There was recently (err, well, a few months ago– I’m a slow writer!) some conversation on Facebook about this old post of Franklin Veaux’s, which had a lot of people saying (paraphrased) “but I’m in a relationship in which I don’t get to meet my partner’s family or I’ll be dumped if I’m a threat to the primary relationship, and I’m fine with it, and I’d actually be somewhat confused about why I would expect any differently!”
I think a lot of the problem with secondary rights discourse is that “secondary” is a very broad word. “Primary” refers (usually) to the most committed relationship(s) a person has; “secondary” refers to every other relationship they have. The term can encompass everything from “casual fuckbuddy I see maybe once every six months” to “my best friend and the love of my life.”
In fact, some people’s secondary relationships can be more committed than other people’s primary relationships! For instance, Alice might have dated her primary for the past six months. Things seem to be going well, but Alice isn’t really in a place for a long-term commitment. They don’t live together, have separate finances, and haven’t met each other’s parents. Conversely, Eve is married and has children with her primary, but she also has a secondary partner she’s been with for decades and plans to be with for the rest of her life. Eve’s secondary is her children’s beloved aunt, and the children would be heartbroken if they broke up. Eve and her secondary partner have cowritten three books and are working on a fourth. On every metric of commitment (prospective longevity of relationship, amount invested in relationship, amount the partners’ lives are entangled), Eve is far more committed to her secondary than Alice is to her primary.
This makes it really fucking hard to generalize about the correct way to treat secondary partners. For instance, it is perfectly reasonable to dump a fuckbuddy if they become inconvenient, but it is tremendously unkind to dump your girlfriend of five years for becoming inconvenient. Keeping the relationship secret from your partner’s family is easy if you never meet them. But if your secondary lives with you, and you just moved in your dad because you don’t want to put him in a nursing home, and your secondary is now required to avoid showing affection to his own boyfriend in his own house, he will probably have some very reasonable complaints about your behavior.
The strongest form of Franklin Veaux’s argument– the one he tends to make when he’s not being rather snarky, as he is in this post– is that it’s about whether the differences between partners are descriptive or prescriptive. A descriptive difference is “I’m in love with my primary and I’m not in love with my secondary and I don’t think I’m ever going to be in love with my secondary.” A prescriptive difference is “I have to be in love with my primary and I am absolutely forbidden from being in love with my secondary.”
Prescriptive differences tend to work poorly for four reasons. First, and most obviously, sometimes they are a product of the “if everyone carefully avoids things that make me feel insecure/possessive/like I’m going to be abandoned, then I will never feel insecure/possessive/like I’m going to be abandoned again!” mindset. Of course, if that mindset works for you, great! There’s no need to suffer unnecessary pain. If your partner not kissing other partners in front of you completely solves your insecurity issues, then that is a reasonable request to make (in a lot of situations, anyway). But for a lot of people if they say “you can’t kiss other people in front of me because then I feel insecure”, the only thing that’s going to happen is that they feel insecure about how pretty their metamour is instead, and then if they refuse to meet their metamours they toss and turn late at night imagining that every one of their metamours looks like Marion Cotillard and sucks cock like Stoya. The long-term solution here is to be less insecure, which is way harder, but also has the virtue of actually working.
Second, a lot of prescriptions about other people’s partners are attempts to control the uncontrollable. It is generally unwise to go about saying “my primary is not allowed to fall in love with other people or have other people fall in love with them!” I mean, this rule is completely compatible with monogamy, because in monogamous relationships one avoids the sort of situations that lead to falling in love. It’s even doable in some non-monogamous situations: for instance, if your primary sees sex workers or has casual one-time hookups. But if your primary is going on dates and having long-term relationships, you can’t be surprised when it turns out that they’ve fallen in love. This is the sort of thing that happens when you go on dates with people. Creating a prescriptive rule that they can’t just gives you a false sense of security and robs you of the ability to come to terms with the fact that your partner might fall in love with other people.
Similarly, if you are going about having unprotected sex with people, sometimes babies will happen. You can make a rule that your secondary partners have to have abortions, but you don’t actually have any ability to enforce this rule. You can manage your risk (through always using condoms, only having sex with people who use long-acting reversible contraception, not having PIV, etc.). But if you are in a situation in which there is a risk of pregnancy, saying “we have a rule that you can’t have a child!” gives you a false sense of security which (empirically) sometimes leads to people acting in wildly unethical ways when it is violated.
Third, most people want input into their relationships. Consider it from a monogamous perspective. A woman on a third date says to her prospective boyfriend, “I’ve made some plans about how my future relationship is going to work out. My husband is going to live with me in Portland, so that we can be near my family. We’re going to have three children. I’ve decided on a fair chore division: you get all the indoor chores and I get all the outdoor chores, except that I’ll do the laundry because I find folding clothes extremely meditative. You will take me out to dinner every Friday night because I believe a regular date night is very important. If you aren’t willing to accept all these conditions, dump me right now.”
This is not, needless to say, how third dates usually go.
Of course, nearly everyone has dealbreakers and visions about what their future life will be. But most people in happy relationships also negotiate their needs– they don’t just put it as a fait accompli. Maybe you care about date night, but going out bowling would be just as satisfactory. Maybe your partner also really loves folding the laundry, and so you can decide to fold clothes together. Maybe your partner is richer than you expected your partner to be, and he’s perfectly willing to pay to fly you up to visit your family as much as you like. Maybe two kids or four would also be fine.
But when a couple decides on the rules about secondary partners ahead of time and doesn’t let them renegotiate, that’s exactly what you’re doing! When you say as a flat rule “my secondary will not come on family vacations”, you’re not letting your secondary have any say in whether they love New York City and they love your kids and they want to take them around the museums for a couple days and, hey, it means you get some time with your primary too, so it’s a win for everyone!
Fourth, “secondary” is a really broad word that encompasses a wide variety of relationships, like I talked about earlier. “No family vacations!” might be a totally reasonable rule for someone you see once every few weeks, but if that relationship deepens, it might become unreasonable. If the rules are prescriptive rather than descriptive and– in particular– if they’re not open to renegotiation in changing circumstances, you can wind up sticking your relationships in a Procrustean bed, torturing them until they fit your preconceptions.