“Primary privilege” and the illusion of security

Someone over in Polytical introduced the idea of “primary privilege” in a comment there.  I haven’t even managed to read all of the comments on the original post, but so far, there’s some really interesting discussion going on.  I recommend checking it out. In particular, I think that the concept of “primary privilege” is an interesting one, and I spent some time looking at that myself and how it relates–or doesn’t–to security in relationships.  I thought it might be interesting to share that commentary here.

As always, feel free to comment here, in my Facebook, or contact me privately. I may not always have time to comment back, and it might take a little while for me to approve your comments if you’re new here, but so long as you remain respectful of everyone, your comments are welcome. A diversity of thought and discussion is good!

Best wishes,

~♥ Dawn


[Original version posted in this comment here]

I was always uncomfortable with a “veto” [one strong form of “primary privilege,” which confers the right to summarily end another’s relationship without negotiation.] Unfortunately, there’s really NOTHING that guarantees security in relationship — not veto power, not Agreements, not processing, not the mythical lack of jealousy. Ultimately, we are all in a dance with one another, and if one person decides that they are done with the dance, then they are DONE. They let go, and the other person is suddenly without their partner. What happens next, is entirely up to each individual; there is no more “we.”

Ironically how this happened for me was that I was in a primary relationship, married, and secure and stable for many years, with a variety of partners of each of us, and some shared partners. I was almost never jealous (my primary partner was “the jealous one” of the pair; I considered myself blessed to be not jealous, rather than “enlightened.”)

And then my primary decided he wanted to have a new primary. I never asked her to end her relationship with my primary. I just wasn’t “in love” with her nor did I wish to be “married” to her. My options at that point were limited. I could choose to accept his decision that — without my permission, without much discussion, and against my wishes — she was now “co-primary” in our then 17-year marriage, and I would effectively “answer to her” as much as to him. Or I could let him leave (more or less “with her”), or I could leave myself. Arguably, either she co-opted my “primary privilege,” or he gave it to her — or I never really had it at all. No amount of discussion, therapy, or negotiation changed his decision, or gave me back that power.

Primary relationships (or any relationships) MUST be based on trust, and I clearly (at least in my mind) could not trust either one of them to support me in my own power to choose (unless my choice aligned with theirs). Therefore, I could not choose to be “co-primary.” Life now was an experiment in learning to live without guarantees, and in finding my own power again. In effect, I was now the secondary, despite what the piece of paper said.

I still believe that Agreements (as distinct from Rules) can be a useful tool for navigating mis-matches in poly (or other) relationships. Certainly the process of making them can help clarify thinking. I now understand however, in a way that I did not before, that they only have the power that each individual gives them, and that the moment one person no longer agrees, they cease to exist (until and unless they are re-negotiated).

Ultimately, although we can use various tools to help us out, security is an illusion, and can come only from within. No one else can give it to you. Kinda sucks, but there we are. :)

~♥ Dawn


©2012, Dawn M. Davidson

12 thoughts on ““Primary privilege” and the illusion of security

  1. Pingback: What Is Couple Privilege? — Uncharted Love

  2. Christa

    If, as you say, a veto is not a guarantee of any kind, then what is your objection to it? If the veto actually came along with a call-the-police-if-you-come-within-100-feet-of-them enforceable restraining order that actually removed the vetoed-person’s rights I’d agree it’s a problem. But I think that people make agreements knowing that the agreement is only as strong as their partner’s bond to them is.

    1. Uncharted Love / Love Outside the Box Post author

      hmm… I’m feeling like maybe I’ve expressed myself unclearly. I don’t think “a veto is not a guarantee of any kind.” I think a “veto” is as close as you can get to a guarantee, without the restraining order. That’s part of why I don’t LIKE them, at least in theory. (I think that Tacit has done a much better job of describing the effect of a veto on people outside of the primary partnership, so I’d direct you back there for more on this.) I’m thinking, though, that you may have gotten it backwards as to what was causing me the issue.

      In my particular case (so this does not necessarily translate to yours or anyone else’s; YMMV!!), when the rubber met the road, I found out that I had been relying upon an ultimate “veto” that hadn’t been explicitly stated as such (though we DID have an Agreement to “keep the primary relationship/s primary”). This is where the primary/couple privilege comes in. By being “married” (in both a social and a legal sense), I had unconsciously thought that I had an ultimate veto — not to “kick out” my partner’s other relationship (which is what most folks think of when they hear “veto” I think), but instead to determine for myself whom was IN “the marriage”/primary partnership. At the very least I thought that I had an agreement that my husband and I were in partnership, and therefore, any “big decisions” (such as where we would live, investments and other financial decisions, pregnancy/child-rearing … or whom I/we were married to!) would be made jointly. Traditional “marriage” privileges the couple, and the presumption (socially and legally) is that the couple now becomes a single entity. So in my view, inviting another person into the marriage would require both of us to do. In his view… it didn’t.

      I don’t know if this addresses your comment exactly, though. So getting back to the last thing you said… I think many people do NOT realize that their Agreement is “only as strong as their partner’s bond to them is.” I think a lot of folks make assumptions based on societal norms, and that includes the idea that “marriage” in particular — but possibly other forms of agreement — confers the right to control the other person. It could be as small as telling them what to wear (or not), or as big as telling them they can’t have sex with another person. It’s a form of OWNERSHIP, and it does in fact date back to the times when wives were literally owned by their husbands.

