Tag Archives: polyamory

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.

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Shifting the Paradigm and Couple’s Privilege

22 Jun

Couple’s Privilege was the topic of the hour in my poly community a while back. This makes sense to me on a certain front. I have definitely seen examples of couples holding unreasonable expectations of their other partners. I’ve seen couples not really consider the needs of their other partner and expect that partner to fit in seamlessly into their existing framework and rules. I’ve also seen real-life examples of how privilege impacts the lives of singles. Like the time I was looking for an apartment with a roommate (who I lived with for three years) and the apartments kept going to couples because we were seen as less reliable. So yah, the privileging of couples over singles is a real thing that can influence the way that couples interact with their other partners. But I wonder how many people give thought to how the label “couple’s privilege” gets tossed around and applied indiscriminately.

Over my eight or so years of being poly, I have definitely seen and heard some ideas that gave me pause. Like the many times I have heard people say that being in a primary relationship isn’t radical enough. Or the times people have said they feel guilt for wanting a deep committed relationship because they felt they were buying into the monogamous framework. I think these people missed the boat. The goal should be that we all can make informed decisions about what we want, not that we should all bow out of anything resembling a life-long partnership for fear of being influenced by our socialization. There has been a similar trend within the feminist movement where some people thought to achieve equality women must give up all that is associated with the feminine like make-up or being a stay-at-home mom. Again, I say the goal is agency and choice not outright rejection. Being feminine is fine just as being monogamous is fine or being poly and having life-partners is fine. It’s all okay so long as people recognize they have choice and think critically about those choices as well as other’s right to make choices.

The perception of choice and the recognition of agency seem to me to be the point at which people falter. From what I’ve observed, when people fail to see choice or recognize other’s agency they tend to throw around the label “couple’s privilege.” It seems to me that this tendency goes hand in hand with people reacting negatively to the term “primary partners.” This tendency is what led me to question the mechanism at work. I started questioning it because I saw that the dialogue around these subject was quite divisive in the community but also because I noticed that some of the people dated my partner actually made a lot of assumptions and treated me quite poorly. So I set to pondering in a “what the fuck?!” type manner and came up with some theories.

I’ve had experience being poly while being in a more casual set up with a boyfriend who I did not live with but whom I was quite committed to. I have also had experience with being poly while married, which is where I am at now. When I was “just dating” my previous partner, my metamours approached me as an equal, had regular contact with me, didn’t assume I had value over them and didn’t assume I had access to anything they didn’t. As a married person, I have experienced quite the opposite. I have had people tell me that I should be the one to lead contact with my metamours because I am married, as though my commitment to my partner puts me in a power position and therefore I should be the one to put myself out there and take all of the ownership for the metamour relationship. People have assumed that I am in a hierarchical position to them and I have even had a metamour send me an article on couple’s privilege and school me on my hierarchical relationship style before even asking if I had a hierarchical relationship model. These metamours were all acting on their own assumptions. When it comes to being “radical enough” and shirking the status quo being married and non-hierarchical feels a whole lot more radical than being solo-poly and making assumptions about anyone who is not.

That’s right, I said married and non-hierarchical. I married my partner because he’s fucking awesome and I wanted to make a public declaration of my commitment to him while at the same time asking my community to support that relationship and uphold it. In fact, for me marriage wasn’t even a remote possibility before I knew about polyamory. It was becoming poly that removed emotional and intellectual barriers and allowed me to see marriage as an option. Our wedding vows included commitment to community as well as a commitment to supporting each other in our poly endeavors. This relationship has never been monogamous.

We are married and we are open to whatever relationships develop alongside that marriage. If we find other partner(s) that we want to commit to in a major way, that’s great. If we happen to find someone that is so compatible that we all want to live together, great! If we find people that we click with in a causal way, great! In short, we have no parameters around what else might develop. Our parameters / rules do include things like making sure our metamours feel free to ask for anything they need, being truthful and forthcoming about our agreements and letting them know that those agreements are open to negotiation should our other partners need that. Part of our relationship agreement is that we do not impose that agreement on others and that we always remain open to re-negotiation. Yet, no matter how much we have tried to express that openness we are pretty consistently met with assumptions and judgments, which can be painful to endure.

So what can we as poly people do about this? Check yourself. It’s as simple as that. When you think about a married couple, don’t engage the monogamous paradigm and start making a bunch of assumptions. If you find yourself making assumptions, stop and ask questions and find out what the couple is really about. They may be fully indoctrinated into the monogamous paradigm, they may be absolutely monogamous but have made that decision with their eyes wide open, they may be poly with couple’s privilege and lack of awareness or they may be non-hierarchical despite having made a commitment to each other. In fact, try to stop making assumptions about any person’s commitments.

Labels are starting points for dialogue not definitions. This is life and it doesn’t fit neatly in the boxes so take the time to ask before you assume. This is truly radical. The very act of asking someone to further clarify their relationship model(s) is radical, this act of questioning usurps the status quo. This is a way to educate each other and help inform the world that there are options aside from monogamy and a way to make space for difference. Furthermore, asking for clarification can help shine the light on privilege where it does exist. It’s a win-win. Either you get clarification and things are golden or worked through or you dodge a bullet while helping raise peoples awareness of their privilege.

There are other behaviors and thought patterns to watch for as well.

  • Do you assume that your metamour has rights in their relationship that you do not?
  • When someone uses a label such as married or primary to describe their relationship, do you assume you know exactly what they mean or that you have the full picture?
  • Do you believe someone when they say they are open to a myriad of relationship options when they are already committed?
  • Do you avoid asking for what you want because you fear or believe that your partner’s other relationship excludes your needs?
  • Do you assume that someone is hierarchical based on whether they live with, are married to or consider themselves primary with their other partner(s)?
  • Do you think that the only way to have your needs met is to date someone who is not already committed?
  • Do you assume that your partner cannot really “be there” for you because they have another committed relationship?
  • Do you assume that if someone has a primary / lives with someone / is married that they are only open to secondary or tertiary partners?
  • Do you assume that someone can only offer a small amount of time / money / energy / love because of their other relationships?
  • Do you see a couple as two different people with whom you have two separate relationships or do you treat them as a single unit?

The assumptions above are all examples of how the monogamous paradigm can inform our thinking. I can tell you from experience that people operating under those assumptions will often also act out in harmful and destructive ways. If we really want our relationship styles to be revolutionary, we must first revolutionize our thinking. Shedding the shackles of monogamy doesn’t just mean being non-monogamous, it also means not thinking or operating from inside the monogamous paradigm.