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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.



Because privilege is invisible, it can be really, really hard to admit we have it. We like to think of the world as being more or less mostly fair; we don't like to think of ourselves as benefitting from or participating in the oppression of others. We like to think that we are where we are because we've worked for what we have. The notion that we indirectly benefit from things that other people don't have access to tends to make us uncomfortable.

The best introduction I've ever had to the idea of privilege and the invisible ways it works is the essay Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh. This essay was certainly an eye-opener for me.

Whenever people try to talk about privilege, certain criticisms always seem to come up. Many people, for instance, will claim that talking about "privilege" is nothing more than a way to shut them down; "Well, you aren't black/female/whatever, so you simply have no right to say anything on this topic!" I don't know whether or how often that happens, but I do know that I've seen people respond as though this is happening when what is actually being said is "Your experience is different from mine, and it seems like the privileges you take for granted are interfering with your ability to understand why."

Another criticism I've seen is that the notion of "privilege" creates a pyramid of social advantages, with rich straight white guys on top and, presumably, poor black trans lesbians on the bottom. This isn't actually how it works; while rich straight white guys do have the lion's share of social privilege, privilege actually isn't so cut and dried. There are environments that privilege different groups in different ways. Men tend to enjoy many advantages over women much of the time--we are paid more in most jobs; nearly all CEOs of large corporations are male; most politicians are male; if you walk into a room of people in business suits, the "guy in charge" will usually be a guy--but in, say, family court, there are advantages that women have over men. All other things being equal, women are awarded custody of children in a divorce more often than men are. In US society, whites have a lot of advantages over blacks, but a black man will probably get better treatment at an auto mechanic than a white woman will. (The extent to which women are treated as total ignoramuses by auto mechanics never ceases to amaze me no matter how many times I see it.)

A lot of folks object to the word "privilege" on principle, saying that it's an inherently offensive word and that some other word (like "advantage") should be used instead. I think this is hogwash; it's not the word that's offensive, it's the idea behind it, which as I've said tends to make us profoundly uncomfortable. John Scalzi wrote an essay about privilege that deliberately avoided the P-word, and people still, predictably, reacted quite poorly to it.

The fact is, we are not all born equal. Some of us are born into situations--wealth, power, race, whatever--that give us advantages over other people. That does not mean that we are bound to succeed. It doesn't mean that we do not work for what we have or that we have not earned any of our accomplishments. It just means that it's easier for some of us to accomplish things than others of us--that we benefit from the situation we're in whether we want to or not.


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.

Ouch.

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.

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Comments

tacit
Apr. 5th, 2013 07:42 pm (UTC)
If my husband got a job offer in another city, I'd be happy to talk about moving with him. If someone I'd been dating for a few weeks asked me to do the same, I'd laugh. That isn't privilege, it's just different levels of commitment.

And what about where "different levels of commitment" becomes "the way things will always be"?

As I've said (several times), I'm not talking about a situation where someone you've only just gone out to coffee with is expecting to get the same sort of accommodations that someone you've been with for years is getting. I'm talking about the situation where someone is told "No matter how many years you and I may be together, you will never have all the considerations of my existing partner."

Here's a hypothetical: You have a partner. You've been together for, say, five years. After two years of dating, you moved in together. Now, three years after that, you share a home and finances.

You meet a new person and go out to coffee.

If that person says "Hey, I'd like to move in with you," then you're not exerting couple privilege by saying "You know, I don't move in with people I've just met."

But what would you call it if you've been dating this new person for three years now, and that person says "Hey, I'd like to move in with you," and you say "No; under the terms of my agreement with my existing partner, nobody else can ever move in with me no matter how long we've been together"? That's what I'm talking about as "couple privilege." It's not about investing in a relationship; it's about saying "This existing relationship is privileged in ways that no other relationship will ever be allowed to be, no matter how long it lasts or how much investment is made."
MoreThanNuclear
Apr. 5th, 2013 08:39 pm (UTC)
"But what would you call it if you've been dating this new person for three years now, and that person says "Hey, I'd like to move in with you," and you say "No; under the terms of my agreement with my existing partner, nobody else can ever move in with me no matter how long we've been together"?"

