What is Couples’ Privilege and How Can It Impact Polyamorous Relationships? [Polyamory Conversation Cards #8]

Hardly anyone enjoys talking about privilege, and even fewer people enjoy facing and acknowledging the privileges that they benefit from. It’s deeply uncomfortable to recognise that we might be benefitting from unearned advantages, and particularly when those benefits come at the cost of harm to others.

However, if we want to create a more just and equal world, it’s vital that we are willing to look our privilege in the face and then begin to dismantle it. Today I want to talk about one of the most insidious and often overlooked aspects of inequality: couples’ privilege.

In case you missed it, this post is part of a series inspired by Odder Being’s Polyamory Conversation Cards. Once a week or as often as I can, I’ll pull a card at random and write a piece of content based on it. There will likely be some essays, advice pieces, personal experiences, rants, and more! You can read the whole series at the dedicated tag. And if you want to support my work and get occasional bonus content, head on over to my Patreon.

This week’s card asks:

“Do you prioritise any of your relationships over your other relationships and if so, in what way?”

I wrote a huge essay last year about hierarchy, priority, and power in polyamory. Executive summary: we all have different priorities in our lives and priorities can shift over time. This isn’t necessarily hierarchy. A hierarchy exists when one party has power over others, and/or when one party expects, demands, or is given priority at all times and in all situations.

Couples’ privilege is intimately linked with relationship hierarchy. But it is also a slightly separate thing and, in polyamory, manifests in specific and often harmful ways.

So what is couples’ privilege, exactly?

When we talk about “privilege” more broadly, we are talking about unearned benefits or advantages that are conferred on one group of people over others due to some aspect of their identity, background, or circumstances. White privilege, straight privilege, cisgender privilege, and male privilege are some common and pervasive examples you may be aware of.

Couples’ privilege, then, refers to the advantages and benefits conferred on those who are in (or appear to be in, or are assumed to be in) a socially-sanctioned monogamous couple.

There are layers to couples’ privilege: monogamous or mono-presenting couples who live apart have it, but nested couples have more of it and married couples have even more still. Some aspects of couples’ privilege are more readily afforded to those with children. And so on. Couples’ privilege intersects with LGBTQ+ oppression, but monogamous or mono-presenting queer couples can also have couples’ privilege.

How does couples’ privilege manifest in society as a whole?

As with other types of privilege, couples’ privilege is insidious because those who have it do not usually recognise that they have it. It becomes tremendously apparent, however, when you lack it. Before we get into any of the specific ways that couples’ privilege plays out in polyamory, let’s look at some of the ways it manifests in society as a whole.

Not all couples will necessarily benefit from all of these examples, but all couples will likely benefit from at least some (and often many) of them.

Examples of Couples’ Privilege in Society

  • Significant financial advantages, such as tax breaks, can come from marriage
  • Housing becomes much more accessible and affordable as a couple. Splitting the rent or mortgage with a partner is so much cheaper than getting a one-bedroom alone
  • Shopping and cooking for two is much more cost-effective than for one
  • If you want to have children, access to fertility treatments, fostering, or adoption is much easier if you are part of a couple in many parts of the world
  • Travelling alone is much more expensive (and, for some people, much less safe)
  • Everything from restaurant tables to hotel rooms to holiday packages are sold with the assumption that two people will be sharing them
  • In friendship groups where most people are coupled up, those who are not are often either left out of activities or made to feel like “the third wheel”
  • Invitations to events such as parties, weddings, and work socials that include a +1 come with the assumption that that person will be your romantic partner (and you’ll be pitied if you come alone or looked at weirdly if you bring a platonic friend or family member instead)…
  • …Or single people don’t get a +1 at all
  • The normative models of romance that society shoves down our throats – particularly around holidays such as Valentine’s Day and Christmas – can make anyone who isn’t living that ideal feel less-than
  • Our society views committed, monogamous, romantic love as a default that everyone should either have or be looking for, casting single people as incomplete and people who opt for other relationship models as deviant

How does couples’ privilege manifest in polyamory?

