How to Navigate Polyamory as a Non-Primary Partner

You’re gay. You’re poly. You start dating this dyke and the two of you really like each other. You’re sprung and you just want to live your fantasies of U-Hauling to heaven and back with her or adopting a pit bull rescue together. But this cannot be, for she has a primary partner.

Queer non-monogamy, while having many perks, can also be really frustrating sometimes, especially when you are looking for love and don’t have a primary partner of your own. It’s hard to not feel less important when you know someone else gets to spend more time with your love interest than you do. I get it. I was a member of the “always a side piece, never a main piece” brigade for much of my early adult years. It’s a difficult spot to be in, so I’m here with advice on how to navigate polyamory as a non-primary partner.

Polyamory can take many forms. Maybe you’re casually dating an older butch4butch couple, or you’re hooking up with a stud in an open relationship. Or you might be engaging in a serious romance with a femme who’s married and has several other partners. Because there’s such a wide variety of poly configurations you could exist within, I’ll try to stick to the fundamentals of how to embody Good Poly rather than Bad Poly.

Try to go in without expectations

(and if you can’t stow your expectations, be direct!)

This statement is applicable to many things in life, but it’s very important to surviving as a sidechick. Removing expectations from your romance is in the interest of everybody in the poly pocket.

There’s a concept known as The Relationship Escalator that illustrates the expectation of progress within a monogamous relationship. Basically, it’s the idea that as romance grows between people, commitment levels will naturally escalate with it. The main issue with The Relationship Escalator is that it treats romantic relationships the same way one might treat a corporate job: you start at an entry-level position (e.g. casual dates) and assume that if you work hard enough, you will end up at a higher position (#1 favorite girlfriend).

This concept doesn’t really translate to a non-monogamous relationship. When you begin to date someone who’s already dating other people, you can’t expect to be promoted. Try to let go of your expectations of what the relationship could be or should be, and just enjoy being together.

Sometimes you can’t get rid of your expectations because they’re actually just your needs and desires, and that’s okay! As always, your best strategy is to directly communicate what you expect and need in a relationship, giving them the opportunity to decide if they can meet your expectations.

Be receptive to their boundaries

Your date and their partner have rules for what they each can and can’t do with other people. These can range from restrictions like “no sleepovers” and “no sex marks” to just needing to check in with each other. It’s crucial to respect these boundaries and be honest about whether you can work within those boundaries.

It can feel unfairly limiting to adhere to rules set by someone outside your relationship, but remember that someone in your relationship (your date) agreed to those boundaries. Treat them with the same respect as your date’s personal boundaries, because that’s what they are.

You can still advocate for your needs and even ask if the rules can be negotiated, but don’t push it. Directly communicating boundaries and needs helps you make compromises without feeling compromised.

Set boundaries for yourself

When you’re swooning over some cutie, it can be so tempting to make decisions with your heart over your brain. Thanks to NRE, or New Relationship Energy, infatuation is overflowing from your little gay body and you want to do everything with this person even if it might hurt, and nothing else matters. In poly, it’s really essential to check these urges. I’m girl-crazy with mostly godawful impulse control, so I set boundaries for myself to keep from getting carried away by romantic thoughts.

Don’t make big life decisions based purely off that NRE, like moving or changing your whole schedule. Make sure the decisions you make are for yourself and that you protect your heart.

Accept that you’re going to be jealous sometimes

It’s going to happen and it’s totally natural. The important thing is to work through your jealousy with a therapist, or a friend, instead of projecting it onto your boo or relying solely on them to help you process. While it is important to be real about your feelings with a date, remember that these feelings are your responsibility to work through.

Don’t compare yourself to their partner

Avoid the pitfall of comparing yourself to their primary. Yes, sometimes your date may have a very specific type and you’ll notice you share more than a passing resemblance to their other boo (I’m very guilty of this), but you are different people with a different history. One reason people prefer to have a non-monogamous love life is because their needs and desires go beyond what one person can meet, so they’ll date very different people who fulfill very different needs.

Your date likes you for you. They didn’t choose you because you’re just a lesser version of the partner they already have. Comparing yourself is useless and will only make you feel worse.

Get to know their partner

This is probably the scariest part. You probably heard about your metamour (the partner of your partner) before meeting them and maybe you’ve built up an intimidating image of them in your head. Put your assumptions and fears to the side and make a genuine attempt to get to know them. The idea of meeting your metamour can be very daunting, but doing so usually makes things much easier for you and your partner.

