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Couple Privilege: An Insult or a Consequence of Social Structures?

21 Jul

Note: I will capitalize Couple Privilege when I am using the term in the Sociological sense and use lower case in all other instances.

Recently I wrote an article on the indiscriminate use of the term couples privilege, and included questions to ask oneself before throwing the term around. I received word that some people thought I was conflating hierarchy and privilege, which was actually the point I was getting at. People tried to educate me about the difference and it seemed they thought I was saying that I don’t have privilege. Ha! This is probably one of the most “bang head on wall” ironies I have experienced lately. Though I do recognize that I wasn’t entirely explicit about the distinction between privilege and hierarchy but rather alluded to it in my intro. So I thought some clarification was needed and besides, that article really does need a follow-up.

As I stated in my previous writing, Couple Privilege is a real thing, just like male privilege or white privilege. The example I gave in my last article was about how my roommate and I kept losing out on apartments because landlords preferred to rent to couples. This is privileging the couple over singles because in our society we view couples as more stable, reliable and desirable. The interesting part of this (to me) is the why of it.

Couple Privilege exists because of how the patriarchal model in our culture values monogamy and the nuclear family. The culture we live in values those things above other family/relationship models and invalidates all others. There are both institutionalized and interpersonal aspects of privilege. For example our legal system, educational system, social services, government structures etc. are formed within a belief system that values monogamy and the nuclear family and therefore makes up the institutional aspect of Couple Privilege. The bias impacts every single aspect of our lives because it also permeates our meta-narrative (the cultural narratives about what is acceptable or not) which informs our worldview (how we as individuals perceive the world): this comes out through language, social interactions, social pressures, and in interpersonal relationships etc. We suffer institutional and interpersonal consequences if we fail to live up to the preferred norm and are rewarded for living up to the norm. What we’re left with is a system that invalidates anything other than its preferred norm and validates everything appearing to be the norm. The more boxes we tick, the more privilege we get i.e. married, hetero, with kids, white, middle class etc. Viola we end up with Couple Privilege, among other forms of privilege.

What I have seen and experienced within my poly community is people making assumptions about others based on relationship status and then wielding the term couple privilege like a weapon. I have seen that people have gotten away from the social science definition of privilege and have begun using it as a way to brow-beat others into practicing “the right kind of poly”. In a twist that makes this profoundly sad, the people doing this often are adhering to the very meta-narrative that supports Couple Privilege. People fail to really look to see if what’s standing in front of them is actually what they assume it to be. Instead they run with their monogamous, patriarchal, nuclear family paradigm and go for the jugular by cutting them down with the term couple privilege.

In my last article I talked a lot about how people’s assumptions can be hurtful and how to avoid making those assumptions. I tried to articulate how those assumptions are often tied into the monogamous paradigm but what I didn’t say is that those assumptions are the flip side of the privilege coin. Those assumptions are based on very same belief system that create a society that privileges couples. I would say more firmly here, if you’re going to use a world-view that upholds Couple Privilege to understand the non-monogamous people around you, you are failing at bucking the norm. Being radical and trying to change the monogamous framework is about thinking and believing differently and doesn’t even necessitate being non-monogamous. I know mono people who stellar at seeing and challenging the structures at play in Couple Privilege.

The way the term has been used and the behaviours and patterns that are attributed to couple privilege indicate that this term is confused in the minds of many. It appears that Couple Privilege, and hierarchy or primary have become synonymous for many. This is problematic on a number of fronts but here are a couple big issues. One: privilege is a serious thing and if we go around muddying the waters we become less able to recognize and it and confront it. Privilege is the thing that denies access to resources (be it financial, government, social or emotional) for people who do not fall within the privileged class. It’s important that we’re able to recognize it when we see it because we cannot challenge the bias without being able to recognize it. Two: “You have couple’s privilege” is not an insult. We really need to get that shit straight. Nobody can help the privilege that they have, this isn’t something people go out and get, it’s part of our culture. We can point it out when people don’t see it and help nudge folks toward a clearer understanding of how culture and society work. But we shouldn’t use this to insult people or to tear them down for doing their relationships in a way that we don’t approve of. That is absolutely counter-productive. It makes the term more loaded, it confuses the issues, it divides the community and it’s just plain mean.

The theme here is assumptions and world-view more so than privilege, per se.  For me, hearing the term couple privilege is often a symptom and the illness is assumptions. The message of this post and of my previous one has been “stop making assumptions.” In this post I’ve tried to further articulate where those assumptions might come from. I’m also trying to demonstrate how using the term “couple privilege” as a weapon against couples is ironic in a really sad way. The irony is that when this term is used as an insult or to cut down a relationship style it is very likely based in the beliefs that cause Couple Privilege in the first place.

So yah, we need to cut it out. We need to stop making assumptions and we need to ask why. Why do I think this way, why do I feel this way, why did I interpret that this way? When we ask ourselves why we can get to the bottom of our own beliefs and likely get to the bottom of a situation. If we’re tempted to insult someone be it with “couple privilege” or anything else, we are likely reacting when we’re reacting we’re not thinking. Let’s stop and think.