Franklin Veaux (tacit) wrote,
Franklin Veaux

Polyamory: So What Is Couple Privilege, Anyway?

I've been chewing on this post for more than two years now.

Part of the problem is that it's a daunting subject; one could easily write a book on the subject of couple privilege and how it plays out in relationships. Another is that a lot of otherwise well-meaning folks tend to get freaky-deaky about the P word; it's perceived as an accusation or an attempt at guilt-tripping, because we all like to think of ourselves as basically fair and decent people, and the notion that we benefit from advantages that we haven't earned is an uncomfortable one.

Part 0: Privilege: What is it?

Put simply, when you talk about people or societies, a 'privilege' is any advantage that one person or group has over another that hasn't been specifically earned.

It's a simple idea that's complicated and fraught with land mines in practice. Part of the reason for that is that privilege is invisible to those who have it. If you are in a privileged position, it doesn't seem like you have advantages over other people; it just seems like the Way Things Are. People don't consciously assert privilege. People don't get up in the morning and think "Wow, as a heterosexual white guy, I think I'll go out and oppress some women and minorities today!" Privilege is insidious because it is structural; privileged people get advantages without having to consciously think about them.

Click for an introduction to privilege; if you're familiar with the concept, you can probably skip this.Collapse )
So that's privilege.

And I want to talk about the role it plays in polyamorous relationships.

Part 1: Couple Privilege in Society

We live in a society that expects certain things of us.

One of the things that our society expects is that we will find someone else, fall in love, get married, and start a family.

The default social expectation is heterosexual monogamy. People who are born clearly male or clearly female and generally like getting it on with other people who are clearly of the opposite sex are granted certain privileges by our society. By default, their lives are easier in many ways than people who aren't born clearly of one sex or the other, or who aren't born in a body that fits their self-conception, or who are born with a taste for the romantic company of folks of the same sex.

What kinds of advantages? Other people will, by default, tend to react better to straight (or bisexual but straight-partnered) cisgendered folks better than they do to gay, trans, or intersexed folks, all other things being equal. Certain legal advantages are conferred upon straight folks, though that's (finally!) changing. Religious institutions overwhelmingly favor monogamous straight folks--not always and everywhere, but by and large. It's easier for you to adopt children. You get certain tax benefits.

So polyamorous folks already have a disadvantage. We don't fall neatly into the expectation of monogamy.

That expectation can seep into us even when we know that monogamy isn't a good fit for us. I think this is most often true of people who come to poly after having been in a monogamous relationship for a while--the couple looking to expand on their relationship with polyamory.

When a couple first tries to venture into polyamory, they'll often get a lot of eyerolls and heavy sighs from experienced poly people. It can be a bit disconcerting; you've thought about it carefully, after all, and you really want to try this non-monogamy thing...why is everyone giving you such a hard time?

The answer is that no matter how carefully you've thought about it, you will likely carry some ideas and expectations that privilege your existing relationship, often in the guise of "protecting" it...and a lot of us poly folks have been hurt by well-intentioned people unconsciously exercising privilege to the detriment of others, without even intending to.

Thinking about privilege is a bit like listening to music. If you have an untrained ear, it can be really difficult to, say, pull out the bass line from the music. But if you hear the bass line by itself, now suddenly you'll recognize it in the music.

Which is what this essay is all about--letting you hear that bass line by itself, so you can still pick it out when you're actually building your relationships.

Part 2: The Unicorn

When an existing couple first starts exploring the notion of polyamory, it can be very tempting to try to keep hold of as many elements of monogamy as possible.

After all, we live in a world that tells us that commitment means the same thing as exclusivity. We live in a world that says if your mate wants to have sex with someone else, it means you aren't good enough--better watch out, or you will lose your mate! We live in a world that says sex and relationship go hand in hand.

So to step outside that world can get pretty intimidating. What happens if our lover wants sex with someone else--does it mean that he or she will just start running around willy-nilly, having sex with everyone? That doesn't seem like a good way to have a relationship, right?

And what about jealousy? How can we keep from feeling jealous if our lover has sex with someone else?

The solution to all these problems that seems obvious and occurs to a lot of folks right out of the gate is to find a bisexual woman to have sex with both members of the couple in a fidelitous triad. After all, if you're both having sex with the same person, then nobody will be jealous, right? If you are fidelitous and nobody has sex with anyone else, you won't have to worry about your partner having sex willy-nilly with the whole world, right? And of course it's a woman--bisexuality in women is hot, but bisexuality in men is kinda yucky, right?

There's a reason such a woman is called a "unicorn," and the 1,872,453014 couples searching for her are called "unicorn hunters." The idea of looking for a unicorn feels perfectly reasonable--but it's rooted in a lot of ideas that aren't necessarily true and often it's based on a set of expectations that privilege the existing relationship, even if it doesn't seem that way.

