Polyamory: So What Is Couple Privilege, Anyway?

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

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

Part 0: Privilege: What is it?

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

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

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.

214 thoughts on “Polyamory: So What Is Couple Privilege, Anyway?

  1. This needs to be my mantra:

    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.

  2. This needs to be my mantra:

    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.

  3. I agree with most of this but not:

    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!”

    I think most people do; I mean, I’m not monogamous, but I have these sorts of rules about things that have *nothing to do with* other partners. Things that describe what qualities a person must (not) have, that describe what aspects of me and my current lifestyle I am not prepared to change for a partner, that describe what behaviors I insist on or will not permit, that describe what sort of relationship I’m after at the moment… I’d have these sorts of “rules” even if I was monogamous.

    • Yes, I agree. Also, if you’re looking for one person to be your only partner, you probably have a lot of restrictions surrounding how you want that relationship to go. Also, monogamy itself *includes* a bunch of rules about who you are allowed to have sex with (your partner only) and who you are allowed to develop romantic feelings for (your partner only). And the reason monogamous people sign up for these restrictions and “deal-breakers” is *precisely* to get the wonderful benefits of their new partner’s love!

      • The rules you list as being inherent to monogamy are not universally agreed upon. So often discord arises around individuals’ different definitions of cheating and different assumptions about the relationship boundaries that they failed to discuss. Some mono relationships prohibit even flirting or having friends of the opposite sex, for example, though others may allow play and kissing or even anything physical except intercourse, or maybe romantic feelings are crossing the line and physical interaction doesn’t matter.

        Going into a relationship of any kind with a set of rules is going to be problematic. Discussing with a new partner what you need and what you need them to promise helps address misconceptions, varied ideas about how a relationship *should* be, and privilege.

        • I didn’t mention flirting or kissing, I mentioned romantic and sexual exclusivity. If you don’t have either of those things, I think it’s pretty clear that it isn’t monogamy.

          “Discussing with a new partner what you need” for monogamous people includes “going into a relationship with a set of rules”. The rule is “don’t have sex with other people”, and yes, as you say, there may also be others that have to be negotiated around that rule.

          I’m not saying you shouldn’t talk about it, and ask whether or not it’s okay to flirt or kiss other people. I’m saying that if it isn’t okay to go into relationships with any pre-conceived rules, then you’re saying that it isn’t okay to look for a monogamous relationship.

    • The things you’re describing as “rules” here–things about what kind of relationship you want and what qualities you value in other people–actually sound more like what I’d call “boundaries.”

      What’s the difference?

      Boundaries are things you place on yourself. Rules are restrictions or compulsions you place on others.

      “I will always be open about my relationships” is a boundary. “As long as you are with me, you must be closeted; you will not be permitted to talk about our relationship openly” is a rule. “I will always consider the needs of my children” is a boundary. “You will never be permitted to meet my children” (or, conversely, “you will be required to babysit my children for as long as you are romantically involved with me”–a real-life example in a real relationship I know of) is a rule.

      I think that all of us carry with us some ideas about relationships we will and won’t be involved in, and behaviors we will and won’t tolerate. When they’re placed on others, they become rules. When they’re placed on others in a way that ranks one relationship above another, they become extensions of privilege. When they’re placed on others in a way that ranks one relationship above another and the people involved see that ranking as a proper and just extension of the Way Things Are, without regard for the needs of the specific individuals involved, they become entitlements.

      • I don’t buy it.

        From inside I might say “I will only date feminists”; from the outside I’m saying “You must be a feminist or I will not date you”. From the inside I might say “I want to marry a man who will be a committed father to our children”; from the outside I’m saying “You must want to be an involved father”. From the inside I might say “I love cats, I must be with my cats at all time”; from the outside you might hear “You must love my cats”.

        And yes; from the inside I might be saying “I can only manage to fit you in on alternate Tuesdays; the rest of the time I’m too busy” while from the outside you might hear “I insist you contact me only on alternate Tuesdays”. Or I might be saying “I can not be out about this aspect of myself, my parents will have me killed” whilst on the outside you hear “You must remain closeted for my benefit”.

        Now, yes, society privileges certain sorts of relationship over others; and that is a huge problem. And yes, people internalise that and feel that some relationships that they might want to have are “bad” because “society says so”; which is bad. But I don’t think it’s bad that people have preferences and only want to have relationships with people they feel are compatible (I don’t think they have any right to expect suitable people to present themselves though, if no-one is interested in what you have to offer then maybe you need to rethink).

        • None of the things you mention as “from the outside” sound like the kinds of privileging I’m talking about here. I see a difference between “you must love my cats” and “You are forbidden to be on the mortgage as long as my Primary says so.”

          • Given the sometimes tenuous and short term nature of poly relationships, I really don’t see why not being allowed to be on someone’s mortgage is a horrible thing. That house is being purchased by the primaries. It’s theirs, they get to decide when and *if* you are seriously a long-term part of their lives and when and if they’re willing to expose themselves by sharing something that impacts their credit rating with you.

            IMO, I wouldn’t share a mortgage with a secondary partner. If I’m buying a house with a primary partner, that is us, ours, and not sharing it with a secondary means that if I stay with the primary but the secondary and I split up, they can’t go to court and take my home away. It’s not “relationship protection” or “couple priveledge,” it’s common sense and making sure you don’t loose your shirt in a breakup. Scary enough that if you let someone live with you for more than 30 days they can TRY to take your home away, no need to hand over legal documents that enhance that power!

          • And what you describe–even the use of the terms “the primaries” and “secondaries”–privileges one relationship (the primary) above others (the secondaries).

    • I know that I have expectations. I’ve taught my children to have them as well. For example:

      No standing me up without a solid reason.
      No putting me down, alone or with friends.
      No trying to push my friends away.

      Oh, and newcomers to my life better be ready to make an effort to get to know the people already in it. Try to push others aside and the newcomer can find someone else to be with.

      Rules, expectations, whatever, the simple fact is that if someone doesn’t have a baseline relationship standard of “Don’t be a jerk if you want to be with me” then they probably need to work on their personal boundaries before they get involved with others.

  4. I agree with most of this but not:

    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!”

    I think most people do; I mean, I’m not monogamous, but I have these sorts of rules about things that have *nothing to do with* other partners. Things that describe what qualities a person must (not) have, that describe what aspects of me and my current lifestyle I am not prepared to change for a partner, that describe what behaviors I insist on or will not permit, that describe what sort of relationship I’m after at the moment… I’d have these sorts of “rules” even if I was monogamous.

  5. Yes, I agree. Also, if you’re looking for one person to be your only partner, you probably have a lot of restrictions surrounding how you want that relationship to go. Also, monogamy itself *includes* a bunch of rules about who you are allowed to have sex with (your partner only) and who you are allowed to develop romantic feelings for (your partner only). And the reason monogamous people sign up for these restrictions and “deal-breakers” is *precisely* to get the wonderful benefits of their new partner’s love!

  6. There are a lot of good points here, but I think couple privilege (the privilege extended to people who are part of a couple, as society’s preferred format for life in general) is being conflated with the priority that people give to their existing partner(s) over new ones.

    For example, the reason that my response to your two “Can you do me a favour and stop having sex with x for a while?” scenario differs, is not because of couple privilege, it’s because my existing partners get to make requests of me that I wouldn’t consider if they came from potential, new partners. So if either my husband or my boyfriend told me that they were uncomfortable with me seeing a particular new person, and wanted me to cool it down, temporarily, that’s something that I’d at least be prepared to discuss. But if someone I have not yet committed to asks me to stop having sex with a partner that I’ve been in love with for years? I’m not even going to talk about it. It’s got to be okay to respond to our different relationships differently!

    • Of course it’s okay to respond to different relationships differently…
      You’ve also pretty succinctly laid out exactly ‘s point though: That history is where the privilege is sourced. You’re describing giving the established relationship privilege of consideration just because the relationship already exists.

      • You’re describing giving the established relationship privilege of consideration just because the relationship already exists.
        Isn’t it normal to be more attached and more invested in existing relationships than relationships that don’t exist yet?

        • Sure.

          The problem comes when the new relationship DOES exist…and then the new person is told “No matter how long we are together, no matter how much you invest, you will never be the equal of my first partner and there will always be things which are denied to you. The first relationship will always have some rights and privileges denied to any others.”

          • What about if I had three equal primary partnerships, had made permanent commitments to all of them, and didn’t ever want another one. (That would be understandable, yes?) If I then say to a new person “No matter how long we are together, no matter how much you invest, you will never be the equal of my first THREE partners and there will always be things which are denied to you. The first three relationship will always have some rights and privileges denied to any others.” Is that a problem? Is that couple privilege x 2?

          • It is a privileging of the existing relationships, certainly.

            Is it a problem? That depends on how that privilege is exercised.

            It is not my intention in this essay to say that every manifestation of privilege is always Bad And Wrong. That’s an unsupportable tenet even when you’re talking about things like racial privilege. (For example, whites are privileged over blacks in the United States in that whites can reasonably expect to be able to drive anywhere they like without being pulled over by the police merely because they are white. Is that a problem? No; that’s the way things ought to be; nobody ought to be pulled over just because of race!)

            My argument is that privilege is most often destructive when it’s exercised unconsciously…and the nature of privilege makes being aware of it difficult.

