I’m thinking about bridging the inferential gap between mono people and poly people, and one of the things I’m thinking about is the concept of secondary partners.
I want to make it clear that this post is based mostly on my own experiences and observations; there are as many different ways of doing poly as there are poly people. However, I hope it can provide insight into one way polyamory can tend to work.
In American culture, commitment is supposed to steadily escalate over the course of a sexual-romantic relationship. Solopoly calls this the relationship escalator:
Relationship escalator: The default set of societal expectations for the proper conduct of intimate relationships. Progressive steps with clearly visible markers and a presumed structural goal of permanently monogamous (sexually and romantically exclusive), cohabitating marriage — legally sanctioned if possible. The social standard by which most people gauge whether a developing intimate relationship is significant, “serious,” good, healthy, committed or worth pursuing or continuing.
Now, the relationship escalator is a perfectly valid way to do relationships. Something a lot like the relationship escalator is more-or-less how everyone finds life partnerships, love at first sight and arranged marriages aside.
However, I think this is where a lot of monogamous people get confused about polyamory. They don’t necessarily have a model of how to have romantic-sexual relationships outside of steadily escalating commitment, and so they model polyamory as having a whole bunch of different relationships on the relationship escalator at the same time. While that’s not an impossible relationship configuration, that is not how polyamory usually works in my experience.
This confusion is only natural. It is possible for monogamous people to have secondary romantic relationships (unlike metamourship, which you can basically only experience as a poly person). But they tend to be fairly uncommon, because most people would prefer a primary relationship to a secondary romantic relationship, and in a monogamous structure you can only have one. So no wonder most monogamous people are generalizing from their own experiences.
So here’s the reframe: don’t think about secondary relationships like romantic relationships you’ve experienced. Think of them like friendships.
Many friendships settle naturally into a particular level of commitment. For a fairly extreme example, consider two people who, for the past ten years, have gotten dinner every six months. Similarly, a lot of friendships might naturally become a “hang out once a week and play video games” relationship, a “spend hours a day cowriting porn when we’re in the same fandom and barely interact when we’re not” relationship, a “we never see each other because of the Atlantic Ocean but chatting is fun” relationship. Even if your friendship has a lower level of commitment, you can still care a lot about each other, want each other to be happy, and value the relationship as it is.
You might also find that your friendships change in level of commitment over time. Sometimes you talk every day; sometimes you go months without talking, because you’re just in different places in your life. That doesn’t necessarily mean you care about each other any less. Sometimes you can pick up your friendship exactly where you left off; other times, you have to rebuild your friendship; still other times, you’re left with nothing but fond feelings.
Your romantic relationship, if you have one, is probably more important than your friendships. But that doesn’t mean your friendships are unimportant. Your friendships can be just as deep, just as intimate, as your romantic relationship; you are not going to build a life together in the same way, but you still care about them. There’s a certain sense in which your partner is more important than your friends, but that doesn’t mean you always sacrifice your friends’ needs for your partner’s– at least not if you’re a caring friend. If your friend is in the hospital, you might cancel a date with your romantic partner to go visit them; if you’ve made plans with your friend but your partner wants to hang out, you might tell them you already have plans.
If someone asked you if your friendships were unsuccessful because they didn’t end in getting married, you would be confused. It’s true they’re not romantic relationships, but they’re not supposed to be! They’re not half-assed imitations of romantic relationships, they’re successful friendships.
Secondary relationships are like that, but with more fucking.
I think the lack of understanding of secondary relationships explains a lot of otherwise puzzling monogamous beliefs. “Polyamory is all about sex” often has its root in people having no concept of off-the-escalator relationships other than casual sex. The emphasis on triads, quads, and vees is because those are the relationships that fit most closely to the relationship escalator.
Similarly, a lot of people criticize poly relationships for being unstable. It is true that my extended polycule rarely goes a week without someone breaking up or adding a new partner. (There are forty or fifty people in it, so no wonder.) But not all of the relationships are at the same level of commitment. My relationship with Andrew, which began with the utterly romantic statement “so, I want to date you, but I’m worried about running out of emotional energy; if I’m spread too thin, I’m probably going to break up with you” is, uh, pretty likely to end in a breakup. (Although you never know.) But that doesn’t mean that Mike and Alicorn are any more likely to divorce than any other married couple.
A lot of people have asked “what if you have to choose between your partners?” The standard polyamorous answer is that polyamory means I don’t have to. In a monogamous relationship, I would have to choose one partner, but in a polyamorous relationship, I can live in a house with all three people I’m dating and there are no problems.
But I think that fails to answer the main point of the critique.
As we poly people say, “love is infinite, time is not.” I’m dating three people and have platonic relationships of equal importance with two more, but there are many more people who are attractive and who might be willing to be persuaded to date my crazy ass. It is very difficult to seriously date more than five or six people. As a monogamous person, in a committed relationship, there are protections to prevent me from finding another partner: I’m not allowed to flirt, I’m not allowed to hook up with people at parties, other people are discouraged from confessing crushes on me, and in some relationships I’m not allowed to interact with people I have a crush on or even have orientation-compatible friends. These don’t work perfectly– witness how many people cheat or break up with their partners for someone else. But allowing people to flirt, confess crushes, and casually hook up is hardly going to make them less likely to find new partners.
So what happens if I meet a Shiny New Lover?
Well, I’m probably going to break up with one of my current partners.
And “too many partners” is hardly the only time this comes up. If I have two girlfriends, and one of my girlfriends gets an exciting new job in Hong Kong and one of my girlfriends gets an exciting new job in Mountain View, I can live with at most one girlfriend. Even though I can keep dating both of them, in some sense I’m still choosing one over the other.
But again we return to the friends metaphor. If you have a bustling social life and you suddenly meet THE COOLEST PERSON EVER, probably you’re going to stop spending so much time with Joe, who was pretty neat but really hard to get ahold of. If your partner gets an exciting new job in Hong Kong, you might have to move with her, even though it means moving away from your friends. Your friendships matter a lot, but they are less committed than your romantic relationship.
A lot of people feel sad about the idea of a low-commitment romantic relationship: for them, romantic feelings are closely tied to wanting to spend a life together. That means polyamory might be a bad fit for them (although you never know). But I think sometimes it’s because they think the lower-commitment relationships are less real or like the lower-commitment partner is being betrayed or mistreated somehow, and that’s not true. There’s a lot of reasons you might have romantic feelings for someone and still not be committed to them. One or both of you might already have a life partnership or primary relationship. You or they might be an independent person who prefers their own space and doesn’t want someone else making their decisions for them. You might be incompatible as life partners: they want kids and you don’t; their dream job is working in Antartica; that clicking thing they do with their tongue would drive you mad if you had to wake up to it every day. Just like you aren’t mistreating your friends if you’re not as committed to them as you are to your monogamous partner, you aren’t mistreating your secondaries in the same situation.