Couple privilege: Having it doesn’t necessarily make you an asshole (but it might)

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February 5, 2013 by aggiesez

knapsackIt’s surprisingly hard to talk about any kind of privilege — and that’s no accident. Privilege lives in the background. It’s context more than content. It’s the invisible knapsack of automatically conferred social benefits. It’s about what most people in a culture generally presume, more than what individuals consciously decide or do.

Because it’s ambient and ubiquitous, privilege generally is damn hard to see and discuss directly. If you could easily point at it and say “look, there it is!” unequivocally, it wouldn’t hold nearly so much power in everyday life.

This includes couple privilege: The presumption that socially sanctioned pair-bond relationships involving only two people (such as marriage, long-term boyfriend/girlfriend, or other forms of conventional intimate/life partnerships) are inherently more important, “real” and valid than other types of intimate, romantic or sexual relationships.

Such primary couples (or partnerships that are clearly riding society’s standard relationship escalator toward that goal) are widely presumed — even within many nonmonogamous communities — to warrant more recognition and support than other types of intimate relationships.

In the bigger picture, couple privilege also entails singleism — prejudice against single or solo people who aren’t in a primary-style relationship of their own, whether by choice or circumstance. Above the age of about 25-40 (depending on local or subcultural norms), single/solo people often are reflexively presumed to be inherently inferior, difficult, flawed, less important, less stable or valid, more obliged to accommodate, or more questionable than people who are in socially recognized, ostensibly monogamous primary couples.

Even in many nonmonogamous communities, primary-style couples are widely considered to be the only type of relationship worth significant effort — or, if it comes down to it, “saving.”

At its heart, a big part of the appeal of the standard relationship escalator involves gaining and maintaining the social benefits of couple privilege — and avoiding disadvantage or ostracism. I’m not saying that people in escalator-style couples don’t genuinely feel mutual love and dedication — many (perhaps most) of them do, and that’s wonderful.

Still, when many people choose relationships, they’ll only consider the escalator even if they wonder whether other models might suit them better — because choosing other models means sacrificing a ton of social privilege. The escalator bolsters an already powerful social hierarchy. The lure of couple privilege is what makes the relationship escalator not just appealing to some, but compelling to most. (By the way, I’m working on a book related to this theme. And you can help.)

Who is affected by couple privilege? Not all polyamorous or open relationships involve a hierarchy (often called “primary/secondary, core, satellite, etc.) But many do — in fact, it’s perhaps the most common configuration of nonmonogamous relationships, including (but not limited to) poly relationships.

Couple privilege is an effect of hierarchy, whether that hierarchy is explicit or implicit. It may have little or no direct effect in non-hierarchical relationships — although it can come into play when non-hierarchical people get involved with people in hierarchical relationships. And of course, there’s always the ambient pressure that social presumptions of couple privilege places on everyone: poly, mono, and otherwise. None of us can really escape it, completely.

Oh, come on: Nobody really thinks that way! At least, not poly/open people!

It’s true: Most people don’t think about couple privilege at all. That’s precisely the problem.

Modern culture is ostensibly egalitarian, so it’s generally considered very bad form to admit flat out (even to yourself) that you believe some people are simply better or more important than others. Or that some people inherently deserve better treatment, or more consideration or accommodation.

green privilegeNo one wants to look like a bigot, now that (thankfully) bigots have mostly lost their social status. These days, bigots are widely presumed to be at least ignorant, and at worst assholes. Very few people are willing to perceive themselves as acting like an asshole — because unless you’re willing to change that and make amends, you’re an even bigger asshole.

This is where it’s helpful to understand some basic things about how privilege — any kind of privilege — works.

A 2007 blog post by “Betty” explains this pretty well. In A primer on privilege: what it is and what it isn’t, she wrote:

Privilege is not: About you. Privilege is not your fault. Privilege is not anything you’ve done, or thought, or said. It may have allowed you to do, or think, or say things, but it’s not those things, and it’s not because of those things. Privilege is not about taking advantage, or cheating, although privilege may make this easier. Privilege is not negated. I can’t balance my white privilege against my female disadvantage and come out neutral. Privilege is not something you can be exempt from by having had a difficult life. Privilege is not inherently bad. It really isn’t.