Couples looking for a unicorn aren't evil. They're not mean or malicious or bad people. Yet they often end up doing a lot of harm to anyone who crosses their paths. A friend of mine refers to being a third partner to a couple as "being a couple's chew toy," and by far the majority of poly folks I know who have done it once will never do it again.

But why? What's wrong with it?

For starters, you probably sat down and talked very carefully with your partner about it, and both of you probably agreed that it would meet your needs, right?

So what's wrong with that?

Well, let's step aside for a moment from the fact that whenever you're talking about non-monogamy, anything that you do which starts with "We both ..." automatically places one relationship above the others, and think about things from a prospective third's point of view.

It didn't give any thought to HER needs. She wasn't part of the conversation--and how could she be? You haven't even met her yet. When you decide in advance what the rules of a relationship are, without even being in that relationship yet, well...people tend to feel a bit disenfranchised by that.

And most folks in the poly community are poly because they reject the idea of restrictive relationships; they reject the notion that being in one relationship means giving up on being in any others. So the poly community is really not the best place to look for someone if you plan to tell her "As long as you're involved with us, you won't be allowed to be with anyone else."

But most importantly, you haven't thought about how what you're asking for puts your relationship with each other ahead of your relationships with her. Which means that when you do find that "her" you'd love to welcome into your relationship, she quite likely won't be very keen on joining. (A lot of folks looking for a partner will say "This is what we want, don't judge us!" and then in the next breath "...but man, it sure is hard, we've been searching and searching and we just can't find anyone.")

Privilege is an insidious thing; it's very difficult to think about how you're giving your own existing relationships a heaping cup of unearned advantages when you're not even aware of what those advantages are.

So let me talk for a bit about what some of those advantages are.

Part 3: The Not-So-Complete List of Couple-Based Privileges

Let's play a thought experiment. Let's say you're in an existing relationship. You've been in it for a while--years, even. You might live together. You might be married. Maybe you have a dog named Spot or a kid named Freddie or a goldfish named Wanda or something.

Anyway, point is, you're together and you're happy, but you think it might be cool to have more. So you decide you might want to give polyamory a try.

Now imagine that you've found a third. She's beautiful and smart and dynamite in bed, she fancies both of you, she even likes your fish.

And let's say your existing partner says to you, "I'm still feeling a bit uncertain about all this. I know we both wanted to try this, but it still makes me feel awkward when I see you have sex with our third. Can you do me a favor and stop having sex with her for a while until I feel better?"

Now let's suppose your third says to you, "You know, this is all feeling new to me, and I still feel a bit uncertain about all this. It makes me feel kind of awkward to see you have sex with your wife. Can you do me a favor and stop having sex with her until I feel better?"

There, did you feel that? A disturbance in the Force. For most people, the response to each of these requests probably wouldn't be the same. That's one example of couple privilege.

Now let's say you're invited to a company picnic. You can bring a partner with you. What do you do? Do you bring your husband, or your third?

Tch. There it is again, that disturbance in the Force.

What do you say to your family? Do you bring your third to Thanksgiving dinner? You've been accustomed, all these years, to having the nearly-invisible social benefits that come from a typical het monogamous relationship. Now, all of a sudden, you have to start thinking about the fact that you're not. What do you say? Do you stay closeted? Do you tell any of your monogamous friends? Your boss? The person at the sandwich shop across the road?

Uh-oh. Now it's starting to get complicated. What will your mom think? Maybe it's better not to say anything...stay in the closet.

But if you do that, what are you telling your third? You're telling her that she's good enough to fuck but not good enough to be seen in public with. You're telling her that you love her--but not as much as you love the social privileges of seeming to be monogamous.


What if she doesn't like that very much?

There are a lot of privileges that go along with being monogamous. Some of them are "external" privileges--social privileges you get without even necessarily asking for them. Some of them are "internal" privileges--privileges that make your relationship feel safer and more secure by placing it on a different plane from any "third" or "outside" relationships.

External privileges:

- You can check into a hotel as a couple and expect to share a room with one bed. Many hotels have policies forbidding them from renting a room with one bed to three or more adults.
- Ability to easily find greeting cards in any store that will describe your relationship or express what you want to express.
- Assumptions about couplehood in work and social environments: you will often be permitted, or even expected, to bring one partner to company social functions, to weddings, to parties, and so on.
- You can easily expect to find an apartment that will rent to both of you; many apartments won't rent a one-bedroom apartment to more than two adults, and may impose other restrictions on the number of adults staying there.
- If you have children, you may be at risk from child protective services for being involved in non-monogamous relationships.
- Being involved in non-monogamous relationships may bring social judgment or assumptions about promiscuity.
- Being non-monogamous may count against you in custody disputes or other issues involving the courts.
- Being non-monogamous may create problems during background checks, security clearances, and so on.
- In the military, adultery is a crime under the UCMJ.
- You can get married to one partner but not to two. Marriage brings a whole slew of privileges of its own: tax advantages, legal protections for joint property, survivorship benefits, Social Security benefits, insurance benefits, and on, and on.
- Most religions endorse heterosexual monogamy above all other sexual and romantic relationships
- Fostering or adoption of children is easier in a monogamous relationship
- Medical visitation and medical power of attorney often extend to only one (often legally-married) partner.
- Many cultural ideas privilege heterosexual monogamy, including: deviency in romantic relationships is linked to pedophilia; if a non-traditional relationship fails, it's because of the non-traditional part; polyamorous people are always on the prowl and are therefore a threat to monogamous relationships; if you're polyamorous it means your current partner isn't "good enough" or you don't "really" love him or her; polyamory is a polite term for "playing the field."
- A "third" partner may not be able to do things like pick a kid up from school.
- Family events or vacations are easier when you have one partner than when you have two.
- The ability to say "I've been with my monogamous partner for 18 years" without being seen as a 'credit to monogamy' or "I broke up with my monogamous partner after 3 months" without being seen as a 'detriment to monogamy.'

Internal privileges:

- Assumptions that the couple comes first in priority (more on this later).
- "Veto" arrangements that allow either member of a couple to unilaterally demand that the other member end an "outside" relationship.
- Many people expect certain financial privileges, such as joint ownership of property or the expectation that a "third" will not share a mortgage.
- Assumptions that if the couple wants children, they will have them within the couple but not with an "outside" partner.
- Closeted polyamory, which disenfrachises the relationships with the third person.
- The assumption that as long as the original couple remains together, everything's OK.
- The idea that if the couple "tries" polyamory and decides they don't like it, it's acceptable to simply cut off the third person and go back to monogamy; this idea inherently treats outside people as though they are expendable.
- The history shared by the couple, which carries with it its own language, shared experiences, and "in" jokes and which is often both intimidating to and impenetrable by the third person.
- Assumptions that if a new person decides to share living space with the couple, the new person will move in with the couple rather than vice versa.
- Territoriality, which may be expressed in a number of different ways: "you may never have sex with anyone else in our bed," "you may never call anyone else by my favorite pet name,""you may never take anyone else to our favorite restaurant," and so on.
- The couple usually expects to set the terms under which any third person may join the relationship, which inherently disempowers the third person.
- Sometimes, couples may decide that a third person isn't really part of the family if she isn't having sex with both of the members of the couple.
- The couple has a built-in support system if the "outside" relationship fails, which may not be true if the original couple's relationship fails.
- Assumptions about what will happen in the event of an unplanned pregnancy inside the couple vs. what will happen if an unplanned pregnancy happens with an "outside" party.
- The idea that an established couple that runs into problems may be able to just put outside relationships on the back burner to focus on the problem, vs. the idea that if a person has a problem with an "outside" relationship, he or she will not be able to put the established relationship on the back burner to focus on it.
- The idea that a couple may be able to cancel a date with an "outside" lover if one of them feels the need, but "outside" partners are usually not given the power to cancel a date or event within the couple.
- The couple may want to keep any "outside" partners away from day-to-day activities like chores.
- Assumptions that one member of the couple's time is dedicated to the other member unless explicitly negotiated otherwise.
- Differences between what happens if a member of the existing couple has a debilitating injury or illness vs. what happens if an "outside" partner does.

Of course, not every relationship benefits from every one of these privileges, and not every couple privileges their relationship in these exact ways. These are examples of ways in which privilege can favor established couples.

Part 4: But What About Protecting the Couple?

By this point, you've probably already started thinking "Hey, Franklin, wait a minute! Some of the things on your list, like having a shared history, are inevitable. I didn't set out to turn that into some kind of privilege! And if I already have kids, or a mortgage, or other obligations, of course those obligations come first! What's the big deal? There's nothing wrong with that!"

And you're right. There's not.

You have pre-existing commitments and relationships and you want to take care of them. That's reasonable. It doesn't have to turn into an exercise of privilege.

Imagine that you've just made a new friend. You probably would not see the need to make a production of telling your new friend "You know, I already have existing friends, and I've known them longer than you, so I prioritize those friendships over yours." You probably wouldn't find a need to tell him "Just so you know, my kids' needs come before yours;" in fact, it'd probably seem a little weird if your new friend didn't get that. And unless you're in sixth grade, you would almost certainly be looked at oddly if you told your new friend "I already have a best friend, and there can be only one best friend, so I want to make sure you know that I can be friends with you but we will never be best friends."

Yet often, this is exactly what couples who are new to poly will tell a new partner--occasionally in the same breath as talking about how they want an "equal" triad.

So how can you tell the difference between protecting something you've invested in and asserting couple privilege?

