managing feelings of guilt as a “single secondary”

Dear Kitty,

I’m in a relationship with a poly partner. I’m not sure he would agree as he cites how significant I am to him, but I’d class his wife as his primary and myself as a secondary, however his relationship with his wife is not a romantic one so I’m not sure whether I would be his primary and his wife just his ‘lives with’ partner. Besides the point I suppose… They are in an open relationship and that’s the way it has been for years.

I’m unsure whether I am poly or a swinger, as I have only ever explored sex with others (with the consent of my partner) rather than multiple relationships. I’m currently not seeing anyone else. But I’m here as I currently do, and in the future will, find myself in poly dynamics.

In a lot of ways we have a wonderful relationship. I feel more open, loved and understood than I’ve ever felt before. This is my first experience of poly and it’s not without its challenges. I have been working on managing my time, and emotions around that, to stay busy and distracted when we’re unable to spend time together as when I am feeling sensitive this can be an issue. When I am feeling fragile I find it hard to not just hide away and wallow so any tips to find the motivation to use my time alone productively would be much appreciated.

The main reason for my thread is to explore guilt. I am currently really struggling with the feeling that I am keeping him from his family. I feel that him spending time with me takes away precious time with his children and the worry is crippling. I’m not sure how to manage these feelings? He is aware and reassures me that no one is suffering and I’m not taking anything from his family, that in fact he is a better person and dad because I bring a new level of love and happiness to his life. I still can’t shake the guilt I feel. It’s the only thing that makes me consider jumping ship, and there are too many positive to want to follow through with that.

How do you all manage feelings of guilt?

Yours truly,

Guilty(?) Party

Dear Guilty Party,

Your plight caught my eye, because I, too, was a “single secondary” dating someone with an existing relationship. More specifically someone in a primary relationship. This is not to say that secondary/non primary relationships are not valid, however, there are additional complications that arise when you date someone who has that level of entanglement with another human being. How could it be otherwise? Do you really think that wife whose mother-in-law hates her isn’t affected by it? Do you think her marriage is just the same as if she were married to someone whose in-laws loved and cherished her? Please.

I felt guilty, too, like I wasn’t wanted or needed. Know that the way you feel is completely understandable. Yet- at least for myself- things changed as time passed. While I can’t say I never feel guilt or unpleasant feelings today, I definitely feel constant waves of positive feelings crash against the negative. Like you, I feel- and felt- loved in a way I never did in any other relationship. Perhaps, one day, you can feel secure and loved in this relationship, as you ought!

First, let’s assess the situation.

I hope I can help you, but I can’t do that without understanding a little about you. So let me try to make sure I’ve got your situation straight. There’s no rush to coming to an answer, as I don’t have a stock of magical solutions and answers, anyway.

I’m not sure he would agree as he cites how significant I am to him, but I’d class his wife as his primary and myself as a secondary, however his relationship with his wife is not a romantic one so I’m not sure whether I would be his primary and his wife just his ‘lives with’ partner.

It’s funny that you- and I!- called ourselves “single,” despite the fact that we were both dating someone at the time. But I totally get it, because my metamour saw me that way. Unattached, threatening. And yet I was, in fact, very involved with a complicated network of people. Still, my metamour made me feel like I needed to get a boyfriend in order to be a “safer” option for her partner to date.

I wonder if you feel similar pressure to date someone else, otherwise why call yourself single? Why bring attention to that fact when you clearly are not single? If you were, none of this would be an issue. But you do see yourself as a “single” secondary, and that is okay. It’s just worth thinking about.

As far as the primary and secondary nature of your relationships? To the world, yes, she would probably be viewed as A, if not, THE, primary partner of his (many people don’t believe you can have more than one primary relationship, which is obviously not true as there exist plenty of triads/quads, in addition to people who have multiple, non interacting primary relationships (say Alice dates Mike and Bob, and both are her primaries, but Mike and Bob do not date each other. You might say she has two secondaries, but at that point, this is just semantics.) But she also might be a secondary relationship for him. It’s possible for you, the girlfriend, to be his only primary, and his wife to be his secondary. Absolutely nothing wrong with that, if you’re all okay with it. But it can be tricky if you aren’t all on board, especially if the wife disagrees with that arrangement.

I’m curious how you feel about the primary/secondary nature of your relationships. Because this can affect how you feel about the relationship. And strengthen the feelings of guilt (“Am I replacing the wife as his primary? Does she resent this?”)

But this doesn’t seem to be your main concern….

I am currently really struggling with the feeling that I am keeping him from his family. I feel that him spending time with me takes away precious time with his children and the worry is crippling

Kids. Now there’s a whole other issue. I’ll admit I felt this way, too, in the beginning of my relationship. As my then casual partner had kids, as well. A couple of things:

First, every person deserves their “me” time. Regardless if they are a parent or not. If he wants to spend it with you, why not? His kids do not need him every second of every day. They do have another parent, not that they have to be with their parents all the time. Is this, maybe, your ego getting in the way of your enjoying your relationship with him?

Second, if you truly are desiring for this to go further and perhaps even be a primary relationship, I am curious why wouldn’t you be spending time with him and the kids? If this is gonna go anywhere, you and they have got to figure out some kind of healthy relationship with each other (or maybe you discover you can’t stand each other, which is also okay, but, again, means thinkig through the relationship with him.)

Maybe it will happen, maybe not.

I’m guessing you probably need to be able to share an evening together- ALL of you-, even if that means nothing more than you, him, the wife, and kids sitting in the same room and watching a movie.

Please trust me that if you have a non existent/poor relationship with the kids or her, it will only make you all miserable. So maybe it’s time you talk about how you add to his family’s lives, rather than just take away? You know, that life/work balance they talk about? Your life and his BOTH need to balance (and his happens to include a wife and family).

Also, consider being friends with her, too.

Have you tried extending a friendly hand to his wife? Does she see you as cooperation, not competition? He is evidently important to both of you, and he sees something in both of you, so why not try to integrate yourself further into his life by at least trying to be friends? Because if you and she can’t get along, maybe that’s something you should know.

Would you seriously date/commit yourself to a man whose parents, best friend, or close social circle outright hated you or treated you badly? Who didn’t encourage you to share your lives with each other, but kept you compartmentalized on the side? Whatever your answer, I would suggest you may think twice about dating a man whose wife can’t manage to be friendly with you (and who is okay with her treating you as less than even a casual friend).

In short, if you want to eliminate those feelings of guilt, feeling like a welcomed, contributing member of his family is a great way to fight those feelings.

Because you’ll see how much good you truly offer to the kids, instead of feeling like you’re merely intruding and taking their dad away from them. Again, this does not mean losing yourself in his life, but rather bringing your life and his together and making it more than the sum of the two parts.

If that is not desirable or possible, it is still feasible to have a relationship with him– but you are going to have to learn to trust that he is managing his relationship with his kids and just…let the feelings go (or, if it’s shown that he’s neglecting them, consider if you want to stay with a guy who has shown you what happens to his relationships after the novelty’s worn off).

But, really, this all starts with a conversation with him. And them. As silly and trite as it sounds, talking with him and her (and even the kids, in an age appropriate manner) might do wonders to ease your conscious. Please think about what I’ve said here and try to work that into the conversation. It’s okay, too, if it means more than one afternoon of talking (although they do eventually need to tell you what to expect and not leave you hanging for years!)

If none of that manages to get rid of those feelings, you may need to seek a professional therapist who is trained in how to manage feelings like guilt. No shame, if that is needed!

I hope that helps you,



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