Episode 120: Forced Primary

You’ve been happy as a secondary but slowly your partner is requesting more and more time after a recent breakup.

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

Discussion Topic: What type of polyamorous, non-monogamous and/or open relationship interests you and why?

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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 28 (male) and my girlfriend 29 (female) have been in a polyamorous relationship for a year and a half and I’ve recently begun to feel overwhelmed by the pressure of being her only romantic partner and one of her primary sources of emotional support. 

For context I am autistic with thought disorder in addition to ADHD, and generalised anxiety, so I really struggle with empathy and communication as a result. 

At the beginning of our relationship she had a long-term domestic partner of about 7 years, and I was very comfortable being the secondary partner in the dynamic. Our relationship started out being casually sexual without any romantic feelings. After a few months we fell in love and elevated our relationship to something more serious, and not long after she broke up with her domestic partner and he moved out. Suddenly I was the primary partner. 

For the majority of our relationship since then I had no issues being her primary. We had many long conversations about my specific needs regarding communication and how I needed her to be very open about her feelings because of my disability, and I’ve been under the assumption that she was being honest and open about everything she needed. 

Unfortunately physical and emotional intimacy can be very taxing on me, so having the time apart is critical for me to reset and recharge. We live separately and we see each other two or three days a week when I don't have my daughter with me. The consistency of this situation is perfect for me so I’m not overwhelmed by having another person in my space for extended periods that I’m devoting my time and energy to.  She often expresses how much she wishes we could spend more time together, and often talks of us living together in the future. 

She is actively dating on her own and has a regular sexual partner, but is struggling to find anyone consistent enough for her to build any kind of romantic interest in. Recently she's started to express how she's been wanting more from me physically and emotionally for awhile, but never talked to me about these feelings until an unrelated argument caused the whole pot of emotions to boil over.

I thought we had a great relationship with honest and open communication with no judgment, but now I'm feeling really unsure knowing she's been holding in these feelings for so long. I'm worried that her needs and emotions are more than I can handle, especially if she is not communicating with me in the ways that will help me best understand and accommodate her. 

Any advice or insight would be immensely helpful.


She can want something but you've kind of done the right thing thus far. You've been extremely clear about what it is that your boundaries are insofar as your ability to communicate and understand things. You've been very clear about what it is that you want, and don't want in a relationship, as far as I can tell.

And it's not your fault if she doesn't have the same ability as you do to be honest with herself and say what it is that she wants. And it's not really fair that you're kind of slowly being pigeon holed into a primary situation that you clearly don't want to be in. 

And I don't think that you should accommodate her because I think that it’s— while it's absolutely fair that she does want a primary partnership, it's not something that you want, and you have made that clear and maybe you need to make it more clear. And maybe you need to drive the point home a little bit more. 

And that is a little bit difficult because it is something where clearly there's something going on with her where she's not being honest with herself. She's kind of slowly seeing— maybe she's even kind of not having so much dating success because there's something in her brain that's going “Yeah, but you already have this person who you have emotions for so why not? You know.

“Maybe he will become your primary at some point”, like wishful thinking, which is making her kind of sabotage herself. I don't know what's going on. But I think that you need to be super clear about what it is that you do and don't want. You need to say — if she crops up and start saying “Oh, it'd be great if we move in together”. You could say “That's not something that I want. I don't want to be [in] a primary relationship with you. I want a secondary relationship.” 

However you want to verbally express that— when things pop up where it seems like she's kind of holding on to something which you have been very, very clear about not wanting. I think that you should repeat it and that may sound harsh, but I feel like there's accommodating and there's enabling and you know— it may be difficult for her if she wants to have the bond and time and stuff between you grow and you don’t. 

But at the end of the day, that's not what you want. And as much as this relationship has been really good for you and you have really enjoyed it, if she is going to try and basically shoehorn you into being her primary, or like hold out this hope and wish that you're going to change your mind, then it slowly becoming a relationship that isn't so compatible for you. 

And that's really crappy because it's not your fault. And you've been very clear from what I've seen that you've written — you've been very clear about like, “Look, I have these communication stuff, I need this time to rest and recharge. I need this. This is what I need. I enjoy this type of relationship” and she's just kind of lost the other relationship which sucks and I get that she wants emotional support with that.

And I get that she wants— maybe there's some of her like her brain kind of pushing her towards you because obviously she has feelings for you. And she wants this to become her primary because that would be super easy for her but… tough. It's not something that you want. It's not something that you are interested in. And maybe she kind of knows that and that's why she's not saying anything and she's kind of slowly hinting and slowly like trying to wear away— like that sounds really bad. 

But like slowly trying to get you to change your mind which is like… just coming from the perspective of being like on the autistic spectrum, just maybe if you were neurotypical, you would maybe be more willing to go along with it. But that's just not something that's going to happen. It seems almost like she's wishing you are someone that you're not. You're not someone who's interested in the type of relationship that she is.

And she needs to go and find that and she may be in a difficult situation where she isn't fully fulfilled and she has some secondary partnerships and some other connections and whatever and she doesn't have that primary connection and that sucks, but that doesn't give her carte blanche to just shoehorn you into that position. You're not interested in that position.

So I would just like re-reaffirm and reset your boundaries with her and sit her down and say, “Listen, we've had this kind of emotional boiling over situation and it makes me feel like you've not been quite honest with how you feel. But I need to be very honest with how I feel and I am not interested in being a primary partner. I want to live the way that I live. 