This is a sticky wicket. Privilege, by its nature, tends to creep into everything we do; it's the framework of How Things Are, the ideas and experiences we take for granted on an almost unconscious level. I've pondered some ponderings about separating privilege from a simple acknowledgement of the fact that we have invested more in some relationships than others, and here are some of the differences I've observed:

Privilege Protecting an investment
- I want to have more than you give your other partners. - I need this much from you.
- Nobody else can ever be financially entwined with us. - Protecting my existing financial assets is important.
- I want to vet your other partners; you may date only partners I approve of. - Because you are important to me, meeting your partners (if possible) and getting along with them (if possible) is important to me.
- Your resources (time, financial, and so on) belong to me unless we explicitly negotiate otherwise. - Your resources are yours to do with as you please so long as you take care of the obligations we have incurred together.
- I will always be able to veto your other partners. - I can always express any opinions, problems, or discomforts I may have with you. I trust that you will find a way to honor your commitment to me.
- We will sit down and create a set of rules together with any new partner is expected to abide by. - We will sit down with any potential new partner so that we can all put our needs and ideas on the table.
- One relationship has to be the most important one. Since I was here first, that means me. - Relationships vary in importance and investment over time. What matters is that my needs are being met, not that I am getting more than anyone else.
- In any conflict that arises between me and another partner, I win. - Conflicts may arise. I may not always get what I want. What matters is that my partner listens to me and hears my concerns, not that I am always right or I always win.
- My needs always come first. - I may not get my way all the time, but that's okay. It's okay for others to express their needs, too.

A lot of these come down to the sorts of things you might expect if you had two kids. You wouldn't reasonably say that one kid was "primary" and all the others were "secondary," or that one kid's needs always came before any others'. We all can instinctively recognize that if we have a second child, we still want to protect and invest in the first child, and we can do that without privileging the first child over the second.

So why is it so hard to recognize this when it comes to relationships?

Part of it is the way that society privileges couples, and the expectations we're given (and can internalize without even being aware of it)--letting your partner have sex with someone else is dangerous, if you let someone else in you'll lose what you have, that sort of thing.

And part of it is that, as human beings, we get so wrapped up in our own experiences, especially our own fears, that it can become very difficult to look past that and see someone else's experiences.

Part 5: Seeing Past Ourselves

There's an awesome essay on the Weekly Sift called The Distress of the Privileged. It talks about the backlash we often see when we try to discuss privilege. When a person in a position of privilege begins to see that privilege, it can be very human to want to lash out, to say that it's not really a problem. Those of us in positions of privilege benefit from that privilege, after all; we're so used to our privilege, so accustomed to thinking of it as just the Way Things Are, that the idea of giving ground on any of it can feel like someone is taking away what's rightfully ours.

And it's a thousand times worse when we invoke privilege out of fear. When we feel a fear of loss--which, it must be said, is quite normal for someone coming into polyamory for the first time--it is almost impossible for us to be compassionate toward others. Especially toward the people we see as being responsible for that fear.

So the privilege goes from being unconscious to being something we feel entitled to. (True story: I know a guy, who will remain nameless, who is quite hostile to the idea of feminism. He especially resents what he sees as the feminist idea that men are dangerous--that women should take care around strange men because strange men represent a threat of rape. He also feels very uncomfortable walking through black neighborhoods. He sees no parallel there, and no irony.)

When we are in privileged positions, it's not usually because we asked to be. It's just how things are. And when we start to lose that privilege or people start telling us we're acting unfairly, well...

Privilege benefits couples in ways that go beyond merely calming fear of loss. They also help to keep the original couple in control. Many exercises of privilege keep the locus of control within the couple to the exclusion of the newcomer to the relationship--overtly, as in the case of "the couple sets the terms and the third person signs on the dotted line," or covertly, as in the case of assumptions about holidays or resources.

Any time a couple starts to negotiate the process of opening a relationship, there are some tools which I think are quite valuable in preventing the unconscious assertion of privilege. Some of them include:

- Asking "Is the goal of this agreement to help choose compatible partners, or to protect the 'real' relationship from a perceived threat?" Perceived threats to a relationship are often the door through which the assertion of privilege walks in.
- Asking "At what point do things that are important to me start becoming expectations I impose on others?"
- Asking "If I were a single person who'd just met another single person for a monogamous relationship, would this seem reasonable to me?"
- Asking "Am I disempowering any third person who joins us?" The more decisions you make about what a relationship must look like and what role a newcomer must play, the less you are empowering that third person, the more you are asserting couple privilege...and the more likely it is that any third person you DO meet will look at you and say "no thanks."

Ideally, relationship structures are flexible and are designed to promote the growth and the needs of everyone involved. But often, especially for newcomers to polyamory, there can be a fear that unpleasant feelings (whether they be jealousy or feelings of threat or whatever) mean implosion of the existing relationship; in that way, use of privilege to defend against jealousy or other unpleasant feelings becomes a way to avoid personal responsibility for growth. We need not fear unpleasant feelings; they are a part of life.

