society or biology.”

    The society/biology inherence idea is a really fascinating one.

  5. Well, like you had said, culturally we’re raised with so many things pointing towards the escalator relationship. People throughout the ages have been seen as different or incomplete if they are single (and didn’t want a relationship). Some people are married to their jobs, some people are married to making music, or doing research and yet they are often looked down upon.

    Biology, I think it’s somewhere in the area of survival. Being part of the village and that survival alone wasn’t possible. I generally find more about it in abandonment and attachment theory articles.

    For games, analogies are hard. Even Minecraft has a technical main quest, but it was the closest one I could think of for a non-storyline sandbox game. Other open world games still have a main quest.

    Back to the solo poly part, I wonder even in the solo poly area if sometimes the types of partners some of us have or desire might be looked at as a primary to some people too. Close knit, grocery shopping trips, sometimes staying over, and frequent (but not necessarily daily or hourly) conversations. Just none of the merging of households or telling where they’re or I am going each time, but rather a lifestyle that is more like best friends.

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