Episode 39: Multiple Escalators

Is it possible to find a “primary” relationship and build it with an already existing close secondary relationship?

That’s what’s on this week’s episode of Non-Monogamy Help.

Discussion Topic: If someone likes me a lot, I start to feel…

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Thank you to Chris Albery-Jones at albery-jones.com for the theme music and a big thanks for the podcast art to Dom Duong at domduong.com.

Podcast transcript


I’m married to my husband of 9 years, and we’ve been polyamorous for half that time. Up until recently, I also had a very serious boyfriend. When I first met him, my boyfriend was solo poly, but we loved each other very deeply, so I became the partner he prioritized most. However, because I already have a primary partner, there were certain needs I couldn’t meet for my boyfriend. So a year into our relationship, he decided he wanted his own primary partner and started building a primary partnership with someone else. Which I wanted for him and wholeheartedly supported. And their relationship grew very rapidly.

However, what followed was several months of the worst poly[am] drama I’ve ever experienced. My metamour could see how much my boyfriend loved me, and it made her feel very anxious. As long as our relationship didn’t grow, she was ok with things. But when my boyfriend wanted to introduce me to his family or travel with me, she’d feel threatened and get angry with him. She had a more hierarchical view of polyamory, and she felt certain things should only be reserved for primary partners. She would repeatedly ask him how he could have more than one escalator relationship. My boyfriend would stick up for us and wouldn’t allow her to limit us. Instead, he tried to help her work through her fears and insecurities. But it all caused a ton of conflict between him and his primary partner.

Throughout all of this, I did my best to be supportive of their relationship. I was patient while my boyfriend worked with his primary partner on her fears, and at times, I compromised what I wanted to help my metamour feel comfortable. I didn’t want to be the reason their relationship failed, but I also didn’t want to completely sacrifice my own needs and desires. I didn’t try to limit how my metamour’s relationship with my boyfriend could grow, and I wanted my relationship with him to also be able to grow.

Eventually, their fighting got so bad that my boyfriend broke up with her. But then he turned around and told me that he needed our relationship to be smaller. He said that everybody he knew started with a primary partner first and then added other partners. He said he was doing it in reverse. He said he wouldn’t be able to meet a potential primary partner if he continued being so deeply involved with me. He said our non-primary relationship had become too important, and he had struggled with how to prioritize between me and his former primary partner. So our relationship also ended.

This whole situation has left me wondering if it’s even possible to build a primary partnership over top of an existing, serious secondary relationship. Is this type of configuration inherently doomed to fail? Is it possible to build a secure primary partnership with someone new if you’re already in a loving, committed, non-primary relationship with someone else? And as the secondary partner in this situation, how much should I set aside my own needs so they don’t threaten my partner’s growing primary relationship?


So I think that the biggest piece of information in this situation is what your boyfriend said when he said he struggled with how to prioritize between you and his former primary partner. And that's the key, really. It isn't so much that it's impossible for someone to have a secondary but very important relationship with someone and then build a quote unquote, primary relationship that is supposed to mean more or whatever they wanted to find it as. It's that your partner had difficulty doing that.

And I think that it's sad because I think that had your boyfriend had a more supportive person that he was dating, it probably wouldn't have been so hard. I think that it's understandable for his metamour to be scared, especially if she's new to polyamory and doesn't really know. But, you know, they have to come to an agreement of what primary means. And I think that's the thing here there.

And I've spoken about this before. Hierarchies don't have to be inherently shitty. And I think that a lot of people rail against hierarchies because of situations like this where they’re so prescriptive, or people use them as a reason to control other people rather than them being kind of guidelines for how someone might go about things. I wouldn't be threatened by my partner meeting a metamorphose parents.

You know, I guess, well, I don't have parents for my partner to

me. So maybe I'm less threatened by that, because I don't have the equivalent. But, you know, the whole point of, of the relationship escalator— I felt that the point of that article was to point out that we make assumptions about how relationships should quote, unquote, grow. Not that these are the way that relationships grow. And that's the only way that relationships grow.

You know, I think that it's, it's sad that your metamour was so focused on these little things and thought that they should only be for her, and I don't know what your boyfriend did to negotiate that with her. I think that It sounds like he didn't feel like he could negotiate that with her. And he is assuming that there's a right way to do this and there isn’t. It's really sad. Like he doesn't have to break off a great relationship that he has in order to find another one and he is— I'm really… I'm really even caught off guard by his assumption that he needs a primary partner

If he's solo polyamorous— you know, solo polyamorous people, generally speaking, you know, don't feel the need to have a primary partner. If they have needs that, you know, if they have things that they want partners to do with them that their current partners can do, they can just find another partner, it doesn't necessarily have to be a quote unquote, primary partner. I don't know how familiar your boyfriend is with solo polyamory or just polyamory in general, but there's no configuration that you have to proceed in. And, you know, if if someone is threatened by the relationships that this person already has that's a problem that needs to be dealt with by him.

And I think that, you— I think that if you're a quote unquote secondary and someone makes that clear to you, I think that it's, you know, just like you made clear to him that you had a primary relationship. So there there were things that you wouldn't be able to do with him. And I think that's fine. But and I think that as a— you know, you have to kind of accept that if you're going to accept being in the quote unquote, secondary role. However, that doesn't mean that you know, just because someone is a quote unquote, secondary doesn't mean that their opinion doesn't matter, or that they shouldn't necessarily have to shelve what they think is an important in a relationship.

