‘For pleasure has no relish unless we share it.
– Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader
I saw this tweet from Coffee and Kink a short while ago and immediately responded in agreement. Yes! I do need my own primary, and not just because always coming second would drive me crazy but also because I’d find it really lonely to be on my own. It seemed so obvious that I didn’t think to add the usual qualifier of ‘for me’ to my statement. ‘For me;’ the magic words when describing sex and relationships that acknowledge the differences and variations within each of our experiences.
Although there was strong agreement from some about the need for a primary partner and the potential risks of being in open relationships without one, there was an equally strong argument against my rushed opinion. Quite a few poly friends are blissfully happy without a primary partner and, in fact, their enjoyment in being poly came from having a number of loving relationships that all had an equal standing. They neither needed nor wanted a primary partner, avoiding the perceived ties of this kind of relationship but still experiencing the benefits of each loving partnership.
And, as often happens when I realise that I may be incorrect, I have since found myself over-analysing my attitudes towards polyamory and the role of a primary partner, particularly as in my own relationship as I have frequently described myself as polyamorous despite that fact that I long thought that this label isn’t quite right.
I wonder if actually it’s more accurate that I want to be polyamorous as there is so much about polyamory that I find extremely appealing. I know and have felt compersion, the feeling of joy experienced when a loved one is happy with another partner; I love the relief of knowing that I don’t need to be everything for my partner – I am under no pressure to fulfil all of his sexual needs because he can always find someone else to take on that particular role or kink if I don’t share it; and I don’t need to ‘suffer’ jealousy when our relationship involves him looking elsewhere and that’s not only OK but also doesn’t take anything away from his feelings for me.
But, despite all of this, I want a primary partner. A long time ago, back when my fiancé was just a sex blogger I was fucking and I was just one of a number of partners that he was involved with, a friend asked me about how I saw our future. She had correctly seen that I was more in love with him than I’d chosen to admit out loud and was rightfully worried that I could be hurt by what lay ahead. ‘What if he never chooses you? What if you fall for him and he can’t give you what you want? What happens if you want more than he is willing to offer?’ At the time, I was willing to take the risk and hope for the best, but in hindsight, these were important questions. Could I have coped with being second? I don’t know that I could…
Fortunately for me, I’ve never had to work out the final answer to that question. I suspect that I would have hesitated and been reluctant to leave and allowed my heart to be slowly broken while I continued to convince myself that I was OK. I suspect that I would have needed to find someone else to be mine, to fulfil those requirements that I need from a primary partner.
As is it, my fiancé and I have found a balance that works for us. We are not monogamous, but I do have a monogamous relationship with him. In the two-plus years we’ve been together, I’ve not dated anyone else, I’ve not had sex with anyone else except when he’s watching, and I haven’t really even wanted anyone else. As I wrote way back in 2015, this type of unequal monogamy works for me because it’s not a moral choice or a sacrifice to only fuck him. I just don’t want anyone else right now. And, fortunately, it doesn’t bother me that he does.
But I think the crucial reason why I am able to be so happy in a relationship that is so uneven is exactly because I know I can rely on him; he is my primary partner and I am his, and this simple fact acts as a lifeline of sorts. It provides me with a secure and safe base from which to explore.
Having a primary partner is also crucial to my Vulcan-inspired logical approach to reducing jealousy. I am not jealous of my fiancé’s other partners because I know how much he values me and this is much easier to believe as his primary partner. I don’t worry about competing; I don’t need to be funnier or sexier or smarter or prettier than his other lovers because I have faith that he loves me for who I am and wants to be with me and will be there for me. It’s quite a selfish attitude really – I’m always happy to share as long as he comes home to me afterwards!
It’s also important to acknowledge that there are parts of a traditional relationship that are very appealing to me. I want to make a home and a life with someone. I want to have somewhere to call home and someone waiting there to hold me. I want to have someone checking that I’m not flying too high and who would be waiting to catch me if I fall. I want to know beyond all doubt that someone has my back. I want the familiarity of lying next to someone I love whose body I know better than my own. As much as I value my independence and enjoy my own company, I do want all of these traditional trappings.
Equally, I want to be able to give that love back; to be able to share in the joy and pain of the people who I love. I want him to know he can turn to me when bad things happen and I want to support him through any crises, like I know he would support me. In a way, this is almost more important than the good stuff – when the shit hits the fan, I want him to want me there, fighting alongside him. I’m just not sure I could see someone I love struggling and have to defer to someone else to help. This is a side of a relationship that I’m not sure I could share.
So am I wrong to think of myself as polyamorous? Maybe I am.
Earlier this month, I attended a panel put on by Scarlet Ladies Talk called ‘Females Fess Up’ where the four women on the panel were asked questions on sex, relationships and other body- and sex-positive topics. It was just brilliant! At one point, two of the panellists, Alyssa Black and Frankie Cookney, were asked about being polyamorous. Alyssa’s description of polyamory was the one that I was expecting and involved being in a number of different loving relationships. Frankie, however, chose to be defined as ‘non-monogamous’ rather than ‘polyamorous’ because she felt this was a more accurate description of her relationship.
That this was a separate and different option was a surprisingly groundbreaking idea for me as, perhaps naively, I’d always thought of non-monogamy as just an umbrella term to describe all types of open relationships. Frankie’s version of this term, however, was much more specific and much more familiar. She didn’t feel that polyamory was an accurate term for her because she didn’t have a ‘loving relationship’ with anyone but her husband, her primary partner. They both dated other people and slept with other people, but there wasn’t anyone yet who she loved in the romantic sense. She was non-monogamous, not polyamorous.
So am I non-monogamous or polyamorous? My relationship with labels has always been reluctant at best and frankly avoidant most of the time so does it really matter? Does exploring the nuances of these descriptive words give me greater insight into my relationship? And if not, does a better and more correct use of terminology help others looking in to understand? Should I care about that?
I think non-monogamy is probably a more technically accurate description our relationship right now. Despite this, I find that I often just say that we are polyamorous, particularly when talking to friends outside of this sex positive bubble, to explain in one word a much more complex arrangement without really needing to go into the finer details. In the end, my fiancé and I know how our relationship works and where the limits are, and I’m very happy with that, even if I am describing it incorrectly.
I just need to remember to add ‘for me’ to any comments or opinions on polyamory or open relationships!