Heart farts – part 2/6: What is a secondary relationship?

The poly community claims that there are two different basic types of romantic relationships:

  • The individuals involved grant one another equal rights: They are on equal footing concerning life decisions, like how they conduct their sex life, and where and how they live.

Parallel to this common and working concept, the poly community has invented a new type of romantic relationship:

  • The individuals involved perceive their connection as of a romantic kind, however, they do not grant one another equal rights concerning life decisions. They only need to tell each other about relationship-affecting decisions, and rely on their partner dealing with any consequences on their own.

For a person who does not want to engage in any primary relationship, but only in one or more secondary relationship(s), the poly community has coined the term solo-poly.

If a person, however, is in or aims to have relationships of both types at the same time, this lifestyle has been termed hierarchical polyamory, and they call their relationships by different names according to their type.

  • A romantic relationship with equal rights is called primary, or core relationship, and in the case of a joint household, nesting partner.
  • A romantic partner to which the same individual grants fewer rights than to their primary partner is called a secondary relationship or satellite.

The behaviour in a secondary relationship can differ by either some or all of the following points from that of a primary relationship:

  • At family visits or celebrations, company parties or public events, only the primary relationship is visible as a couple. The secondary relationship is either not invited at all, or is expected to hold back romantic actions, since only selected individuals or even nobody at all is to see the real state. A frequent lie is that the secondary relationship is introduced as a family member or as a good friend of their romantic partner.
  • The primary couple refers to themselves as “the couple” or “our relationship”. The individuals of that couple get angry if the secondary discloses their own romantic relationship in this way. As a consequence, the secondary stands as an individual besides a unit of two people who form the primary relationship. If there is a conflict about the secondary’s needs or boundaries, these rules make it easier for the individuals of the primary relationship to join ranks against the secondary person.
  • The primary couple decides on their own when the secondary relationship may spend time with their romantic partner, and what they may or may not do during their dates. The secondary relationship is presented with fixed time slots and what-to-do rules, and is given only the choice to take it or leave it.
  • The primary couple spends time with each other naturally, and without checking with anyone else while the secondary relationship must request each couple time beforehand. Sometimes they may not get any couple time, and may only see their romantic partner together with the primary partner. One version of this is when the primary partners are living together as nesting partners, and access their home with their keys, whereas the secondary does not get their own key. This makes them a perpetual guest at their romantic partner’s place since they have to ask every time before they can come over, while they watch their metamour just come and go as they please.
  • While the primary couple is making plans for the future, the secondary relationship neither has a say in these decisions, nor are they in a place to ever get it. The secondary partner has to adapt to their romantic partner’s lifestyle changes such as a move, a change of working place or hours, or child rearing plans without discussion.
  • If the secondary does not want to abide by the rules set out by the primary couple, they just don’t get any time with their romantic partner, regardless of their current needs.

A dominant claim of the poly community is that forming a secondary relationship is, as opposed to a primary relationship, a good choice for individuals who value being independent in their lifestyle choices since they don’t have to consider the needs and wishes of their partner before making a decision, and if in conflict, are able to give priority to their own wishes without discussion.

As an ex-poly, I disagree strongly. Now and then, some isolated voices within the poly community question this dogma, too. My argument is explained best in the following image:

Eternity bed with one big and one smaller mattress on top, both tiers decorated with cushions. A text below reads: “Poly bed: Secondaries sleep on the bottom row.”


It describes a realistic scenario in a polycule which consists of at least one primary and one secondary relationship, which is shown below.

A V-polycule with person B in its center, who is in a primary relationship with person A (on the left-hand side), and in a secondary relationship with person C (on the right-hand side)

Person A and person B, who are the primary relationship to each other, are cuddling on the top bed. In the most frequent case they are the chronologically oldest couple of the polycule, which I refer to as the original couple. Person C, as a secondary relationship, has to sleep alone or wait until the primary couple has finished, before it is their turn. The actual physical distance doesn’t make a difference: Whether the primary and secondary relationship(s) are segregated by a bed or by city does not change the given scenario and its outcome.

I can imagine that such a situation does not necessarily contribute to the well-being of all individuals involved: Person A and person B, the primary couple, would like to spend couple time with each other, undisturbed; however, they are at least subconsciously distracted by the unresolved situation with another person anxiously waiting for them to finish. Meanwhile, person C, the secondary relationship, who would also like to talk, enjoy sex or share affectionate attention with person B, has to think about the needs and wishes of the primary partner, person A, before they can get their own needs met.

