December 3, 2012 by aggiesez
No matter how egalitarian you are, privilege exists. We’re all soaking in it — even in the polyamorous/open relationship community. Here, couple privilege is one of the most insidious and controversial forms of ingrained inequality. I’m preparing a post on this topic, and would like to hear your thoughts.
UPDATE DEC. 19: Yeah, I really did open a can of worms here. I’ve gotten a ton of feedback on this topic, and I’m rather overwhelmed by the volume and emotion of it. To be quite honest, a lot of poly people are in a lot of pain — and a lot of denial — about couple privilege. Quite honestly, that’s been bringing me down and I haven’t been quite sure how to proceed. I’ve decided to handle this through a series of posts after the holidays. Thanks so much to everyone who’s been discussing this topic here and elsewhere online. I welcome all feedback and stories, especially from solo poly people and non-primary partners. See the end of this post for how to contribute. Thanks!
I realize I’m opening a can of worms.
Talking about any kind of privilege is awkward and difficult. Inevitably, some people end up feeling maligned, misunderstood or attacked; others dismissed. Discussions about privilege may feel divisive, but handled thoughtfully, they’re not. In fact, such discourse is vital — especially in any community that claims to value honesty, authenticity, respect, fairness and ethical behavior.
Not thinking and talking clearly about couple privilege won’t make it vanish. In fact, avoiding examination and discourse is exactly what makes it easy for any kind of privilege to persist and deepen. Privilege thrives when it can fade into the background.
Here are some of my initial thoughts on couple privilege, followed by a few questions for you. Please comment below, or e-mail me your thoughts.
First, my definition so far of couple privilege:
Couple privilege: In the context of non-monogamous relationships and communities, this is the presumption that socially recognized or sanctioned pair bonds (such as marriage or other forms of primary life partnership) take precedence over, and are more important or valid than, other intimate/romantic/sexual relationships. This prioritization occurs by default and does not warrant negotiation or consent.
More generally, couple privilege also manifests in the body of social, legal, and financial advantages automatically accorded (implicitly or explicitly) to couples who present publicly as being monogamously committed, especially as primary partners. These same advantages generally are not accorded to non-primary relationships, solo or otherwise unpartnered people, or sometimes to primary couples who are publicly “out” as non-monogamous.
An alternate definition, proposed in May 2012 by MayMay, is: “Behaviors that presume people in a dyad are more important than others and entitled to act upon them without consent.”
In society at large, the advantage of couple privilege is a key incentive to ride the traditional relationship escalator — and to stay on it, even if that relationship eventually becomes unfulfilling or harmful.
Couple privilege also influences non-romantic/sexual relationships and communities that also are important: friendships, family, neighborhoods, etc. But here, I’m choosing to focus on how it affect non-monogamous relationships and the poly/open community.
For poly/open relationships, couple privilege has internal implications between the people involved. These may include veto power, reserving certain sex acts or intimacies only for primary partners (as a means to reinforce hierarchy or accommodate insecurity, not strictly for health or family planning) — or the presumption (but not necessarily consensual agreement) that that the primary partner’s (or couple’s) needs, wishes, schedule, or preferences automatically take precedence over those of non-primary partners in all circumstances.
Couple privilege also means that non-primary partners typically shoulder disproportionate risk in poly/open relationships. For instance, we’re more likely to get dumped. We may not have (or be offered) a voice in decisions that affect the scope or future of our relationships. We may be expected to subordinate our own needs. And we’re often treated as if we’re a secret — and expected to be complicit in maintaining that secrecy, even in long-term relationships.
There are also external implications. Primary couples who “come out” as poly/open by publicly acknowledging their additional partners and relationships may face negative consequences. These can involve concrete discrimination or risk (jobs, housing, child custody, etc.), loss of social status, or alienation of friends, family, or other communities or networks. Sometimes these external risks are demonstrably real (as in employment contracts that include a “morals” clause). Other times they’re reflexively assumed and feared without being examined or tested; and sometimes they’re presented as straw men to thwart challenges to couple privilege.
