I heard you talking on a podcast saying that you used to have three primaries. How is that even possible? I thought you could only have one.
And I was wondering about something else: I always thought that primary and secondary were terms used for comparison. Can you compare one thing without the other? Can you have primaries without secondaries?
Yes, Co-Primacy Is a Thing!
Yes, polyamorous people can have more than one primary relationship. This state is also referred to as co-primacy and the involved metamours co-primaries.
In 2011, I ended up with not one, not two, but three primary partners. I get that it might be a difficult thing to wrap your mind around if you haven’t experienced it yourself. Even some of my polyamorous friends had trouble understanding it:
“That’s not how the whole primary partner thing is supposed to work,” she said.
“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.
In my specific case, one of my primaries was the person I was legally married to. Another was my Dominant. And the third was a best friend and confidant that I went on later to have dynamite sex with. They all felt extremely primary in their own way.
How did I manage it? Well, the time crunch was no joke. Logistically it helped that they all knew each other. And I lived with two of them. And the third lived quite nearby, within walking distance. They were all polyamorous and were all at least seeing other people. One of my primaries had another primary themselves in addition to me.
Can You Have Primaries Without Secondaries?
Now, in that web, I did have relationships with two other people that could have been considered descriptively secondary (though not prescriptively on my side, see this post for the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive hierarchy).
And logistically it would have been quite difficult to maintain a primary relationship with one of them. She lived at quite a distance and kept her other non-marital relationships prescriptively secondary, something I accepted to be with her. But we had a really excellent unique vibe together. Got each other in a way that I wasn’t at all used to people getting me.
The fifth relationship had mostly developed around our shared partner (who we were co-primaries to).
So in that particular web, there were primaries and secondaries.
But that doesn’t have to be the case. You can have primaries without secondaries.
There are a few reasons for this.
Primary/Secondary Terms Aren’t Just Used to Directly Compare One Relationship to Another
Contrary to what any one given person might tell you, when taken as a group, polyamorous people use the terms “primary” and “secondary” in a fairly flexible way. Here are definitions of primary and secondary relationships that reflect their common usage:
Primary relationship (noun) – A relationship that is prioritized over others and/or one that involves significant entanglement, e.g., living together, sharing finances, raising children, seeing each other frequently, etc. Other terms that are commonly used include anchor partner or nesting partner.
Secondary relationship (noun) – A relationship that is considered generally lower priority than a primary relationship and/or one that is lower entanglement.
The terms primary and secondary aren’t just used to compare relationships or to denote which are higher priority. They’re also frequently used to quickly communicate level of entanglement of a given relationship irrespective of what other relationships any given person has going on.
Even If You Limit Primary/Secondary to Comparative Use, the Comparisons Can Be Drawn Between Actual Partners and Theoretical Ones
That said, even if you argue that primary and secondary are only to be used to compare relationships to one another (which seems like a terrible use of your time, since people are using them the other way as a shortcut to entanglement all the time, good luck stopping them), there’s nothing to say that you have to limit comparisons to actual relationships.
And by that, I mean that you could have two primary partners and no secondary partners at this current time, but the fact that you’ve had secondary partners in the past or have seen someone have them or are theoretically open to having secondary partners means that you can draw a comparison between this mental model of the theoretical and the actual.
Or, in other words: You might only have apples in your basket, but you can remember what it’s like to eat an orange. You don’t have to have apples and oranges currently in the house to know the difference between them or to use different descriptors for comparison purposes.
Polyamorous People Who Are Functionally Monogamous With One Partner Have a Primary With No Secondaries
Furthermore, polyamorous people who have a single primary partner and no other relationships absolutely fit this description. They have primaries (or in their case, primary) with no secondaries.
You Can Have Secondaries Without Primaries
And conversely, I’ve known people who say they have no primary partners and instead have a bunch of secondary relationships. For some, this is the goal and they’re really happy about this.
Knowing About Co-Primacy Changed the Whole Way I Relate to New Metamours
In any event, I think it’s important to know that yes, co-primacy is a thing!
And knowing about co-primacy helped me to stop thinking of primacy as a “there can be only one” type of proposition. Knowing that my serious partner could have another serious partner in their life in a way that supplemented our existing connection rather than automatically demoted me was, frankly, huge.
Entanglement doesn’t have to be zero sum. Sure, there are always logistics to be worked out. But I find that the right people make things easier, not harder. And knowing about co-primacy helped me to stop framing my partners’ other serious connections as inherently threatening to the seriousness of my own.
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