Privilege is: About how society accommodates you. It’s about advantages you have that you think are normal. It’s about you being normal, and others being the deviation from normal. It’s about fate dealing from the bottom of the deck on your behalf.”

I really like Betty’s explanation because it takes away much of the blame, guilt, and pressure that tend to derail discussions of privilege. You can’t really blame individuals for having privilege — just like you can’t really blame them for lacking it.

I’d add to Betty’s explanation that privilege tends to be subtle. These days, it rarely comes in packaging as stark as a “whites only” sign at a drinking fountain. If your personal benchmark for believing that privilege exists is an explicit statement of exclusion or demotion, with no other possible justification besides enforcing a social hierarchy, you probably won’t think there’s much privilege at work in your world.

Having privilege doesn’t automatically make you an asshole

Privilege, including couple privilege, is just part of the social landscape. We all have to deal with it, whether we’re willing to recognize that or not. Short of universal Zen enlightenment, every person both possesses and lacks privilege in some ways, in certain contexts. It’s never absolute.

Unfortunately, you usually can’t shed your social privilege simply because you don’t like or agree with it. To shed privilege, you must take conscious steps to publicly demonstrate that you do not conform to a privileged norm. Like giving away all your wealth to charity, or outing yourself as polyamorous and publicly acknowledging all of your partners.

executive privilegeWhile having privilege doesn’t inherently make anyone an asshole, privilege does often encourage people to act like assholes. That’s because unconscious, unexamined privilege breeds entitlement.

Entitlement is when you’re born on third base, but think you hit a triple. Many people who hold privilege often earnestly believe they earned it — or at least that they deserve it, or that others have failed to earn it.

Much thoughtless, cruel, prejudicial or abusive behavior springs from a sense of entitlement — typically unconscious or heavily rationalized. (When someone challenges privilege or entitlement, the standard defense is to rationalize it; to explain why it’s actually earned or otherwise warranted.)

Once entitlement leads a privileged person to behave thoughtlessly or cruelly toward those who lack their flavor of privilege, then privilege kicks in again with a double whammy. Having privilege vastly reduces your potential for blowback (unpleasant personal consequences from your actions). In other words, privileged people face less personal risk, even if they earnestly believe they have more to lose than less privileged people. When you’re privileged, the playing field is slanted in your favor — so you might not see or appreciate the risks and costs that others face.

In short: when you have privilege, it’s so much easier to act like an asshole and get away with it. This, in turn, can make it more tempting to behave badly. Or at least to fail to consider others as equal to yourself, or at all — a common precursor to bad behavior.

The high costs, and rewards, of countering privilege

You’d think that with so many dire consequences, privilege would be easy to talk about. But in an ostensibly egalitarian society or subculture, acknowledging privilege is a burden. If you see it, and mention it, people expect you to do something about it — or at least to admit it’s a problem. Even if you only recognize your privilege privately, you still might feel guilty about or ashamed of it — unless, of course, you can convince yourself you deserve it.

take away privilegesThere really is no clear upside to acknowledging the privilege you hold — unless doing so lets you gain substantial value, such as more love, more emotional support, more satisfying sex and intimacy, or a clearer conscience.

However, it’s easy to devalue such considerable benefits. Most people will choose the “devil they know” (avoiding stigma) over the devil they don’t (sacrificing privilege). When you choose to sacrifice social privilege, that’s terribly hard to justify to others. Such justifications lead only to more questioning, which makes most people uncomfortable and ultimately can destabilize a social pecking order.

Finding yourself suddenly in the position of having to justify yourself sucks, since a huge bonus of having privilege (or at least, not being stigmatized) is not needing explain or justify yourself or your choices.

That’s why it’s so damn hard to see privilege, to discuss it, and especially to act to reduce its negative effects in your life and in the world.

On the flip side, it’s also often difficult — and costly — for people who lack privilege to see or discuss it. Disadvantaged people marinate in the presumptions of privilege as much as anyone else. If you lack privilege, it’s often more expedient on a day-to-day basis to assume that you don’t deserve it; or at least that this is “just how the world works,” so there’s no point in questioning or fighting privilege.