The exercise of privilege may also become a way to avoid facing that members of a couple might have different goals or needs in the relationship. Privileging a relationship by saying things like "the couple always comes first" or "the couple has veto" can become, in this sense, tools for the couple to avoid facing differences in ideas or needs; if such differences come up, the third person is ejected from the relationship and voila! Harmony is restored.

It is my experience and observation that the more a couple clings to couple privilege, the more disempowered and unhealthy new relationships are...and the more easy it is for the couple to blame their dysfunction on the third person. "You are not respecting our relationship," "you knew the rules when you signed on," and "you're a secondary, so you have to take what you're given" can all be ways to say "our dysfunction is not going to be addressed, so just shut up and deal with it." That dysfunction may mean anything from insecurity to actual out-and-out emotional abuse, and the refrain of "you're a secondary so that's what you signed up for" dodges it all.

And, unfortunately, relationships that start out from a position of rules, restrictions, and couple privilege can easily become relationships where the greatest dysfunction wins. This is something I've seen many times; whether it's "I'm the most insecure person so I demand the greatest level of control over any new relationships" or "I feel most threatened so I will exert the greatest privilege," once it has become acceptable to assert privilege in a relationship, the assertion of privilege often ends up driven the most by the most dysfunctional dynamic.

Again, I'm not saying any of this is malicious or evil. The invisibility of privilege, coupled with the fact that a fearful person often finds it difficult to act with compassion and empathy, can combine to make even well-meaning people act in ways that are harmful.

Part 6: Privilege and the Single Person

So far I've talked about privilege as something that couples exert against newcomers to a relationship.

But one of the things about privilege that's sneaky is that it so thoroughly permeates our social expectations that even single people can end up thinking in ways that emphasize couple privilege. The fact that someone is single doesn't meean that person is immune to internalizing privilege! This takes a lot of forms:

- My relationship with these people isn't working out. I need to find a primary of my own if I want to be happy. (The subtext here is that sharing a partner will never be as good as a pair-bonded relationship; it's a compromise you make until you find a real partner of your own.)
- I am not getting my needs met, but that's because I'm a secondary. As a secondary, I shouldn't expect to have them met.
- Of course my partners won't acknowledge their relationship with me; I'm only a secondary!

Privilege even seeps into our language. When couples talk about "our third" and say that polyamory is successful if it works for "both" of them, that's a reflection of privilege. When couples say they want a relationship with a third to "bring them closer together" or to help kick things up in the bedroom, that's an example of utilitarian language that, again, reflects privilege.

We don't go into traditional monogamous relationships thinking "Oh, boy, I am going to set a bunch of rules and my new partner will be happy to sign on in order to get all the wonderful benefits of my love!" Often, though we do go into poly relationships with exactly that mindset. To a couple, it can feel natural and reasonable that they set the terms, and to a single poly person, it can feel just as reasonable and just as natural that getting involved with someone who's already partnered means having to accept all the terms as they come. Again, the point stands that if you wouldn't start a monogamous relationship this way, it may not be reasonable to start a poly relationship this way.

Part 7: Putting It All Together

If you've made it this far (and I congratulate you if you have; this is quite a lot of writing!), there's a take-home point I hope will stick with you:

Relationships, if they are to be healthy and functional, are not about what a third party can give to, or give up to be with, an established couple.

The moment a couple begins to think in terms of "What wonderful things can we give to a third and what will we ask her to do to reap the awesome benefits of being with us" instead of "What can we build that nourishes all of us and gives all of us room to grow in whatever unusual and delightful directions we grow in?" an expectation of privilege has crept into the relationship on little cat's feet.

A relationship need not be about erecting walls and fences to protect one's self from some marauding outsider.

Many, many of the conscious and unconscious projections of privilege are prevented simply by trusting your partner. When you say "My partner loves me, my partner wants to be with me, and as long as I ask for what I need, my partner will choose to make decisions that cherish and nurture me," the fears that drive the projection of privilege fade.

Looking from the outside, it often seems to me that many people in polyamorous (and monogamous!) relationships don't trust their partners--not really. So they look to create rules and structures to meet their needs, because they don't really believe that if their partner can do whatever he or she wants, their partner will freely choose to meet those needs.

When you trust your partners, things change. You no longer feel the need to assert privilege by saying "My partner can only have sex with someone else as long as I am there," because you know that no matter how amazing that sex is, your partner still loves you and wants to be with you. So instead, you can say "When we find a third, we can all talk together to decide what our sexual boundaries are." And so on.

Having tried both approaches, I can say from experience that letting go of privileges and entitlement and instead building relationships with people who I trust and believe will, if given free rein to make any choice whatsoever, will still choose to nurture me is the most wonderful, secure feeling in the world.