          • Ah, well then if you removed the part at the top of this that specified privilege as “unearned” then I’d agree with you. It’s clear that white people haven’t earned their special treatment, whereas it seems fair to assume that I committed to my hypothetical three partners because I think that they have earned it.

            If we can extend your definition of privilege to include earned advantages, then I think it’s possible that unearned and unconscious privileges would be connected.

          • +10

            This was my first major issue with this post.

            Once I realized that the content after that part contradicted this statement, I was willing to read more, but I think more readers will stick around if this is fixed.

        • It’s within the range of human behavior, sure, but I think we can both come up with plenty of examples of people dropping existing relationships in favor of newly-forming ones, and even people going “Even if I’m alone forever afterwards, it’s better for me to leave”.

          I’m not arguing for or against doing so; I’m saying that’s what giving privilege looks like

          • But assuming that my existing relationship is there because of mutual love/time/investment/commitment etc, it doesn’t look like the privilege that was described here (right up at the top of this post) because that preferential treatment would be earned.

    • There are a lot of good points here, but I think couple privilege (the privilege extended to people who are part of a couple, as society’s preferred format for life in general) is being conflated with the priority that people give to their existing partner(s) over new ones.

      I don’t think that’s conflation. I think that’s where privilege comes from. It’s the intentional prioritization of an existing, established relationship over a new one.

      And that’s not necessarily bad. It’s perfectly reasonable that if you’ve invested years in a relationship, you tend to consider it, and consider the effects of your decisions on it, when you make choices. Within reason, that’s perfectly okay–even admirable.

      The devil, of course, is in the details.

      When a privilege becomes seen as a right, it becomes an entitlement. When people conduct their romantic affairs on the basis of entitlement, many evil things can happen.

      If I were faced with a partner who said “Can you stop having sex with X for a while?” the first thing I’d do is ask why. What’s the purpose of the request? What is the expected outcome? Is it reasonable to assume that the request would likely reach those goals? And at what cost? How much damage would I be doing by telling a lover “So and so has asked me to stop having sex with you, so I will”? It has been my experience that these kinds of requests are almost always rooted in fear or insecurity–and in all honesty, in 25 years of hands-on poly relationships I have never once seen a request like this actually succeed in reaching its stated goal.

      More to the point, I have also rarely seen a person who is faced with this kind of request stop and consider the effect it will have on the other person. Taking care of existing relationships should not mean disregarding the consequences of your choices on newcomers! There is more to it than simply saying “Sally wants to have sex with me, Betty wants me not to, I have been with Betty for longer than I have been with Sally; therefore, Betty wins.” If you’re not even willing to stop and consider what damage might be done to Sally if Betty gets her way–if the only thing you think of is that in any disagreement between Sally and Betty, Betty wins–then you’ve stepped over the line into the kind of privilege that’s actually more like entitlement.

      • I don’t think that’s conflation. I think that’s where privilege comes from. It’s the intentional prioritization of an existing, established relationship over a new one.

        I’ll second the opinion that the two things are being conflated. I don’t think that invalidates many of your points (merely muddles them) – but I have one sort of privilege (marriage recognized by society, presumed couplehood fitting easily into societal monogamy expectations) with my wife only, and a very different sort of thing (prioritization of the health of an existing, stable, long-term relationship over new possible-relationships) with both my wife *and* my lover.

        Perhaps the two frequently go hand-in-hand, or amplify / affect / enable each other, but they’re not the same thing. And while the former is definitely privilege, calling the latter “privilege” seems… off. Even by your opening definition: “a ‘privilege’ is any advantage that one person or group has over another that hasn’t been specifically earned” – but the strong ties of an existing relationship have absolutely been earned.

      • Now you seem to be conflating intentionally prioritising your existing, established relationship with your existing, established partner being a dick. You can intentionally prioritise relationships with mature, considerate people too, you know. If either of my partners made selfish, inconsiderate requests and they didn’t care about the effects on my other partners/relationships, the question of how far I prioritise them or our relationship would be a side issue: the problem is that I’m in a relationship with a dick.

        My point is that even requests that I consider ridiculous (like this one) are not off the table with my established partners, because I’m always going to *want* to consider their feelings and desires. But the status of my existing relationships are simply not up for negotiation with someone I’ve just started seeing. I’m not arguing that it is reasonable for my husband to ask me to stop sleeping with a new partner, I’m taking issue with your comparison of my husband asking me to stop sleeping with a new partner and that new partner asking me to stop sleeping with my husband. You say that the difference between the two requests is privilege, and I say it’s a valid choice not to negotiate existing relationships with new partners.

        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.

        • 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.”

          • “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.

          • 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.

          • But you said that privilege was unearned advantage. Our commitment to each other is an earned advantage!

          • 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.

          • 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.

          • 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.

          • 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.

          • 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.

          • 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”?

          • Autonomy? Personal agency? Shouldn’t we get to decide whom we live with, or whom we holiday with?

          • 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.

          • 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?

          • “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.

          • 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.

          • I disagree with you that this couple privilege is earned.
            I agree that relationships are earned. However what Sally got as a privilege isn’t the relationship benefits that she earned. Her unearned privilege is being allowed to get to earn them in the first place simply because she was there first. She did not earn being there first. Betty might earn/deserve the same things but she’ll never get them.
            Therefore the difference between Sally and Betty isn’t that one earned something and the other didn’t. The difference is that one was given the privilege of being allowed to get the things she earned, and the other wasn’t.

            Everything that follows, in the contrast between how they’re treated, comes from the fact that Sally got there first. THAT is her privilege. THAT is completely unearned and accidental. It’s easy to prove by knowing that if you reverse the order you meet them, you reverse the rights they eventually get. That proves it’s not just about earning these rights, it’s about being there first.

          • If it was just a question of who got there first, I would still be with my first boyfriend. I have never made any commitments to anyone because they “got there first”. I made my commitments because I was able to make them and wanted to make them. I have no idea whether or not I would have made the same commitments to Betty had I not already made them to Sally. I would need to make guesses as to what Betty and I were like x years ago, what our different situations were then, and what effect that might have had on our mutual attraction. Maybe Betty hadn’t yet taken up the hobby that first got us talking. Maybe before I met Sally, Betty wasn’t ready for the serious commitment that she wants now. Maybe being with Sally has made me grow so much as a person, that without her, Betty wouldn’t have been interested in me. This sort of guesswork is not “easy to prove”. It’s not only impossible to prove, it’s useless speculation.

            The idea that we should consider the fact that Sally had just a chance to have a certain kind of relationship with me as an unearned privilege is bizarre to me. Betty isn’t the only one without that “privilege” – just about everyone I’ll ever meet (and everyone I won’t) isn’t going to get the chance to earn those things either.

    • Personally, I can’t fathom asking such a thing. “Stop having sex with your wife?” Seriously?

      If I asked for such a thing I’d fully expect to be shown the door. At the very least, I’d expect to have the fury of the wife dropped on my head post-haste.

      And yeah, I thought about this and realized, if I start dating someone else, and they want me to stop having sex with my current partner, they’re going to be given a choice between accepting that the answer is a flat no, but I’ll give them whatever support is possible while they face down their own insecurities… or they can walk away. I’m not going to restrict my current, and assumedly good relationships, for someone who is brand new! That’s just ridiculous!

      You may as well say “Will you stop sleeping in the same room with your wife?”

      Anyone who would answer yes to that, IMO, should be ready for divorce court.

      In the case of someone who has been present for a while, then well, if they’ve been around for a while, I would hope we’d have addressed this already.

      Requests like that come from one place, from within the person asking for it. That means it’s that person’s issue and they need to own their shit, not expect everyone else to adapt around them.

      • And yeah, I thought about this and realized, if I start dating someone else, and they want me to stop having sex with my current partner, they’re going to be given a choice between accepting that the answer is a flat no, but I’ll give them whatever support is possible while they face down their own insecurities… or they can walk away.

        Indeed.

        The issue of privilege comes in where you have this reaction to a new person asking you to stop having sex with a a current person, but a DIFFERENT response if a current partner asks you to stop having sex with a new partner.

        Personally, I quite like what you said when you wrote “Requests like that come from one place, from within the person asking for it. That means it’s that person’s issue and they need to own their shit, not expect everyone else to adapt around them.” I would use that response in both cases–if a new partner asked me to stop sleeping with a current partner, AND if a current partner asked me to stop sleeping with a new partner.

  7. There are a lot of good points here, but I think couple privilege (the privilege extended to people who are part of a couple, as society’s preferred format for life in general) is being conflated with the priority that people give to their existing partner(s) over new ones.

    For example, the reason that my response to your two “Can you do me a favour and stop having sex with x for a while?” scenario differs, is not because of couple privilege, it’s because my existing partners get to make requests of me that I wouldn’t consider if they came from potential, new partners. So if either my husband or my boyfriend told me that they were uncomfortable with me seeing a particular new person, and wanted me to cool it down, temporarily, that’s something that I’d at least be prepared to discuss. But if someone I have not yet committed to asks me to stop having sex with a partner that I’ve been in love with for years? I’m not even going to talk about it. It’s got to be okay to respond to our different relationships differently!

  8. “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. “

    This bit niggled at me because while new friends don’t do this, new poly partners often DO…

    But then I read this bit :
    “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.”

    My sudden flash of ‘that’s why!’ came to me as ~Secondaries are stepkids~.