It takes so much energy to fight privilege, usually it seems easier to just try to roll with it. Until, of course, it rolls over you big time. Because although privilege hurts everyone (including privileged people), in the big picture disadvantaged people tend to pay the highest prices and have the fewest options.

But there’s some very good news: change can and does happen. Even the most entrenched privilege can be mitigated; fairness and diversity can flourish. There’s a reason why women are no longer considered the legal property of their husbands. There’s a reason why Apartheid is no longer the law of South Africa. There’s a reason why support for same-sex marriage is now a majority view in the U.S. and is becoming law in many states. (Even though the premise of state-authorized legal marriage is itself a manifestation of couple privilege. Yeah, I warned you that privilege is always complicated.) There’s a reason why racist jokes are now generally frowned upon.

That reason is courage — usually first rooted in dire pain and outrage, but courage nonetheless. If you want to help undo privilege, the first thing you need is a spine.

Reframing the context: What would mono people do?

Many people in poly/open relationships (including some solo/single people and non-primary parters) strenuously deny that couple privilege exists, or that it’s a problem. Even highly contentious poly issues such as “veto power” over non-primary relationships often get rationalized as a matter of personal choice, not a manifestation of couple privilege.

This is where it’s useful to ask a question I heard from Cunning Minx of Polyamory Weekly: What would monogamists do?

In standard (monogamous) modern culture, it’s presumed that both people entering an intimate relationship expect to be respected and treated fairly — that their wants, needs and goals matter as much as yours. Even if one partner is richer, or another is more conventionally attractive, or any other disparity in social privilege. When relationship issues arise, today it’s normal to presume that partners should negotiate as equals and work things out, without one partner automatically trumping the other.

Of course, such fairness doesn’t always happen — but when it doesn’t, the more demanding (or less respectful, considerate or flexible) partner typically gets labeled as “the asshole.”

That’s the norm in mono-land these days.

Why then, in honest non-monogamous subcultures, is it still so widely considered acceptable to behave as if non-primary partners don’t matter as much primary partners? Specifically, I mean common presumptions and situations such as:

  • Polyamory “should” function mainly on terms that make it “safe” for pre-existing (and usually formerly monogamous) primary couples — regardless of the risk and disruption to other partners. This often includes direct or indirect veto power.
  • Non-primary partners “should” be willing (even grateful) to settle for what they are allowed by the primary partners, usually in perpetuity.
  • Primary partners get to set all the relationship rules and make all relationship decisions, including those affecting non-primary relationships; input from non-primary partners is not necessary, or often even unwelcome.
  • It may be considered offensive (or at least unreasonable) for non-primary partners to expect or ask for consideration, negotiation, and flexibility from partners and metamours who are in a primary relationship.
  • Often a non-primary partner’s only avenue to change circumstances that hurt them is to leave the relationship.
  • Non-primary partners often fear that publicly or privately criticizing how they’re treated by primary partners might be construed as an unconditional and immediate breakup-level offense.
  • All of these manifestations of couple privilege are so obvious and reasonable that they don’t even warrant discussion or examination.

But: If all ethically nonmonogamous people were to treat all their partners based on the egalitarian presumptions which ethically monogamous people hold, polyamory probably would be a much safer, happier and more drama-free zone for everyone involved.

Yes, you really can run your relationships however you want

Not all privilege is created equal. Some types of privilege do at least partly involve effort, investment, and conscious assumption of risk. Also, people’s personal preferences do matter when it comes to relationship choices.

For instance, it’s illegal (for good reason) to blatantly discriminate against women or non-white people in hiring and promotion. But it’s perfectly acceptable for a person who identifies as straight to choose not to date people of the same gender. That preference doesn’t make straight people homophobic bigots. Just because something is discriminatory doesn’t necessarily make it prejudicial.

Similarly, people in a primary couple (or triad, or quad) relationship may decide that they desire sex or relationships with other people — and that they also want or need to enforce a strict hierarchy to make non-monogamy feel right for them. That is a valid option.