With grateful acknowledgement to seinneann_ceoil, zaiah, Eve, and many others for contributing thoughts and ideas to this essay.
Tags: polyamory

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April 4 2013, 09:59:54 UTC 8 years ago

I've always loved your posts on non-monogamy! This one gives me something to think about, since I don't really do 'proper relationships' very often. I think I've had all of two in my life. But maybe one day... you never know who might pop up in life.

I confess to being a hierarchical poly, although I've never had a 'proper' poly relationship. I prefer to stick to a 'friends with benefits' thing with 'outsiders', and only if that person genuinely enjoys that position. I take my friendships pretty seriously, and I don't think that introducing sex into it necessarily has to destroy or change the relationship. I also wouldn't dream of asking the outsider to not have sex with other people! :P I do have 'rules' in place; although, I don't think we go off looking for unicorns. Rather, we're the non-monogamous sort where we're free to pursue outside relationships, but not ones we have to 'share'. We both have veto power pre-starting a relationship because... well, we're both idiots. We pick up on things in the other person's partner that the partner tends to miss. And those things sometimes become big, glaring major issues. I enjoy the power to say, "You know love, that person is kind of really crazy. Good friend, but I think she'd make an unstable lover because of _________ that she's done before." while he can say, "You know, I think this is a bad idea. That guy comes off as controlling in a bad way because of __________ he did/said to ____ last week." The only other rules towards sex that we have are 1) don't get anyone pregnant (neither of us can afford the financial calamity that would bring, aside from really not wanting kids), 2) get tested first; avoid catching a disease (this affects everyone in the relationship web, not to mention being financially impossible to treat, with the possibility of the disease being incurable), 3) get good consent, every time. This means no 'underaged' people, no drunk encounters, etc., and 4) run it by the other partner first. No cheating. Again with the veto clause. Other than that, have fun! Just tell me to get dressed (or to head out) if you want to bring someone home.


April 4 2013, 15:00:58 UTC 8 years ago

Interesting article... In my relationship (I'm Mono, my partner Poly), my metamour and I basically started off on level footing, starting relationships with our partner at the same time. Not quite what you were getting at with this post, but instead I read this from the viewpoint of, "This is what I'm trying to avoid happening, with either dyad in this relationship."

My partner and I had a long discussion recently about what would be a game-changer, or perhaps deal-breaker for me in this relationship, and it would be if he and my metamour married (it's not a non-zero probability - there are potential medical reasons that might require insurance coverage). His POV: what's really going to change? My POV: plenty.

Some of the couple privilege you mention wouldn't exist in this case: the protection of the existing relationship to the exclusion of the new, but some most definitely would. The legal privilege you allude to in one bullet point is enough for me to say, "No. If this happens, I am no longer an equal life partner, and will bow out." I have seen relatives turn on each other when someone is dying. Nobody ever thinks they'll do it, and we all believe we're above it. That is, until we're not. I don't ever want to be at a disadvantage in that case, or beholden to someone's good will when that good will gets stretched to its limits.

We've lucked out so far, in that we've avoided the "please stop doing this" method of dealing with our insecurities (other than my request to button up our FB posts a bit, so that I don't need to see what I personally feel is TMI - FB does NOT make it easy to "leave the room" when two people are virtually canoodling...). Typically, we all discuss things and try to find a compromise that works for all of us. Marriage would insert a layer of hierarchy where there currently is none, even though my partner and metamour don't hold marriage in all that high a regard... it still holds legal, financial, and medical weight. Divorce is an expensive and annoyingly painful process, even when it's "easy". I would be more expendable, simply because I would *be* more expendable, paperwork-wise. It would lend weight to conflict resolution, as an insidious "I don't want to go through another divorce again" (if it ever came down to that sort of thing).

I sometimes wonder if *I* should offer to marry her (being in a state where gay marriage is legal) in order to avoid the problem, but it doesn't really avoid the problem... it just shifts it to my partner instead.


But for now, we truck along.

Thanks for the article... you have some very interesting insights (which do lead to some good discussions), and a great writing style to boot.
I really, REALLY hope we get some serious health-care reform in the immediate future (not just half-assed insurance reform), in part for reasons like this -- no one should have to get married in order to receive health care.

(This is not at all theoretical for me -- I got legally married, and in fact still AM legally married despite being separated since 2009, because my daughter and I have a serious, incurable genetic disorder that requires a lot of medical care, and I first had to leave the job where I'd been providing insurance coverage to take a lower-paying but closer-to-home job with worse benefits, and then wound up having to leave the workforce altogether when I became disabled.)

Recently, my partner of four years moved in with me, because my health has reached a point where taking care of a house alone is currently beyond my physical capacity. His other girlfriend (the term we both use -- we're a vee) was understandably concerned about the changes this might cause in our relationship dynamics, and I was concerned as well (as was he.)