    Look, it’s ugly. But people DO this.
    They DO try to preserve the resources for one child over the other if the other child is a step-kid, the ex’s child from the second marriage, etc.

    It’s a very common thread throughout human history right up to the present day.
    And given that creating new relationship paradigms is tough, it’s not *just* couple privilege at work…
    The only other type of relationship model most people have that even comes close to dealing with the idea of sharing a partner’s recourses of time, money and commitment is – a child from another relationship needing resources vs your own child.

    And that model is broken and ugly but very much a part of the cultural subconscious.
    Just a thought…

  9. “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. “

    This bit niggled at me because while new friends don’t do this, new poly partners often DO…

    But then I read this bit :
    “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.”

    My sudden flash of ‘that’s why!’ came to me as ~Secondaries are stepkids~.

    Look, it’s ugly. But people DO this.
    They DO try to preserve the resources for one child over the other if the other child is a step-kid, the ex’s child from the second marriage, etc.

    It’s a very common thread throughout human history right up to the present day.
    And given that creating new relationship paradigms is tough, it’s not *just* couple privilege at work…
    The only other type of relationship model most people have that even comes close to dealing with the idea of sharing a partner’s recourses of time, money and commitment is – a child from another relationship needing resources vs your own child.

    And that model is broken and ugly but very much a part of the cultural subconscious.
    Just a thought…

  10. Followed This From a friends Facebook

    I agree with most. But a few thoughts. I’ve heard the “privileged” concept touted. And yes being a white male comes with some inherent privileges. But I point out the extent of those privileges can vary based on a more local circle. I grew up fairly poor. Or school was putting together a softball team. We had tryouts and I performed admirably well. But I did not make it on the team because I was white and the teacher felt that privileged me and is have opportunities elsewhere. But I never did before or after. In that circle I was not. Likewise, whites might be privileged in general, but tell the lone white kid who is in an urban class and has to run home from school everyday to avoid being beat up. He doesn’t feel privileged in that circle. He is in the greater circle but not the immediate. So why do I mention this?

    I think you point out a lot of great injustices and imbalances. And would agree with probably all. But I’ve heard some comment in equality between a primary ans a secondary. There should always be equal respect in all human interactions. But one should not forget that the level of commitment and investment is also important.

    Should a secondary have an equalness to a primary? Dies a girlfriend have equality to a wife in the monogamous world? No…

    Why? Because there is a difference of commitment and investment.

    And I think that points to a potential area if privilege and injustice. Does a secondary have the opportunity to reach an equivalent commitment?

    I don’t think a secondary who had not committed to an equivalent investment should be equal to a primary. But if they wanted to invest and commit then they should receive the equality.

    Not sure if I am making myself clear. But hopefully so. ..

    That said there always needs to be respect regardless of whether it’s poly or mono. And what I think you’re dating is that often, due to preconceived and pre-installed concepts that folk forget the otherindividual is a person to be respected. And you have good strategies in doing so, thinking so, etc. In fact much of your advice would do well applied to monogamous relationships.

    And in all relationships I believe the returns are/should be driven by level and commitment of investment. And perhaps you’re just saying, don’t restrict another investors right to purchase shares too. Which would make sense.

    • And I think that points to a potential area if privilege and injustice. Does a secondary have the opportunity to reach an equivalent commitment?

      That’s an important part of the equation.

      Nobody’s suggesting that the person you’ve just met is in any reasonable way on equal footing with someone you’ve been with for a decade. People don’t generally, for instance, sign a mortgage with a person they’ve only been on one date with. As you correctly point out, that requires investment in a relationship.

      Where it becomes privilege is when one person is, by virtue of that investment, in a position to place barriers or limitations on another.

      Saying “I’m not going to put your name on the mortgage because we’ve only just met; I’ve only had one coffee date with you” isn’t privilege. Saying “I’m never, ever going to put your name on the mortgage, no matter how long we are together, because my existing partner comes first and she says that only she may ever share finances with me” is privilege.

  11. Followed This From a friends Facebook

    I agree with most. But a few thoughts. I’ve heard the “privileged” concept touted. And yes being a white male comes with some inherent privileges. But I point out the extent of those privileges can vary based on a more local circle. I grew up fairly poor. Or school was putting together a softball team. We had tryouts and I performed admirably well. But I did not make it on the team because I was white and the teacher felt that privileged me and is have opportunities elsewhere. But I never did before or after. In that circle I was not. Likewise, whites might be privileged in general, but tell the lone white kid who is in an urban class and has to run home from school everyday to avoid being beat up. He doesn’t feel privileged in that circle. He is in the greater circle but not the immediate. So why do I mention this?

    I think you point out a lot of great injustices and imbalances. And would agree with probably all. But I’ve heard some comment in equality between a primary ans a secondary. There should always be equal respect in all human interactions. But one should not forget that the level of commitment and investment is also important.

    Should a secondary have an equalness to a primary? Dies a girlfriend have equality to a wife in the monogamous world? No…

    Why? Because there is a difference of commitment and investment.

    And I think that points to a potential area if privilege and injustice. Does a secondary have the opportunity to reach an equivalent commitment?

    I don’t think a secondary who had not committed to an equivalent investment should be equal to a primary. But if they wanted to invest and commit then they should receive the equality.

    Not sure if I am making myself clear. But hopefully so. ..

    That said there always needs to be respect regardless of whether it’s poly or mono. And what I think you’re dating is that often, due to preconceived and pre-installed concepts that folk forget the otherindividual is a person to be respected. And you have good strategies in doing so, thinking so, etc. In fact much of your advice would do well applied to monogamous relationships.

    And in all relationships I believe the returns are/should be driven by level and commitment of investment. And perhaps you’re just saying, don’t restrict another investors right to purchase shares too. Which would make sense.

  12. Ahhhh, thank you for this. I keep bumping into the concept and wondering “Oh god, am I doing that? Do I do that with the boyfriend I live with?” I read a big article on why most poly people go “gack, unicorn hunters” and I think that helped a lot, since couple privilege seems to be almost inherent with unicorn hunters.

    I think I can breathe a sigh of relief, while still keeping my eyes open. I expressed to out of town boyfriend that he can express any needs to me, and not have to worry about infringing, overstepping or disrespecting my relationship with live-in boyfriend. Live-in boyfriend has an amazing about of trust in me, to the point where I am almost always the one asking “this is okay? you’re okay with this?”.

    Editing stuff: “and viola!” (I laughed, could be intentional), and a lone ” in the last paragraph there.

    • Heh. The editing glitches are fixed. I almost left the “viola!” in because it is pretty funny, but it wasn’t what I was trying to say. 🙂

  13. Ahhhh, thank you for this. I keep bumping into the concept and wondering “Oh god, am I doing that? Do I do that with the boyfriend I live with?” I read a big article on why most poly people go “gack, unicorn hunters” and I think that helped a lot, since couple privilege seems to be almost inherent with unicorn hunters.

    I think I can breathe a sigh of relief, while still keeping my eyes open. I expressed to out of town boyfriend that he can express any needs to me, and not have to worry about infringing, overstepping or disrespecting my relationship with live-in boyfriend. Live-in boyfriend has an amazing about of trust in me, to the point where I am almost always the one asking “this is okay? you’re okay with this?”.

    Editing stuff: “and viola!” (I laughed, could be intentional), and a lone ” in the last paragraph there.

  14. An interesting post, especially the food for thought on privilege. However as with most of your poly posts I find myself thinking, “it’s a good thing I’m happy as a monogamous introvert because polyamory sounds completely exhausting.”

  15. An interesting post, especially the food for thought on privilege. However as with most of your poly posts I find myself thinking, “it’s a good thing I’m happy as a monogamous introvert because polyamory sounds completely exhausting.”

  16. Of course it’s okay to respond to different relationships differently…
    You’ve also pretty succinctly laid out exactly ‘s point though: That history is where the privilege is sourced. You’re describing giving the established relationship privilege of consideration just because the relationship already exists.

  17. A lot of what you described I think actually is privilege, especially about the stuff regarding how society sees relationships beyond the man/woman monogamous partnership.

    But I’m not sure “privilege” is the right word to describe the way people behave when they open a monogamous relationship. Privilege is, inherently, something you came into through no fault of your own, and lack of privilege is the same thing. Examples of lacking privilege include being born a racial minority, or a woman, or gay, or a gender you don’t identify as.

    Couple privilege does exist, but I don’t think it manifests as two “primary” partners mistreating a potential “secondary.” Couple privilege is, as you said, having a “+1” invitation for your company’s summer picnic, or not getting any double takes when you and your one sweetie walk together holding hands, or having a single spousal beneficiary on your health insurance. Couple privilege comes from those who interact with you who fail to recognize that you operate differently from the majority of society.

    I think the situation you are describing here needs a different term. I don’t know what it should be. I know it’s an important consideration, because I think most people enter polyamory by opening a monogamous relationship, and probably fall into a lot of these pitfalls. I like Dan Savage’s “monogamish,” personally. It still hearkens to the ideas surrounding monogamy, like the thought that your beloved falling in love with someone else is somehow a threat to you.