Some primaries don’t like meeting their partner’s other dates, though (I once had a primary that refused to meet other dates), which is also fine. I believe that since you share a love interest, it’s in your best interest to get along. If you can be friends, be friends!

Don’t have opinions about your partner’s other relationships

Meeting metamours helps you build your own opinion of them, but what if the opinion you build is “wow, she’s kind of a jackass?” If your girlfriend’s primary is rude or unkind to you, it’s important to tell her. If you see your date being mistreated, address the issue and check in with her. Beyond that, it isn’t your place to tell her how to handle her other relationships.

Criticizing your partner’s other relationships is a slippery slope. What may appear toxic to you could just be a loving relationship outside what you are familiar with. You have to trust that your boo knows what they’re doing with their life. Your intentions may be well-meaning, but your opinion can be skewed by personal bias. If you think they’re in a bad situation, the best thing to do is to listen to them, check in with them, and ask them what they want for themselves.

I’ve had a few partners who I knew were in a toxic situation with their primary, and I’ve had partners see me in similarly bad relationships. We listened to each other vent about our dyke-y dilemmas and offered support, but knew we couldn’t give advice beyond what was asked. Sometimes I’ve downright hated my metamours because of things my partner told me about them, but I behaved civilly towards them out of respect for my partner. Support them however you can, just don’t try to rescue them.

Be friends

Spend time with your boo where you’re doing things that aren’t romantic or sexual.

It’s useful to practice being friendly without being amorous, especially if you spend time together while their primary partner is around. Also, it’s just nice getting to know someone as a friend while you’re getting to know them as a date. Speaking from personal experience, my best long-term relationships have often started as casual dates and hookups with friends and down the line we realized we loved each other. I still have solid relationships with most of those people now, because we built that friend foundation and know there’s more to our bond than just attraction.

Take care of you

Never fundamentally value someone else’s needs above your own. It can be so fun and frankly intoxicating to share romance with a beautiful babe, and it can be really easy to forget your own personal needs when you’re caught up in the throes of gay love. It’s perfectly reasonable to prioritize your flourishing romance, but don’t make it your top priority, because in all likelihood, your love interest may not be able to reciprocate that level of attention when they have other partners.

Remember who you are as an individual and nurture that. Remember that the more secure and happy you are in yourself, the more comfortable you will be in your love life. Do nice and nurturing things for you that don’t involve her.

Some recommendations:

  • Cook yourself a cute dinner
  • Make art
  • Take your meds
  • Masturbate
  • See Tori Amos in concert
  • Go to therapy
  • Prioritize time with platonic friends
  • Look at memes
  • Admire your butt
  • Pet a dog/cat/succulent/bowl of quinoa
  • Masturbate some more

Do you actually want to be poly?

Why are you engaging in polyamory? Is it because you feel romantic or sexual attraction for multiple people at once? Is it because the girl you like happens to be poly and you just want to be with her? Is it because every queer you know is non-monogamous and you fear you’ll be alone if you don’t go with the pack?

I can’t tell you if any of these reasons will make it worth it for you, but I can say that I’ve come to consider it a major red flag when I see someone living as poly only because they believe they have no other options, which just isn’t true. There are plenty of monogamous queers out there, even if they seem a little harder to find. You aren’t likely to enjoy a lifestyle if you enter it out of a sense of social obligation or fear, so be honest with yourself.

Being good at poly takes a lot of work. Like all dating (and really all life), it’s a learning experience that very few people are instantly great at. Having patience with yourself and respect for your partner makes the experience a lot more manageable and goes a long way towards having the best relationship you can. Also, much of this advice is applicable to monogamous relationships; the need for it just becomes far more apparent when framed through polyamory, which can be a bit more complex.

I know when you’ve been a sidechick, it can feel like you’ll never be someone’s main squeeze. I lived that life for so long I built up a complex about it. It won’t be forever, and in the meantime: prioritize yourself, learn to be comfortable alone, and appreciate the romance you have for what it is.

Chingy is a writer, actress, humorist, and bottom of extraordinary ability based out of Los Angeles and Oakland. Her passions include pop culture, femme tops, meat, and publicly indulging her plethora of fetishes. She is not to be confused with mid-oos rapper Chingy and she is really not sure why she is allowed on tv as much as she has been. Chingy can be found at @TheGayChingy on Instagram and Twitter, slinging hyper-specific gay memes, career updates, and Femme4Femme thirst traps. Did we mention she's a bottom?

