March 2016 and the early days of a new partnership. We’re talking around the headlines of each other’s lives; comfortable enough to talk about the bigger picture but not yet talking about the finer details.
“So, he is your primary partner then?”
It was phrased as a question but his assumption that the answer would be yes meant he delivered it like a statement of fact.
I could tell from the look on his face that he was taken back by the force with which I’d answered. “I don’t have a primary partner,” I added. At that point his look of surprise turned to confusion: “How can you not have a primary partner?” For him, married with children, it was quite clear that our fledgling relationship was a secondary partnership. That I would be coming to things with the perspective of not having a primary partner momentarily destabilised his notion of what we might become. “I don’t want a primary partner,” I clarified, keen to allay any unspoken questions or concerns he might have of the ‘well if he’s not your primary partner are you expecting me to become that?’ kind. But he couldn’t really understand that I didn’t want a primary partner, or rather how I could be happy being a secondary partner when I didn’t have my own primary partnership. As I tried to answer his questions I realised I didn’t really know all the answers myself. Not because I thought that what made me happy was wrong, just because I’d never really thought about why it worked for me. I started this post about two hours later.
My mind has wandered to it every so often since then, but I have never felt compelled to finish it. In truth, I didn’t think I ever would. I occasionally reference partners in written posts and on these pages you’ll find photos of them, of me taken by them, of us, or even of their wives taken by them, but I’ve never written about how my relationships work and never felt the need to. While I hadn’t really expected to publish this post, thinking it through over time helped me process my views, why I respond in the way I do to some things and how I want to label my relationships so they make sense to everyone involved and help me articulate my expectations. Earlier this year, I was answering some questions @19syllables had and I heard myself say “I have a half written post on this. It’s got a great title!” “Oh, write it! I would love to read it,” she replied. Then this Twitter chat happened last week. And so I find myself putting a structure to various musings.
I guess my starting point should be why I don’t want a primary partner. Happily, I don’t have any horror stories that influences this, just a very average roll call of mid-teen obsessions through to lovely late-teen and early twenties boyfriends. Then in my mid-twenties I moved in with a boyfriend. He was brilliant, we were in love and we’re still in touch. But I felt trapped and I felt lonely. I rarely, if ever, feel lonely when I’m alone, but it’s amazing how lonely it is to be with someone when it’s not a situation that suits you. Where some people find security and warmth in a shared home I found claustrophobia. I wanted to travel, he wanted marriage and babies young. I detest routine and our habit of going to the supermarket every Monday actually made me miserable. To this day I cannot bear to be in a supermarket with a partner. I rounded the corner of an aisle in my local Sainsbury’s a couple of years ago and spotted a guy I occasionally fucked and I actually backed away. Seriously! Not because we’d fallen out or I looked rough but because the idea of wandering round a supermarket with a partner rang such Pavlovian Bell of misery!
Was my response to my relationship with Nik because we weren’t right for each other or was it because fulltime relationships genuinely don’t suit me? I don’t know for sure. Maybe there is someone out there with whom I’d happily blend my life, but nothing about the thought of it appeals to me. In my early thirties I made efforts with traditional online dating, not yet admitting to myself even that I didn’t want what all my friends were embracing. The truth is the idea of shared diaries, family events, planning holidays together – all sources of joy and security to many people – make my shoulders go up. Finally accepting that a more flexible and (as far as is possible when you’re an adult and running a business!) commitment-free life is one that best suits me was a great relief.
For a while what that did leave was a life with little or no sex. There was lag time between me ceasing the joyless task of trying to meet ‘the one’ and the point at which I realised I could have relationships that worked for me. I know I’m not interested in casual sex or informal ‘friends with benefits’ arrangements that only mean occasional sex. I want the benefits of a regular partner or partners. I want to learn about someone’s body and they to learn about mine. I want the connection to improve over time as we get to know each other and to have the confidence to suggest and try new things, which I don’t think I would have with casual partners. I like the relaxed intimacy that comes with knowing someone well. I want partners who understand my insecurities and know how and when to reassure me. For a while I assumed all that security was also tied in with a larger commitment to a ‘proper’ relationship and that I couldn’t have one without the other. Not wanting commitment or casual sex meant I just checked out of the dating game altogether for a while.
