What is couple privilege?
March 25th, 2023
If you're a twosome, you might not even be conscious of it - but what do you need to know about your couple privilege and how it affects others?
Couple privilege refers to the advantages, benefits and accommodations that couples are automatically given in society over single people or non-nested partners. You might have heard of its counterpart, singlism, which is the unfair treatment of those who are not in a relationship or not part of a couple dynamic. Couple privilege is all around us, manifesting itself in small ways like meals for two, getting ‘plus ones’ at events, family memberships and ‘buy one, get one free’ offers. It’s also present in the societal expectation and pressure to get married and split rent or a mortgage with your partner, and in larger legal and financial institutional bias. Moreover, couples are expected to prioritise each other over their relationships with everyone else and narratives about the ‘one true love’ and ‘soulmates’ incentivise us to see a monogamous romantic bond as the be-all and end-all of connection. It is clear that couple privilege and the general foregrounding of monogamy are deeply entrenched in our society, so how does one navigate this in a non-monogamous or polyamorous relationship dynamic?
Don’t feel guilty
It’s important to note at this point that having couple privilege doesn’t inherently make you a bad person; however, if you remain unaware of how this privilege affects you and others, you may end up acting in ways that significantly disenfranchise your uncoupled loved ones. Established couples who are new to non-monogamy and polyamory can cause significant distress and harm to newer partners if they fail to interrogate their couple privilege. For example, they may unilaterally impose rules and limitations on relationships with third parties to ensure a feeling of ‘safety’ for those in the original couple, expect and assume that other partners will mold themselves to the couple dynamic and generally act in entitled ways that prioritise the couple as the ‘real’ relationship rather than making room to accommodate ‘outside’ partners.
Couple privilege, like male privilege and white privilege, is not something that can be dismantled in the short term, but rather something to be aware of when engaging in relationships with others. If you are part of a couple and have a tendency to prioritise your relationship over your bonds with other lovers, friends and family, think about why you do this and how it affects your connections. What decisions have you made as a couple in the past, present and future, and how will those influence decisions in relationships with others you are involved with? Which consequences are avoidable and which are unavoidable? How can you adapt to a non-monogamous dynamic in a way that minimises these effects? Have you spoken with others in your life about how your coupledom impacts them?
State hierarchies upfront
In non-monogamous circles, people typically discuss two types of hierarchy: descriptive and prescriptive. Descriptive hierarchies refer to the largely unavoidable and circumstantial ways in which certain partners are prioritised over others, such as the financial ties and obligations involved in legal marriage or mortgages, the daily routines involved in cohabitation and the shared responsibilities of co-parenting. Prescriptive hierarchies are the additional conditions and agreements used to emotionally protect a primary-style couple and establish power over other relationships, such as the ability to veto other partners at any time, setting curfews for your partner, banning holidays with other partners and so on. Prescriptive hierarchies are more common in sexually open relationships where there is still an emphasis on the primacy of the romantically monogamous couple, even though they are sexually non-monogamous. However, they are widely frowned upon in the polyamorous community, where an egalitarian mindset offering equal opportunity or treatment for all partners is much more common. Hierarchy is not the same as couple privilege, though they often go hand-in-hand with each other, due to the fact that certain decisions like marriage will give a relationship couple privilege and an inevitable descriptive hierarchy.
Hierarchy is not an inherently bad thing. There is nothing wrong with being married or wishing to live, combine finances or share responsibilities with one person but not another; different people are compatible in different ways and not everyone wishes to be treated the same. Besides, there are many people who will happily consent to non-monogamous arrangements where they are explicitly regarded as ‘secondary’, giving up some amount of agency and power in a casual dynamic to gain more freedom and less responsibility in the relationship. The most important thing, therefore, is to communicate your expectations and rules (if you have them) upfront, rather than assuming everyone is on the same page and non-consensually imposing them onto new partners retrospectively. Talk about your existing commitments to your established partners while on dates with potential connections, what limitations this will create time- or commitment-wise for a possible relationship and discuss to what extent each of you is willing to adapt to include each other in your lives.
Involve, include and inform
If you have multiple ongoing relationships, be aware of how changes in one relationship can often have a ‘ripple effect’ on others. For example, if you have two partners who you spend a roughly equal amount of time with, but decide later on that you wish to move in with only one of them, it’s important to discuss with everyone involved how this will shift the dynamic of each relationship. Giving all your partners a voice in the conversation – whether it’s to express their feelings about the changes, to offer suggestions on how you can help them feel valued and important or to renegotiate your agreements entirely with this transition – will help you to understand your partner’s needs, boundaries and desires, and to work out whether they are compatible with yours. If you are unable or unwilling to include your other partners in a decision you’re making for whatever reason, it is important to at the very least inform them in a timely way; for example, if you are planning on having children with one partner, let other partners know in advance so they can prepare for this eventuality and the consequences that will unfold from it.
Couple privilege is often inevitable, but with care and consideration for the impact your coupledom has on other relationships, timely communication of expectations and clear boundary-setting, it is possible to navigate it in a healthy way and give all your connections the respect they deserve.