In polyamory, the closer a couple appears to be to the societal monogamous ideal, the more couples’ privilege they will have. This means that married and/or nested couples enjoy numerous advantages that solo polyamorists and those in non-nesting relationships cannot access. In addition, those who present as “socially monogamous” and hide their other relationships often enjoy more couples’ privilege than those who are more open about their polyamory.

In polyamorous relationships, couples’ privilege can often reinforce relationship hierarchies and power structures, causing serious harm to partners outside of the privileged dyad. Let’s look at some of the ways that this can manifest.

Again, not all of these examples will be relevant to all situations. But it is likely that all polyamorous people in a marital or nesting relationship will benefit from at least some of them. Again, this is far from an exhaustive list.

Examples of Couples’ Privilege in Polyamory

  • When an existing couple opens their relationship, they assume that they get to make the rules and incoming partners must abide by them
  • If unbarried sex is only available to certain partners, the marital/nesting partner will usually have access to it by default
  • Various relationship milestones such as living together, having children, or marriage may only be available to one partner
  • Financial and legal benefits, from inheritance rights to hospital visitation, may only be available to one partner
  • Permission dynamics in which couples have to ask one another before they can date a new person, escalate a relationship, or even see an existing partner
  • Rules that restrict certain activities, date locations, and sex acts to the original couple
  • If the couple is not “out” as polyamorous, other partners may not get to meet their partner’s friends and family, post about their relationship on social media, or appear as a couple in public
  • Conflict resolution is easier if you live together
  • If a couple has problems, they may close down the relationship again or end, restrict, or “backburner” other relationships in order to focus on their dyad regardless of the pain this causes to those other partners
  • “Not in our house”/”not in our bed” rules that put a significant logistical or financial burden on external relationships
  • Veto power, whether explicit or implicit. After all, it’s easy for a married or nested couple to say “we don’t have veto power”. But if one of them ever wants to close the relationship or puts an “it’s them or me” ultimatum on the table, other partners are not on equal footing and the more priviliged partner is far more likely to win
  • Unicorn hunting, which creates relationships with unequal power dynamics in which the original couple gets to make all the decisions

How does couples’ privilege impact other partners?

The problem with privilege, ultimately, is the harm it causes to those who do not have it. In polyamory, couples’ privilege primarily negatively impacts other partners who date one or both members of a couple.

Unfortunately, some couples choose – consciously or unconsciously – to wield couples’ privilege as a weapon. These couples are usually the ones who only date together, the ones with heaps of restrictive rules, the ones with heavily permission-based dynamics, and the ones who explicitly or implicitly use the threat of a veto to keep other partners in line.

In far more cases, though, couples’ privilege causes harm not through any malicious intent but through a lack of awareness and good intentions gone awry. Most of us are extraordinarily bad at truly recognising the extent and impact of our own privilege.

Falling in love with someone who is steeped in unexamined or unaddressed couples’ privilege is its own special kind of pain. At the extreme end of things, partners outside the privileged dyad may feel as though they can never truly be safe or secure, because an external party could restrict or take away their relationship at any moment.

They may also continually feel less-than, sidelined, or ignored. Having to hide your relationship while your metamour is openly acknowledged by your partner, for example, can be acutely painful. Similarly, it can be difficult to feel like an actual player in your own relationship if a third party is making the rules or has to be asked for permission before you can see one another, have sex, do a certain activity, or progress your relationship.

How can we mitigate the harm couples’ privilege causes in our other relationships?

In our current society it is, unfortunately, pretty much impossible to entirely eliminate couples’ privilege. The entire world, or so it seems, is built to uphold, promote, and support the monogamous dyadic relationship and the nuclear family.

Even so, there are actually lots of things you can do to limit the impact and mitigate the harm it can cause if you are a beneficiary of couples’ privilege.

When it comes to how to actually reduce the impact of couples’ privilege in polyamorous relationships, I’m going to come at this from two angles: reducing insidious and unintentional couples’ privilege, and how not to use couples’ privilege as a weapon. I think these are two slightly different issues.

