This article originally appeared on Polysingleish, June 28th, 2015. It has been edited and updated from it’s original version.
I have a confession: it took me a while to wrap my head around what ‘couple’s privilege’ was all about. Through my personal experiences developing polyamorous relationships with folks who were married, alongside my training in counselling for intimacy and relationships, I began to dig deeper into an understanding of what it is, and how it affects people’s relationships. My thoughts have changed somewhat over the years, and they may well change again.
Much has been said and written about Couple Privilege, and about relationship Hierarchy. The two are commonly perceived to be a package deal, and certainly the way many people talk about them, that’s understandable. However, as a relationship coach I am passionate about digging into the nuances of our human experiences, and I have come to see them as different, but related, phenomenon.
What Couple Privilege Is:
The culturally entrenched priority and measure of value given to couples by society, both in the public perception of them, and their legal status.
Couple Privilege doesn’t just refer to the legal rights of married or common law partnerships. It goes beyond the right to visit your partner in the hospital, or be legally included in their inheritance even if they didn’t leave a will. It’s more than the financial benefits of being able to file your taxes together. It’s something that is also entrenched in the way that we are taught to see couples. Successful coupling is seen as a milestone in the process of being “a successful grown up”. It shows up in the way that people may find themselves being automatically included in the invitations sent to their partners, or in the assumptions of others that you might know where your partner is and what all their likes and dislikes are. It can also be at play when you experience being seen in a positive light because of something your partner has achieved, even though you had no direct role in that accomplishment.
What Couple Privilege Is Not:
Couple Privilege is not something that couples can opt in or out of. Just as you cannot lose male privilege if you are a cis man, or lose white privilege when you get a summer tan, you cannot select out of couple privilege if you are coupled.
Couple Privilege is not the same as hierarchy, even though the two are often conflated. They are two separate, often co-existing, phenomenon.
What Hierarchy is:
The prioritising of one relationship over another.
If you have a child you are responsible for, they usually become the primary focus in your life. If you have a spouse or partner you share a car loan with they might be more of priority than a partner who you don’t cohabitate, co-parent, or share finances with. Hierarchy becomes implicit when you move in with someone, marry someone, or have a child with them.
A hierarchy can be prescriptive— in that it is assumed because of the given label, title, or the nature of a relationship (such as when you marry someone). This kind of hierarchy tends to be more static, and a perceived shift away from the assumed hierarchy is often seen as an indicator something is lacking in the relationship. Very often this hierarchy holds significance for the people within it, and sometimes a prescriptive hierarchy is created by mutual conscious choice.
But hierarchy can also be descriptive— not assumed as a default, but describing the organic dynamic that emerges over time. This kind of hierarchy can be more fluid, mutable, and may be more noticeable to those outside the relationship than those in it. Indeed, the people in the relationship may or may not place significance on being in a hierarchy, but still maintain an openness to their relational priorities shifting and changing over time, without it being a commentary on the health of the relationship.
What Hierarchy Is Not:
Though often considered to go hand in hand, Hierarchy does not mean Veto Power.
Veto Power is a something that many therapists have recommended to couples opening up their relationship. It is an agreed upon relationship rule wherein your partner can decide you cannot have a relationship with someone else— regardless the feelings and desires you or your other romantic interest have— because they have said so. Veto Power is one approach to maintaining boundaries, preserving the primary relationship, and sustaining a sense of somatic safety for the partner using it— and in some situations and circumstances it might make sense. However, it’s not the only strategy for preserving the integrity of an existing relationship, and there are many ways to create relationship agreements and sculpt boundaries that are consensual and offer more equity for everyone involved, including the ‘secondary’, non-coupling partners.
Veto power can be part of a prescriptive hierarchy. But not all hierarchical relationships have veto agreements. And there are many relationships that don’t have veto agreements but have developed other ways (both healthy and unhealthy) of preserving both hierarchy and couple privilege.
Wait- Is There Such A Thing As Solo Privilege?
In the past decade, there’s been a surge in the popularity of individualism and celebration of the Solo individual. Celebrities like Emma Watson have embraced being ‘self-partnered‘, and researchers like Dr Bella DePaolo have helped to dispel the myths of ‘lonely single people’, and within the polyamorous community there are now thousands of individuals who practice Solo Polyamory: non-monogamy without the relationship escalator, without relationship enmeshment.
With this, there’s been some romanticism about the freedom of the Solo Person, and an argument made that being solo gives one privileges which couples do not enjoy. In the polyamorous world, for example, a solo person can “pass” or even be out publicly with more ease than someone who is coupled.
Arguably, this is actually because of Couple Privilege: we value the unit of the couple so much— and anything that challenges that would threaten the ‘fabric of society— and it be harder for people perceived as couples to come out about their other relationships. On the flip side of this, a person who is solo can be seen as “not coupled yet”, and so their non-monogamous relationships might be more readily dismissed as “Oh they just haven’t found the one yet!”
