I really enjoy delving into the aspects that we don’t question around relationships. The problem then is that there aren’t really any good terms – or sometimes even concepts – to describe what’s going on.
This is a Big Problem, as far as I’m concerned – when expectations and needs are kept unstated, they’re probably going to be unmet, and therefore at the root of waaaaaay too much drama.
In particular, I want to talk about “primary” partners and “anchor” partners…and how they might be unidirectional.
These are terms that have come up in polyamory, but they definitely apply in monogamous relationships as well, and are arguably more important concepts in that framework.
Wikipedia gives one definition – and yes, the definitions vary a lot depending on who you’re talking to. Some people use the terms interchangeably. Some people use one to talk about emotional attachment, and the other to talk about lives being intertwined (paying bills, living together, etc).
In my experience, it doesn’t matter which term you use, or even how you use it, as long as the people you’re in relationships with agree with you on that definition (or at least, are aware of how you use it, and can “translate” to their definition).
The problems come in one of two ways – and the problem that hits monogamous folks is far worse. Polyamorous folks run into problems when one person is using terms differently than the other partner(s) in the relationship.
So what’s worse in monogamous-land?
Not realizing that this is a thing at all.
I had a relationship where I could have said that my amour‘s best friend actually filled the role of a primary partner more than I did. There wasn’t physical attraction between my amour and her friend, but that’s irrelevant.
That was perfectly fine, by the way. Sometimes that’s what happens – and if you’re able to parse out the different threads in relationships, it’s not inherently bad. But when you’re ignorant that there can be different roles for different people in your life… well, it just feels like something’s wrong, but you don’t have the words for it. And our brains being the way they are, you find things that are wrong to complain about. Too bad they’re not actually what’s bothering you… so the cycle continues. You can see how this could get really toxic fast.
The other thing is that I’ve come to realize that these labels can be unidirectional – and not inherently destroy a relationship or a person.
Yeah, that sounds a lot like unrequited love. Bear with me for a second.
We’re not talking about where an emotion is unreturned; instead, I’m talking about where the level of intensity may be unequal. (There’s an adage that it’s always unequal in any relationship, so monogamous folks need to stay tuned too.)
Remember junior high, when it was a huge trauma if you said someone was your best friend… and you were not their best friend? It didn’t matter how close you were, or how good of friends you were. You weren’t their best friend, and felt slighted.
Your time, attention, and affection are a gift, just as another’s is a gift to you. Ideally, we strive to give gifts that will make the people we care about happy. Period. It’s not about getting a gift or thank-you note back; then it’s a barter system, not gifting.1
So someone can be my emotional2 primary, even if they are not mine.
That doesn’t mean their love and affection for me is any less; if anything, I’m valuing their gift of love and affection more by recognizing it for what it is.
I can hear some of my friends already wailing “but it doesn’t work like that!” They’re right – because we don’t take the time to make it work like that. These are learned behaviors, and they can be unlearned so that we can live happier and more fulfilling lives.
1 Boundaries need to be mentioned here, of course; I’m presuming that one isn’t giving to the point that it hurts themselves, for example. If you’re giving gifts of your time and attention and affection and it’s hurting you… then yeah, something’s wrong. And as already stated, unrequited stuff is a WHOLE different ball of wax.
2 I suppose this could happen with other “types” of primaries as well; it’s clearest with emotions, though.