Okay, so I'm committed to living with my husband. That means a third person living with me means also living with him, and he (obviously) has to consent to that. That means at the very least that I'm not free to make that commitment unilaterally, as it is a decision that would affect him as much as it affects me. It's also possible that he's said, in advance, that this is something that's just never going to happen. Maybe our house isn't big enough for a third person, and he doesn't want to sell or move. Maybe he just doesn't want to live with a third person, especially not someone whom he isn't even dating. If living with this third person (or any third person) is off the table for him, then it's off the table for this third person to ever live with me. That's what I meant by saying that I don't negotiate my existing relationships with new partners. This is a fixed commitment, and I'm not going to break it no matter how much time and investment the third person puts into our relationship. That's not privilege. That's just my husband exerting his right to have some control over his personal living arrangements and my right to honour my existing commitment over making a new one.

I'm open to making commitments to this third person that would make our relationship equal to my marriage, but those commitments have to work around the ones I've already made or they are not going to happen. That isn't privilege. What would be an example of couple privilege is that I can't ever legally marry this third person, even if all three of us want me to.
tacit
Apr. 5th, 2013 08:45 pm (UTC)
I'm open to making commitments to this third person that would make our relationship equal to my marriage, but those commitments have to work around the ones I've already made or they are not going to happen. That isn't privilege.

Privilege is exactly what it is. It's an advantage given to the first relationship that is unavailable to other relationships.
MoreThanNuclear
Apr. 5th, 2013 09:47 pm (UTC)
But you said that privilege was unearned advantage. Our commitment to each other is an earned advantage!
tacit
Apr. 5th, 2013 10:33 pm (UTC)
The distinction isn't as clear-cut as you seem to make it.

By way of example, let's forget about relationships for a moment and talk about money. Most people who are involved in social justice consider wealth to be a privilege; wealth, race, sex, and sexuality are the most common privileges that people talk about.

But you can earn money! It's possible for a person who doesn't have much money to be able to make it. If money is earned (as opposed to, say, inherited), how can it be a privilege?

It's a privilege because it confers advantages which, of and by themselves, aren't earned, but are the byproducts of the way people relate to those who are wealthy. For example, at least in theory, everyone is equal before the law. Yet wealth confers significant advantages: wealthy people consistently receive lighter sentences when convicted of crimes than poor people convicted of the same crimes; wealthy people are more likely than poor people to be given non-custodial sentences; and so on. Even when you don't consider that wealthy people can afford better legal representation than poor people, wealthy people enjoy advantages in the legal system that poor people do not. This is an unearned advantage from an (at least theoretically) earned characteristic.

Now let's look at relationships.

You can say that many perks in a relationship are earned, and I'd agree with you. I'm not going to sign a mortgage with a person who I've only been on one coffee date with.

That isn't what I'm talking about.

Let's say you date Sally for years, and as a result of that investment, Sally lives with you and shares finances with you. That's an earned perk.

Now let's say that you've dated Betty for years...but because of your existing relationship with Sally, Betty will never be permitted to earn those same perks. That's an unearned advantage that Sally has over Betty; Sally is capable of placing limitations on what Betty will ever be allowed to earn, simply by virtue not of the amount of time you've been involved with Sally or with Betty, but rather just because Sally came first. Sally has the perk of preventing other people from earning Sally's advantages.

It's a bit like a wealthy person using his wealth to control a market in order to prevent other people from becoming wealthy.

If this doesn't happen in your relationships, awesome! You're not who I'm talking about. But if you think it doesn't happen period, there are many people in the poly community I could introduce you to.
MoreThanNuclear
Apr. 6th, 2013 10:10 am (UTC)
Well, I'm dubious that anyone wealthy can have truly earned it, but that's a separate issue. I think we're talking at cross purposes, because a wealthy person using their wealth to prevent other people from gaining wealth is definitely not what I'm talking about, though I agree that can happen in the context of poly and is definitely a problem worth addressing. I'm talking about when I have invested most of my wealth in Sally's business, and so no longer have enough private money to also invest in Betty's business. That's my fault, not Sally's. I'm trying to point out that all of your examples are of Sally being malicious, mean or selfish, whereas some of these conflicts can occur even when everyone is being kind, respectful and considerate of each other's needs.