So, we all talked it out, aired our fears and concerns, decided that this was the best way to handle things for now, we'll re-evaluate in a year to see if it's still working for all of us, and both he and I have been making a concerted effort to make sure that their relationship is still visibly prioritized as being important, of equal value, deserving of equal consideration, etc.

He and I have our own bedrooms -- sometimes she sleeps over here, sometimes he stays at her house. They still get as much couple time as his current work schedule allows them (he's currently working Sat-Mon, she's working Mon-Fri, but he didn't pick the schedule), and we've worked things out so that we know when to expect shared time, dyad time, and alone time.

It's working out pretty well, actually -- there has been some stress caused by moving and health issues that have nothing to do with any of the relationships involved, but our *relationships* are healthy and happy, because we've prioritized making an effort to keep the automatic assumption of "moving in implies a more 'serious' relationship" from impacting the way that we interact with each other.

I do hope that, if your metamour is having health issues that might require marriage in order to receive insurance coverage, you guys at least talk it out and consider ways to keep it from becoming a situation in which one dyad is privileged over the other *between the three of you* -- you can't help the fact that tax law benefits the married parties, but if you're the one who feels strongly that your partner marrying his other partner would prioritize their relationship over yours, and *you* have the ability to marry your metamour and provide health coverage, and your partner doesn't feel like the two of you getting married would damage his relationship with you, it might at least be worth considering.

(Part of this is that I'm coming from the position of *being* the partner who needs health coverage/cohabitation at the moment -- but I'm also saying "Hey, this can be done without automatically damaging the relationships in question.")

Wishing all of you good health and happiness.

-- A <3
As a devout Privilege Wonk I need to point something out: your are misusing privilege (even by the definition you used to frame the discussion).

'privilege' is any advantage that one person or group has over another that hasn't been specifically earned.

A relationship bond is the anti-thesis of privilege, it is an earned asset. For a relationship to exist for an extended period of time the participants must earn and maintain trust and respect. My relationship with my wife and the obligation/considerations we afford each other are based on the shared trust and respect that has been earned through our actions and behaviors. A mutual relationship bond is not a form of privilege.

There are certainly external privileges (e.g. adoption, taxes, etc.) that you properly assess, but your whole internal privilege section is flawed because it assumes that the couple hasn't EARNED each other's trust and respect in maintaining the relationship.
An investment in a relationship is something earned, but I've tried to draw a distinction between that sort of earned investment ("I won't sign a mortgage with a person I've only had one coffee date with") and couple privilege ("I won't sign a mortgage with you EVER because I already have a partner and my partner and I have declared that no amount of time or investment will ever permit someone else to be on the mortgage").

If I have been with Sally for twelve years and with Betty for twelve years and two days, and Betty has declared that Sally will never get certain considerations that Betty has because Betty was coupled with me first, I'd say it's reasonable to refer to that as 'couple privilege.'

I would also say that there are ways in which social institutions privilege monogamous or monogamous-seeming (and especially heterosexual monogamous-seeming) relationships that clearly fall under privilege as well.


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April 5 2013, 14:19:13 UTC 8 years ago

polygamy doesnt work.. You all arent happy with yourselves thats why you keep searching for happiness in others.. Its one of the most selfish things that i know of..
polygamy doesnt work..

Err, who's talking about polygamy?

Its one of the most selfish things that i know of..

Telling people "You may have other partners besides just me" is "selfish"? Ooookay...


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April 5 2013, 14:29:44 UTC 8 years ago

Married people have to make endless decisions and compromises together. Consider the polygamous wife who doesn't agree with her husband on an issue. He only has to ignore her until she comes around. He has other wives, he doesn't need her. Her entire identity is tied to her being a good wife, so she seldom disagrees. She never gets a home of her own, gets to decorate the living room. She has to compete with other women for every scrap of attention, time, affection, even food for her own kids. It's a miserable existence.


April 8 2013, 14:24:15 UTC 8 years ago

Clearly you have no idea what polyamory is, and your overall view of male-female relationships fairly oozes patriarchal thinking. Troll somewhere else, please.
Thanks for writing this. The discussion of what privilege is was good, because yes, almost everything said or written about it leaves me confused and angry. I'm not sure it's for the reasons you specify. It's not the idea that bugs me per se - just that after a while, open-ended seething anger at any group one was born into - race, sex, ethnicity or otherwise - makes one uncomfortable. It's only natural for the fight-or-flight response to kick in.


April 6 2013, 16:49:59 UTC 8 years ago

I found this article well thought-out and excellently written. The comments too, were fairly interesting. I thought that tacit's example of earned wealth/money helped dispel some of the confusion on earned privilege of established relationship vs. new relationship.

