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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- If my partner decides to have another lover, I will have to sacrifice my time with him, and not his spouse.
- 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.
- 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.
- My partner can easily end our relationship, whereas he cannot easily end his relationship with his spouse.
- 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.
- While I am alone when I am not with my partner, my partner is not alone without me.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- When it comes to major holidays, birthdays, or vacations, my partner’s spouse and family has priority.
- 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.
- 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
16 thoughts on “The Challenges of Being a Secondary”
“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.
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?
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.
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
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.
I just read this comment and it resonated with me, with my current status as a single woman with a partner that is married. Though when we started our relationship our intention was to have a non hierarchical relationship, where I would have the same space and time as his wife, the experience has turned out to be much more complicated and inherently hierarchical. I wanted to ask you, since you commented nearly two years ago, what happened to that relationship? Are you still together with this partner? Did you end it? I am hurting every day by this situation and it’s kind of a relief to know other people have been through the same. But I am curious as to what happened to you.
Whatever happened, I hope it was for the best. xoxo
Your experience sounds similar to mine – started with good intentions that we all be equal, but the nature of their relationship as it had evolved over the years, the connection and commitment they had left no space for a third of any significance. My presence proved threatening to my partner’s spouse as well, brought up issues within their relationship which further complicated matters, fostered resentment and mistrust, and so after two years of trying to adjust my mindset, looking for creative workarounds and trying to accept the reality of the situation and work within it, I realized my self esteem suffered too much, the others were resistant to any concept that would upset the status quo leaving no workable solution for me and l ended it. It wasn’t easy. I haven’t attached emotionally like that to anyone before. It hurt like losing a limb. I still feel love, but in the end, I needed to take care of myself. I believe poly relationships can work if there is equity like when three or more come into the relationship at once, or secondaries have primary relationships in addition to, or the relationships are casual, less emotionally involved. Relationships are complex; the additional of more people adds layers of complexity which can be good for some, overwhelming for others.
Hi Gary, this was my experience too. I’m glad you were able to take care of yourself. For me the hardest part has been realizing that someone who loves me could treat me so poorly, and justify behavior that was completely unjustifiable. I wanted to give love and have empathy, but it was a constant source of suffering that it was never reciprocated.
Ditto and ditto. It’s difficult not to feel angry for having been misled, manipulated and made to feel “less than” under the guise of acceptance and love, but as with any life experience, I try not to dwell on that and look instead to lessons learned: I expanded my own boundaries and discovered new limits that I wouldn’t have otherwise known. I try to be charitable and believe my partner’s deception and mistreatment wasn’t intentional or malevolent, that my partner was unaware of the way their relationship had become so inflexible over the years, and still believed it to be as it was in the beginning when they were young and free, as it was presented when we meet. If anything, I hope maybe the experienced helped them see their relationship more honestly as it exists so they can more accurately communicate the nature of it to future partners.
This post is several years old but I’m grateful for it. It validates the feelings I’ve been having as a secondary.
I came into a long established marriage looking for some companionship for awhile, nothing serious. But right away we knew it was going to be more than casual. I tried to bolt knowing that I would always want more but he asked if I would stay and see how it went. I did. Two years in now and as you described your own feelings, I deeply love this man and would like nothing better than to be with him for the long run, but the relationship has a box and is not allowed to get bigger than the box. It is killing us.
I’m wrestling with staying or going right now and how hard to fight for it. Someone said, a million little cuts every day. I would never recommend this to anyone, even those with a primary partner. Relationships need to be allowed to be what they want. They can’t have rules and limits on them or else everyone suffers.
I wish I had someone to talk to who has been in my shoes.
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!!
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
I feel for you. How has your situation worked out?
Interesting piece, and a little sad. Especially the part about the partner being the sole source of fun and support. I think generally it is easier for seconds who either have other partners, or an excellent friendship group and support network. For those that do genuinely cherish and enjoy a connection with one special person, it is extra tough.
Even with an excellent friendship group and support network, it is very hard. People aren’t interchangeable and sometimes you just need the loving arms of your partner and they aren’t there.
You aren’t able to build a life with them in a meaningful way if ultimately someone else holds the power of your ability to do whatever that looks like over you. I’m not against poly, I’ve tried it clearly and the principles are good, but human beings are fragile, sensitive, often selfish creatures and when threatened in any way will protect what they believe to be theirs.
We have a flawed idea that people can belong to us, that we somehow own their time, emotions, privileges and in order to feel safe, people will often give those things up to another creating a power imbalance. It is an inherent problem with marriage and one of the reasons it breaks down.