To be clear: It’s fine for primary partners to decide to have veto power if they want to. They can agree to have fluid-bonded sex only within the primary relationship. They can agree that additional relationships will happen only on a furtive don’t-ask-don’t-tell basis. They can decide they want to continue to “pass” as monogamous by concealing their additional relationships. They can decide, for that matter, to only have relationships with people who are willing to paint their face orange and stand on their head for an hour every other Tuesday. Because having even the most ludicrous of relationship prerequisites doesn’t automatically make anyone an asshole.

It’s not inherently abusive to choose to enshrine aspects of couple privilege in how you conduct relationships — as long as primary partners are making those decisions strictly as their own entry-level criteria for new relationships, not presuming to impose those conditions nonconsensually after the fact upon people who get involved with them. Other partners may choose to abide by their strictures, or not. And many non-primary partners do choose to roll with restrictions and limitations placed on their relationships in order to prioritize or protect primary relationships. Often they do so quite cheerfully, and everyone’s happy with the arrangement.

But, ask the kinky people you know: When someone in a relationship is routinely expected to accommodate, sacrifice, ask for permission or come last — that’s a kind of power dynamic. The trouble is that presumed, unconscious, nonconsensual power dynamics tend to be very bad news indeed, in the kinkosphere and elsewhere.

So: If your preferred approach to poly/open relationships puts new or non-primary partners at a distinct disadvantage, that’s really okay. There are always tradeoffs in relationships. However, in this case you do have an obligation to disclose this clearly up front — ideally before anyone’s feelings get very deep.

Don’t just assume that “protecting the primary relationship above all else” is “normal,” “right” or “good” — especially when putting this into practice means automatically devaluing other partners or other relationships. Positioning your primary relationship as a trump card is a preference and choice, like any other. Having that preference doesn’t make you an asshole. Everybody has needs, priorities and limits. Responsible adults acknowledge and communicate this — and they’re willing to negotiate or take no for an answer.

In contrast, assholes assume that their way of doing things is right and normal, and thus doesn’t warrant disclosure, discussion, or negotiation. Assholes believe in “my way or the highway.” Assholes try to manipulate others into complying with their unstated requirements. Assholes don’t believe consent is always necessary.

How to not be an asshole about couple privilege

First, acknowledge that it exists — even though it’s not personally your fault. Acknowledge that it’s complicated, nuanced, and context-dependent.

Talk about it with your existing partners, and with your new partners. Also, if you want to reduce the ambient influence of couple privilege, talk about it in whatever poly/open communities you’re involved in — or even in society at large. (The millions of unpartnered or unconventionally partnered single/solo people who consider themselves monogamous will thank you for this!)

Then, have one operating presumption: DO presume that every person you meet is just as important as you are! And as your primary partner(s) are!

This applies to life in general, but especially to people who do you the immense favor of offering to enrich your life with their sex, affection, intimacy, love and commitment. When people are willing to put their heart on the line for you, to make themselves emotionally and physically vulnerable to you, that’s a gift to be honored. It’s not a threat to be minimized, or a luxury to be rationed, or a toy to be disposed. They’re offering you something deeply valuable — they’re not trying to rob you of anything.

Most importantly: They’re not trying to hurt you or your partner(s). And they’re not looking to get hurt themselves. They’re just trying to love and be loved — like you are.

This doesn’t mean all partners need — or want — to be treated “equally,” because that’s never possible in the real world. All relationships are always unique.

But it does mean that if you cannot or will not offer full respect and consideration to new or non-primary partners, if one partner or relationship always trumps the others, you should at least be respectful and considerate enough to say so clearly up front. Even if that “kills the moment,” or a budding relationship. Even if saying it makes you feel like a hypocrite for being in an open relationship. Honesty is not hypocrisy, even when it’s uncomfortable. Hypocrisy is pretending you’re different than you really are.

Piercing the veil of invisibility around couple privilege isn’t easy. It takes time, and you will screw it up. Sometimes privilege will still lead you to act like an asshole — whether by capitalizing on couple privilege at the expense of others, or by getting so endlessly defensive and outraged at couple privilege that you denigrate the genuine love and value which many poly/open people in primary couples sincerely offer.

