Central versus Primary

Aubby was excited.  She and Sara are starting a womens polyamory discussion group and even the formulating steps have her animated.  “It makes you look at these questions like jealousy and ones relationships to your lovers other lovers in a deeper way, which you would not have to in monogamous relationships.”


If you want to build a new culture, you definitely need some new language.

In the world of open relationships (aka polyamory) there are different words used for different configurations and different roles.  One of the more discussed relationship models is a configuration where there is a dominant relationship in which one or both of the partners have other smaller relationships.

Conversationally, these relationships are often called “primary” which is a term that i think very often has a meaning, but people often bristle when i tell them what my definition of a primary polyamorous relationship is:

In the event that all the lovers can not come to consensus around some issue, it is the primary relationship which will be deferred to.

From my perspective there are a number of problems with this type of definition, including that it can rewards bad behavior.  If you are in the primary relationship and you dont want to deal with some new partner, you can simply block and likely will get your way.

The alternative term (that i use) for especially significant relationships in a polyamory context is central.

A central relationship is one where the partners are planning the important decisions of their lives around each other.

This does not mean that they are planning to do everything together.  It does mean that if you are making any biggish life decision the input and counsel of your central lover will factor into your process.  It also means (unlike the primary) you can have more than one central relationship (as i do) assuming you are willing to do that amount of processing work.


Best Poly Voice mail ever

With Open Hands: A short handbook on  Open Relationships

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About paxus

a funologist, memeticist and revolutionary. Can be found in the vanity bin of Wikipedia and in locations of imminent calamity. buckle up, there is going to be some rough sledding.

16 responses to “Central versus Primary”

  1. Ian Mayes says :

    I like this distinction, it is like those “central” people exist within a closer social sphere of your life. This then overlaps with notions of “family”, where your “immediate family” gets more consideration than the “extended family” does.

  2. paxus says :

    @Ian: i shy from family analogies, because people have all different levels of functionality and intimacy in families. But your thinking is correct.

  3. Ian Mayes says :

    I personally like the idea of radically redefining the concept of “family” to make it work for each person. Basically, I would said that one’s “family” is the people whom one feels the closest and most intimate & connected with. This may or may not overlap with biological relations, depending on the person. I’m actually a part of a local group here in Minneapolis that talks about these subjects, it’s called “radfam”. A web-site for it can be found here: http://radfam.tumblr.com/

  4. Polyparenting (@PolyParenting) says :

    The definition you give for “central” is exactly how I always used the term “primary”. It’s the relationship that is primary to my life, and the one that my major decisions have been shaped around, not the one that is always “deferred to”.

    The terms primary and secondary fit neatly together, but what would a non-central partner be called? Peripheral? Personally, I’d rather stick to being a secondary!

  5. paxus says :

    @Polyparenting – Of course people are free to use what ever terms they like. The popularity of this post makes me think that people are searching for things which are different than “primary” which automatically infers secondary to everything else. But you could have central and non-central relationships.

    Perhaps the problem with primary (for me at least) is that it is exclusive, you cant have more than one of them (at least in most peoples usage). If you are sure that you will never have another person who you are planning your life around, then primary functions fine.

  6. Neicole Teare says :

    I really like this description. It is more tolerant and open then primary. I believe that primary is a step for people. Some people have to take baby steps when trying new things. Having a primary relationship works for them in that way. Central would be a step farther into it once they feel more comfortable. Kudos for this blog post!

  7. Nycindie Indie says :

    I don’t see “primary” as exclusive. You can have “co-primaries.” That being said, I eschew such hierarchies in relationships. Even calling one person “central” implies that everyone else is somewhere on the outside. I treat all my relationships with equal importance.

    • paxus says :

      @Nycindie – Oh i think it is completely impossible to keep my relationships of equal importance,, i dont try and i dont pretend they are. They have variable important and currency at any moment.

  8. Tara Shakti-Ma says :

    To be honest I have some issues with this blog post. What I have issue with can be basically summed up in this paragraph –

    “This does not mean that they are planning to do everything together. It does mean that if you are making any biggish life decision the input and counsel of your central lover will factor into your process. It also means (unlike the primary) you can have more than one central relationship (as i do) assuming you are willing to do that amount of processing work.”

