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 OurselvesThere'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 PersonSo 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 TogetherIf 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.