Fortunately, being an asshole is rarely fatal. Owning and apologizing for bad behavior, making amends, and trying to do better next time helps a lot. The world doesn’t get to be a better place just by people deciding they’ll be nicer to each other. It’s a gradual process of everyone screwing up less frequently, and owning up more. Hang in there, have a sense of humor about it. Just don’t let your awareness of privilege fall off your radar. The rewards are well worth it, for everyone.

Postscript: Still don’t believe in couple privilege? That’s cool

One thing I’ve learned from having many, many discussions with many poly/open people over the last few month about couple privilege is that a lot of people disagree strongly with framing this issue as “privilege.” Basically their rationale goes that “privilege” can refer only to immutable conditions that people do not choose or control; not to situations that may involve personal choice, effort or commitment — such as employment status, whether you have kids, or the structure of your relationships.

These dissenters are usually people who are currently in poly or open primary-style relationships, such as a marriage. But not always — I have sometimes heard this “couple privilege doesn’t exist” view from some solo/single people and non-primary partners. But generally, this framing resonates quite strongly with most people who are not in primary partnerships of their own but who are (or have been) a non-primary partner to people in primary relationships. Make of that what you will.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter much whether anyone agrees that couple privilege exists. As long as more people behave more responsibly in their relationships — especially so that they disclose up front to non-primary partners the terms of or limits on what they have to offer, and the reasons behind those terms and limits, and how much room there is for negotiation — that alone would solve many of the worst problems caused by couple privilege.

Of course, mitigating couple privilege isn’t just up to primary partners; solos and non-primary partners can act in their own interests to make sure they’re not compromising themselves. For instance, non-primary partners can insist up front on clear, direct communication with new partners and metamours.

Ask what the primary partners’ rules and limits really are — and why they exist, what they seek to protect. How open might they be to later requests to renegotiate rules and limits? How willing are they to try to adapt and grow in order to reduce the need for rules and limits — such as committing to facing their own insecurities or jealousies, rather than curtailing or ending non-primary relationships as soon as a primary partner gets upset or scared?

And then, see how well they walk that talk over time. How do they handle unexpected situations? Do new implicit rules keep arising as “invisible fences” or landmines? When you raise questions or concerns, or ask to negotiate, is that safe for you? Or do they imply that you’re making excessive demands or risking being dumped?

Don’t rush into heavy emotional or logistical commitment. Assess this crucial context before it would cause you serious pain to walk away. Because the key issue here is safety — non-primary partners deserve as much as primary partners to try gain some safety and security in their relationships. Even if primary partners and others presume that non-primary partners should assume most of the risk and do most of the accommodating, it’s up to individuals to decide how much of that they are willing to shoulder.

Non-primary partners and solo/single poly people get to have relationship requirements and set limits, too. The first place to fight the presumptions of couple privilege is to avoid unconsciously adopting them ourselves. And to not cave to explicit or implicit signals that we don’t matter enough to stand up for ourselves.

Doing this is hard, and it means many people in primary couples won’t make good non-primary relationship partners, at least not for significant emotional or logistical involvement. But having lighter connections with these people, and not caving to pressure to get more involved than their conduct seems to warrant, could encourage less entitlement-based behavior and ultimately make poly/open relationships a generally happier, calmer, and safer for everyone — even for people in primary relationships.

15 thoughts on “Couple privilege: Having it doesn’t necessarily make you an asshole (but it might)

  1. Alan M says:

    Great essay. Can’t wait for your book now.

  2. code16 says:

    This writing helped me figure out something that’s being really helpful for me thinking about this. That being – the question of the matter isn’t so much whether you treat a non-primary partner equally with your primary partner. The question is whether you treat them equally with *yourself*.

    In a relationship, anyone can have needs, desires, and boundaries for any reason, and ‘primary partner’ is as valid a reason as any.