Just because, you know, their metamour whoever has the primary quote unquote role has decided that such and such as more important, you know. How people define what is important, or how relationships grow is really up to them. And that's something that you have to— It seemed like you had a good idea without with your boyfriend, but it seems like the metamour had a different idea of that and it's seems like rather than realizing that a lot of the clashes in the situation where because the metamour had very specific ideas that he didn't agree with— you know, he can have a primary relationship, it doesn't mean that you're not allowed to meet his parents, or that you're not allowed to travel with him.

That's, that's not what— a thing he has to agree to. So it sounds like rather than realising that this is this particular individual's way of doing it, he's decided that that is the way that everyone does it, and that he needs to break up with you in order to find the primary person. And that's just-- I mean, it… It sounds like you didn't say that that's what he did specifically. You said your relationship ended. You didn't say who ended it or why but I'm assuming that that was a big reason why your relationship ended. It is possible to build a primary partnership over an existing serious secondary relationship that the— you know, it's like sort of saying is up possible to have a boyfriend if you have a best


It's possible to have multiple strong, serious relationships in your life. It doesn't even have to be romantic partnerships. You know, now there are only 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week, it's not always possible for you to spend the same time. You know, it might be that when he does find someone he considers a primary. And they agree with what that means. It may be that he spends less time with you, but I don't think that means that your relationship is smaller. Like, I really don't like the idea that spending less time together or, you know, I mean, maybe if he doesn't want to— if you're not bothered, like if I had a partner who was like, Oh, you're a secondary, so you can't meet my parents. I wouldn't care I'd be thrilled actually. To not have to… Meeting the parents is a scary thing for me. So I wouldn't mind that sacrifice, but I know it's just something that you have to talk out and agree on.

What does it mean? Because you can easily say primary and secondary in all these kind of catch all terms, but people have different ideas as to what primary means. You know, for monogamous people or primary someone that's the only person that they sleep with, you know, but they still have friendships, they still have other relationships in their life that mean a lot to them and maybe very serious to them. And, you know, it's kind of bothersome if someone feels threatened by their partner having a serious relationship with someone else.

Yeah, that's, it just sounds like they disagreed on what primary means. Unfortunately, he took that to mean that that was how all those experiences where maybe he had some other experiences with people like that, and he just, you know, felt like he had to disallow you from doing certain things. But I don't think that you should sacrifice you know, even if you are quote unquote, secondary, that doesn't mean that you— you know, what is your idea of a relationship? What do you need in a relationship?

And regardless of whether you're secondary or not That shouldn't have to mean that you are discarded or that your needs aren't important. So you just have to figure out what what that is and what's important to you. And I think it sounds like you do have a good idea about that, because you communicated very clearly to your boyfriend that you know, you have this primary partner, that means that there are certain needs that you can't meet. And I think that maybe, you know, he didn't have a very good idea of that.

Maybe he has a better idea of that now. And it's really unfortunate, but yeah, it is, it is possible to build a secure primary partnership with someone new even if you're already in a committed loving relationship with someone else. And I just think that you should never set aside your own needs, you know. There there are things that you— like set aside— you can compromise on preferences. You can compromise on some things, but you need to figure out what what is the bare minimum that you need? And what are the things that you can compromise on, you know/

Maybe meeting the parents is something you can compromise on because you're like— if you're like me, and you're like, that's a stressful thing. And to me meeting, you know, because I don't have any parents for my partners to meet, it doesn't mean that not meeting my parents means I don't care about them. But it obviously has, you know, for some people that has a lot of meaning. So maybe for you, it doesn't matter that much, because you've already met, I'm assuming you've already met your husband's parents, maybe you already have that in your life, and you could, you know, you don't need it for the second part.

So just figure out things that you actually really need, and things that are just, you know, things that you can do without and

I think it is quite difficult for him. You know, I— it is quite hard if he'd never had that kind of setup before to try and negotiate that. And I think ultimately, you know, he didn't know how to prioritise and that ended up causing him a lot of stress. And so he doesn't reasonably want to face that dilemma again, you know, it might— even if it sounds kind of crappy that he's he's been really affected by this unfortunate situation.

You know, I am sad that he had that experience because I do think if he had a better experience, he would have been able to prioritise things a lot better. But I think if he if he genuinely feels like it's gonna be hard for him, you know, he might come back to you when he has a primary partnership and feels a little bit more solid in  what it is that he wants and what it is that he can give you. But yeah, it is possible.

And I don't think that you— you-- unless you are going out of your way to stop your partner from meeting or talking to other people— and even if you were doing that, it is ultimately your partner that needs to come back to you and say “Nah”. You asserting your own needs doesn't threaten your partner's growing primary relationship. You didn't threaten that relationship. You weren't responsible for that relationship. That's your— that's your partner's relationship, that he is responsible for managing and dealing with on his own. Like, maybe with your help and encouragement. But ultimately, it's his responsibility to manage you didn't threaten that relationship.

That was a situation that had a lot to do with clashing ideas of what primary means. So please don't feel like in the future that you somehow having needs and existing is a threat to somebody else because it shouldn't be. It really shouldn't be if he's able to manage that situation, and maybe he's not able to manage it. And that's why he unfortunately ended it with you. Yeah.

To sum up, yes, it is completely possible. This is a really sad, unfortunate situation. Please don't blame yourself for it. It sounds like he just couldn't prioritise, just couldn't manage. And, you know, it's really unfortunate for him, it's really unfortunate for you, but it's not something that you caused by having needs in the future, try to figure out what it is you need from a secondary and what it is that you can do without and negotiate that, you know, from the beginning of your relationship and don't kick yourself too hard for any of this because it's really it's not your fault.

I hope this helps. Good luck.

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