Chingy has written 3 articles for us.

25 Comments

  1. I really appreciated this piece, strangely enough, as a monogamous person. I feel like I sometimes get a lot of contempt for not being poly but I just know myself well enough to know it doesn’t work for me. I think it’s wonderful if it works for other people. I like the focus on being open and honest with yourself and others, which really at the end of the day is what it’s all about. Thanks!

  2. This is really appreciated as someone who is open to the idea of being polyam. My question is what does one do when their partner is jealous of you because of the shared interests or commonalities you have? Like the partner is cis-het man and our queerness and similar taste in music(some queer) bond us?

    Side note: I’ve noticed a lot of cis-het men & bpq women couples on dating site where the profile claims she’s looking for a gf to date and maybe in time join the husband(and his picture, of course, are there too). Oy-Vey

    • If the problem is their partner’s jealousy of your bond, there is nothing you can or should do in that situation because you aren’t doing anything wrong. His jealousy of y’all’s queer romance is his to deal with and you should just keep enjoying what you have.

  3. This is lovely! Thank you! I’ll also add – as someone who really, truly enjoys being a sidechick – that it’s super cool if you never want to have a primary partner or be one yourself! I’m solo polyam which means I have several lovers but no primary / nesting / live-in / life-smooshed-together partner. Living alone and being solo, with no one I need to check in with or make decisions together, has been magic for me.

    • I second this! While I actually enjoy having primaries sometimes, I’m solo poly as well b/c I know it’s better for me and went from “I just don’t want to be anyone’s sidechick!” to “I just want to be everyone’s sidechick!”.

      I have a partner I love very much and dates I like, but am definitely in the “be your own primary” camp. I think a big part of writing this for me was comparing how I feel now to how I felt then and wanting to pay that experience and knowledge forward.

    • Yeah. I actually kinda only wanna be a sidechick right now? I don’t want to settle down, I don’t want to be anyone’s one and only, and I also just don’t want to commit a lot of time to a relationship; but I want lovers who are also friends and with whom I’m openly allowed to have feelings.

  4. This is quite timely for me. I’ve just started dating a poly woman who identifies as pansexual, on the ace spectrum. (There’s so much more to this wonderful person, I can’t even).

    Having just ended a massively-long-term monogamous gig (actually, it feels like it’s never-ending), I feel that I’ve done that genre to death and I’m so ready to move on !

    Reading Poly Pocket on AS had already got me thinking differently about love and relationships, and now that I’m in actual contact with the poly universe, it really does resonate with me.

    It’s early days yet but being a sidechick feels good. I’ve no desire to plunge back into having a primary anything. Being my own primary partner sounds very healthy. I really appreciate this advice and I’ll return to it as the relationship develops. There are things I can’t consider now but who knows ?

    My boo’s primary partner is male, and I find that at the moment I’m not inclined to compare or contrast, it’s obviously very different. But, Note to self : things may change, my feelings may change, it’s allowed !

    I’m also discovering that I’m somewhat ace myself. I’m so very fortunate to have found a good person to share this part of my journey with, someone with experience and compassion.

    It has taken away some time from my relationship with Autostraddle though, something I have to remedy soon for my own sake !

  5. I’m about to call my girlfriend to talk about a ‘breakup’ with a guy I really like but didn’t have a defined relationship with and it’s good for me to read this now and think about things I could’ve done differently with him.

    I sometimes had to try and toe the line of not judging his other relationships but being very clear when he handled things in ways I wouldn’t want him to handle situations with me. Like, his partner got jealous of his fwb so he stopped sleeping with the fwb and let his partner call the shots, even though it hurt him and the fwb. I did a lot of, “Yeah, that sounds really difficult. When I had a similar experience it was important to me to do X because I wanted to make sure nobody felt Y” kind of statements but I know it was hard for him to hear me ~disapprove. How do other people deal with that dynamic in new relationships?

    I very much noticed the phrase “Good poly vs Bad poly” in this article, and I didn’t and don’t want to be the poly police, but I do want any potential partners to know where I stand and what I’m not cool with.

  6. Thank you, Chingy!

    Wished I’d seen your post earlier since I didn’t know how to approach being a sidechick.

    Glad you pointed out “Take care of you” and “Do you actually want to be poly”; well thought out sub-themes in your post. Looking forward to more, thank you 🙂

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