    My first “objection” so to speak is in the last sentence, wherein it’s suggested one can only have one “primary” partner….that is, if you choose to embrace that term and it’s potential implications at all. Among those who use such terms, it is well known that it is highly possible to have more than one “primary”. I know numerous polycules that include more than one member in their labeling of “primary”.

    That said (and moving on to the rest of that paragraph)…..

    Originally – in the realm of poly terminology – “primary” meant a significant lover who you live with….someone you’re highly life integrated with. “Secondary” meant a significant lover – who you are somewhat life integrated with (“somewhat” do to the fact that you don’t share a home – and the collaboration that requires – with them) that you do not live with. “Tertiary” meant lovers who…..well, you may be just getting to know, or for some other reason aren’t “as significant” to you as your other partners/lovers are, and who is minimally life integrated with you….often this is due to geography challenges or scheduling crunches. Anyway…those were “the good old days”….before ranking order came along.

    As you can see there is no indication in the above descriptors about “more important” or “less important”. For the most part they describe simply who you live with and/or coordinate life affairs and schedules with to some degree. In the last 7 to 10 years however, these terms have very sadly been morphed into who is more or less important, who holds the stronger sway if “push comes to shove”, who gets first dips, whose feelings get considered more, and possibly even who has final say on whether the lover of one’s paramour can “stay” or has to “go” (veto power). I find this approach to “loving more than one” extremely lacking in love, respect, kindness, egalitarian thinking and far from the kind of approach to polyamory where everyone is at personal liberty to explore each relationship in a spirit that allows it to evolve to it’s own natural level and expression.

    I don’t put my relationships in boxes with labels on them. I don’t rubber stamp the foreheads of my lovers with such labeling either. To me the term “central” is just one more way of suggesting ranking order. If I had a big life decision to make ***ALL*** my lovers and partners would be privy to that process, as well as be welcome to offer input, suggestions, requests, ideas, concerns, etc. In short, all of them would be consulted. They are *all* important to me, as are the relationships I have with them. They may take different forms and shapes, but they are all equally important.

    So rather than “label” my lovers/partners and the relationships I have with them, I tend to think that simply using more words and describing the nature and mechanics/dynamics of any given relationship is more honoring of all of them, and the people I am in them with. I might also describe how I feel about them and what blessings they bring to my life experience. I don’t do hierarchical polyamory (in fact I dislike hierarchical social structures in general) in any form, and work hard to identify those places where I am unconsciously engaging in such mentality…whether that be to rank my own lovers or attempt to ascertain my “rank” within someone else’s “bouquet of lovers”.

    I refer to the lover/partner that I live with as my “nesting partner”….a term essentially gleaned from Robert Heinlein’s novels, wherein he refers to openly and honestly non-monogamous, loving nests of individuals living collectively. Thus, just like the word “primary” (but without the ranking order implications) was **originally** intended to serve, it suggests who I nest/live with…..thus also suggesting we may have coordination of schedules and the use of space, and other forms of collaboration and cooperation to engage in, because of that. What it does not suggest is who is more or less important, or who holds special rights to me or being part of any decision making process I might engage in. I might – and would love to – have other nesting partners someday. They may be my lovers, they might be my current nesting partner’s lovers, they might be lovers to both of us, OR……not lovers to either of us…..but we share a nest, so we also share in the decision making processes around the care and use of that nest.

    Everyone else is a “lover”……or “partner” (if they have become more life integrated with me…..more involved in aspects of my everyday life, as well as I with theirs). If there is any hierarchy or labeling within my personal approach I tend to see some clarity around indicating who I am “dating” (which means we’re in the “getting to know” phase), who I am “lovers” with (we have gotten to know and like and desire the company of each other so much, we feel we’re sinking into some continuity and agreement to continue to nurture each other and the connection we share), and “partner” when that evolving continuum is fostering a desire to “be there” for each other for all sorts of “life stuff”. However, I still don’t see any of these as “more or less important”. There’s no holding up one relationship to another for rank or comparison. It simply suggests how the relationship is taking form at any given time.

  9. Marty says :

    I just caught this blog post and it made me curious. I started using the terms central and peripheral about 8 years ago and I pulled them out of my head thinking about the orbital pathways of planets. I’m curious where you heard them, or whether you came to the terms on your own too?

    • paxus says :

      Dearest Marty:

      Great minds think alike and fools seldom differ. it will be history which tells us which we are. i pulled them out of my mind as you did. i am not aware of another source

      Paxus in Easton
      24 Stardust Rising 2015

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