How not to use couples’ privilege as a weapon

It’s really easy, especially when you’re new to polyamory, to use couples’ privilege as a weapon. Almost no-one who does this actually wants to hurt other people, though! In the vast majority of cases, people do it because it helps them to feel safer, more secure, or less threatened.

And I get that. I really do. Polyamory can be frightening and can drag up all kinds of fears, insecurities, and layers of pain.

Couples’ privilege can give the illusion of security, particularly when you’re new to non-monogamy. That illusion is incredibly seductive. After all, if things get too big and too scary you can just slam the lid back on and close the relationship. Or you can just add a few more restrictions and limitations until you and your original partner feel comfortable. Right? Well, not so fast.

Those other people who are dating you or your partner? They’re human beings with feelings and needs. And they have every bit as much right to be there as you do. (Yes, even if you’ve been there longer.)

What’s more, wielding couples’ privilege as a blunt tool to help you feel more secure won’t actually work. You don’t build security, trust, and safety in a relationship by restricting your partner or using other people’s hearts as collateral damage in assuaging your own fears and insecurities.

What you can do instead

Instead of using your couples’ privilege to keep yourself safe, work on building actual security in your relationships. Ask for what you want and need from your partners (and no, “I want more than my metamours get” doesn’t count.)

Work on your self-esteem and confidence, with the help of a therapist if possible. Seek out polyamorous communities, resources, and friends who can support you on this journey. When you feel difficult feelings, learn to sit with them. Interrogate them, ask yourself what they’re telling you, and learn how to communicate non-violently with your partners about them.

In the past, I’ve wielded couples’ privilege carelessly and harmfully in an effort to keep myself safe. It not only didn’t work, it harmed my partners, my metamours, my relationships, and myself. When I realised this, two things happened:

  1. I felt deep shame for my behaviours.
  2. I had to seriously question whether I was actually capable of being polyamorous.

Somewhere deep inside, I knew the answer to that second question was “yes.” However, it took years of deep personal work (with the love and support of my partners) to do the personal growth and build the skills toolkit I needed to actually do it well. Learn from my mistakes – do that growth and build those skills before you hurt yourself, someone else, or your relationships.

Reducing the unintentional impacts of couples’ privilege

In many ways, unintentional couples’ privilege is the hardest to mitigate. A lot of this stuff is societal and systemic, and that makes it almost impossible for individuals or couples to overcome. However, mitigating it as much as possible begins with awareness. You need to understand how couples’ privilege works and the ways in which you may not be able to see it.

I don’t have any easy answers to this. As with all forms of inequality, dismantling couples’ privilege and its harmful effects is an ongoing – probably lifelong – commitment. I do have a few thoughts on things that can help, though.

Question Yourself

Now that you’re aware of couples’ privilege and how insidious it can be, you can start to more consciously view your choices through that lens. When you make a relationship decision, ask yourself “does this protect or uphold the socially-sanctioned dyad at the expense of another person or relationship?” If so, chances are couples’ privilege is in play.

Question your motivations, too. Why do you feel the need to behave in a certain way? If it’s because That’s Just The Way Things Are Done, to assuage insecurities, to follow the social norm, or to reinforce the primacy of one partner or relationship… yup. Couples’ privilege.

Be Honest and Upfront

It’s absolutely vital to state any limitations that will apply to relationships upfront to new partners. If you already have a nesting partner and don’t want to live with anyone else, for example, that’s fine – but you need to be honest about it. This means that you are not leading anyone on with the hope of something you are unable or unwilling to offer them.

For plenty of prospective partners, this will work fine! Perhaps they’re solo, already have their own nesting partner, or are just happy to have a different type of relationship with you.

If you and your existing partner have a lot of rules, a veto agreement, or a permission dynamic, new partners also absolutely need and deserve to know these things upfront. Many people – including most experienced polyamorists – will opt out if your rules and restrictions are too extensive. But, if you are going to operate in this way, at least give people the information ahead of time and allow them to make an informed choice before their hearts get involved.

