The Challenges of Being a Secondary

In my last blog post I wrote about the benefits of dating married people. Namely that dating isn’t always about finding someone to marry, but finding joy in relationships regardless of their potential for long-term commitment. Being a secondary also means that the relationship can focus on pleasure, and not on parenting, finances, housekeeping, and other mundane obligations that married couples have to tend to. Also, you can have a wonderful relationship with someone you would not want to live with or be married to. Polyamory enables us to have rewarding relationships that would not be allowed under conventional circumstances.

While I have enjoyed relationships in which I was a secondary, I also struggled with feelings that such a position engendered. The secondary does not have the luxury of a marriage bond to help them feel secure in a relationship. If things do not work out, it is more likely that the married partner would break up with the secondary rather than with the spouse. The married couple is also a unit approved of by society, so their relationship is supported by their family and friends while relationships with secondaries have to be kept secret or explained to friends and family members.

I am not discussing swinging, monogamish relationships, or other arrangements where the secondary is a diversion or casual encounter, and the secondary partner is ok with that. I am talking about situations where a secondary is nearly a primary partner, or would like to be if circumstances allowed. In these cases the term “secondary” is problematic, as it implies lesser status. People who do not want to give their partner inferior status sometimes use the term co-primary. But co-primary implies equality in all things, which is not the case if two partners are married and the other is not, or if two partners live together and the other does not, or if two partners share children and the other does not.  But on a basic level, a secondary is someone who enters a relationship with the mutual partner after the primary. So from now on, I am going to call this person, the second, or #2.

The married (or otherwise primary) couple has many privileges granted to them by society as well as reinforced internally which are not shared by seconds. Disadvantages /inequalities include


  1. Because I don’t live with my partner, I don’t get to spend as much time with him as does his spouse. I am not able to enjoy everyday life with my partner, such as going grocery shopping, cooking dinner together, or waking up together every morning.
  2. While I may be able to devote all my available relational energy to my partner, my partner must devote a portion of his relational energy to his spouse. I am not able to see my partner or talk to him anytime I want because his availability is constrained by obligations to his spouse.
  3. If my partner comes back from a long trip, or has important news to share, his spouse and children will be the first to hear it.
  4. If my partner decides to have another lover, I will have to sacrifice my time with him, and not his spouse.


  1. Feeling that the needs of my partner’s spouse come before my needs. For example, if my partner’s spouse has a bad day, he can put our plans on hold to comfort her. If I have a bad day, his obligations to his family will not be put on hold for me. If I want to talk to my partner while he is spending time with his family, our conversation will be put on hold until his family decides that they no longer need him.
  2. Not feeling as needed by my partner as I need him. While my partner is my sole source of fun, companionship, and emotional support, he already has others who fill those needs for him. This creates an imbalance where a withdrawal of attention from my partner has a greater impact on me than a withdrawal of attention from me has on my partner.
  3. My partner can easily end our relationship, whereas he cannot easily end his relationship with his spouse.
  4. If my relationship with my partner no longer pleases his spouse, she has the ability to make it more difficult for us to continue our relationship.
  5. While I am alone when I am not with my partner, my partner is not alone without me.
  6. No matter how much I love my partner and invest in our relationship, I can never have the security, commitment and interdependence that he has with his spouse.
  7. My partner and his spouse share history, property, and children that strengthen their bond in ways that are not available to my relationship with him.


  1. My partner is able to be public about his relationship with his spouse. He can kiss her in public and post pictures of himself with his spouse on Facebook. My partner can refer to his spouse as “my wife,” whereas he refers to me as “my friend” when we are with others who do not know our relationship.
  2. My partner’s spouse is treated with importance and consideration by his friends and family. I am treated with less consideration because I am not even a potential spouse.
  3. When it comes to major holidays, birthdays, or vacations, my partner’s spouse and family has priority.


  1. In the event of an emergency, my partner’s spouse will be the one who is contacted and given access to my partner, not me.
  2. If my partner dies, his spouse will be the one who receives money, casseroles, bouquets, hugs, and sympathy cards. No one will know or care about my loss, even if I am equally devastated.

For some seconds, this extensive list is by no means exhaustive. For individuals who cohabit with both of their partners, the disparities may be much less. For the uninitiated it may feel like why would anyone want to be a second?

But for those who are a second to a married couple, or contemplating entering into such a relationship, what are ways to deal with these disparities, or even turn them into opportunities for spiritual growth?