To give a more straightforward example, if Sally and I have booked and paid for a holiday, and Betty wants to go on a holiday with me at a time that overlaps with this, so I say "no", that isn't Sally abusing her earned privilege by preventing Betty from getting the same advantages that she has, it's just me not being available to make plans with Betty.

I suppose I'm unwilling to see that Sally has any power over Betty, because that completely negates my agency in the situation. If I willingly make commitments or entanglements that make my relationship with Betty difficult, Sally shouldn't get the blame for that, I should.
tacit
Apr. 8th, 2013 07:08 pm (UTC)
To give a more straightforward example, if Sally and I have booked and paid for a holiday, and Betty wants to go on a holiday with me at a time that overlaps with this, so I say "no", that isn't Sally abusing her earned privilege by preventing Betty from getting the same advantages that she has, it's just me not being available to make plans with Betty.

Yep. And I would not call that an example of "couple privilege."

It only becomes couple privilege if Sally says "You will always take your holidays with me, not with Betty." Which, by the way, isn't a hypothetical example; I've met many poly people who have rules like this.
vvvexation
Apr. 9th, 2013 06:49 am (UTC)
Then by that same token, "I can't live with you because I'm already living with someone else" isn't couple privilege either. It'd only be couple privilege if the partner you were already living with not only didn't want a third person living with them, but also wouldn't hear of you establishing a separate household with the newer partner.
MoreThanNuclear
Apr. 11th, 2013 08:21 am (UTC)
Exactly. Though establishing a separate household is another one of those decisions someone might just not be free to make, because of prior commitments. My husband and I have a child, so it's reasonable of us both to want to live with her full time. And also reasonable to expect the other not to move out for part of the week, leaving her care to the other.

It sounds perfectly reasonable to expect your partner to stick to plans, and not include a third person in them without your agreement. If it isn't couple privilege to say "I don't want your partner to share our holiday with us" it shouldn't be couple privilege to say "I don't want your partner to share our home with us." We planned the holiday, and we planned the home. Both are commitments within the relationship that complicate the chances of other people getting similar commitments.


tacit
Apr. 12th, 2013 07:28 pm (UTC)
And what do you call it if someone says "Your partner may never share a holiday with us" or "your partner may never share a home with us"?
MoreThanNuclear
Apr. 18th, 2013 01:34 pm (UTC)
Autonomy? Personal agency? Shouldn't we get to decide whom we live with, or whom we holiday with?
avibunny
Apr. 18th, 2013 06:38 pm (UTC)
If I may share my opinion...

In the case of living together, let's use Sally and Betty again. You moved in with Sally after two years. You've now been with Sally for a few more years. You've also been with Betty for the last two years.

Betty wants to move in with you. You would if you weren't with Sally. You won't because you are. Sally has an advantage of being there first. It's not really an earned advantage because at this point, both Sally and Betty have earned your trust enough that you would want to live with them. The advantage here is linked to the fact that you're already with Sally, and that you see moving out from Sally's and in with Betty as more unfair than staying with Sally and not moving in with Betty, even though both mean that one of your long term partners that you would like to live with gets to live with you, and the other doesn't.

It doesn't make Sally a bad person. If you had met Betty first, then the situation would be the same in reverse.

But no matter how you look at it, if you establish that you only want to live with one person, and you're at a level of trust and commitment with both of them that would warrant living together, you are picking one over the other. Deciding to make that choice through inaction (staying with the person you're already with) rather than action (switching to the other one) doesn't make it less of a choice. And while Sally would suffer from your move, Betty is also suffering from not getting to move in with you.