Single and non-coupled people can experience a struggle to be recognised as successful and competent adults by their families, friends, and work peers. They can also have a more challenging time financially, supporting a home on a single income and receiving none of the tax benefits that couples do.
How Couple Privilege and Hierarchy Are Different:
1. You don’t have to be coupled to have Hierarchy. For many solo people there is a personal hierarchy of putting one’s self-relationship first. People may also form non-prescriptive hierarchies that can change over time: someone may need to prioritise their studies, their career, their parent’s health, or others relationships in their life at different points.
2. Couple Privilege is something awarded you and your coupling partner by Society. You have no choice about this. The moment you display signs of being a couple, you have attained a new level of privilege. What you do have free choice over, is how to react and relate to your own privilege.
Hierarchy is something you have some choice about, and it can influence the decision making processes in relationships. Hierarchy can be implicit, or covert. If you aren’t attached to the rules of monogamy, relational hierarchy can be complex. For example, someone might have four different relationships that take priority in different ways: a long-term partner, a partner they live with, a partner they set aside time to travel and visit, and a partner they are forming a new relationship with.
Okay, So Now What?
What can you do, if you are part of a Couple, and you want to use your privilege wisely and avoid treating your non-coupled partners in ways that might leave them feeling ‘less than’?
A first step would be to talk about your couple privilege with your partners. With your coupled-up partner, you might start an ongoing conversation about the legal benefits and social advantages you experience, and ask your non-coupled partners if they ever experience these things with you. Get talking about where you benefit from being coupled, in a way that your solo friends don’t. We can’t take action until we have built awareness, so bringing the assumed privileges of coupling to light means we get to have a better sense of how we feel about them, before making any choices about how we might challenge or utilise those privileges.
Like with Couple Privilege, if you are in a relationship that has some prescriptive Hierarchy (such as living in the same town, versus living long distance) there might be ways to mitigate the aspects of Hierarchy you find you are uncomfortable with. Create spaces where everyone you share relationships with can talk openly about what they need, what they desire— and what their capacity is. Sometimes there’s benefit in re-examining the parameters of our existing relationships to be able to create more equity with new relationships. Some couples decided to ‘consciously uncouple’ in order to reduce the negative impacts of hierarchy to their other partners.
Even if you’re a non-coupled person, it’s important to be aware of how you might be feeding into the scripts around couple privilege. When meeting two people who appear to be a couple, do you ever make assumptions about them, and their relationship style? Learn to ask probing questions and challenge your assumptions about other people’s relationships!
The late 2010s saw the emergency of a third wave of consensual non-monogamy thought and practice. Drawing from the principles of Relationship Anarchy (‘RA’) of love, trust, and customizing your commitments, and with a focus on healthy self-relationships, couples are emerging who have firmly eschewed as much of their Couple Privilege as they can whilst still remaining coupled, and Solos are discovering ways of having aspects of coupled relationships, and enjoying some of the socially endowed privileges whilst abstaining from the legal trappings associated with it. With less focus on trying to ‘balance the scales’ of Privilege and Hierarchy, the RA-inclined non monogamists and polyamorists tend to not fight the aspects of each construct, and rather, they embrace them. Intimate networks, that can include couples, singles, triads, friendships, and long term relationships unbound by fixed rules, and instead guided by mutual agreements that are not set in stone, have become the new frontier in radical relating.
We are in exciting new territory of discovering what long term non-monogamy, completely outside of the monogamy paradigm, might look like. And I find that quite exciting.
Mel is an incredible listener and her attention to detail was crucial. I walked away with much more than I had anticipated: I came away with a lot of tools to work with, and also a comfortable understanding of who I am and how I present myself to others. Mel is nothing short of awesome at what she does, and I will continue to use her as a resource and recommend her.
"I desperately knew in my bones there was another script out there for me but when I struggled to find a healthy version of one, I haphazardly began writing it myself. And now?! To come into an entire community of people actively peeling back the veil to reveal their own trauma and vulnerability?? I am over the moon and feel so enthusiastic all the time. It's the first time in the last several years where I have had such sustained joy and direction."
~ Anon Course Student
"Your work has reminded me that perhaps there isn’t anything wrong with me at all. I am amazed at the deep levels of shame we carry as human beings because we don’t fit into the construct that is given to us as a model for our life. It feels exciting because I can now explore what I want for my life rather than be gifted something that just doesn’t feel right for me."
"After the workshop I felt like I could breathe again. I felt like my version of non-monogamy wasn't "wrong" and, even more helpful, my former partners wasn't either. I connected with people thinking of the same things as I was, struggling with the same things, and asking questions like me. I cried. I breathed. And for the first time in my life I didn't feel like a love alien dropped onto this planet."