The Girl With Three Primaries: A Desert Garden

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We are not alone, but are biologically wired and evolutionarily designed to be deeply connected to one another.

-Marco Iacoboni


I’ve never been able to stop love once it starts. I grow things to their limit. Like an overzealous plant sending out runners in every direction. Choking the garden with roots.

I don’t hold back. Because I don’t know how. I love a truly irresponsible amount.

And that’s how, in 2011, I wound up as a girl with not one, not two, but three primaries.


“That’s not how the whole primary partner thing is supposed to work,” Megan said.

I shrugged.

“You have one primary. And the rest are secondaries or tertiaries.”

“I know that’s what you believe,” I said.

“One of them is actually primary,” she said. “The others are more aspirational. I get it. You don’t want anybody to feel inferior or left out. It’s because you care about people. It’s sweet.”

But I didn’t feel like I was being sweet. Or charitable. Or trying to be fair. I genuinely felt as though each of them owned my entire emotional inner life. It was crowded in there but exciting. On most days, the pressure was welcome, like a full body hug.

And later when the metamour from Hell and untreated depression wreaked havoc on two of those relationships, I felt devastated.

Like two-thirds of my heart had been amputated.

What We Whisper and What We Don’t

As Leslie Becker-Phelps writes:

Not all humans are monogamous, of course, but even open marriages tend to depend on a central, primary bond: We need to work together to survive. We’re a social species because nothing but a deep bond of love keeps us together when we need it most — back in our own infancy, and way back in the infancy of the human species.


It’s a sentiment I’ve heard many times, even in non-monogamous circles: You get one really deep emotional connection; the rest are ancillary. Subordinate. And eschewing the use of hierarchical language (primary, secondary, tertiary, etc) is more of a courtesy than anything else. Even some relationship anarchists openly denounce hierarchy as a system (and sometimes completely opt out of labeling relationships altogether) while quietly subscribing to that same ideal: There is a certain level of connection where you can treat everyone as equals, but past that point? You end up with a favorite.

Not shouted loudly, mind you.

Instead, it’s whispered in confidence. Around a trusted few. Met with knowing nods, everyone acknowledging secret preferences.

Walking it back with: “Time and attention are finite. It rarely comes up exactly even. And pushing it to be that way is a waste of energy.” An addition that brings it up to the mouth of respectability. So that everyone can be comfortable once again.

But I can’t forget I heard it.

And for me, it’s never been true. I believe in co-primacy. In simultaneous deep bonds.

I wonder about that sometimes, why that is. Do I have more space for things to grow because my early life was such a desert? A stray kid looking for someplace to belong, welcome many places, but always standing at the periphery of someone else’s life.

Is there more room in my heart because I grew up emptier than most?

And if so, will I ever be full?

Featured Image: CC BY – John Morgan