    • Actually, I think it is privilege in the same way that other people with various forms of privilege react when faced with the idea of losing one’s privilege. So, for example, the whole MRA movement is an example of a group of people with privilege (white, het, cismen) reacting to a perceived threat of loss of their privilege from feminists (anyone who thinks no gender ought to have privileges over any other gender). That sense of entitlement, the perception that what they have is not, in fact, a “privilege”, but a “right” that the mean feminazis are trying to take away from them and turn men into second-class citizens as a punishment, is exactly what the word “privilege” describes.

      Part of privilege is the luxury of not being forced to see it. Treating our secondaries poorly is the external expression of someone who cannot, or does not, see all the ways in which we have privilege. We have the privilege to treat our secondaries poorly because we have systemic support for doing so, the kind of support that makes it difficult to even see how what we are doing is considered “poor treatment” at all. said right up at the beginning that most people who do these sorts of things, if you ask them, would say that of course they treat their secondaries well, and they do not believe they are doing anything wrong, and that they are, in general, nice people.

      We can’t talk about having an entire social structure designed to support one class of people over another and confer upon them certain benefits without also addressing the consequences of what those benefits offer that class of person in the expression of that privilege. Receiving a +1 party invitation is a benefit. Having, or expressing, one’s privilege is in taking the spouse to the party and not the secondary as a default or pre-established pattern, and not recognizing that it’s a shitty thing to do to the secondary because of exactly that social support for the original couple that makes it “obvious” that, of course, the spouse would be the one to go, the secondary is only a secondary, the secondary knew the rules when they signed up, etc.

      Receiving benefits as part of a privileged class does not exist in a vacuum, separate and outside from the behaviour of one who lives in that privileged class. One’s behaviour reflects the benefits conferred upon them as part of the privileged class, unless one consciously and deliberately rejects the behaviour expected to go along with said benefits. And it is that conscious and deliberate rejection of those benefits that is discussing in the first place.

      https://sindeloke.wordpress.com/2010/01/13/37/

      • I still remember how happy and honored I was when my partners and I decided to attend one partner’s UK equivalent of a high-school reunion — someone had to stay home to watch the smallperson, so we wound up splitting up the evening and each of us spent half at the reunion, half at home with the baby.

        It was a very sweet gesture that made me feel valued and cared-for, and gave all of us the chance to enjoy the party.

        The good-natured confusion and occasional high-fives that our partner received due to bringing one date for the early part of the evening and another for the later part were *hilarious*, btw 😀

        — A <3

        • Yep, I always find it incredibly touching and meaningful when one of my partners deliberately rejects a social “couples” benefit, like asking me to a traditional event like a wedding or office party or home for the holidays. I would like for, one day, not to feel so touched at that kind of gesture, because it would mean that including me as an equal member of the family had become the norm and was no longer so unusual as to stand out and *mean something*. It would mean that, to *not* do that would be as shocking as a mono married person *not* doing that for their spouse – unthinkable.

          But, in the meantime, the ones who know how to reject Couple’s Privilege and treat their partners well are pretty special, and I certainly appreciate them!

      • Oh man, thank you so much for your articulate response to this already-articulate post. I’m a bisexual ciswoman, and consistently being on the receiving end of this sort of shitty behavior, and being told (implicitly or explicitly) I had no right to even consider it shitty because, well, OF COURSE, couples come first, really fucked up my self-esteem for a long time.

        I had so many instances of this sort of thing happening and making me feel utterly and completely disposable, I’m surprised it didn’t put me off polyamory completely. Nobody deserves to be treated like a skeleton in someone’s closet. If you’re so crazy in love with your partner and they’re so crazy uncertain about this whole “open relationship” thing, maybe you should buy a vibrator and some lingerie to spice up your sex life, instead. Ugh.

  18. A lot of what you described I think actually is privilege, especially about the stuff regarding how society sees relationships beyond the man/woman monogamous partnership.

    But I’m not sure “privilege” is the right word to describe the way people behave when they open a monogamous relationship. Privilege is, inherently, something you came into through no fault of your own, and lack of privilege is the same thing. Examples of lacking privilege include being born a racial minority, or a woman, or gay, or a gender you don’t identify as.

    Couple privilege does exist, but I don’t think it manifests as two “primary” partners mistreating a potential “secondary.” Couple privilege is, as you said, having a “+1” invitation for your company’s summer picnic, or not getting any double takes when you and your one sweetie walk together holding hands, or having a single spousal beneficiary on your health insurance. Couple privilege comes from those who interact with you who fail to recognize that you operate differently from the majority of society.

    I think the situation you are describing here needs a different term. I don’t know what it should be. I know it’s an important consideration, because I think most people enter polyamory by opening a monogamous relationship, and probably fall into a lot of these pitfalls. I like Dan Savage’s “monogamish,” personally. It still hearkens to the ideas surrounding monogamy, like the thought that your beloved falling in love with someone else is somehow a threat to you.

  19. Actually, I think it is privilege in the same way that other people with various forms of privilege react when faced with the idea of losing one’s privilege. So, for example, the whole MRA movement is an example of a group of people with privilege (white, het, cismen) reacting to a perceived threat of loss of their privilege from feminists (anyone who thinks no gender ought to have privileges over any other gender). That sense of entitlement, the perception that what they have is not, in fact, a “privilege”, but a “right” that the mean feminazis are trying to take away from them and turn men into second-class citizens as a punishment, is exactly what the word “privilege” describes.

    Part of privilege is the luxury of not being forced to see it. Treating our secondaries poorly is the external expression of someone who cannot, or does not, see all the ways in which we have privilege. We have the privilege to treat our secondaries poorly because we have systemic support for doing so, the kind of support that makes it difficult to even see how what we are doing is considered “poor treatment” at all. said right up at the beginning that most people who do these sorts of things, if you ask them, would say that of course they treat their secondaries well, and they do not believe they are doing anything wrong, and that they are, in general, nice people.

    We can’t talk about having an entire social structure designed to support one class of people over another and confer upon them certain benefits without also addressing the consequences of what those benefits offer that class of person in the expression of that privilege. Receiving a +1 party invitation is a benefit. Having, or expressing, one’s privilege is in taking the spouse to the party and not the secondary as a default or pre-established pattern, and not recognizing that it’s a shitty thing to do to the secondary because of exactly that social support for the original couple that makes it “obvious” that, of course, the spouse would be the one to go, the secondary is only a secondary, the secondary knew the rules when they signed up, etc.

    Receiving benefits as part of a privileged class does not exist in a vacuum, separate and outside from the behaviour of one who lives in that privileged class. One’s behaviour reflects the benefits conferred upon them as part of the privileged class, unless one consciously and deliberately rejects the behaviour expected to go along with said benefits. And it is that conscious and deliberate rejection of those benefits that is discussing in the first place.

    https://sindeloke.wordpress.com/2010/01/13/37/

    • My take of the post is that Tacit isn’t so much ‘ranting’ about privilege as about the lack of awareness and discussion of its impact on the relationships. In your post lifemovingfwd, I think you are explaining pretty well how you all are aware of those privileges that impact each other (yes, you have some too that you exercise) and are happy/comfortable having the relationship within that understanding. Of course, it helps that the couple and you are rational, thoughtful, caring people !

      hugs all around!

      • Oh, I’ve only seen Tacit rant when he says he’s ranting. *lol*

        His points are well-thought out and well-organized and clearly the result of a lot of consideration and experience.

        I just fail to comprehend how anyone can think that being a primary and having the expectation that the primary relationship will remain primary and that there are *some* *reasonable* expectations of respect from new parties is a bad thing.

        I guess it boils down to “Don’t be an ass.” But then, I’ve been primary, secondary, leg, and hinge. I’ve had a few more perspectives than a lot of people get the chance to have.

        That, and I’ve witnessed and experienced what happens when a new relationship starts and there aren’t respected boundaries. It’s really ugly… for everyone.

  20. There are a lot of good points here, but I think couple privilege (the privilege extended to people who are part of a couple, as society’s preferred format for life in general) is being conflated with the priority that people give to their existing partner(s) over new ones.

    I don’t think that’s conflation. I think that’s where privilege comes from. It’s the intentional prioritization of an existing, established relationship over a new one.

    And that’s not necessarily bad. It’s perfectly reasonable that if you’ve invested years in a relationship, you tend to consider it, and consider the effects of your decisions on it, when you make choices. Within reason, that’s perfectly okay–even admirable.

    The devil, of course, is in the details.

    When a privilege becomes seen as a right, it becomes an entitlement. When people conduct their romantic affairs on the basis of entitlement, many evil things can happen.

    If I were faced with a partner who said “Can you stop having sex with X for a while?” the first thing I’d do is ask why. What’s the purpose of the request? What is the expected outcome? Is it reasonable to assume that the request would likely reach those goals? And at what cost? How much damage would I be doing by telling a lover “So and so has asked me to stop having sex with you, so I will”? It has been my experience that these kinds of requests are almost always rooted in fear or insecurity–and in all honesty, in 25 years of hands-on poly relationships I have never once seen a request like this actually succeed in reaching its stated goal.

    More to the point, I have also rarely seen a person who is faced with this kind of request stop and consider the effect it will have on the other person. Taking care of existing relationships should not mean disregarding the consequences of your choices on newcomers! There is more to it than simply saying “Sally wants to have sex with me, Betty wants me not to, I have been with Betty for longer than I have been with Sally; therefore, Betty wins.” If you’re not even willing to stop and consider what damage might be done to Sally if Betty gets her way–if the only thing you think of is that in any disagreement between Sally and Betty, Betty wins–then you’ve stepped over the line into the kind of privilege that’s actually more like entitlement.