“I do not want to move in together with you and I want my space. This is what I want. And if you want a primary partner, you need to go and find that and I don't want to feel like I am trying to become something that I'm not and neither one of us are going to be happy if I am going to force myself into a situation that I don't want to be in and I will not be doing that”.

And you need to like reaffirm this when stuff comes up. “Oh I wish we would have more time together”. “I understand that you wish that but I am happy with the amount of time that we have because this is what I need. If you need more time and more emotional support resources from people then you need to go and find that either in a primary partner or with a therapist or something like that because I cannot give that to you”. 

And I know that sounds really harsh, but I feel like the more you try and accommodate her and try and understand— like you can understand and maybe you'll never be able to understand fully from an emotional perspective what she wants. You can be understanding without completely sacrificing the things that you actually want and you don't actually want to be in a primary relationship.

That is not something that you actually want from what you've told me. The relationship has worked fine with you in that “secondary” position and that is what you want. You don't want to be in a primary partnership with her and I just feel like making that super clear in some ways is kind of tough love for her and that sounds really harsh but she has to understand that this is not what you want. 

And if she is lying to herself about her own wants and needs that isn't something you can control. And she has to take responsibility for that. Now you can't make her take responsibility for that. You can't make her be honest with you about her feelings. But you can reaffirm and restate your boundaries if you feel like she's kind of drifting into this situation where she's imagining you in a future that you do not want.

And I think that you can also ask yourself how much you're willing to tolerate of these kinds of emotional boiling over situations because everyone to certain extent is not fully honest with how they feel sometimes. We all do that. It's not something that she's evil for doing. It's not something that she is definitely screwed up for doing once or twice.

Like sometimes we don't completely say exactly what we want all the time. That is very understandable. But for something as big as like wanting someone to live with you, wanting somebody to be a primary partner to you, she can't live in denial. And whilst you can't control whether or not she is fully honest about that, you can be fully honest about what it is that you want again and again. 

And I think you should also consider pointing out that it's very difficult to feel secure in the relationship that you do have if there are these signs that she's not being fully honest with you about what it is that she wants. And you can be— or she can be like, “Oh I wish that you were my primary partner”. She can wish that. She can have that desire. It's not bad for her to want that especially going through a breakup and dealing with all the stuff that she wants. 

Like she’s— going through all the stuff that she is. She wants to have a primary style relationship and that's valid, but that doesn't mean that she has the right to slowly and slowly request more from you in an attempt to make this a primary partnership where it's not. And you need to be very, very clear about your boundaries and repeatedly clear so that she isn't in a situation where she is kind of transforming you into her primary partner. And I don't know if she's necessarily doing this intentionally.

It's possible that she's not and maybe she needs to seek some therapy to like, understand her own emotions and understand how to be honest about what it is that she wants, and you do run the risk of her really feeling like she doesn't want anything but a primary partnership from you, but you can't control any of that. And you definitely, definitely should not slowly acquiesce to everything and then end up being in a partnership that doesn't suit you. And you know doesn’t suit you. It's not like you were just trying this out because you don't know any better.

You know for sure what type of partnerships do and don't suit you and you're not interested in being a primary partner. You're not interested in living together with her. You're not interested in these things. And you need to continue to make that clear both to yourself and to her. Because that in and of itself, while it may sound harsh, the alternative is pretending that you're interested in something that you're not, allowing her maybe even to not try so hard when it comes to the dating aspect. 

And then just try and slowly and slowly request more time from you until you are in a primary relationship. Because that's really what the difference is. So yeah, to sum up, I feel like you should not accommodate this. I think you need to make it clear what your boundaries are. You need to hold fast to those boundaries. 

And she is a grown adult she is capable of experiencing disappointment. She is capable of finding her own emotional support networks that don't have to involve you. She is capable of dealing with her problems in a way that doesn't require you to reshape yourself or change your needs to fit her. You don't need to do that. She is not a child. You have a child. She is not the child.

So you need to make it very very clear — again and again — what it is that you don't want. She is allowed to express, “Oh, I wish that you were my primary”. That's fine. You don't have to be like, “Well I'm not.” You don't have to be like that. But you can like when she's like, “Oh I wish you know— maybe one day we will live together”.

You can be like “I know that you're hurting right now. And I know that you're going through a lot, but I'm not interested in that and it's really, really important that you go find somebody who is”. And that may cause a little bit of a rift in your relationship. But to be honest, it's not you that's causing that because you are the one who's been quite steadfast in what it is that you want.

And she's the one who's kind of slowly been trying to— whether she's aware of it or not—  morph your relationship into something that fits her regardless of whether or not it fits you or not. So it's not you that's causing that rift by being straightforward about what it is that you want.

It's her that's causing that rift by slowly and slowly trying to change the relationship from the way it was into something that fits her better. And while it's very understandable that she wants to do that, it's still not okay for her to do and I think you should stick to your boundaries when it comes to that.

So yeah, I know this is rough and you know if you're not seeing a therapist, I definitely would recommend like chatting with one. I definitely would recommend asking them for advice about ways to kind of gently reinforce your boundaries, if you struggle with that as an autistic person — sometimes we can be very blunt. Sometimes we can be a little harsh when we don't even mean to be.

So that might be an area where a therapist could help you out. But I do think overall, hold fast to what it is that you want. And if this turns into a relationship that is no longer compatible with that, that definitely sucks. But in the long term, it's always much much more painful to force yourself into a mould that doesn't fit you than it is to reject that when someone's trying to fit you into it.

So yeah, I hope that helps and good luck.

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