Then in 2012 a colleague pointed me to OK Cupid and a whole lot changed. I’ve learnt so much about myself and what my expectations are in the years since. One of the most significant is my shifting notion of what constitutes a relationship and becoming comfortable with referring to what I have with partners as relationships. It’s really only in the last year or two that I’ve stopped saying I don’t want a ‘proper’ relationship. And it was a conscious decision to stop saying that. Something not being ‘proper’ suggests that it isn’t important or that I have no expectations. I want to engineer what makes me happy by being more vocal about my expectations, believing I can find people to meet that and that I am worthy of having them met. And I decided I no longer wanted to undermine what I have with people who are important to me by suggesting they are not ‘proper’ just because they’re not fulltime or traditional.
Why would I suggest that what I have with someone who has been in my life for more than three years, introduced me to this community and has at times listened patiently while I work through my ‘theories of me’ isn’t proper? Why would I downplay the man who I’d only see once a month when he taught me so much about my body and what I enjoy and with whom I started to see some of my partnerships through a structure of polyamory? He met me within days of meeting another woman. He spoke immediately of his desire for a long term committed relationship, saying he could see that developing with either of us. I definitely didn’t want that; she did. “Would I still like to invest in our romance by being his secondary partner?” he asked. Aside from thinking the use of the word romance was charming, this was new label for me. That was my first experience of someone developing a more committed relationship while still ensuring I knew I mattered. With him I discovered that I love to hear about partners’ more significant relationships. I also started to recognise that I only feel vulnerable in my relationships if there’s a not a plan of some sort in the diary. He and I would periodically get our diaries out, look ahead a couple of months and get a couple of week nights and a weekend day in the diary. I don’t like planning more than a couple of months ahead but I also need to know that there is time that will be mine. If I have that then my equilibrium is pretty sound; I’m not someone who needs daily contact or any of the support structures you can expect in a fulltime relationship.
Over time I’ve come up with my own label for how I describe what I look for and that’s ‘partner light’. I can’t really type that without giggling since a friend quipped “well as long as you’re happy with your relationships sounding like an incontinence pad, I guess that makes sense!” but to me it’s the most simple way I’ve found to describe the balance of what I’m looking for. More than friends with benefits, less than fulltime committed partner. And to bring this back to @coffeeandkink’s original tweet, that is why I thrive on being a second.
Over the last five years I’ve had five partners who in some way were or are significant. Of them only one didn’t have a primary partnership when I met them. I have always felt more secure in the partnerships where there were wives, partners or in one case a cohabiting parenting partnership, which meant there were or are people and things that must be prioritised over me. Their need to fit me round the structure of family life or their primary relationship means there is an imperative to plan well, which makes me happy. I find deep reassurance in knowing they have chosen to place me alongside much bigger things in their life while never needing to worry that they will one day want more from me than I am prepared or able to give. In fact, my interest in one partner fell off a cliff when it turned out he was getting divorced.
And as for the partner who wasn’t in a committed partnership when I met him in 2013? Well, most people in the blogging community don’t need an introduction to what’s happening in his life! Happily, I’d say I don’t really recognise how we are now compared to before. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say I don’t recognise myself in that partnership? I don’t know. But I do know I feel more secure in what we have now. How much time I have with him hasn’t really changed. In fact, as much as I may need reminding of this if I’m being grumpy, I probably see more of him now. Or certainly more in terms of quality time and plans made in advance which keep me happy. I never worried with him about needing to give more than I could but I frequently had a self-destructive degree of insecurity about thinking there were women more exciting or better or hotter than me. As his life has changed over the last two years and I’ve recognised my desire to keep him in my life, my confidence in articulating what I want or what I am worrying about has grown. I no longer pretend I am comfortable with winging it, I make sure we have plans instead. And the upshot is rather than feeling diminished or threatened by such a significant change in his life I actually feel more secure; I more clearly understand that I am valued when time is made for me and what we have continues to exist and evolve alongside something that is so magnificent and so much bigger than us.
I don’t really care how partners label me. They can call me a second or a partner or a lover. The label doesn’t matter to me as much as knowing I am valued and seeing my place in a structure. For me, having the commitment of partners who choose to see me regularly and build me into their lives without there being any expectation of a deeper commitment or more formal blending of lives is where I feel at my best.
It’s almost like I’m hardwired to always come second!