Couples Privilege – Where’s My Happy Ever After?
by Michael Love
I want to talk for a minute about privilege. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on privilege of any kind, in fact I think that there are a lot of kinds of privileges that I am still struggling to understand and relate to in my own life, mostly because as a cishet white male… I am literally the epitome of privilege. That said, I think it’s one of the most important things that we all have to learn to discover our own privileges and figure out how to move through the world with an understanding of our privileges and how they may impact the people around us.
Privilege is basically an invisible package of unearned advantages. Things that come easy to us because of our race, gender, sexual orientation, and/or relationship status. To help demonstrate privilege, I will give a few examples of how I understand my privilege.
As I said… I am a cishet white male. So my privilege breaks down like this.
- I have white privilege – I will have an easier time finding work, and getting promoted over people of color even if they are more qualified than I am. I am more likely to be paid more than my coworkers of color. Statistically, I am more likely to be treated civilly should I encounter police, I also will likely have greater leniency in court. It is literally the opposite of every disadvantage a person of color may experience simply because they are not caucasian. These are just a few examples of white privilege.
- I am cisgendered – I am lucky enough to identify with the sex parts I was born with. Not everyone has that luxury and as a result they suffer many disadvantages in comparison. I will never feel like a foreigner in my own body. I will never struggle with how I identify as male, I do not struggle with which pronouns I expect to have used to describe me. To me this is “normal” and I will always have to make a conscious effort to try to understand how non-cisgendered people have to struggle with this. As a part of my privilege, as I move through the world I am immediately recognized by my gender, and I will have an easier time obtaining work, and will be more likely to get promoted, even over my non-cis co-workers who may be more qualified or better suited for the job. Generally speaking, Cisgendered people will have an easier time finding relationships as the mainstream populus still thinks in terms of heteronormative relationships
- I have heterosexual privilege. Yes… it’s a thing… while being heterosexual seems mainstream “normal” to many of us… it comes with unearned advantages over those who are not heterosexual. Being heterosexual means I will have an easier time finding relationships, and once I find those relationships I will not have to hide it from anyone for fear of negative repurcussions on my self, my family, or my job. I will not be persecuted for my heterosexuality. I will not be beaten up because I’m straight, I will not be killed because I’m straight. I do not have to struggle with feeling odd or different because of who I am attracted to. I can legally marry in all 50 states, and that marriage will be recognized in all 50 states. If I should end up in a hospital, my partner will be able to visit me without question (in all 50 states) and we can have a family, we can adopt more easily. The list goes on and on…
- I have male privilege. Men are more likely to be hired than women, and are more likely to be promoted even over women who are more qualified, and as I get promoted people won’t assume that I “slept my way” to the top. Men can generally walk alone through town without fear of being harassed or possibly even raped. Men are less likely to be abused by a partner. The list literally goes on and on….
These are all good examples of privilege but the kind of privilege that I want to talk about today is a specific kind of privilege that is prevalent in ethical non-monogamy. It’s called couples privilege. Like all privilege, couples privilege is a nearly invisible set of advantages that couples have over their single partners. It’s not your fault… it is literally the advantages that society gives you as a couple.
What is couples privilege?
Couples privilege entail the almost invisible characteristics of a couple that imply hierarchical advantage. For example if you are a married couple, being married is a ceiling of relationship value that no one else can attain. You’re married to your spouse, legally you cannot possibly marry any of your additional partners. So this creates an invisible barrier that gives your relationship with your spouse greater importance than your other relationships. It puts in place an implied hierarchy that automatically makes every single other partner other than your spouse inferior to them. There are other examples of couples privilege as well, we often share debt with our spouses, we cohabitate with our spouses, have children with our spouses, and also share a disproportionate amount of time with our spouses as compared to our other partners, simply by default of living together. Most people would construe this as “accepted” and “normal”, but that’s what makes it all privilege.
Privilege is often viewed as “normal”. This is seemingly fine for the couple, and definitely advantageous as most couples draw a certain amount of security from their privilege without even realizing the impact it may have on their other partners. Knowing that they have that anchor partner or that security in their relationship with their spouse gives them a certain level of comfort.