Photo: The Duchess, Director Saul Dibb





8 thoughts on “The Challenges of Being a Secondary

  1. “My partner and his spouse share history, property, and children that strengthen their bond in ways that are not available to my relationship with him.” I would replace “strengthen their bond” to “bind them.” It’s more like imprisonment than the positive spin you put on it there. Those things cut off options and limit individual freedom.


  2. I am trying to follow this story from the beginning (after finding a post through Kimchi Cuddles), but I am confused here: aren’t you also married, and therefore you are each other’s “seconds”?

    Certain phrases here—”sole source,” “I am alone when not with my partner,” and “all my relational energy”—sound like this is written from a solo-poly perspective. Or is this post about past relationships before you met your husband?


    1. Hi Tara, this article is about the challenges of being a secondary, so it assumes that there is not a primary partner present. It is not about my relationship, per say.


  3. I’m a single secondary to a partnered partner who is, if not legally married, de facto, as they live together, they’re interdependent financially, emotionally, socially etc. This is my first foray into the strange and mysterious world of polyamory and while traditional, sexually monogamous relationships never interested me, I’m surprised by how much I feel I’m missing as a result of much of what you describe in this blog post. It fits exactly with my experience, and while it outlines the specific situations that create the emotions I’m coping with, it doesn’t really address what those emotions are, how painful and damaging they can be, nor how to deal with them constructively. I love this person more than anyone I’ve ever loved before and the feelings engendered by this clearly “second rate” status cut deep. It’s like a constant stream of little or big rejections, little daggers stabbing into my heart. I want to be with my partner on holidays even though holidays themselves aren’t that important but I don’t even have the option. I would like to wake up with my partner more than a couple days a month. I would like to have the privilege primaries share. I would like to feel that I am important to someone and that I come first.

    I often feel it’s not sustainable for me, my needs aren’t important and so aren’t being met; ultimately, I don’t believe secondary status is an emotionally healthy role. It is a form of self deprecation, self hate and I often feel ending the relationship is the only way out. From my perspective, it’s kind of a lose/lose proposition: stay in the relationship and live with constant pain, insecurity and sadness of rejection or leave and end the most joyous connection I’ve had to date. It would be great if I found another, my own primary to fill the void, but I’m an introvert and don’t connect with many people, so that’s an unlikely outcome but one that I’m open to. It’s a quandary for sure, one that I haven’t figured out


    1. Hello, I am in the same situation and struggle with the same questions. 6 years now, and no, the questions are still there. I have a very active social life, but it doesn’t replace the everyday things one shares with a partner. I was previously married, so I know what I am missing in terms of a live in partner. awesome struggle to address these, he is actually great at listening and doing what he can, but ultimately, it’s still an issue. Finding positive role models in this situation.


  4. Wow this is really opening up my ideas about relationships. And although i have never been in a poly relationship i can understand the emotional strain it must have on the secondaries. I agree with Gary that it is not a healthy state to be in (spiritually (with these given circumstances)) and can see the benefits mainly and maybe only if every poly relationship start with their own primary first and having all secondaries who also have their own primary’s.

    Maybe im wrong to judge as im looking from outside but can see the benefits of having more opportunity for self growth and needs fulfilled from a poly relationship. But not if its bringing more pain that one can bare. But it does beg the question of why the pain is there in the first place. Meaning what is the deeper cause???

    Thanks so much for sharing!!


  5. Gary described it perfectly, like a million little daggers nibbling away then POW a big one then nibble, nibble, nibble again.
    My situation is I have been in a secondary partnership for the past 4 years with my best friends (was years ago) wife who have been together since they were 16 y/o and the have 5 young children . She discovered he was seeing a family friend quite a few years ago and has since fallen out of love with him to a point of not being able to stand him but is a devoted mum who would do anything to protect the children but says she needs some time to get out of the relationship. She assures me that she loves me but as described it can feel lacking even though it may not be the case. I’m happy to wait 2 or 3 years but concerned that she would stay in the relationship and I would have just wasted my time. What I ask myself often is-
    A) Is there a chance she is with me because of the previous fling her husband had and she has done this in spite (as she really loved him prior but he has been physical and abusive at times)?
    B) If she would leave in 2-3 years, is it common not to leave because she hasn’t left him already by now?

    I would love to hear some feedback on the situation


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