Hello, Poly

Several women navigate polyamorous relationships as a non-primary partner

A few weeks ago I was at a party with some friends, and another friend, Jane (some of the subjects' names have been changed at their request), introduced us to her cousin, who was in town visiting. "This is Kim and . . ." Jane's voice trailed off, as she wasn't quite sure how our friend Kim wanted to handle explaining the two guys on either side of her. Kim, a tall striking redhead in a sheer black shirt, turned to the man on her left and said, "This is my husband, Phil." Then, she subtly gestured to her right, "And this is my boyfriend, Dan."

Polyamorous people have sexual, emotional, loving, and/or committed relationships that are ongoing with more than one person. Relationships, in fact, are what set polyamory apart from other forms of non-monogamy like swinging or occasionally hooking up for sex with other people.

Polyamorists must create and maintain their complex, nontraditional relationships in a society that promotes and values monogamy as the ideal model. There's a growing list of publications, websites, groups, and events dedicated to polyamory, but most of them focus on the primary couple. There may be tips on how to transform a monogamous relationship into a non-monogamous one or, for those already in open relationships, strategies for negotiation and problem solving. Like advice I've read (and given) about how to have a threesome, most is geared toward the couple, and the third of three is given little information or support. That person is not simply a plaything or a third wheel, but a human being with as many needs, desires, and feelings as the primary couple.

A few months ago, I attended "Polyamory for Non-Primary Partners," the only class I know of to address this issue. Sarah, a 36-year-old customer service representative from Virginia who taught it, spoke about how to manage secondary relationships and be a non-primary partner. Sarah is currently in four relationships with three men and one woman. She's been with one of the men for three and half years; he's a formerly primary/currently non-primary partner with whom she lives and spends one night a week; he also has a girlfriend. Next is a married man she has been with for almost three years; they see each other five to six hours a week. And Sarah has a girlfriend (who has a wife) whom she sees once or twice a month because they live in different cities. She also has Steve (she calls him "the emerging primary") who she sees three to four nights a week. Feel like you need a flow chart? Well, that's part of polyamory—it's not for the disorganized.

I have been to a lot of classes on polyamory. I think the most compelling classes are not those where presenters set out a general "how-to" plan, but the ones where they speak from experience and open up about how they make their relationships work. Relationships are all in the details, and it's always rewarding when someone shares the nitty-gritty bits, which is what Sarah did.

"Being in a non-primary relationship allows me to have relationships with people that I couldn't have if I were only looking for primaries. I don't have to worry about having to fit into people's lives in only one way," says Sarah. "I can have relationships with people that don't require heavy investments of time and energy, which I don't always have."

Penny, a 29-year-old activist and artist, is in a relationship with a woman who has two long-term primary partners; she and Penny spend at least one long weekend a month together and talk on the phone several times a week. "I have a ton of things going on, and I don't have space in my life for a primary relationship. But to have an amazing weekend once a month where I am the focus of attention for this person and she is for me is exciting," says Penny, who admits that their relationship began as purely sexual, then evolved into more.

Just as polyamory flies in the face of the traditional pairing model, choosing to be a non-primary partner contradicts all the rhetoric we learn about finding "the one," making a commitment, and being the most important person in someone's life. Choosing to be farther down on the food chain immediately has people thinking you have commitment issues, low self-esteem, or something else wrong with you. In fact, these critiques echo comments often made about the "mistress" in a cheating relationship, but the difference here is a big one: choice. While the mistress may dream of or even be promised that she'll become Girl Number One, the non-primary person knows where he or she stands in someone's life and is content there. The non-primary folks I know either don't want to be anyone's primary because of other priorities in their life or, like Sarah, want multiple relationships, some of which are with people who already have a primary partner.

For some folks, there is no food chain: They eschew the concept of primary/non-primary altogether because they don't believe in the hierarchy it implies. "I'm in two relationships, and I consider them both equally important," says Cate, a San Francisco–based filmmaker. "A mother doesn't consider one of her children to be the primary child, does she?" Sarah counters, "Eventually someone has to be on top because we will be put in a position where we have to choose where our energy is going to go. If [people who reject a hierarchical model] can make that work for them, it's great. In my world, at some point you have to decide." Penny says, "We think of each relationship as different. I don't know if non-primary is the word I would use, but there is no other word, so it's like the default."

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