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.

new-paradigm-ahead

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.

Gratitude and Growth

Just over two years ago, on a drunken stumble through the streets of East Vancouver with an ex, I was confronted with a question I didn’t know how to answer, and the quest for that answer changed the entire trajectory of my life.

EastVan“What do you want, M?” Jareth had asked me, and I stared back at him in silence as I realised that I actually did not know. I’d been functioning on default for over a decade, expressing desires that I thought were what I was supposed to want- family, children, a regular job… normality. His question landed on me with the epiphany that I’d never actually considered to ask myself if I wanted to have a normal life, let alone contemplate what kinds of relationships I wanted to have.

And that saw the beginning of an amazing journey, my adventures in being Singleish, my diving in to an exploration of what I want.

This past weekend at my local Burning Man regional, I spent my time fluttering between my two boyfriends, connecting with dear friends (including former lovers Orion and Elk Feather), and getting my flirt on with some delightful people in the local Burner/Poly/Kink community. I taught my first workshop on Ethical Non Monogamy to a group of forty people. And then on the evening of the Burn, I stood under the full moon, in contemplation of the fire- the burning edifice seeming to represent all that I had moved through in the past two years- and was filled with gratitude for all the synchronicities that have been aligning in my life since I was asked that question. In the midst of that sensation of being “illuminaked”, I heard a familiar voice nearby. I turned my head to look, and there was Jareth, standing right behind me, with his girlfriend.

 

Effigy Burn, BitF 2014, (c) Lukasz Szczepanski

Effigy Burn, BitF 2014, (c) Lukasz Szczepanski

The universe has a delightful sense of timing. I felt it was symbolic of coming full circle, the satisfying conclusion to one chapter and opening of another.

This weekend also saw me reconnecting in profound ways with both of my partners. Alexander and I spent some beautiful time together both one on one, and with his wife as they celebrated their anniversary. I’m profoundly inspired by witnessing their relationship dynamic that, in the midst of all the challenges that family life can bring, continues to find new inspiration and new ground to explore. I think it intimidates me a little, but I’m learning to embrace that trepidation and allow our connection to unfold as feels right. And, after almost seven weeks apart, spending time with Marco was incredibly nourishing and re-affirming. I delight in the joy he shares with everyone around him, and cherish our ability to be completely present with one another, even in fleeting moments shared on a dance floor.

When I started this blog, I made a silent promise to myself that I would continue to be Singleish for at least two years, that my primary relationship would be with myself. I find that I’m moving deeper in to two very beautiful, loving, dynamic relationships right now- but that I have loved this adventure so much that I’m not ready to renounce my solo-hood entirely any time soon. Whilst in the long term I know I’d love to live with a blend of friends and lovers and maintain an active and independent dating life, I’ve come to a place of certainty about the rules I have for dating myself.

-I choose to date people who are inspiring, intelligent, thoughtful, communicative, in touch with their emotional tapestry, who embrace change as a constant.

– I choose to engage with people who operate with full and honest disclosure; honest communication about all other relationships is paramount to me.

– It is important for me to not just know my metamors, but to develop my own independent friendships with them.

– I will not veto a partner’s other relationships, but if I find myself in unresolvable conflict with someone who is dating one of my sweeties, I can walk away from the relationship with that partner and focus my energy in positive relationships.

– There are two main ways in which I engage in intimate and sexual relationships: there are people who I choose to date and explore Relationships with, and friends who I choose to be sexually and intimately playful with, without dating.

– I don’t do random- even in casual situations, I want to get to know someone first to develop trust and communication.

– I will not have intercourse with someone who I do not feel trust and connection with.

– Sexual health is very important to me. I ask that my dating partners get tested regularly and that playful partners, talk about their STI status before engaging in any kind of fluids contact.

– I believe that the first priority for every partner should be themselves, and the things that enrich their life- family, children, work, relationships, are all, in my opinion, things that can take priority at different times.

– I embrace the creativity of customizing commitments within each relationship, rejecting the expectations attached to the societal templates for relationshiping.

– I choose to focus on what is within relationships, rather than on what is lacking; I choose to celebrate what each relationship is from moment to moment.

– My priority remains, as always, staying true to the primary relationship with myself, honoring my own edges as I seek to expand them.

butterflyToday marks the 2nd anniversary of my first blog post. Two years of sharing with raw honesty and vulnerability the experiences and lessons I’ve garnered along the way.

This started out as a blog about polyamory, but I think it’s been more of a journal that has chronicled my process of getting clear with myself about what it is I want. I remain humbled that my words have had an impact on so many, and I look forward to continuing to learn new things about my self, my lovers, my friends, my community, and being part of an unfolding paradigm shift in perspective on relationships.

I have embraced singleishness, without running away from connections when they arise, and I’ve learned to love the practice of nurturing that primary relationship with myself- be it taking myself out on a date, prancing around solo through an arts festival in the forest, or spending time journaling at home. I’m filled with gratitude for all the people who have played a part in this process of growing and becoming, and am excited to see what the future will unfold.