You might think "but I'm more established with Sally, we already live together, so it makes sense to pick her". But one may argue that Sally already got to live with you for several years, and that it would be more fair for it to be Betty's "turn". As for being more established with Sally, it might be true at the very beginning, but what about ten years later, when you've been with Sally for 12 years and Betty for 10? Is there still such a significant gap? Aren't you much closer to Betty after 10 years than you were to Sally after only 2 of them? Yet Betty still can't move in with you, because Sally takes precedence.

The privilege to move in together may be earned, but the privilege to always be chosen because you happened to meet a few years earlier is not earned. It's a complete accident.
MoreThanNuclear
Apr. 23rd, 2013 03:59 pm (UTC)
My point is that, unless Sally and I have a relationship without fixed commitments, there is a lot more going on here than just existing relationships taking precedence: commitments can actually preclude making new commitments.

Say Sally and I have a child together, but Betty wants child free relationships. If I'd have met Betty first, maybe I would have committed to being childfree with her, but it's too late now. It doesn't matter how long I'm with either of them, I can't unmake that earlier commitment I made to Sally to co-parent with her. If Sally and I have a mortgage and a (legal or otherwise) commitment to cohabit indefinitely, it isn't a straight up choice between her and Betty. I know I *could* turf Sally out of our shared home and force her to sell up so I can move in with Betty, but doing so would be a betrayal in a way that *not* moving in with Betty would not be.

Viewing it as Sally vs Betty, or Sally's advantage vs Betty's advantage isn't helpful. It's about me, and what I'm personally prepared/able to offer new partners. My relationships change the shape and course of my life. And it's not just my relationships, but my job, my family, and my responsibilities as a parent. If I'd met Betty 20 years ago, single, childless and with no fixed ties, all this would have been different, but what is the point of dwelling on that? Any new relationships have to fit into the life I have now, not the life I had before I met my current partners. Yes, maybe things between Betty and I would have been different if x, y and z, but that's irrelevant. Does she want what I have to offer her now?
avibunny
Apr. 23rd, 2013 04:10 pm (UTC)
"commitments can actually preclude making new commitments."

Yes, and that's a privilege. A privilege isn't necessarily wrong, and it's not always something you can change. But it's still good to keep it in mind.
When you deal with Betty, just be aware that the things you have with Sally and can't have with Betty (provided you actually can't), but could have had if you'd met her first, are privileges.
Just like being white, I have privileges, and I should be aware of it.
So when you're talking with Betty, be careful about any attitude that amounts to "well you should already be happy that you get to see me at all!" or something. Remember she's the one who doesn't get the privilege, and that although it's not necessarily anyone's fault, it still sucks for her. So treat her with that in mind, and see if there is anything you can do to compensate.

The problem is that all too often, an attempt to compensate is seen as "favouring" the unprivileged one. But it isn't. It's trying to bring them closer to equal footing. And it's not blaming Sally to state that Betty has it harder. It's not Sally's fault she has it easy in comparison. That's just the way it is.

So when making decisions, just keep in mind that even if both people are at full health, if one of them has already gathered extra hearts and has 7 of them vs the other person's 3, it's not fair to pitch them against the exact same enemies, and it doesn't mean you're punishing the one who has extra hearts, or favouring the one who has less. You're making a decision that is fair, rather than equal.
MoreThanNuclear
Apr. 23rd, 2013 04:44 pm (UTC)
This is starting to go round in circles, but the only reason that I disagree is that the definition of "privilege" here is that it is "unearned" advantage, like white privilege is. If we agree that privilege can be earned, then I'll agree that this is a case of couple privilege. Relationship commitments are earned, and Betty lacks the advantage because she hasn't earned it. The problem is that Betty may not be able to earn it as Sally did.

Of course, that might really suck for Betty, and yes, we should be sensitive to her feelings, because this shit can be hard. But I don't think pitching it in the same language as we use to talk about "white privilege" is really constructive. Not being discriminated against because of your skin colour should be a right. Being in a relationship with me should not be a right.
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