The titles "primary" and "secondary" for partners is not reflective of their importance, the depth of the relationship, or simply, who comes first when shit hits the fan. Primary and secondary refer to the investment partners have made with each other. In other words, how much their individual lives are entangled with each other. There are many ways partners can invest in each other.
The most obvious (because it usually happens first) is friendship. Friends look out for you. Tell you the truth when you need to hear it. Listen to you when everything goes wrong. And won't think any less of you because of any of this. Friendship, even though basic and foundational, should not be overlooked. Partners who are solid friends can last through emotional tsunamis. Friends, the ones who are worth while anyway, will put you ahead of themselves when you really need it. They make no requirements other than honesty and decency (sometimes not even that), and they make little or no demands on your time, affections, loyalty, (other non-demands).
Romance is another basic entanglement that most partners share with each other. This is where shit gets emotional. Cause somehow it's just way more hurtful if your partner cancels a date, than if your friend does (the reason is irrelevant). Emotional attachment means, among other things, that you care about what this person thinks about you. If a friend doesn't like my new haircut, well, screw them. They'll get over it. But if my romantic partner doesn't like it ... later, you'll find me at the wig shop.
Sex gets way more face time than it should. For some, like me, there is no experiential difference between sex and romance. But I know for others (maybe most), sex is the only reason to bother with any of the other components of relationships. Thus, I have given "sex" it's own distinction. There's nothing wrong with sex-only relationships when it's mutual. However, when looking for something more, it's best to keep in mind that sex is only one way of relating. Over-emphasizing sex in a relationships, or placing a higher value on sex-only relationships could get you to a place where you don't want to be. Then again, maybe you do.
Finance. First comes love, then comes marriage ... I am not saying that love has to lead to marriage, or should. But marriage is one way that partners become financially entangled. You buy a house, share a bank account, provide health care, are legally considered next-of-kin. This is way more serious than friendship, romance, sex or even all combined. If you want to be rid of a friend (they're seriously crampin' your style), you can stonewall communications, and the relationship is over. If you decide your romantic partner is too co-dependent, you can break up with them. But, once you entangle your finances with a partner or multiple partners, it's gonna take a lot more than a phone call to break things up. It also means there is more to consider when ending the relationship. Can you support yourself? Are you in desperate need of the health care provided by your partner's job? Is there somewhere else for you to live? This level of entanglement can be a stronger bond depending on how interdependent you and your partner(s) are financially. Then again, it may play only very minor roll, and be very easy to break off because everyone's rollin' in the dough. For others though, it could be a life-changing decision.
Parenting is probably the most obvious of relationship entanglements. And the hardest to draw clear boundary lines for. Whether a relationship between parents is on or off, they will have to find a way to communicate. A relationship that involves parenting is never really over, even if you break up and move on, chances are communication between exes will still take place. In my opinion, parenting is the most important relationship area when it comes to getting it right, as success or failure effects more than just the happiness of the partners. I would never say that nontraditional arrangements can't or shouldn't work. But clear communication is needed about responsibilities, expectation and intent of the level of involvement.There may be occasions when a partner's parental responsibilities may not be demanding, but overall, this can be the deepest entanglement for most partners.
Business. And of course when partners are involved in some kind of business together, this can have an impact on their overall attachment to each other. It could also be a sub-group of finance, as business is often tied to livelihood.
Partners can share any one or more of these entanglements. And there are numerous combinations. (Can someone else do the math on that please?) The more two partners are entangled, the more important that relationship is to the individuals. An individual may choose to use the words primary/secondary or not, but regardless of the label, they will still make choices based on this model.
There is no "right" way to have a relationship. What I love about poly is the freedom to let each relationship be what it wants to be without trying to force a cultural model upon it. Friends can be deeply financially entangled, but not romantically involved. Married partners may live separately, and be financially independent of each other, but have a deep romantic relationship. Any relationship may have all the mentioned entanglements, or only one. (None, of course, would mean no relationship.) And as time moves along, relationships may change, adding or dropping entanglements according to the wishes or circumstances of each partner.
