Coupling, and Its Inescapable Privilege

A lot has been said, in Poly literature, about something called Couple Privilege, and about something called Hierarchy. The two are commonly perceived to be a package deal, and certainly the way many people talk about them, that’s understandable.

However, I’ve noticed a concerning trend to consider them as the same thing; I recently read a lovely piece by a married woman about how she and her husband didn’t have couple privilege because they didn’t have a hierarchical relationship. I fully respect the place she was coming from, but I felt inspired to examine these concepts again for myself, as something just felt off for me.

I’ll be honest- the first time I heard about Couple Privilege, I tuned out. I just didn’t get it. It’s only in the last few months, as I’ve grown deeper into a relationship with a married man, as I’ve been studying relationship and intimacy from a counsellor’s perspective, and as I’ve seen this topic come up multiple times in the Solo Polyamory group on Facebook, that I feel I’ve started to really grok what this is all about.

What Couple Privilege Is:

The culturally entrenched priority, and measure of value, given to couples by society, both in public perception of them, and the legal status of them.

hisnherstowelsCouple Privilege doesn’t just refer to the legal rights of married or common law partnerships. It goes beyond the right to visit your partner in the hospital, or be legally included in their inheritance even if they didn’t leave a will. It’s more than the financial benefits of being able to file your taxes together. It’s something that is also entrenched in the way that we are taught to see couples. Successful coupling is seen as a milestone in the process of being “grown up”.

In short, it’s what gay and lesbian couples have been fighting to attain the right to have in the USA and many other countries around the world.

What Couple Privilege Is Not:

Couple Privilege is not something that couples can opt in or out of. Just as you cannot lose male privilege whilst being a man, or lose white privilege when you get a summer tan, you cannot select out of couple privilege if you are coupled.

Couple Privilege is not the same as hierarchy, even though the two are often conflated. They are two separate, often co-existing, phenomenon.

What Hierarchy is:

The prioritising of one relationship over another.

If you have a child who you are responsible for, they become the primary focus in your life. If you have a spouse or partner you share financial commitment with, they will be higher a priority than a partner who you don’t live with, have children with, or share finances with. Plain and simple. Hierarchy is implicit, I believe, when you move in with someone, marry someone, or have a child with them.

What Hierarchy Is Not:

Though often considered to go hand in hand, Hierarchy does not mean Veto Power.

Veto Power is a construct that many therapists have recommended to couples opening up their relationship. It is when your spouse can decide you cannot have a relationship with someone else, regardless of your own feelings and desires, because they have said so. Veto Power is an approach to maintaining boundaries and preserving the primary relationship, but I think there are ways to create relationship rules and sculpt boundaries that are far more consensual for everyone involved, including the secondary, non coupling partners.

I’ve met many couples with relationship rules, and have often been informed of their rules very clearly before engaging in anything relationship or intimacy wise with them, yet I have not encountered many couples with Veto Power. Maybe that’s a statistical blip, or perhaps Veto Power is not as prevalent as it once was.

Wait- Is There Such A Thing As Solo Privilege?

solodateAs Western society experiences a surge in popularity of individualism and celebration of the Solo individual, there is a romanticism about the freedom of the Solo Person that arguably gives them some privileges couples do not enjoy. In the polyamorous world, for example, a solo person can “pass” or even be out publicly far more readily than someone who is coupled.

Arguably, this is actually because of Couple Privilege: we value the unit of the couple so much, that anything that challenges that would threaten the ‘fabric of society, and so it makes it hard for couples to come out. And, on the flip side of that, a person who is solo is simply seen as “not coupled yet”, and so their non-monogamous relationships can be more readily dismissed as “Oh they just haven’t found the one yet!”

Single, non-coupled people, can experience a struggle to be recognised as successful and competent adults by their families, friends, and work peers. They can also have a more challenging time financially, supporting a home on a single income and receiving none of the tax benefits that couples do.

How Couple Privilege and Hierarchy Are Different:

1. You don’t have to be coupled to have Hierarchy. For many solo people there is a hierarchy too- its our self-relationship first.

2. Couple Privilege is something awarded you and your coupling partner by Society. You have no choice about this. The moment you display signs of being a couple, you have attained a new level of privilege. What you do have free choice over, is how to react and relate to your own privilege.

Aggie Sez, the author of Solo Poly, has written (in an unpublished comment to an article conflating Couple Privilege and Hierarchy):

“Relationship hierarchy boils down to default, competitive decision making. That is, where people in separate but overlapping relationships have differing needs and wishes, this gets framed as a competition to be won, or as a potential threat to be controlled. It’s mostly a foregone conclusion who will “win” based on how the people/relationships involved are “ranked” — typically according to the nature or duration of those relationships. More life-entwined relationships (such as a cohabitating legal marriage) usually tend to get higher rank. But you could have a poly network where no one is legally married or living together, yet still practice hierarchy among the various relationships involved (though none of those relationships would have social couple privilege).”