    ‘We can’t go on vacation in August because my primary doesn’t want that’ is as valid as ‘we can’t go on vacation in August because I spend that time with my sister’. ‘We need to be closeted because people who know my spouse and I would never accept us as poly’ is a valid as ‘we need to be closeted because otherwise I could get fired from my job’. ‘I need to cancel our date to spend time with my primary’ is as valid as ‘I need to cancel our date to do some self care’. Everyone gets to decide their own conditions and priorities.

    The problem is when you treat your desires/needs/boundaries as more important than your partner’s, treat yours as absolute and theirs as flexible, treat yours as obviously valid and theirs as silly, expect them to accommodate yours while ignoring theirs, etc.

    • aggiesez says:

      Yes, I think that’s a fair way to look at the situation — with the caveat that you need to be clear with yourself and others what your priorities are & how you make decisions, so partners can decide whether that would work for them. And also, consider being open to negotiating on your priorities. Take it or leave it deals are rarely good for anyone — or resilient.

  3. Matthew says:

    This is a great article. There can never be too many primers on privilege and entitlement on the internet. I was hoping your link for us to help was going to be to a Kickstarter page with lots of more fun information about your book.

    • aggiesez says:

      Thanks! What we need to make this book happen is not up front money but rather more people sharing their stories. Especially beyond the poly community, and beyond the US. And men! 75% of respondents so far ID as female

      So the link to the survey really is the best way to help so far.

      Glad you like the article. :-)

  4. jascollins says:

    As a heteroflexible male who has been poly for 25-ish years, and spent the first several of those in the “everybody’s secondary” position, I not only agree with the opinions here expressed, I’m also wildly in favour of your framing. Well done.

  5. shaktiflower says:

    Thanks for writing such a great article! I am new to the poly world and dating a man in an open marriage for the first time. This article helped me think about my needs and my desires are for the relationship, how to articulate them better, as well as boundaries on both sides that need to be considered.

  6. Peter L. says:

    Reblogged this on Poly Chicago and commented:
    Expanding on the idea of polynormativity, this article is a comprehensive takedown of couple privilege in poly. So many good points in here.

  7. […] Couple privilege: Having it doesn’t necessarily make you an asshole (but it might). […]

  8. […] found a very interesting blog for me, Solopoly.net, where I learned a new term “couple privilege.” This particularly got my […]

  9. Jack says:

    Wow. This is a really interesting article. You make 1000 great points… and yet, privileged, oh no, not that again. Such a toxic framework to discuss anything. You said it yourself — “every person both possesses and lacks privilege in some ways.” You’re right about that. And you nail the toxic element as well – “guilt, shame, asshole” blah blah blah. Toxic concept.
    (Really good review of that concept, BTW. Nice additions to it in the end of your piece.)
    Great thoughts here, even if the “wrapper” is awkward and distracting.
    “especially so that they disclose up front to non-primary partners the terms of or limits on what they have to offer”
    Do you think people are really internally clear on what they will/won’t do, feel/won’t feel, etc? Especially in advance? I think that’s asking way to much. Okay for business, impossible for love/sex/intimacy. Words are distant cousins to our feelings/actions… to predict our loving, in advance, with *words*… fools errand, IMHO. Things, and folks, and feelings are in constant flux… our words are the last to see the change we’re already feeling.
    I think one of the things I like most about this argument is that you took privilege — the cancer that’s typically applied to more concrete social change discussions — and applied to something very soft indeed, relationships. I *love* many of the points you make, I’ll continue to think on them, but the privilege lens is even more awkward and lame (as in, “can’t walk”) here than other ways I’ve seen it used.
    Thank you, again, for an interesting and powerful conversation.

  10. Cenne says:

    Like several of the commenters here, I agree with most of what you said but think the framework of privilege doesn’t fit very well at all. A very similar idea has found root in the asexual and aromatic communities, and there it’s known as amatonormativity, which I think describes the issue nicely while sidestepping the problems of the privilege framework.

    • aggiesez says:

      I hear you, and I disagree. Where one group/class is presumed to have greater power, including to define or dictate to others, that’s a matter of privilege, not normativity.

      I understand thinking in terms of privilege makes people uncomfortable, especially those who hold privilege. But denying it only makes it harder to address.

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