Advice – What are my rights as a secondary partner?

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/u/Wolfedward7780 writes on /r/polyamory…

“I’[M28] entering a poly relationship with my g[F26]. We dated for a year and a half recently. She was very depressed towards the end of our relationship. We decided to break up and give each other space to heal as we were bringing each other down. However I realized how much I loved her and should have stayed by her side to help her.

After a few months we reconnected. We hung out as friends. Then started sort of seeing one another again without any sort of label. Sort of a FWB situation. Then she came out to me and told me she is Poly.

She is currently seeing her best friend/ex boyfriend of 8 year as her primary and asked if I would be her secondary. I wont lie it hurt at first hearing I would be her secondary. She has told me I could become a 2nd primary however, after more time goes by and we are together longer.

I’m just looking for anything to help me learn more about being a secondary. How to help understand my initial feelings of being the secondary. What my role is or what rights I guess I still have. Anything helps. I love her with all my heart and she says she loves me as well and wants me in her life. I want to try to make this work.”

TL;DR – Re-entered into an ex’s life as a secondary. How am I supposed to feel?

Dear Wolf Edward 7780,

I am honestly a little confused about the timing of it all. For the sake of clarity, I am going to advise as if your girlfriend did serial monogamy. I am assuming that she got together with her ex of eight years during the months in between the end of your relationship and its re-beginning. I am also going to assume that she decided that she wanted to be in a polyamorous relationship with her partner before you got in contact with her. If she only decided she was polyamorous after she hooked up with you, that would fall under unethical non-monogamy, or cheating. Anything short of her ethically approaching her FWB connection with you would constitute a violation of any traditionally monogamous agreements.

Different people love differently. One person’s hierarchical polyamorous relationship might look completely different from another person’s set of hierarchies. One person’s secondary partner commitment could look a lot like another person’s primary partner commitment. So the first thing you should do is to clarify with your girlfriend what does it mean to be her secondary partner. Clearly, she is leaving the door open for you to become a co-primary should there be the history to support that designation. But for the meantime, that is the label she is comfortable working with.

It will be incredibly important for you to flesh out what are the differences between how she personally sees that distinction between the primary partner and the secondary partner. What is her expectation considering your involvement in her in her life going forward? What kind of explicit/prescriptive hierarchies and privileges does her primary partner have over you? Is there a specific timeline in which you can revisit the current primary/secondary partnership designation?

Then decide for yourself whether this is suitable for you. I am assuming based on the original post title that you are choosing to be exclusive/monogamous to your girlfriend. But clearly, there will be a threshold that you cannot cross while being designated as a secondary partner and not dating anyone else. Are you okay with that glass ceiling of your relationship? Or are you merely accepting the current status as an abandonment avoidance strategy not to lose her? This is a pretty big price of admission for anyone to pay. Most people who settle into secondary partnerships usually have a distinct primary partnerships of their own. Or they are folks who practice solo polyamory by maintaining a group of secondary partnerships where each of them collectively fulfill all of their needs.

Photo by Matthew T Rader on

I want to backtrack and talk more about your basic rights as a secondary partner.

As a secondary, you are still a person who deserves the love they can get. But we often settle for the love we think we deserve. In any other circumstance, I would have advised you to set up proper boundaries to make sure you are well warded against the rocky waves that are the first poly steps. I think you’re already way too invested in this relationship to work out, no matter the hierarchies. This might not be the advice you want to hear at this moment, but I would strongly recommend that you emotionally buffer yourself with an enriching life and a support network outside of this relationship so that you don’t ask for primary partner expectation from your one partner.

You have an entire history with this person. And you are going to quickly realize that the version of her that you originally fell in love with is not really there anymore. Back then, you were operating under the assumption that you two were monogamous and by default primary partners to each other. That is not how your relationship works now. So you are going to have to re-invent yourselves in this current transition to figure out how you can fit into each other’s lives without becoming too unhappy.

And sometimes, making things work might look a lot like breaking things down so that you can reuse what you’ve chipped off in a more effective way.

A really bad movie named Definitely, Maybe (2008) once taught me that there isn’t the One; instead, there is the When. We are who we are at any given moments of time. And there are perfect circumstances where sometimes we can be more than what we have been. Right now might not be the best of times for you and your girlfriend to be each other’s partners. So there isn’t anything wrong with just letting this space afloat and exist in each other’s world in this limited sense, hoping for a better tomorrow.

Good luck!

Tea Time with Tomato is an informative relationship and sex advice column for both monogamous and polyamorous folks. By submitting your post, you agree to let me use your story in part or in full. You also agree to let me edit or elaborate for clarity.

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