  21. The things you’re describing as “rules” here–things about what kind of relationship you want and what qualities you value in other people–actually sound more like what I’d call “boundaries.”

    What’s the difference?

    Boundaries are things you place on yourself. Rules are restrictions or compulsions you place on others.

    “I will always be open about my relationships” is a boundary. “As long as you are with me, you must be closeted; you will not be permitted to talk about our relationship openly” is a rule. “I will always consider the needs of my children” is a boundary. “You will never be permitted to meet my children” (or, conversely, “you will be required to babysit my children for as long as you are romantically involved with me”–a real-life example in a real relationship I know of) is a rule.

    I think that all of us carry with us some ideas about relationships we will and won’t be involved in, and behaviors we will and won’t tolerate. When they’re placed on others, they become rules. When they’re placed on others in a way that ranks one relationship above another, they become extensions of privilege. When they’re placed on others in a way that ranks one relationship above another and the people involved see that ranking as a proper and just extension of the Way Things Are, without regard for the needs of the specific individuals involved, they become entitlements.

  22. And I think that points to a potential area if privilege and injustice. Does a secondary have the opportunity to reach an equivalent commitment?

    That’s an important part of the equation.

    Nobody’s suggesting that the person you’ve just met is in any reasonable way on equal footing with someone you’ve been with for a decade. People don’t generally, for instance, sign a mortgage with a person they’ve only been on one date with. As you correctly point out, that requires investment in a relationship.

    Where it becomes privilege is when one person is, by virtue of that investment, in a position to place barriers or limitations on another.

    Saying “I’m not going to put your name on the mortgage because we’ve only just met; I’ve only had one coffee date with you” isn’t privilege. Saying “I’m never, ever going to put your name on the mortgage, no matter how long we are together, because my existing partner comes first and she says that only she may ever share finances with me” is privilege.

  23. Yeah, my problem with this is…I haven’t met a lot of poly people who actually do what I’d call ‘good poly’. In my experience, ‘secondary’ is a word that 80-90% of the poly community uses. The monogamous-centric idea of primary and secondary seems to be part of most relationships in the poly community. It’s very rare to actually see a non-hierarchical poly relationship.:/

    K.

    • I think it depends on where you are and the age group and particular subculture of poly folks you spend time with. Where I live, hierarchical poly is rare and unicorn hunters are almost as mythical as unicorns.

      And for that, perhaps I am privileged…

    • I try to avoid “secondary,” but I do believe that the distinction of a “primary” is useful and can generally forgive people I observe to be practicing ethical nonmonogamy and being generally right thinking for using “secondary” as a gloss to mean “non-primary but also significant partner.”

      If they actually use “tertiary” or “quaternary” then that’s a bit much.

    • I use “primary” (as in, “I’m in a multi-primary-partner relationship”) to make clear that each relationship is valued and cherished and important, but I don’t use “secondary” — when I began dating someone who was not a part of our triad, I said we were “dating” — and when we formed a committed partnership, then he became one of my Dearly Beloveds (my admittedly slightly-sappy nickname for my family-of-choice.)

      When he began dating someone (with whom I was not/am not involved), they were “dating,” then she became his “girlfriend,” and now she’s my co-primary/metamour — but we never treated “girlfriend” like it was a dirty word. I’m his girlfriend, too, and I’m my other partners’ girlfriend. They’re married to each other, so they are husband and wife, but in practice, when one of us needs something, we’re equally available and invested.

      I really dislike referring to people as “secondary,” even if it is a handy term for a more casual relationship — it just strikes me as reinforcing a dyad paradigm/couple privilege, as well as just feeling offensive and disrespectful to that person’s humanity and full agency.

      I’m not going to directly crap on people who use it and find it useful, or people who are happy to be described as secondary, but I am not a fan of the term.

      — A <3

  24. Yeah, my problem with this is…I haven’t met a lot of poly people who actually do what I’d call ‘good poly’. In my experience, ‘secondary’ is a word that 80-90% of the poly community uses. The monogamous-centric idea of primary and secondary seems to be part of most relationships in the poly community. It’s very rare to actually see a non-hierarchical poly relationship.:/

    K.

  25. Heh. The editing glitches are fixed. I almost left the “viola!” in because it is pretty funny, but it wasn’t what I was trying to say. 🙂

  26. I think it depends on where you are and the age group and particular subculture of poly folks you spend time with. Where I live, hierarchical poly is rare and unicorn hunters are almost as mythical as unicorns.

    And for that, perhaps I am privileged…

  27. I don’t buy it.

    From inside I might say “I will only date feminists”; from the outside I’m saying “You must be a feminist or I will not date you”. From the inside I might say “I want to marry a man who will be a committed father to our children”; from the outside I’m saying “You must want to be an involved father”. From the inside I might say “I love cats, I must be with my cats at all time”; from the outside you might hear “You must love my cats”.

    And yes; from the inside I might be saying “I can only manage to fit you in on alternate Tuesdays; the rest of the time I’m too busy” while from the outside you might hear “I insist you contact me only on alternate Tuesdays”. Or I might be saying “I can not be out about this aspect of myself, my parents will have me killed” whilst on the outside you hear “You must remain closeted for my benefit”.

    Now, yes, society privileges certain sorts of relationship over others; and that is a huge problem. And yes, people internalise that and feel that some relationships that they might want to have are “bad” because “society says so”; which is bad. But I don’t think it’s bad that people have preferences and only want to have relationships with people they feel are compatible (I don’t think they have any right to expect suitable people to present themselves though, if no-one is interested in what you have to offer then maybe you need to rethink).

  28. My take of the post is that Tacit isn’t so much ‘ranting’ about privilege as about the lack of awareness and discussion of its impact on the relationships. In your post lifemovingfwd, I think you are explaining pretty well how you all are aware of those privileges that impact each other (yes, you have some too that you exercise) and are happy/comfortable having the relationship within that understanding. Of course, it helps that the couple and you are rational, thoughtful, caring people !

    hugs all around!

  29. I was what essentially would have been a “third”, and there was some serious couple privilege involved. I was kept around so long as it was convenient, and dumped without a word. Sad to say I won’t be trying that again.

  30. I was what essentially would have been a “third”, and there was some serious couple privilege involved. I was kept around so long as it was convenient, and dumped without a word. Sad to say I won’t be trying that again.

  31. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this.

    It goes a long way in parallel to the Secondary’s/ies Bill of Rights. The usually-inherent power imbalance between a primary couple/partnership and another partner seems so often (I have experienced it first-hand over and over, in part because I have multiple times been a secondary while not in a primary relationship of my own.) to result in both frustrations and assumptions, overt and covert (conscious or un/), and the justification is, “primary is primary, it is therefore priority/more important.”

    Thank you, again.

    • “primary is primary, it is therefore priority/more important”

      It drives me slightly spare when I see relationship weighting applied event-by-event rather than as an overall gestalt. Which phrasing probably makes no sense to anyone but me, so, example:

      A and B have a strong life-entangled relationship, have been together for 20 years, and have kids. B and C have been together for a year or two, it was established at the get-go that B and C would have a secondary relationship, and they’re both fine with this. (Perhaps C has a primary, perhaps not; it’s not relevant here.)

      It seems to me that:
      * B is both within their rights and not being a rat bastard if they overall prioritize the A-B relationship in their decisions. (How much is a matter of discussion. For the sake of argument, imagine that B’s weighting of the two relationships is something like 70-30, if you could reduce something so complex to numbers.)
      * B is neither within their rights nor being reasonable if they prioritize the A-B relationship in every individual decision. Just because A-B is more important overall doesn’t mean that A-B should take precedence every single time – that doesn’t model a 70-30 weight, it models a 100-0 weight. But some people look at each decision in isolation with an internal model which distills down to: “Well, I have two competing interests. Which is more important? 70’s bigger than 30. Go with the 70.”

      It’s an utter failure of fair-play / compromise that for some reason people screw up in poly even when they could spot it from miles away in other contexts (negotiations, sharing fairly based on uneven contributions, work-life balance – well, OK, some people are also really bad at that last one – etc).

      (Rant over, sorry.)

      • I think part of it is the recurring issue (it’s happened to me more than once in more than one relationship, and happened many times in my circle of non-monogamous acquaintance) that Person C is expected, at some small or large level, to simply stop having a relationship with B, when A-B encounter strife/challenges.

        If Person C is treated like off-season clothing– hung up out of the way when not convenient (and expected to simply accept it whenever it happens)– that’s not treating that person like a fellow adult, relationship-having peer.

        I see what you’re saying about distilling something complicated down to numbers, — and in that paradigm, I think there’s still some apples/oranges issues going on (to further muddy the analogy!). It may not be every decision– but it’s the little in-between things that whittle away at that 30%. Over-generalized example: Person B and C are able to spend 1 weekend a month together (25%-ish of a month’s weekends?). During that weekend, Person A texts Person B about trivial, insignificant, non-emergency questions/issues constantly. Even if everyone has day jobs, Person C doesn’t get nearly as much of Person B’s non-work-time as Person A does– and while making/keeping/participating in having that one weekend a month weekend is something B can do to be proportionately/fairly time-spending with C… C’s proportion of B’s time/attention during C’s ‘time share’ gets even further whittled down by A’s constant texts.