Come Out When and If You Can

This is a complex one, because there are all kinds of legitimate reasons not to be out as polyamorous or non-monogamous. Child custody, housing problems, and losing relationships with loved ones are just some of the common reasons I hear about.

I’m not going to judge your reasons and I’m certainly not going to tell you that you have to come out if it feels impossible, unsafe, or if the potential cost is too high. However, being open about one relationship and closeted about others can emphasise and perpetuate aspects of couples’ privilege.

I’m out to most people in my life, but not absolutely everyone. And I am very aware that, in those circumstances where I’m not out, this confers additional couples’ privilege on my nesting relationship.

If it’s safe and possible for you to do so, being out as polyamorous – even in a limited way and to select people – can help to reduce the impact of couples’ privilege and the pain of being “hidden” for your other partners.

Listen to Your Other Partners

If you’re not sure how partners outside of your married/nesting dyad are feeling about a choice you’ve made, ask them. And if they express that things feel unfair to them or that couples’ privilege is hurting them, listen. Do not get defensive, try to shut the conversation down, or tell them that they’re imagining things.

Pay attention to all partners’ wants and needs and, wherever possible, try to meet them. Never put one partner’s wants over another’s needs (and learn to tell the difference!) When you need to make a relationship decision, consult everyone who it impacts and seek compromise that honours everyone’s needs and the importance of all relationships as best you can.

Cultivate and Maintain Individuality

One of the most damaging societal narratives around relationships is that a couple is no longer two separate people, but a single unit. I find this creepy in monogamy, and outright harmful in polyamory. If a couple cannot operate in the world as two separate people, then they cannot build and maintain healthy and stable relationships with other people.

Seriously: individuality is one of the most powerful antidotes to couples’ privilege. Decoupling (not to be confused with breaking up!) is the process of stepping away from your joint identity as “a couple” and coming instead into identities as two separate people who are in relationship because you love each other and make each other happy. In other words, breaking out of the codependency and extreme enmeshment that modern relationship norms uphold and celebrate.

The Relationship Bill of Rights states “You have the right… to have relationships with people, not with relationships.” If you and your partner cannot decouple and function as individuals, you are absolutely doomed to mistreat and harm anyone who gets into an intimate relationship with either of you. Seriously. Being in a relationship with a highly codependent relationship, even (or especially) when you’re ostensibly only actually dating one of the people in it, is hell.

The article The Most Skipped Step When Opening a Relationship is an excellent primer on decoupling (unfortunately you’ll now need a Medium account to read it, but it’s worth it.)

Accept that Any Relationship May Change or End Someday

The final thing I’m going to say in this section is probably going to be the hardest for most people to swallow. To be successfully and ethically polyamorous, you have to be at peace with the possibility that any of your relationships may someday end.

If you view one particular relationship as essential and unendable, then you’re in a defacto hierarchy. That person (and that relationship) will always receive priority over others. This sounds nebulous, but I’ve found it to be one of the most important aspects of reducing unintentional couples’ privilege.

In my experience, it’s always people who believe they absolutely cannot live without one particular partner who display the most egregious and damaging levels of couples’ privilege. That’s because what this tells me is that – however much we love each other and however serious our relationship gets – I’m ultimately disposable and they’ll throw me under the bus to protect that other relationship if things get difficult.

Addressing couples’ privilege is a lifelong process

As I’ve said, there are no fast or easy answers to this. Our society affirms and entrenches couples’ privilege at every level and in countless ways. For those of us doing relationships differently, we have to accept that addressing and mitigating couples’ privilege is likely a battle we will always be fighting. That might sound daunting – and it is! – but I promise it’s worth it. When we challenge couples’ privilege and the social norms it upholds, we get to have richer, more fulfilling, and kinder relationships that can look a huge variety of different ways.

If we want to be ethically polyamorous, I believe that we have to be willing to face couples’ privilege and challenge it. I’ve seen too many times what happens when we don’t.

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