      Now, whether that ownership is “bad” is debatable (e.g., *consensual* power exchange), and how that plays out in modern day relationships varies all over the map. Marriage/relationship researchers John Gottman talks about “influencing” each other as being one of the things required for a long-lasting partnership. But I think there’s some space between “influencing” each other, and veto/ownership. For me I’m ok with it as long as the power exchange IS consensual on both/all parts. I become uncomfortable when one person assumes the privilege to make decisions on behalf of another without their consent.

      All this is, I think, fairly obviously, still muddled in my mind, in part because I’m shifting from some unconscious thought patterns and assumptions, into more conscious ones. It leaves me in a bit of a grey area, and not really comfortable with my own thoughts and behaviors 100% of the time. Ah, personal growth and evolution. Such “fun”! 😉

  3. John Ullman

    Another important part of the illusion of security is, at least in my case, external stresses that are not relationship related. When Irene and I nearly split up, I became depressed and anxious enough to seek help. My HMO gave me a pamphlet. On the first page was a list of eight stressful situations. It said if you had four of them, you were in serious trouble. I had twelve.

    One was that we were separating from our husband, partly because we were having agreement problems, but mostly because he had to move near his kids, 800 miles away. The other eleven were business problems, our college age kids definitively leaving home, illness or deaths of people close to us, etc.

    Before this incident, we thought our relationship was indestructible, but now we know better. We keep a sharp eye on stress, our health, and what we agree to do for others.

    1. Uncharted Love Post author

      Yes, I agree that outside stresses are very important in the health of any relationship. Certainly outside stresses were a large factor in the end phase of my marriage (it’s hard for me to say “the end,” because we’re still legally married! But the relationship that was signified by that marriage is over, or at least changed beyond recognition…). Referencing the idea of “primary privilege” in particular, one might say that you and Irene found that you didn’t possess it, at least with regard to being able to say “no” to your husband’s departure for reasons unrelated to you. I’m sure that was distressing indeed.

      I’m glad you have been able to get things under better control in terms of the 12/8 stress score! I hope things continue to settle down and be more peaceful for you. 🙂

  4. Pingback: From Triads to Triadic Relationships (a response) — Uncharted Love

  5. John Ullman

    If people aren’t in agreement it may be because they really don’t want a specific thing, i.e. they are allergic to cats, so a household with indoor cats doesn’t work. On the other hand, a lot of the conversation at the beginning of forming a mutli-partner household is theoretical. One person may say “I have to have this agreement.”, but actually none of the people involved may grasp the long terms pros and cons. But there is likely a lot of fantasizing going on, which could lead to disappointment. And likely there are not mechanisms in place to deal with disappointments along the line of OK, I was thrown, but I’m getting right back on the horse.

    1. Uncharted Love Post author

      You bring up good reasons why I recommend time-limited agreements (or time-bound experiments, as another friend put it.) So many times, people view Agreements as permanent, when I think they’re better done as “this is what we’re thinking right now; we’ll look at it again in 2 months and renegotiate if necessary.” Because yes, you *can’t* always know in advance what you need or want. And the danger with most “standard” agreements is that later, you’re trapped by “but you agreed to it!” Well, yes, you agreed to try it out. But really, you have to be able to change your mind, or there’s no room for growth and change.

  6. Uncharted Love Post author

    John, you said: “…there are no rules, rituals, agreements, lists of expectations that get discussed when a new person is brought in.”

    Yes, I think that’s true. Often, these things are left undiscussed, and that’s a serious error. Sometimes, even if we try to discuss them, things stall, because it becomes clear that everyone isn’t in agreement, and things get uncomfortable, and the matter gets tabled indefinitely. (I’m thinking here of the “end phase” of my own marriage.)

  7. John Ullman

    I’m not sure it is just “respect” or how simple it is. I just got blindsided by a relationship I had high hopes for that went south in a hurtful and weird way, leaving us experimenting with what kind of friendship we can have.

    Even after years of doing poly and being in a large poly community, I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I think one thing that happens often enough is that there are no rules, rituals, agreements, lists of expectations that get discussed when a new person is brought in. If the new person is new to both poly and the others involved, I think there can be dissonance between what people are willing to offer and what people perceive the others are offering. Dissonance, as Pavlov, showed, is crazy making.

    I think what kept Irene and I together, in part, was my willingness to endure a lot of crazy making stuff, willingness on both of our parts get help from four different therapists, all poly friendly, and the support of our poly friends who didn’t take sides and didn’t advocate for an outcome.


  8. John Ullman

    Irene and I came close to splitting up after about 25 years. We didn’t, and it is a long story, but here is a tangential thing that can happen in poly and not mono.

    An otherlove I’ve been with now for about 19 years acquired a primary partner, still with her, and a dear friend of mine, about 10 years ago. My sweetie’s otherloves all reacted with upset, perhaps thinking they had dibs on a primary with her when she got around to having one again. So they are gone. Her primary told me that I was the only one who treated her with respect when and my otherlove got together.

    At another time my otherlove’s primary told me she had some emotional upset, not daunting, but there, non the less, when my otherlove and I talked about our rather outre adventures before the primary entered the picture. Since then we have aged/illnessed out of outre, but we did have fun for a while, sometimes the three of us…

    1. Uncharted Love Post author

      Congrats on not splitting up after 25 years. 🙂 I think that some of what we’re talking about here is a simple level of “respect.” Unfortunately, what’s simple to say, is not always so simple to do, especially when we have so many almost-invisible assumptions.


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