Flip to the other side of the situation for a moment if you will, and try to view this from the perspective of the secondary partner. The secondary partner can never be a spouse, will likely never have the security of buying a home with their partner, probably will not have children with their partner (although this is not a hard limit as this does happen in some situations), and in most cases secondary partners do not cohabitate with their partners. This can lead to secondary partners feeling like “second-class citizens”, like they are somehow less important, less relevant, and almost disposable. It’s what makes secondary partners feel like they have no rights, no say… and that they are there to “serve the couple” or that they are merely an object or a toy for them to play with and then cast aside when it no longer serves them. They often feel like the “odd man out” because they are outnumbered… they are the single, the couple is the couple and likely have the advantage of not only their plurality, but also likely have longevity over the solo partner. The couples relationship is often implied to have greater importance by default. It is also the single partners disadvantage in that at the first sign of trouble they are often removed from the equation. Even the term “Secondary Partner” implies lesser importance, and shows greater importance to the “Primary couple”. THIS is couples privilege.
I once knew someone who was the “unicorn” in a triad. She joined in with a couple who had been married for over 15 years. They were hard-core swingers, and loved that they had found a third, but still enjoyed going out and having fun at the clubs and house parties. She would sometimes join them but was not allowed to go off and have fun on her own. She was expected to stay loyal and faithful to the couple, and could only go off and play with their permission. This came to a head one night when the couple had told her she could not go off on a date with her new sexy friend, but then they went out to a house party and didn’t take her because they were meeting another couple. Needless to say, that unicorn got away… I wish I could say this is an extreme example, but sadly it is a scenario that is played out often in situations like this.
I think, especially in polyamory, that it is important as a married couple, or a cohabitating couple/primary couple, that you strive to understand your privilege and how it affects your partners. The thing is, you cannot erase your privilege, but the more you understand it and the impact that it has on your partners, the better that you can mitigate the impact of your privilege on your partners. I think that it’s important if you truly care about your partners as people, and lovers (whether they are romantic partners or just friends) they deserve to be treated like they are a priority and not disposable. They should be treated like they are a welcome part of your life that is embraced by everyone and that they have a place in your life, whatever that may be, and that it is honored and respected and given value. They also should be treated like they have all of the same rights in your relationship as you have with your other partners, including your primary partner.
The last eight years have been a huge learning curve for me in the aspect of couples privilege and hierarchy/non-hierarchy relationships. When my wife and I first started into the lifestyle we were very much into the casual/swing aspect of ethical non-monogamy. I swear I think we had all the rules… We had the “permission to play rule”, “veto power”, we even went through a phase where neither of us could play unless the other one had someone lined up to play with (that rule eventually carried over to actual dates…. it was a dumb rule, but one we needed at the time). We didn’t realize at the time how detrimental these rules were to our relationships with other people because in our mind we were protecting our primary relationship, the most important relationship to us. It was kind of, us against the world… Which seems really strange when it was the world we were trying to connect with.
As we progressed slowly through taking these rules down, each time a rule came down it was attached to a negative life experience… We began to date separately, but we also began to drift in different directions. I discovered that I preferred more connection in my relationships and began to date the same people continuously and started to establish more romantic connections with my partners. My wife… being the beautiful and vivacious slut that she is… Continued her journey on the more casual side because it was easy for her to find casual connections. Little did we know this would begin to create an offset in our relationship and how we related to our metas. My wife went on thinking with the more privileged line of thinking, in that she was out to protect the primary relationship even at the detriment of my secondary relationships. This caused a lot of conflict between she and I, and it caused some pretty devastating destruction with some of my relationships with other partners at the time. Needless to say this was a very challenging transition for us and we didn’t even know at the time why, because we didn’t understand what couples privilege was or how it impacts our relationships with other people.
We even unknowingly embraced our privilege… at one point during my wife’s struggles with jealousy and insecurity, my partners and I would refer to her lovingly as “The Queen”. When she struggled with her insecurity and lashed out I would ask her… did she want to be the “Good Queen” who supported and empowered the people in her life? Or did she want to be the “Evil Queen” who wielded her power like a weapon and destroyed people? I know, its cringeworthy… but it made her start to realize the level of control she was employing on my partners, unfortunately it was also a HUGE glaring beacon on our privilege, proudly on display…Keep in mind we still at this point didn’t even know there was such a thing as couples privilege, let alone how deeply embedded we were in it. It is one of many learning curves I regret affected other people in my life, but also glad it is behind us so we can move past it.
