There are no set rules for polyamory, and that's one of the best things about it. One of the more common models, though, is for an established couple to continue being each other's primary partners—with all the time, commitment and energy that entails— while also having one or more secondary partners and relationships, each of which are more casual and less traditionally structured.
There's an amount of advice out there for people in established primary relationships who'd like to have secondary partners, and a lot of it is good advice. It's all mostly aimed at the couple themselves, though, and not at their secondaries—and there's undeniably an art to being a good secondary partner.
Here's the thing about being someone's secondary partner: you're not going to come first, and that's just the way it should be. Sometimes you'll be faced with your plans changing because of your partner's primary relationship, or with the fact that they need to deal with something for them while on a date with you. This is normal and inevitable and, within reason, you need to be okay with it.
I can't stress enough how important this is. I'm not saying that you and your partner's primary have to become BFFs or anything, but you do need to get on with them—and you also need to put some effort into that friendship. Your metamour will appreciate that you're making the effort, your partner will enjoy the fact that the two of you get on, and you'll get both a happier relationship and a new friend. Everybody wins!
There are plenty of reasons you might find yourself being someone's secondary partner, and some of them are better than others. If it's because you're good friends who have amazing sex and a strong bond, that's great—but if it's because you'd like to be their primary really and this is the closest you can get, you're probably heading into a deeply toxic situation.
Every polyamorous couple has their own boundaries. Many have rules about contraception: "always use condoms with other people" is a very common one. Others might prefer it if nobody else ever used their shared bed at home, or if certain kink practices stayed just for the two of them. Whatever kind of agreement your partner has with their primary, you need to know what it is and join them in taking responsibility for keeping to it.
One of the defining features of many secondary relationships is that they stay at their own level. It's very likely that your relationship won't progress in a traditional way: you're probably not going to end up living together or making big life decisions together. This is can be one of the best things about secondary partners, when it's been consciously considered, but unspoken assumptions about something more happening in the future can be the death of an arrangement like this.
Being someone's secondary partner—and doing it well—can seem daunting at first, but it's often an incredible experience. With so little pressure, a good secondary relationship can extend the adoring, sexually charged 'honeymoon' phase for years, for one thing—all without ever once having an argument about whose turn it is to do the washing up or needing to make any big scary life decisions together. It's all about finding the relationship model that works for you, and bearing the needs of the people around you in mind while you do it.
Abi Brown is a freelance writer and general pen-for-hire devoted to genre fiction, social justice and M.A.C lipstick. Follow her on her website or @see_abi_write.
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