Advice – Becoming a secondary partner.

“My polyamorous partner of around a year just told me that she was committing to a primary – and despite wanting to continue seeing m – would need to scale down the relationship.

To give you some background, I have had previous experiences of being with people in open relationships before I met my partner. She was my first true introduction to polyamory while she has been polyamorous for two to three years. We both currently have multiple partners and consider ourselves more non-monogamous rather than polyamorous. We also have a BDSM component of our relationship, which adds another wrinkle to this situation. While I have never assumed that I was ever her “favorite”, it still feels really odd to be part of a ranking. And I am finding it difficult to work it out from an emotional standpoint.”

Anonymous on /r/polyamory.

Photo by Ada Okwuosah on

Dear Anonymous,

I am really sorry to hear that you are experiencing a de-escalation in your relationship. Based on what you’ve shared, this will be a major disruption to not just the relationship you had but your own personal exploration with non-monogamy as well.

Each person’s perspective on how each “hierarchy” is defined is very different. For many, secondary partner could mean a very limited engagement (i.e. one day a week) with prescriptive hierarchies (i.e. I will not have overnights with my secondary partners, veto rights). For some, secondary partner could imply more subtle differences like limiting the overall trajectory of the relationship (i.e. we will date but with no plans to develop it any further) or with subjective emotional investment (i.e. I will not fall in love with my secondary partners). Because what each person’s definitions of primary partner and secondary partner is very different, it is important for you to communicate with your partner about what this means for you specifically.

It also sounds like you and your partner have a bit of a disconnect in the type of non-monogamy you two are practicing. You say that you consider yourselves non-monogamous rather than polyamorous. But based on what you’ve shared, it’s apparent that your partner practices hierarchical polyamory. There is a very sizable gap between plain non-monogamy and hierarchical polyamory. And the main difference is in permissible feelings across different connections.

Photo by Pixabay on

So what does all of this mean for you?

I wrote a previous column about the PLEASE method for de-escalation and another about an end of a polyamorous arrangement. In the latter column, I took the perspective from a perspective of someone similar to your partner and advised that there is a very real possibility that there is always a real possibility of an end to that connection if the person being de-escalated on decides that adjustment in expectation is not worth the emotional labor. And you do. You can decide to end this relationship in the face of a de-escalation. You are entitled to the type of relationship you want to have. And you absolutely do not have to consent to be in relationships with people who do not have the same level of expectation for you. And you do not have to be with people who’ll rank where you belong in their hierarchy of partners.

Ending the relationship is only one of your options, so let’s flesh out what other options you have.

Accepting the de-escalation seems like the most obvious alternative. This is the best way for you to stay connected with this partner. For whatever reason, she decided that she could not have the primary partner level of commitment with you. So accepting that the previous phase of your connection has ended and moving on to the next phase of your connection could be an answer. If you do decide to go down this route, fleshing out what the exact expectations are with your secondary partner in regard to your relationship would be necessary.

Another viable option is to take a break and regroup when you can think more logically about what this connection means to you. This does not mean just flat out ending your connection. It also doesn’t mean exchanging long text messages or grabbing coffee in a week. Take the time to grieve the end of what you thought was a primary partnership and think about if this connection still has enough in the tank to make secondary partnership work. Like the alternative I just outlined, it is imperative that you figure out what will change in this new transition before you commit to a break. For whatever reason if you decide you want the break to be permanent, text her and let her know you are moving on.

Photo by Valeria Boltneva on

I will also touch on the BDSM aspect of your connection.

You didn’t say what type of BDSM connection you specifically had. But there is a special level of intimacy associated with the power exchange fetish that will add another level of challenge to this transition. If you or your partner are participating in impact plays, that could be subject to change depending on what she agrees to with her primary partner. If you or your partner has collared each other, this would be a great opportunity to revisit this power exchange privilege as well.

Keep in mind that the most rewarding type of power exchange dynamics are the ones that grow and change with the participants. We the non-mono folks tend to subject ourselves to constant growth and change through numerous, deep intimate connections. So don’t think of this particular relationship as the end-all-be-all. Instead fight for the type of person you want to be tomorrow – for the sake of your future partners.

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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