I’m my wife’s secondary relationship, even though we’ve been happily married for almost twenty years. And it’s been that way since Day One, when she said to me:
“Look, Ferrett Steinmetz, I love you with all my heart. But if there’s a house fire and I can rescue either you or my daughters from the flames, there will be Ferrett Flambé.”
And that is the truth of our marriage: her kids come first. Which I’m fine with; even though I’m technically their stepfather, they’re my kids too. I’m very content to be secondary, which means there’s been any number of times the kids have been prioritized.
But here’s the trick:
“Secondary” does not mean “Continually overshadowed.”
Just because the kids’ needs come first does not mean that I am expected to have no needs. My wife juggles. If, on a scale of one to ten, I am having an absolute meltdown day of a 9 when our eldest is having a pretty poor day of a 6, she’ll do triage on our kid and then come and comfort me. Likewise, if our youngest is having a horrible 8 day and I’m having a mildly depressive 4, she’ll still make time for a hug or two before heading out.
Because “secondary” does not mean “dispensable.”
Yes, technically speaking, if there is a flat-out conflict between my daughters’ needs and mine, I will lose. But the trick is that my wife does absolutely everything she can to ensure that direct conflict never happens. She advocates for both the kids’ needs and also mine. She negotiates with all three of us to see if there’s some happy medium we can all reach, asking whether this might be a “want” and not an actual “need.” And when an argument breaks out, she serves as mediator and not arbiter.
Which is why, in almost twenty years of marriage, there’s been no dealbreaking conflicts. Life is not a television drama, and moments of absolute need (the “10” on the one to ten scale) are rare for any actual functioning human being, let alone for two human beings to be in absolute crisis at the same time.
Which is why I hate it when I see the term “secondary” used in polyamory to indicate an auto-lose situation – sorry, I know you want me to be with you at your mother’s funeral, but my husband needs help washing the car.
The truth is that a secondary’s important needs should sometimes take priority over your so-called primary’s sorta-wanna needs. “Being secondary” should not be an excuse to blow someone off, just as “being primary” should not be an excuse to become a tyrant. The job of a functional relationship should be to balance needs to make as many people happy as possible, not to cut off emotional support when it becomes inconvenient for the “primary” people.
I’m okay with being secondary to my wife because I trust she’ll be there for me when I need her most of the time. I’m not “someone who’s important to her as long as the kids don’t yell too loud,” I’m someone she advocates for and defends when I need it and also, yeah, if the kids are in a bad place she’ll be there but she also elbows space to make room for me.
It’s a good space.
I wish I could say the same for a lot of secondary relationships.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.