These issues are likely to be the source of several typical conflicts within a polycule:

  • Between person A and person B, the primary relationship:
    Person B wants to spend more time with person C, their secondary, than person A finds acceptable.
  • Between person B and person C, the secondary relationship:
    If person C has needs, the fulfilment of which would overstep agreements between the individuals of the primary couple, and thus would call for an overhaul of the whole hierarchical structure in place.
  • And, at the worst, between the metamours person A and person C:
    Person A, the primary relationship, and person C, the secondary relationship, easily end up in sub- or half-conscious power games, by using resources from person B, their mutual partner, as emotional blackmail against each other. This often includes the gaining or withdrawal of couple time, or (alleged) comments by person B. In most cases, person B lets the ongoing power game run its course, or even plays an active part, as long as they get an advantage out of it.

The potential for such conflicts accumulates over time and discharges upon occasion in heated arguments, fights or actions which widely overstep the boundaries of at least one member of the polycule. If the individuals involved “feel committed to the idea of being poly”, they will, after a bundle of these clashes have occurred, try to deal with them by so-called processing. This means that all individuals involved sit together, and everyone addresses their needs and wishes to every other individual. The aim is to settle misunderstandings, find new behaviour strategies and amend agreements, in order to arrive at a satisfying solution for all individuals involved.

The communication method of processing is, in principle, very useful and healthy, and has found its way into the poly ideology probably by accident. If correctly applied (!), it is a recommendable conflict solving strategy for romantic relationships of any kind, with two or more members. It revolves, however, around one important philosophy: Every individual must aim for the best solution for all individuals involved (and not for their personal advantage at any cost!). In other words, if one person tries to “win”, the method does not work because all participants (including the one who started it) “lose” – they are depleted of emotional resources, trust, and intimacy.

Unfortunately, many people are not able to distinguish between solution-oriented communication and subconscious or deliberate power games of certain individuals or groups, because they have never learned to spot the differences. As a consequence, most people in the poly community are not able to use processing as intended, just like most people in the heteronormative mainstream.

Instead, this handicap results in “processing in circles”: Since the individuals involved hardly ever think and communicate in a solution-oriented manner, in the end, they agree only on minor changes, but are not able to recognise or acknowledge the source of the conflict(s) at hand. In other words, they cut diseased leaves from the plant, but do not remove the diseased part of its root. This incomplete procedure will sooner or later give rise to similar conflicts which, again, spur arguments, fights or transgressing actions.

This creates a situation which drains energy from every individual involved, much more than it contributes. A conflict constantly hovering over the polycule, as well as more and more arguments and processing rounds that don’t seem to fix issues (or at least get easier over time) exhaust the resources of all individuals involved – which is a distinguishing feature of an unstable intermediate condition on the Intimacy Scale.

Through my personal history with my polyamorous triad, I was able to gain further insights:

When I met Maitri and Nemo, I was not single as I had been in a (poorly defined) secondary relationship with a boyfriend for a few months.

Our romantic connection had started as a typical relationship, but went sour a few weeks in, due to persisting conflicts rooted in his unfair behaviour. For example, while he had agreed to an open relationship and greatly enjoyed going on dates and having sex with other women (with the only restriction of telling me soon after), he made a scene every time I showed interest in another man. This is a common power game in the poly community called OPP (One Penis Policy). Being familiar with the game from the mainstream, I pursued my sexual interests every time, but initiated multiple talks to find a good compromise between my boundaries and his- to which he agreed, only to continue as before. After three months, I had had enough, sat down with him and made him secondary, thereby explicitly stating (for him and in the community) that he wouldn’t have a say in my future sexual or romantic interests.

Then I got together with Maitri and with Nemo. In the beginning, we still believed in the idea of a secondary relationship (as something closer than friendship but less close than a committed romantic relationship). However, I did not feel comfortable going back to my apartment to sleep alone while Maitri and Nemo were living in a shared household, slept in the same bed, and had access to immediate couple time. Likewise, none of us wanted to exclude the other or throw them out of bed while they wanted to share affectionate attention, enjoy sex, or cuddle with their romantic partner(s) – which would have been a logical conclusion of me being secondary in one form or another.

After two months, Maitri, Nemo and I revisited the topic, and explicitly threw the idea of a secondary relationship overboard. Then, we officially agreed on equal rights and identical agreements for all individuals involved. At this point, I acknowledged the unethical consequences of a secondary relationship in all directions, and finally broke up with my own secondary.

In hindsight, I am glad that I had this energy-draining connection in my polycule, since, with a nice boyfriend at my side, I would not have been so starkly confronted with the necessity to uncover the negative dynamics inherent to any secondary relationship. After three months, I moved in with Maitri and Nemo, and we agreed not to engage in any new romantic entanglements (i.e. to be romantically closed), making us the polyamorous triad we are today.

From these observations and my own experiences I conclude that engaging in a secondary relationship, and therefore hierarchical polyamory as such – regardless if solo-poly or in a network of primary and secondary relationships – does not constitute an ethical and healthy model of romantic relationships.