        Sure, there’s a LOT of variables, and many many things that affect a situation like that. But it’s a situation, I think, where, if we’re evaluating rat-bastard-ism, that kind of situation is rather unfair to C, and C, I feel, is within C’s rights to ask for more consideration.

        I’d say that’s a facet of what makes poly “poly,” in that it’s about the myriad layers of having relationships, not just having multiple partners for intimacy.

        • It may not be every decision– but it’s the little in-between things that whittle away at that 30%. Over-generalized example: Person B and C are able to spend 1 weekend a month together (25%-ish of a month’s weekends?). ?). During that weekend, Person A texts Person B about trivial, insignificant, non-emergency questions/issues constantly. ….

          *nod* “Time spent with partner X” certainly isn’t the only factor – time, attention, nature, quality, and many even-fuzzier factors kick in. That’s why I think you have to do the overall balance as a gestalt rather than a math equation – partly because whatever resolution you choose to measure at won’t capture the whole picture sometimes, and partly because some things are really hard to measure.

          • My conclusion from that, though, ends up being circular logic. (Maybe just in my head, though.)

            When you look at the gestalt, that balance is always going to swing towards the primary couple. Maybe because they’ve chosen that, or maybe that’s just what happens to happen… and it’s a self-reinforcing, um… prophecy? result? cycle? that is part of the basis, itself, for what functionally is couple-privilege. The underlying (or overt) assumption/action/inaction/habit that the primary couple will always, and can only always come first.

            I may have philosophized myself into a corner. I think the way I’m parsing what you’re saying is that when you look at the big picture, that it actually supports what has described.

  32. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this.

    It goes a long way in parallel to the Secondary’s/ies Bill of Rights. The usually-inherent power imbalance between a primary couple/partnership and another partner seems so often (I have experienced it first-hand over and over, in part because I have multiple times been a secondary while not in a primary relationship of my own.) to result in both frustrations and assumptions, overt and covert (conscious or un/), and the justification is, “primary is primary, it is therefore priority/more important.”

    Thank you, again.

  33. None of the things you mention as “from the outside” sound like the kinds of privileging I’m talking about here. I see a difference between “you must love my cats” and “You are forbidden to be on the mortgage as long as my Primary says so.”

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

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

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

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

  36. I try to avoid “secondary,” but I do believe that the distinction of a “primary” is useful and can generally forgive people I observe to be practicing ethical nonmonogamy and being generally right thinking for using “secondary” as a gloss to mean “non-primary but also significant partner.”

    If they actually use “tertiary” or “quaternary” then that’s a bit much.

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

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

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

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

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

    Bleh.

    But for now, we truck along.

    Thanks for the article… you have some very interesting insights (which do lead to some good discussions), and a great writing style to boot.

    • I really, REALLY hope we get some serious health-care reform in the immediate future (not just half-assed insurance reform), in part for reasons like this — no one should have to get married in order to receive health care.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Wishing all of you good health and happiness.

      — A <3

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

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

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

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

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

    Bleh.

    But for now, we truck along.

    Thanks for the article… you have some very interesting insights (which do lead to some good discussions), and a great writing style to boot.

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

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

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

    There are certainly external privileges (e.g. adoption, taxes, etc.) that you properly assess, but your whole internal privilege section is flawed because it assumes that the couple hasn’t EARNED each other’s trust and respect in maintaining the relationship.

    • An investment in a relationship is something earned, but I’ve tried to draw a distinction between that sort of earned investment (“I won’t sign a mortgage with a person I’ve only had one coffee date with”) and couple privilege (“I won’t sign a mortgage with you EVER because I already have a partner and my partner and I have declared that no amount of time or investment will ever permit someone else to be on the mortgage”).

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

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

      • Your reductio ad absurdum aside you are still grossly misusing, or maybe misunderstanding, privilege in the context of relationships. There is no rational equality of trust. In large part because trust is neither additive nor linear. A variety of context affect how relationship bonds grow, it can be an accumulation or an epiphany, but it is always attached to actions or behaviors.

        “I love this person because they make me laugh,” or “I love this person because I can trust them with money” neither of those result in “I want to own a house with you,” or “Let’s have a baby.” All of the things that make up each relationship are independent of each other. The most glaring privilege that is displayed in you post and the comments here are the assertions that insist that all things must be on the table. You will never be in a relationship, poly or otherwise, where everything is on the table. Each relationship individually has its own boundaries and requirements. Each individual has the ability to choose what they will or won’t accept in their relationships.

        You have conflated ethical discussion with unearned privilege. While a number of the things you describe as Internal are dick-moves none of them are predicated on unearned advantage. They all are possible behaviors that are indicative security issues and a couple-centered model, but they are deficits of communication, not deficits of meritorious action.

        • The most glaring privilege that is displayed in you post and the comments here are the assertions that insist that all things must be on the table. You will never be in a relationship, poly or otherwise, where everything is on the table.

          That seems to be missing the point. There’s a difference between something not being on the table between Alice and Bob because Alice and/or Bob haven’t put it there, and something not being on the table because Bob’s partner Cindy says that it can’t be there. The first case is not couple privilege; the second case is.

          More generally, the couple privilege I’m talking about exists in any context where something is denied to a person regardless of that person’s time or investment merely because it is reserved to another person, in order to privilege the relationship with that other person. If that isn’t “couple privilege,” what would you call it?

          While a number of the things you describe as Internal are dick-moves none of them are predicated on unearned advantage.

          They are if the reason for them is “I am reserving these for a different relationship.”

          • How about “I won’t sign a mortgage with you ever because the house I share with my primary partner isn’t big enough and we don’t want to move”?

            When I married my husband, I committed to living with him. I can’t change his living arrangements without his consent, so any decisions about moving house, moving in one of our other partners, adding new people onto the mortgage has to be agreed by both of us. That means that it doesn’t matter how much time or investment a new partner puts in to our relationship, if my husband doesn’t consent to the change in his lifestyle, I either choose to turn down my new partner’s request, or break my existing commitment to my husband. It’s only fair to tell new partners which of those choices I’m likely to pick.

            Some people might see that as a reason for not making commitments of this kind, of course. But even so, if Alice and Cindy both want to sign a mortgage with Bob, and they don’t want to share a mortgage with each other, unless Bob can afford two houses, he’s going to have to pick one.

            Both Alice and Cindy are equally within their rights to take things off the table in their respective relationships with Bob, but neither can control his reaction to that. If Bob feels that living with Cindy is a deal-breaker for him, and Cindy doesn’t want to live with Alice, Alice is out of luck. If Alice wants to live with Bob but not Cindy, and Bob’s desire to live with Cindy is unshakeable, Alice is out of luck. I think some of what you are seeing as “couple privilege” is just the fallout from decisions like these

            Conflicts like this can happen in relationships with just two people just as easily (where a couple want to live together, but dig their heels in about where), and I don’t see that as an example of couple privilege, either.

          • My wife came up with a much more apropos name for what you are talking about through most of the your post:

            Partner (alt. Primary) Bias: where the one relationship takes unilateral or arbitrary precedence.

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

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

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

    There are certainly external privileges (e.g. adoption, taxes, etc.) that you properly assess, but your whole internal privilege section is flawed because it assumes that the couple hasn’t EARNED each other’s trust and respect in maintaining the relationship.

  41. An investment in a relationship is something earned, but I’ve tried to draw a distinction between that sort of earned investment (“I won’t sign a mortgage with a person I’ve only had one coffee date with”) and couple privilege (“I won’t sign a mortgage with you EVER because I already have a partner and my partner and I have declared that no amount of time or investment will ever permit someone else to be on the mortgage”).

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

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

  42. I don’t think that’s conflation. I think that’s where privilege comes from. It’s the intentional prioritization of an existing, established relationship over a new one.

    I’ll second the opinion that the two things are being conflated. I don’t think that invalidates many of your points (merely muddles them) – but I have one sort of privilege (marriage recognized by society, presumed couplehood fitting easily into societal monogamy expectations) with my wife only, and a very different sort of thing (prioritization of the health of an existing, stable, long-term relationship over new possible-relationships) with both my wife *and* my lover.

    Perhaps the two frequently go hand-in-hand, or amplify / affect / enable each other, but they’re not the same thing. And while the former is definitely privilege, calling the latter “privilege” seems… off. Even by your opening definition: “a ‘privilege’ is any advantage that one person or group has over another that hasn’t been specifically earned” – but the strong ties of an existing relationship have absolutely been earned.

  43. “primary is primary, it is therefore priority/more important”

    It drives me slightly spare when I see relationship weighting applied event-by-event rather than as an overall gestalt. Which phrasing probably makes no sense to anyone but me, so, example:

    A and B have a strong life-entangled relationship, have been together for 20 years, and have kids. B and C have been together for a year or two, it was established at the get-go that B and C would have a secondary relationship, and they’re both fine with this. (Perhaps C has a primary, perhaps not; it’s not relevant here.)

