Much of the time I’m sufficiently opinionated that I just write unsolicited sex and relationship advice. But this time, someone actually asked a solid question and said I could answer it publicly. This person, who I’ll call Jo, had been to my poly architecture class and heard me make the claim that it’s ridiculously difficult (nigh unto impossible, it seems) for people in very serious secondary relationships who want a primary to find one. She wasn’t questioning the claim. But she was concerned, because she already has a wife and a serious girlfriend, but she just met The Perfect sub For Her (™). The problem is that Perfect sub, who I’m going to call Amy for the sake of simplicity, doesn’t have a primary and definitely wants one, and lives a long way away anyway. Jo was worried about Amy finding a primary if Amy was always sitting at her feet whenever they went to events together, and asked for my advice.
My advice is… hoo, boy, that’s a tricky one.
On the one hand, in some ways distance can work in your favor in that situation, because it tends to place automatic constraints on how serious the relationship can get (there’s only so much time you can practically spend with someone who lives a long way away). On the other hand, poly long distance relationships have a habit of becoming vacation-ships–you know, the kind where you don’t get out of bed for two days, do all your laundry and clean your house before and after “the date,” and ignore most phone calls from other people when you’re together? Vacation-ships are a big problem when you’re trying to build other actualrelationships because they make the other relationships seem so much less fun by comparison. Vacation-ships are like dessert, but people need solid meals to be healthy and happy. And yet. You need to eat vegetables, but they don’t look very tasty next to cheesecake, do they? Of course, you’ll actually enjoy the cheesecake a lot more if you eat your veggies. Go figure.
The other way that long distance becomes a problem here is that it makes my first automatic advice a lot more difficult to implement, which is: assuming that Amy is the kind of person who meets people at events, don’t go to many events “together”. For most kinky folks, even if they don’t actually meet a Person at events, they socialize and network at events in ways that ultimately can help them meet a Person. So if you go to an event and spend all of your time with the Person you already have, limiting your opportunities to meet new people, you make it really difficult to acquire the missing Person you’re looking for. BUT if you’re long distance, events often become your chief opportunity to spend quality time together.
The temptation here is the Rotten Compromise, where you say, “We will go to this three-night event, and even though we will be sharing a hotel room together, Amy and I must spend one evening apart so she can look for a date.” It sounds eminently reasonable, but sadly, it’s really not, in my experience. At a bare minimum, even people who are quite capable at the Pick Up need one night to search and another night to cement their search, so you really have to promise to spend two evenings apart. But if you’re sharing a hotel room (or cabin or tent), it’s ridiculously easy to just chuck your good intentions entirely and decide that a “night” apart in that context is from 7 pm to 10 pm. Suddenly your resolution not to spend too much time together and to enforce socialization with other people gets flushed down the toilet. Do I sound like I’m speaking from experience? Yeahhhhh…
And I haven’t even gotten to the basic day-to-day stuff where Amy struggles not to text you all the time, because she knows she’s not supposed to depend on you too much emotionally, but she still values you and the support you give her so much. And even though she knows she shouldn’t let it happen, you kind of become her rock. And dammit, she never meant for that to happen, but how is she ever going to find anyone who’s even as remotely awesome as you?
That latter point raises an important point that a lot of hierarchy discussions leave out: there really are some people who are That Awesome. I know a number of folks with a zillion partners, and several of their partners say they’d ideally rather have a primary; but since Awesome Person already has a primary (or two or three), they’ll settle for mostly being Awesome Person’s secondary or tertiary because Awesome Person is That Awesome. So if you’re That Awesome, it’s possible that Amy might kind of give up the hunt for other partners. Be prepared for this possibility. It’s happened to a lot of the people I know.
But let’s say you’re trying to stay super committed to helping Amy find a primary, and let’s hope that you’re better at managing all of this than I have historically been. What do you do?
Dump her. No, I’m kidding. Well, I’m kind of not… Except, you’re not going to, and I sincerely hope you aren’t the sort of person who’d do that because I told you to anyway. It’s still good advice, but I hope you, like me, are unwilling to take this good advice.
So what else do you do? First, you have to be very clear about the relationship boundaries and possibilities. Say, “I have a wife and a girlfriend, and I love you, but I cannot be the Person that you need, and I want to actively support your quest to find that Person.” Try not to accidentally raise unrealistic expectations. At the same time, don’t try to force yourself to stick to unnecessarily harsh relationship boundaries as a matter of principle. There’s a balance there, and no one but you and your partners can find it. That’s a matter of trial and error. If Amy asks you to do or be something for her, and you have the time and energy and inclination to do it, do it. Don’t say “no” just because you’re afraid she’s getting too dependent on you or that it will raise her expectations too high. Constantly doing boundary maintenance for the sake of boundary maintenance is futile and exhausting, in my experience. To use a plant metaphor, don’t try to create relationship topiary: get an approximate sized box to grow your relationship in, and don’t freak out every time it looks a little too big or too small.
Next, you should try be very careful about how you spend time in public places where Amy has good opportunities to meet other people. Unless Amy is the sort of person who is constitutionally incapable of meeting people in large gatherings, or the sort of person who goes to events all the time without you, try not to be her Event Girlfriend. Try to make sure that she goes regularly to quality places where she can meet–and will basically be forced to interact with–quality people without you. You can’t force her to meet other people, but you can make sure that you aren’t the human security blanket that most of us kinky oddballs love to have when interacting in big groups.
Most importantly, if Amy does manage to get another relationship, or even something that looks like it might grow up into one, graciously accept your back seat role. Don’t make her feel guilty for spending less time with you; tell her she’s wanted, but that you accept that whatever she is building with takes priority. Recognize that initially she’ll probably come running to you every time something goes wrong in that other relationship because you probably will remain her security blanket for some time. And then eventually she’ll either stop running to you because that relationship grows up, or for a different reason because they broke up. The hardest thing about anticipating and managing these kinds of relationship changes is recognizing that your role in her life may change completely once she gets her Person. Most of the people who are attracted to hierarchical poly over anarchical poly usually prefer stability; but when you start trying to build relationships over top of previous relationships instead of under them, you don’t really know what’s going to happen.
I don’t know how helpful this has been, because there really just aren’t any easy answers to this very serious question. To me, it often looks like one of the unintended consequences of hierarchical poly life is that some people just seem stuck in a pink-collar relationship ghetto–much like the beloved and well-treated secretary in your office who is never going to get a promotion and never going to get paid what she deserves. Everyone wishes they had a way to fix the system, but no one really has a fucking clue how. If anyone else has a fucking clue, I’d certainly love to hear it.
I wish you both (all) the best of luck.