So, Hierarchy is something you have more of a choice about, and it feeds into your decision making process. Hierarchy is implicit in most circumstances, but in different ways. It is really only limited to one linear measure if you’re attached to the rules of monogamy. For example, a relationship anarchist might have four different relationships that take priority in different ways at different times: one for longevity, one for cohabitating, one that is long distance (when they come into town), and one for it’s newness and novelty.

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Being single in a sea of couples is not always easy.

Okay, So Now What?

What you can do, if you are part of a Couple, is be aware of both the legal benefits and the social status advantage you enjoy through your relationship, and ‘check your privilege’. What does that look like? Well, you can consider, where do you benefit from being coupled, in a way that your solo friends don’t? Knowing that, how can you be conscious and aware of this and demonstrate this in your actions. You can be an ally to people who are Solo, and be an ally to the other partners your partner has.

Like with Couple Privilege, if you are in a relationship that has some inherent Hierarchy (such as living close versus living long distance, or working together versus not) you can still mitigate the aspects of Hierarchy you are uncomfortable with. You can work to establish an egalitarian base for your relationships, splitting time equally, sharing calendars with all partners, actively working towards more balance in your relationship. For example, if you are uncomfortable with your nesting partner taking priority over your non-nesting partner, you need to consider how to balance this. You could arrange sleepovers when your live-in partner has a date at one of their partner’s homes.

It’s also important, even for non-coupled people, to be aware of how they play into the scripts around couple privilege. When meeting two people who appear to be a couple, do you ever make assumptions about them, and their relationship style?

This approach to combating both the effects of Couple Privilege and Hierarchy is the basis of many of the writings of Franklin Veaux, the book More Than Two, and indeed, much of what I think of as the “second wave” of literature on polyamory. It is an approach that generally considers Couple Privilege and Hierarchy to be constructs that do more harm than good in practices of honest non monogamy.

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We are now experiencing an emerging “third wave” of poly theory. Drawing from the principles of Relationship Anarchy (‘RA’) of love, trust, and customizing your commitments, and with a focus on healthy self-relationships, couples are emerging who have firmly eschewed as much of their Couple Privilege as they can whilst still remaining coupled, and Solos are discovering ways of having aspects of coupled relationships, enjoying some of the societal endowed privileges whilst abstaining from the legal and community restrictions associated with it. With less focus on trying to ‘balance the scales’ of Privilege and Hierarchy, the RA-inclined non monogamists and polyamorists tend to not fight the aspects of each construct, and rather, they embrace them. Intimate networks, that can include couples, singles, triads, friendships, and long term relationships unbound by rules, are an emerging frontier in radical relationshiping.

I definitely fall into this latter category; my polycule is a social network of its own, with many diverse approaches to non monogamy represented within it, varying relationship rules, agreements, and structures. We are in exciting new territory of discovering what long term non-monogamy, completely outside of the monogamy paradigm, might look like. And I find that quite exciting.

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The Perfect Poly Person

The Perfect Poly Person develops in all of us who start exploring polyamory.

Polyamorous 'perfection'?

Polyamorous ‘perfection’?

It’s this future ideal, this high-bar image of perfection inspired by the scripts presented to us about polyamory (many of them, common misconceptions), that we aspire to. We attempt to fake-it-till-you-make-it; the PPP is that glossy poster-worthy role model for How Polyamory Should Be. And, it’s good to have role models. However, I’d like to examine the problems we face when this role model is a projection we have created for ourselves.

The PPP is an extension of that “you must be perfect, you must be good, you must be nice” voice that internally critiques our actions. We each create our own unique PPP based on what we are told polyamorous relationship perfection looks like, and what we aspire our relationships to be.

 

Here’s some beliefs you might notice your inner PPP holding on to:

  • "I told everyone I'm polyamorous, guess I better stick to that now- no jumping ship!"

    “I told everyone I’m polyamorous, guess I better stick to that now- no jumping ship!”

    I don’t experience jealousy, nope not me.

  • I don’t compare myself to others.
  • If I don’t acknowledge the way my metamor makes me feel insecure, everything will work out okay.
  • I need to be dating more people or I’m not doing poly right.
  • I have to give everyone equal time or I’m not being fair to them.
  • It would be selfish and inconsiderate for me to express what I want.
  • That messed up situation wasn’t my fault, it’s their fault for doing poly wrong.
  • If I own my responsibility in this messed up situation, it’s going to make me look like I’m a bad person, cos I did poly wrong.
  • I told everyone I’m polyamorous, now I better stick to that!
  • Even though this arrangement isn’t that convenient for me, I’m going to go along with it anyway cos I don’t want to cause a disruption to everyone else’s life.
  • If my poly relationships end, that means I’m a failure, so I’m just going to keep them all going, even if they aren’t inspiring me.
  • I’m not sure my partner is really poly, so I’m just not going to tell them about all the other relationships that are developing for me- that could scare them away.