In the real world, differences exist — including in relationships. Handling relationships differently does not always indicate couple privilege at work. Rather, how we recognize and accommodate differences in our relationships can be a key tool in minimizing the adverse or unintended effects of couple privilege.
People are free to make their own choices about their own relationships. If you don’t think couple privilege is a problem, and if you prefer to effectively enshrine it in your relationships, that’s a valid choice. No one is trying to be the polyamory police here. I’m just saying, it helps everyone to be conscious and responsible for how that choice gets made and implemented, including thinking and communicating clearly about it.
A lot of poly people take the view that what I’m trying to describe here is not really “privilege” in the sense of white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, and other types of invisible backpacks. Commonly this objection is phrased this way: “I see that choice, while it may be unfair, as more of an interpersonal issue (an issue which, if there are kids within the relationship, may be perfectly valid).”
While I understand this line of reasoning, personally I don’t buy it — even though I respect the right of people to make whatever consensual decisions they want for their own relationships. My reason is the presumption that I pointed out in my definition, and the entitlement that MayMay mentioned in his.
Privilege isn’t only about special advantages or rights; privilege is also about entitlement. It’s about assuming (typically without consciously considering, and definitely without asking) that simply because you possess characteristic X you’re entitled to do Y — even if Y happens at the expense of others (or worse, it doesn’t even occur to you that your choice might cost others). This can include making decisions on behalf of others without their consent, or not taking the needs or perspective of others into account, or assuming other people (and your relationship with them) are inherently more disposable or less important or valid. Presumption and entitlement mean that you don’t really believe you always have to treat others fairly. (And remember: “fair” does not necessarily mean “equal.”)
Also, I don’t believe couple privilege is synonymous with monogamy privilege. This has been suggested to me, but so far I reject that interpretation. Here’s why:
Monogamy privilege is accorded to people who identify or present as monogamous regardless of their relationship status. For example, in the context of dating (at least in the straight community) the default presumption is that single people are, or desire to be, monogamous. Consequently, openly nonmonogamous people often get marginalized or ostracized in straight dating.
Meanwhile, couple privilege is accorded specifically to people who present as being in a primary couple — regardless of whether they’re actually or ostensibly monogamous. (Check out infidelity statistics: most primary couples and ostensibly monogamous people are not really monogamous, but that doesn’t seem to diminish couple privilege.)
Share your thoughts and experiences on couple privilege
That’s my thinking so far on this. Before I get further with developing this post, I’d love input from the poly/open community — especially from non-primary partners and solos (people who don’t have and maybe don’t want a primary partner). Here are my questions:
- Do you believe couple privilege exists? How would you define it? (Or how would you adjust my proposed definition?)
- How have you seen couple privilege manifest in poly/open relationships? (Examples)
- Is couple privilege harmful, neutral or beneficial in poly/open relationships, or in the poly/open community? Why or why not?
- How has couple privilege affected your personal experience of poly/open relationships? Specific examples or personal stories are welcome.
- How would you like to see couple privilege addressed in the poly/open community at large?
- If you are part of a primary couple that chooses to handle relationships with additional intimate partners in hierarchical ways that may seem to reinforce couple privilege, what is your rationale or intent for those choices?
- If you eschew hierarchy in your poly/open relationships, how do you “walk that talk” regarding couple privilege?
- If you are a non-primary partner or solo poly/open person, how have you adapted to couple privilege in terms of how you handle relationships and what you’re willing to accommodate?
In addition, feel free to comment on any of the couple privilege issues I outlined, or raise new ones. I’m sure I haven’t thought of everything!
When you respond, I’d appreciate if you’d clarify whether you identify as poly/open (or not), and whether you currently have a primary partner, and whether you currently are in a non-primary relationship. I’m happy to consider input from anyone, but that it crucial context for understanding your perspective.
Again, you can comment below or e-mail me confidentially. I will not identify specific contributors — but as in my prior crowdsourced post on treating non-primary partners well, I will quote from selected responses.
Thanks! Please spread the word of this project in your poly/open communities and network.