    It seems to me that:
    * B is both within their rights and not being a rat bastard if they overall prioritize the A-B relationship in their decisions. (How much is a matter of discussion. For the sake of argument, imagine that B’s weighting of the two relationships is something like 70-30, if you could reduce something so complex to numbers.)
    * B is neither within their rights nor being reasonable if they prioritize the A-B relationship in every individual decision. Just because A-B is more important overall doesn’t mean that A-B should take precedence every single time – that doesn’t model a 70-30 weight, it models a 100-0 weight. But some people look at each decision in isolation with an internal model which distills down to: “Well, I have two competing interests. Which is more important? 70’s bigger than 30. Go with the 70.”

    It’s an utter failure of fair-play / compromise that for some reason people screw up in poly even when they could spot it from miles away in other contexts (negotiations, sharing fairly based on uneven contributions, work-life balance – well, OK, some people are also really bad at that last one – etc).

    (Rant over, sorry.)

  44. I think part of it is the recurring issue (it’s happened to me more than once in more than one relationship, and happened many times in my circle of non-monogamous acquaintance) that Person C is expected, at some small or large level, to simply stop having a relationship with B, when A-B encounter strife/challenges.

    If Person C is treated like off-season clothing– hung up out of the way when not convenient (and expected to simply accept it whenever it happens)– that’s not treating that person like a fellow adult, relationship-having peer.

    I see what you’re saying about distilling something complicated down to numbers, — and in that paradigm, I think there’s still some apples/oranges issues going on (to further muddy the analogy!). It may not be every decision– but it’s the little in-between things that whittle away at that 30%. Over-generalized example: Person B and C are able to spend 1 weekend a month together (25%-ish of a month’s weekends?). During that weekend, Person A texts Person B about trivial, insignificant, non-emergency questions/issues constantly. Even if everyone has day jobs, Person C doesn’t get nearly as much of Person B’s non-work-time as Person A does– and while making/keeping/participating in having that one weekend a month weekend is something B can do to be proportionately/fairly time-spending with C… C’s proportion of B’s time/attention during C’s ‘time share’ gets even further whittled down by A’s constant texts.

    Sure, there’s a LOT of variables, and many many things that affect a situation like that. But it’s a situation, I think, where, if we’re evaluating rat-bastard-ism, that kind of situation is rather unfair to C, and C, I feel, is within C’s rights to ask for more consideration.

    I’d say that’s a facet of what makes poly “poly,” in that it’s about the myriad layers of having relationships, not just having multiple partners for intimacy.

  45. It may not be every decision– but it’s the little in-between things that whittle away at that 30%. Over-generalized example: Person B and C are able to spend 1 weekend a month together (25%-ish of a month’s weekends?). ?). During that weekend, Person A texts Person B about trivial, insignificant, non-emergency questions/issues constantly. ….

    *nod* “Time spent with partner X” certainly isn’t the only factor – time, attention, nature, quality, and many even-fuzzier factors kick in. That’s why I think you have to do the overall balance as a gestalt rather than a math equation – partly because whatever resolution you choose to measure at won’t capture the whole picture sometimes, and partly because some things are really hard to measure.

  46. My conclusion from that, though, ends up being circular logic. (Maybe just in my head, though.)

    When you look at the gestalt, that balance is always going to swing towards the primary couple. Maybe because they’ve chosen that, or maybe that’s just what happens to happen… and it’s a self-reinforcing, um… prophecy? result? cycle? that is part of the basis, itself, for what functionally is couple-privilege. The underlying (or overt) assumption/action/inaction/habit that the primary couple will always, and can only always come first.

    I may have philosophized myself into a corner. I think the way I’m parsing what you’re saying is that when you look at the big picture, that it actually supports what has described.

  47. Your reductio ad absurdum aside you are still grossly misusing, or maybe misunderstanding, privilege in the context of relationships. There is no rational equality of trust. In large part because trust is neither additive nor linear. A variety of context affect how relationship bonds grow, it can be an accumulation or an epiphany, but it is always attached to actions or behaviors.

    “I love this person because they make me laugh,” or “I love this person because I can trust them with money” neither of those result in “I want to own a house with you,” or “Let’s have a baby.” All of the things that make up each relationship are independent of each other. The most glaring privilege that is displayed in you post and the comments here are the assertions that insist that all things must be on the table. You will never be in a relationship, poly or otherwise, where everything is on the table. Each relationship individually has its own boundaries and requirements. Each individual has the ability to choose what they will or won’t accept in their relationships.

    You have conflated ethical discussion with unearned privilege. While a number of the things you describe as Internal are dick-moves none of them are predicated on unearned advantage. They all are possible behaviors that are indicative security issues and a couple-centered model, but they are deficits of communication, not deficits of meritorious action.

  48. The most glaring privilege that is displayed in you post and the comments here are the assertions that insist that all things must be on the table. You will never be in a relationship, poly or otherwise, where everything is on the table.

    That seems to be missing the point. There’s a difference between something not being on the table between Alice and Bob because Alice and/or Bob haven’t put it there, and something not being on the table because Bob’s partner Cindy says that it can’t be there. The first case is not couple privilege; the second case is.

    More generally, the couple privilege I’m talking about exists in any context where something is denied to a person regardless of that person’s time or investment merely because it is reserved to another person, in order to privilege the relationship with that other person. If that isn’t “couple privilege,” what would you call it?

    While a number of the things you describe as Internal are dick-moves none of them are predicated on unearned advantage.

    They are if the reason for them is “I am reserving these for a different relationship.”

  49. Now you seem to be conflating intentionally prioritising your existing, established relationship with your existing, established partner being a dick. You can intentionally prioritise relationships with mature, considerate people too, you know. If either of my partners made selfish, inconsiderate requests and they didn’t care about the effects on my other partners/relationships, the question of how far I prioritise them or our relationship would be a side issue: the problem is that I’m in a relationship with a dick.

    My point is that even requests that I consider ridiculous (like this one) are not off the table with my established partners, because I’m always going to *want* to consider their feelings and desires. But the status of my existing relationships are simply not up for negotiation with someone I’ve just started seeing. I’m not arguing that it is reasonable for my husband to ask me to stop sleeping with a new partner, I’m taking issue with your comparison of my husband asking me to stop sleeping with a new partner and that new partner asking me to stop sleeping with my husband. You say that the difference between the two requests is privilege, and I say it’s a valid choice not to negotiate existing relationships with new partners.

    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.

  50. You’re describing giving the established relationship privilege of consideration just because the relationship already exists.
    Isn’t it normal to be more attached and more invested in existing relationships than relationships that don’t exist yet?

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

    • polygamy doesnt work..

      Err, who’s talking about polygamy?

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

      Telling people “You may have other partners besides just me” is “selfish”? Ooookay…

    • If by “polygamy” you mean “one person keeping a harem” then yes, that’s totally selfish. In some senses it’s just as selfish as monogamy (and monogamy *is* selfish in some senses), in others more so.

      However, polyamory as most people practice it isn’t like that, as it requires a high degree of unselfishness as you’re potentially sharing all your partners with other people.

      “Doesn’t work” – well, it certainly doesn’t work for people who aren’t oriented that way, any more than you would expect a straight person to make a same sex relationship to “work”. And it’s certainly not easy even for those who are oriented that way, as adding more people always makes things more complicated. But some people *have* made it happen. You just don’t normally see it because they’re not the ones who become visible because their relationships blew up.

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

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

    • Clearly you have no idea what polyamory is, and your overall view of male-female relationships fairly oozes patriarchal thinking. Troll somewhere else, please.

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

  55. How about “I won’t sign a mortgage with you ever because the house I share with my primary partner isn’t big enough and we don’t want to move”?

    When I married my husband, I committed to living with him. I can’t change his living arrangements without his consent, so any decisions about moving house, moving in one of our other partners, adding new people onto the mortgage has to be agreed by both of us. That means that it doesn’t matter how much time or investment a new partner puts in to our relationship, if my husband doesn’t consent to the change in his lifestyle, I either choose to turn down my new partner’s request, or break my existing commitment to my husband. It’s only fair to tell new partners which of those choices I’m likely to pick.

    Some people might see that as a reason for not making commitments of this kind, of course. But even so, if Alice and Cindy both want to sign a mortgage with Bob, and they don’t want to share a mortgage with each other, unless Bob can afford two houses, he’s going to have to pick one.

    Both Alice and Cindy are equally within their rights to take things off the table in their respective relationships with Bob, but neither can control his reaction to that. If Bob feels that living with Cindy is a deal-breaker for him, and Cindy doesn’t want to live with Alice, Alice is out of luck. If Alice wants to live with Bob but not Cindy, and Bob’s desire to live with Cindy is unshakeable, Alice is out of luck. I think some of what you are seeing as “couple privilege” is just the fallout from decisions like these

    Conflicts like this can happen in relationships with just two people just as easily (where a couple want to live together, but dig their heels in about where), and I don’t see that as an example of couple privilege, either.

  56. I know that I have expectations. I’ve taught my children to have them as well. For example:

    No standing me up without a solid reason.
    No putting me down, alone or with friends.
    No trying to push my friends away.

    Oh, and newcomers to my life better be ready to make an effort to get to know the people already in it. Try to push others aside and the newcomer can find someone else to be with.

    Rules, expectations, whatever, the simple fact is that if someone doesn’t have a baseline relationship standard of “Don’t be a jerk if you want to be with me” then they probably need to work on their personal boundaries before they get involved with others.