Privilege being a special right or immunity granted to a person or a group of people, I have a hard time understanding the perplexity surrounding its use in this article. But then, I don't take the stance that tacit means to say the privilege should not or does not exist as so many of the other commenters seem to.

Referring to my own life experiences as a secondary, there were privileges afforded to me, not exclusive to the primary partner but to any new partner. I enjoyed that. I also enjoy being a secondary; I like not having to consider someone else in every major decision I make about my life. When my partner, Mr. X, asked me to stop dating/seeking/having sex with others for a while to work on our relationship, I agreed. I was also able to ask him not to pursue new relationships/sexual conquests in that time period... I "earned" that after 6 years.

Privilege has its perks, but with all these arguments raised up, how many consider what happens to the third when these benefits come into play? The entire purpose of this is article (IMO) being to point out that privilege exists, and while that’s reasonable, they have consequences that you may not take the time to consider. It's rational, I think, to expect certain benefits to exist within existing long term relationships because they exist and are long term. It's problematic when those benefits cause you to stop considering your third as a person with a valid voice in your relationship (with them). i.e. when your first relationship infringes on the 2nd and your stance is "too bad, s/he was here first".

As a secondary/individual, I too have things that my paramour (and his spouse) just has no say over. If I moved within my own neighborhood (I would consider him if I had to move further but ultimately my choice too), or having a veto over who I bring into my life… even if they may not hold the same weight to the couple.
This did become a problem once when Mr. X learned that I preferred having a week to myself, with no communication with him to detox; I would deal with emotional/familial turmoil and in turn would argue with Mr. X. I wanted to protect my primary condition (as a "single" person) and our relationship. My version of this: “The idea that an established couple that runs into problems may be able to just put outside relationships on the back burner to focus on the problem”. I am my own primary, so I put myself in the “couple” slot. He hated it after a month, and told me he'd rather not be cut off from me, even if it meant that we'd be arguing. He wanted to have the opportunity to support me.
Fast forward to 4 months to when the couple started experiencing difficulties. I was ignored, then shown the door. I wanted to be there for him, but it was no longer an option for me. Those 6 years, even with all the extras I eventually got to enjoy, didn't count for anything in the end. The couple needed space to heal and I was just out without being consulted, or considered.

Contrastingly, as a woman of color I don't want white people to automatically get followed in a store like I might be. But understand that it's unjust that I get harassed from shop keepers when I'm browsing through a store, whereas a white acquaintance can say "oh I always steal stuff from store W, I've made so much money off of them and they never stop me". Do all whites use their privilege to that end? No. Could they? Potentially. Is it their fault I get followed? Only if they own the shop and set the rules.

Why does this matter? When it's within your power to prevent an injustice from happening, I hope you try to instead of enacting rules that facilitate the occurrence of said injustice.

Hopefully I'm clear here. Sorry for the length.
Awesome stuff. When is the book coming out?
The book project has been re-started! I've gone back with my sweetie Eve and re-imagined the way it's going to be put together, and I'm hopeful of having a manuscript done this year. :)


April 8 2013, 14:29:36 UTC 8 years ago

I am the 'third' in a poly relationship (of the type commonly known as a 'vee'), and this came at exactly the right time for me. My GF and I discussed the article and I'm feeling more secure than ever.

Thank you!

Good read, thanks!
It seems that default defense to someone pointing out privilege is: "I earned that!"

Analogous to responding to a comment about sex negativity with: "...but STDs!"


April 14 2013, 07:29:16 UTC 8 years ago

I believe in much of what you said about privilege that is not earned, including in poly couples. However, I take some issue with some of the parts about a secondary dating a primary coupling. I think the terms "primary" and "secondary" have significance and this is why we have them. A secondary can be treated secondarily. I think with any people you should come into the relationship sharing your desires and rules, this includes the couple AND the potential secondary and if you are all cool with those, you agree to be together. If you don't, then you can decide not to be together, and if you're agreeing, no one is being taken advantage of. Some of your examples about the primary couple and the secondary, it seemed as if there was some deception involved, was I reading that wrong? It seemed as if you were proposing that the couple was offering a monogamous triad without the secondary actually having the equality in the triad...I found this confusing, however as I said earlier if everyone AGREES, then there's no problem right?
Thanks for posting this! :D
i'm just going to post this here:

Quite possibly the most glaring and overt example of couple privilege and unicorn hunting I have ever seen. It blew me away, and I deliberately have not commented on that, because I would just end up swearing in frustration and outrage.

When people say couple privilege/bias doesn't exist....
Oooh, I'm 100!

I came up with this while working on the book, but I think it really just belongs here, not there. An addition to the list of internal privileges:

Assumptions that a particular person will be present for all major events, e.g. birthdays holidays, family reunions, weddings etc. May include the assumption that participation in those events takes precedence over commitments to other partners, regardless of relative importance.
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