Primary Relationships: Not Quite As Primary as You Think

An analogy popped into my head the other day that entertained me so much I decided I had to make it into a post. Here goes.

I was in ninth grade taking National, State, and Local Government when I first learned about the electoral college. To introduce the idea to us, our teacher posed a question to the class:

Say you have a state with ten million people in it and 20 votes. If five million and one people vote for party A, and 4,999,999 people vote for party B, how many of those votes would you guess would go to each party?

The class guessed what you would expect: a 10-10 split, or perhaps a 9-11 split. Something to that effect.

The actual answer, of course (well, much of the time) is that all 20 votes would go to party A. The class was shocked, and this before we even got to the idea that electors don’t have to vote the way they’re expected to.

The electoral college: a shitty means of representing the peoples’ actual votes for more than two centuries.

I think a lot of jealousy in relationships stems from fear of not being number one. I know for me, that’s often how it works. I don’t feel the need to be at the top of the totem pole of partners, but I don’t like the sense of being below others on a totem pole. Really, I don’t like the idea of being on a totem pole at all.

I think there’s a mistake that we often make in thinking about the relative significance of different poly partners. There will sometimes be metamours who play a more significant role in your partners’ lives than you do. The reflex (mine, at least) is to think that their needs will necessarily always supersede yours. After all, that’s what more important means, right? Priority one is priority one.

This isn’t really how it works out, though. In good relationships, even if there is one partnership that is obviously the most significant in a person’s life, the needs of that relationship don’t always supersede the needs of other relationships. Relationships are too complicated for a blanket statement like that. In good relationships, depending on the situation, the needs of a “secondary” will at times supersede the needs of a “primary”*. Maybe the secondary hasn’t been on a date in forever, or is going through a rough time, or is really excited about something and wants to celebrate. Maybe someone just feels like spending time with the secondary for a while.

All of these things will happen, and in a good situation, they’ll be able to happen. I don’t like thinking of relationships as being above or below others on a totem pole, but if we run with that analogy, being lower on a totem pole doesn’t mean all nuance in social decision-making is lost.

This is where the electoral college as an analogy comes in. The electoral college is a terrible representation of how voting actually goes. If one person wins by the tiniest amount, they win everything, and those 4,999,999 losers aren’t represented in any sense at all. This is the fear, I think, in being lower on a totem pole. That for everything you want to do, for every decision, no matter what, the primary wins.

That’s not how it should work, though. Most of the time, it’s not how it does work. There’s nuance in every social relationship. Some may be a little more or less involved than others, but you don’t win everything by being the 51%. We’re still all just people, and we still all know that, and everyone still matters more than the totem pole analogy implies. In healthy poly situations, you still get representation if you’re in the 49%.


I’m not much of a fan of “primary”, “secondary”, etc, as labels—I think the situation is generally more complex and multidimensional than they allow for—but using them here for the sake of brevity and clarity.

 Another eloquent take on this same idea.

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One comment on “Primary Relationships: Not Quite As Primary as You Think

  1. Pingback: My User Manual, Part 3: Relationship Philosophy | Research to be Done

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