 

The inner Perfect Poly Person likes to rewrites things to avoid taking responsibility for the fuck ups, and is a master of emotional bypassing and passive communication. If we acknowledged that we messed up, it might imply that we’re just not ‘naturally polyamorous’, and given how much people can risk to explore polyamory, that’s a scary prospect.

Sometimes our PPP doesn’t want to have those difficult conversations with exes because to do so would involve acknowledging that we have fucked up just as much as the other person, and aren’t that role model for non monogamy we’d like to be.

The PPP can silence us- not just to our partners, but to ourselves. We so easily find ourselves intoxicated in relationships, being in love with the idea of the relationship more than the person themselves, and when flaws begin to show up, rather than rock the boat, we shut up and keep rowing, sometimes cramming as many other people onto the sinking ship as we can.

The PPP blames others for the mistakes in relationships and never takes on shared responsibility where it’s due. How often have you heard of a relationship breakdown where all the blame is placed on someone else? Even some of the best regarded writers in polyamory have shared their personal stories of breakups and bypassed their own degree of responsibility. As my dad might remind me, it takes two- at least- to tango.

shadowsNone of us want to hurt or harm others. But sometimes, in moments of selfish idiocy, we do. The PPP shows up in some of those moments, and in their desire to Be Perfect, can disrupt not just our own lives, but the lives of others. And usually, it’s because the PPP wants to deny the shadow-side of the emotional spectrum, it doesn’t want to admit to any fears, to any sense of loneliness, or to any anger. And, that’s problematic, especially when you consider that denying these three emotions is one of the most common triggers for betrayls within relationships, and the ideal that polyamory is seeking is an open, honest, consensual approach to non-monogamy, one that hinges heavily on the degrees of trust between everyone.

In summary, when your inner Perfect Poly Person is running the show, you’re showing up as a set of expectations for yourself and who you think you need to be, rather than as the wonderful, genuine, beautifully flawed You. And, you might end up sabotaging your own relationships without realising it.

So, what do we do?

self-hugFirst of all, I think we need to have some compassion for ourselves. It’s okay to mess up. It’s okay to be imperfect. As far as I know, there’s no dissertation committee waiting to asses us on our successes and failures in relationships, let alone poly relationships.

 

Here’s some things I’ve taken to reminding myself on a regular basis:

      • It’s OKAY to screw up- as long as you can own it and be willing to talk about it.
      • It’s okay to have conflict in relationships. In fact, a healthy conflict process is a worthy goal for long term relationships, and far preferable to cycles of hostile dependence or conflict avoidance.
      • It’s okay to have illogical and unreasonable desires- and it’s better to give voice to them (disclaimers of irrationality included) than to suppress them. Yes! You have permission to ask for what you want! Remember that expressing something doesn’t obligate anyone to meeting those needs for you. However, asking for what you want is a fantastic way to grow communication within relationships.
      • It’s completely natural to feel jealousy and insecurity around a new relationship developing for a partner. Acknowledging these feelings and examining them is important to do. It’s also totally okay if you don’t feel any jealousy or insecurity about new relationships in your partners’ lives.
      • It’s okay to feel that something has changed in a relationship and to talk about it.
      • It’s okay to fall out of love, and it’s okay for the love you feel to change and morph- give yourself permission to talk about it when that happens.

What I’ve found, is that, when we embrace our own vulnerability and share that with our trusted friends and lovers, the inner PPP has no choice but to surrender and melt. It’s still there, a whisper in the background- and I think I’m okay with that.

Perhaps ironically, I remind my inner PPP that the perfection is in the imperfection, that it’s wise to stay humble, remembering that I don’t have all the answers- that none of us do- and this sense of humility and vulnerability is actually the ‘perfect’ way to go about having relationships, because it gives us permission to show up as our genuine, imperfect selves, and maybe even be loved for who we are in the moment, rather than the impossible ideal we are desperately trying to become.

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 Some further reading that might interest you:
Successful Non-Monogamy (includes free download) and The Good Girl Recovery Program (both by Marcia Baczynski, whose coaching has been invaluable for me).Gratitude to all the friends who helped me flesh out the ideas in this article (you all know who you are), and to my friend and colleague Mislav Marhonic for offering editorial guidance on this piece. Love you all!