The depth and number attachments a relationship has will designate partners as primary or secondary. Meaning, when decisions have to be made (relocation, change of job, birth of a child, whom to marry/divorce, metamores not getting along, etc.), primary relationships will take precedence. This doesn't mean that the other relationships are less important or have less depth. It means that the dynamics of the individual's self-designated primary relationship are more important to that individual's life goals.
Time For an Example and a Whole Lot of Sex
In my model of a completely realistic poly family (see diagram), I am partnered with Brad, Patrick, and Ryan. My relationship with Brad includes friendship, romance, and finance, and a shared dwelling, but (glaringly) lacks sex. (Wait ... who made this damn model anyway? We need to fix that! Stat!) Anywho, Pat is my go-to guy for sex. And with Ryan, I share hot hot sex, steamy romance, and business (we make movies together, yeah that's how I roll). Now, we all know how complicated poly families can get, so for the sake of making a point, without spiraling helplessly out of control, I made this family simple. You can assume Pat and Ryan are both banging other hot movie stars, but they don't affect my point.
When things are peachy, relationships are easy. Brad doesn't mind how many nights I spend on set with Ryan in exotic locales, mostly because he's got Angie and Scarlet on call. Of course Pat's out on tour over the summer, but usually home November-March, and we spend our time together then. See, one big happy poly family. (God, I love my life!)
Now, let's add the secret ingredient: life! This is where shit gets complicated. Angie decides it's time to move. She's got a new lover 5 hours away. This means Brad won't get to see their mutual children very often. He has a few choices. He could move too. But, of course, this would affect me. Do I want to move? If I move, I won't see Pat as much when he's home during the summer. Unless, of course he wants to come stay with me during the summer. But Brad and Pat don't get along that well. (Country vs. Pop music, or something).
Brad has got to make a choice. Which relationship is primary to him (over the other)? And let's not forget poor Scarlet. She needs love--er ... I mean, Brad, too. In this scenario, Brad has to determine the depth and importance of his connections with each of his partners. Perhaps he is hoping the sex-only with Scarlet will eventually develop into something more, so this is his primary concern. Or maybe, being a parent is what he considers the most important thing in his life.
If Brad does decide to move, it won't affect our financial relationship much, seeing as how my last movie was a box office hit. But it would hamper our friendship/romantic relationship. Now I've got to determine which relationship is primary to me. To do so, I need to evaluate the depth and importance of each relationship and what moving will mean for each of those. Will I lose a good chunk of time with Pat? Will I be unable to make more movies with Ryan (unlikely)? Brad and I have been friends for a very long time, and this might be the most important relationship. Am I willing to let the others suffer to keep this relationship fully intact?
The label primary/secondary isn't important. However, understanding that all relationships have different levels of involvement is. It is foolish to think that all relationships are equal to each other. Life will demand that you shake things up every now and again. Understanding the degree of entanglements of your partners' other relationships will save you much heartache.
If Brad decides to move closer to Angie, for example, and I choose to stay closer to Ryan and Pat, I know this does not mean "he likes her better than me" or that she is "primary" and I am "secondary". I understand that being a father is important to Brad, and this is what really makes him happy, so this is his primary concern for the time being. I support his decision. Brad, in turn, recognizes that my other relationships have a stronger hold on me at this time in my life, they are my primary concern, and that my decision to stay in no way means that I love him less or love them more.
Let me explain ... No, there is too much. Let me sum up ... Using labels like primary/secondary, can save your partners a lot of heartache by letting them know where your desires/life goals lay at any one point in your relationship. The distinctions of friendship, romance, sex, etc. are arbitrary. I used the most common attachments between partners merely as examples to make a point. The bonds that partners can have with each other can only be defined by those individuals. You may not choose to use the words primary/secondary. But communicating how and why particular relationships may take precedence over others will go along way to keeping everyone on the same page when life happens. The labels are not important, but communication is essential.