2 1/2 years ago, I met my girlfriend, and without any intention or purpose, the relationship grew to become very significant, so significant that I kind of withdrew from nearly every single other partner that I had. By thennow my wife hads come to realize that she hads to take a different approach and understanding with my more poly leanings in my relationships. She had begun to embrace my partners and accept them as a part of her life… Without even realizing anything about privilege or what that even meant. It’s been a growing process for her, but my relationship with my girlfriend would become her biggest challenge yet.
A year and 1/2 into the relationship with my girlfriend things had become VERY serious. We were seeing each other three times a week, and I spent the night on two of those nights; we often spent weekends together as a family. About that time our lease was up for renewal on our apartment. At this same time my girlfriend was starting to experience some financial struggles of her own, she was considering getting a roommate to help cover her expenses (it’s tough road owning a house on a single income). As serious as the relationship with my girlfriend had become, the concept of us all cohabitating didn’t seem all that far fetched. We talked it over, back-and-forth for a week or so and then finally sat down the three of us and decided that we could all benefit financially from moving in together. We were already living as a poly V just in separate houses. Living together would help lessen that burden. So, we did it… We moved in together and began facing those challenges of melding not just two households, not just two relationships, but becoming an actual poly family.
We quickly discovered where the remaining lines of privilege existed. Things that used to be reserved for just my wife and I, suddenly involved my girlfriend as well. Time that my wife and I used to spend alone, evenings watching TV etc. were now shared, and in some cases, my girlfriend and I were able to have some alone time while my wife happened to be at work. Suddenly, this relationship with my girlfriend that was already intimidating to my wife, started to gain some of the privilege of a cohabitating relationship. There was the perception that the relationship with my girlfriend was gaining more importance. This made my wife feel like our relationship was being diminished, when in reality… the privileges were becoming more on par with each other and more equally shared.
It became increasingly obvious that the only way this works is if those lines of privilege are all but erased. As a cohabitating partner my girlfriend deserves to feel like she is as important of a part of this family as everyone else. We all deserve to feel like we have equal consideration and we all should feel like residents in our home, and as equal partners in our family. Nothing can completely erase the fact that I am married to my wife, and all of the other connections that go along with that… However, they can be minimized. My wife and I know that connection exists, but it doesn’t have to be emphasized at every opportunity. By raising up my relationship with my girlfriend, we can more effectively be a family, in a household that suppresses that marriage privilege and emphasizes equality.
There has been a great learning curve for all of us in recognizing our privilege and learning how to live with it in a way that is respectful to the disadvantages my girlfriend has as the non-married partner. In fact, it has been such a great learning experience that we’re all starting to understand the privilege that we have as cohabitating partners, in relation to our partners that we don’t live with. The amount of time that we are able to spend together is massive compared to the time we have to offer our other partners. Recognizing this is important even though there is not really much that we can do to rectify the problem other than show a greater level of patience, support, and empowerment in regard to each other’s respective other partners and the time that they need as well.
I think this concept is a lot easier for my girlfriend to wrap her head around because she is on the underdog side of couples privilege in my relationship with my wife. It also helps her understand the impact our privileges as cohabitating partners has over my non-domicile partners.
For my wife, one of the biggest challenges she has had to come to terms with is coping with the feeling that as my relationship with my girlfriend has grown in importance, that it makes her feel like our marriage has become less significant. In some ways she’s not wrong– in a Poly group that I’m in, someone recently said “In order to truly be non-hierarchical, you cannot be married. In order to truly be non-hierarchical you would need to divorce your spouse, and live as a single person”. Now, truly… I think it’s rather crazy that someone would suggest such a thing, but even that, to some extent is my privileged thinking, because she is correct about one thing… the mere aspect of being legally married does indeed create “implied hierarchy*”. Now I’m not suggesting that you all go out and start divorcing your partners. That’s nuts… However, when you break down the thinking and realize how deep that need for creating some degree of balance for your partners, while still keeping your marriage to your spouse intact… You’re starting to scratch the surface of understanding your couples privilege and its effects on your partners, while being so subtle, can still have negative impacts on those relationships. So, it’s not that your marriage needs to become less significant… You just have to make sure that you are essentially giving it a shrine in the corner, while giving space for your other partners to exist within the same space.
While we still from time to time, have our struggles with couples privilege, and how it impacts our relationships, we feel like we’re living proof that when you’re aware of your privilege, how it impacts others, while giving them the room to enjoy whatever level of equality that can be given… There is an opportunity for a healthier, happier relationship between all people involved in a polycule.