  57. Given the sometimes tenuous and short term nature of poly relationships, I really don’t see why not being allowed to be on someone’s mortgage is a horrible thing. That house is being purchased by the primaries. It’s theirs, they get to decide when and *if* you are seriously a long-term part of their lives and when and if they’re willing to expose themselves by sharing something that impacts their credit rating with you.

    IMO, I wouldn’t share a mortgage with a secondary partner. If I’m buying a house with a primary partner, that is us, ours, and not sharing it with a secondary means that if I stay with the primary but the secondary and I split up, they can’t go to court and take my home away. It’s not “relationship protection” or “couple priveledge,” it’s common sense and making sure you don’t loose your shirt in a breakup. Scary enough that if you let someone live with you for more than 30 days they can TRY to take your home away, no need to hand over legal documents that enhance that power!

  58. Personally, I can’t fathom asking such a thing. “Stop having sex with your wife?” Seriously?

    If I asked for such a thing I’d fully expect to be shown the door. At the very least, I’d expect to have the fury of the wife dropped on my head post-haste.

    And yeah, I thought about this and realized, if I start dating someone else, and they want me to stop having sex with my current partner, they’re going to be given a choice between accepting that the answer is a flat no, but I’ll give them whatever support is possible while they face down their own insecurities… or they can walk away. I’m not going to restrict my current, and assumedly good relationships, for someone who is brand new! That’s just ridiculous!

    You may as well say “Will you stop sleeping in the same room with your wife?”

    Anyone who would answer yes to that, IMO, should be ready for divorce court.

    In the case of someone who has been present for a while, then well, if they’ve been around for a while, I would hope we’d have addressed this already.

    Requests like that come from one place, from within the person asking for it. That means it’s that person’s issue and they need to own their shit, not expect everyone else to adapt around them.

  59. Oh, I’ve only seen Tacit rant when he says he’s ranting. *lol*

    His points are well-thought out and well-organized and clearly the result of a lot of consideration and experience.

    I just fail to comprehend how anyone can think that being a primary and having the expectation that the primary relationship will remain primary and that there are *some* *reasonable* expectations of respect from new parties is a bad thing.

    I guess it boils down to “Don’t be an ass.” But then, I’ve been primary, secondary, leg, and hinge. I’ve had a few more perspectives than a lot of people get the chance to have.

    That, and I’ve witnessed and experienced what happens when a new relationship starts and there aren’t respected boundaries. It’s really ugly… for everyone.

  60. My wife came up with a much more apropos name for what you are talking about through most of the your post:

    Partner (alt. Primary) Bias: where the one relationship takes unilateral or arbitrary precedence.

  61. 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.”

  62. Sure.

    The problem comes when the new relationship DOES exist…and then the new person is told “No matter how long we are together, no matter how much you invest, you will never be the equal of my first partner and there will always be things which are denied to you. The first relationship will always have some rights and privileges denied to any others.”

  63. polygamy doesnt work..

    Err, who’s talking about polygamy?

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

    Telling people “You may have other partners besides just me” is “selfish”? Ooookay…

  64. It’s within the range of human behavior, sure, but I think we can both come up with plenty of examples of people dropping existing relationships in favor of newly-forming ones, and even people going “Even if I’m alone forever afterwards, it’s better for me to leave”.

    I’m not arguing for or against doing so; I’m saying that’s what giving privilege looks like

  65. And what you describe–even the use of the terms “the primaries” and “secondaries”–privileges one relationship (the primary) above others (the secondaries).

  66. And yeah, I thought about this and realized, if I start dating someone else, and they want me to stop having sex with my current partner, they’re going to be given a choice between accepting that the answer is a flat no, but I’ll give them whatever support is possible while they face down their own insecurities… or they can walk away.

    Indeed.

    The issue of privilege comes in where you have this reaction to a new person asking you to stop having sex with a a current person, but a DIFFERENT response if a current partner asks you to stop having sex with a new partner.

    Personally, I quite like what you said when you wrote “Requests like that come from one place, from within the person asking for it. That means it’s that person’s issue and they need to own their shit, not expect everyone else to adapt around them.” I would use that response in both cases–if a new partner asked me to stop sleeping with a current partner, AND if a current partner asked me to stop sleeping with a new partner.

  67. “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.

  68. 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.

  69. What about if I had three equal primary partnerships, had made permanent commitments to all of them, and didn’t ever want another one. (That would be understandable, yes?) If I then say to a new person “No matter how long we are together, no matter how much you invest, you will never be the equal of my first THREE partners and there will always be things which are denied to you. The first three relationship will always have some rights and privileges denied to any others.” Is that a problem? Is that couple privilege x 2?

  70. It is a privileging of the existing relationships, certainly.

    Is it a problem? That depends on how that privilege is exercised.

    It is not my intention in this essay to say that every manifestation of privilege is always Bad And Wrong. That’s an unsupportable tenet even when you’re talking about things like racial privilege. (For example, whites are privileged over blacks in the United States in that whites can reasonably expect to be able to drive anywhere they like without being pulled over by the police merely because they are white. Is that a problem? No; that’s the way things ought to be; nobody ought to be pulled over just because of race!)

    My argument is that privilege is most often destructive when it’s exercised unconsciously…and the nature of privilege makes being aware of it difficult.

  71. But assuming that my existing relationship is there because of mutual love/time/investment/commitment etc, it doesn’t look like the privilege that was described here (right up at the top of this post) because that preferential treatment would be earned.

  72. Ah, well then if you removed the part at the top of this that specified privilege as “unearned” then I’d agree with you. It’s clear that white people haven’t earned their special treatment, whereas it seems fair to assume that I committed to my hypothetical three partners because I think that they have earned it.

    If we can extend your definition of privilege to include earned advantages, then I think it’s possible that unearned and unconscious privileges would be connected.

  73. 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.

  74. Thanks for writing this. The discussion of what privilege is was good, because yes, almost everything said or written about it leaves me confused and angry. I’m not sure it’s for the reasons you specify. It’s not the idea that bugs me per se – just that after a while, open-ended seething anger at any group one was born into – race, sex, ethnicity or otherwise – makes one uncomfortable. It’s only natural for the fight-or-flight response to kick in.

  75. Thanks for writing this. The discussion of what privilege is was good, because yes, almost everything said or written about it leaves me confused and angry. I’m not sure it’s for the reasons you specify. It’s not the idea that bugs me per se – just that after a while, open-ended seething anger at any group one was born into – race, sex, ethnicity or otherwise – makes one uncomfortable. It’s only natural for the fight-or-flight response to kick in.

  76. 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Hopefully I’m clear here. Sorry for the length.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Hopefully I’m clear here. Sorry for the length.

    • The book project has been re-started! I’ve gone back with my sweetie Eve and re-imagined the way it’s going to be put together, and I’m hopeful of having a manuscript done this year. 🙂

  79. If by “polygamy” you mean “one person keeping a harem” then yes, that’s totally selfish. In some senses it’s just as selfish as monogamy (and monogamy *is* selfish in some senses), in others more so.

    However, polyamory as most people practice it isn’t like that, as it requires a high degree of unselfishness as you’re potentially sharing all your partners with other people.

    “Doesn’t work” – well, it certainly doesn’t work for people who aren’t oriented that way, any more than you would expect a straight person to make a same sex relationship to “work”. And it’s certainly not easy even for those who are oriented that way, as adding more people always makes things more complicated. But some people *have* made it happen. You just don’t normally see it because they’re not the ones who become visible because their relationships blew up.

  80. Clearly you have no idea what polyamory is, and your overall view of male-female relationships fairly oozes patriarchal thinking. Troll somewhere else, please.

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

    Thank you!

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

    Thank you!

  83. 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.

  84. The book project has been re-started! I’ve gone back with my sweetie Eve and re-imagined the way it’s going to be put together, and I’m hopeful of having a manuscript done this year. 🙂

  85. 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.

  86. It seems that default defense to someone pointing out privilege is: “I earned that!”

    Analogous to responding to a comment about sex negativity with: “…but STDs!”

  87. It seems that default defense to someone pointing out privilege is: “I earned that!”

    Analogous to responding to a comment about sex negativity with: “…but STDs!”

  88. 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.

  89. The rules you list as being inherent to monogamy are not universally agreed upon. So often discord arises around individuals’ different definitions of cheating and different assumptions about the relationship boundaries that they failed to discuss. Some mono relationships prohibit even flirting or having friends of the opposite sex, for example, though others may allow play and kissing or even anything physical except intercourse, or maybe romantic feelings are crossing the line and physical interaction doesn’t matter.

    Going into a relationship of any kind with a set of rules is going to be problematic. Discussing with a new partner what you need and what you need them to promise helps address misconceptions, varied ideas about how a relationship *should* be, and privilege.

  90. I still remember how happy and honored I was when my partners and I decided to attend one partner’s UK equivalent of a high-school reunion — someone had to stay home to watch the smallperson, so we wound up splitting up the evening and each of us spent half at the reunion, half at home with the baby.

    It was a very sweet gesture that made me feel valued and cared-for, and gave all of us the chance to enjoy the party.

    The good-natured confusion and occasional high-fives that our partner received due to bringing one date for the early part of the evening and another for the later part were *hilarious*, btw 😀

    — A <3

  91. I use “primary” (as in, “I’m in a multi-primary-partner relationship”) to make clear that each relationship is valued and cherished and important, but I don’t use “secondary” — when I began dating someone who was not a part of our triad, I said we were “dating” — and when we formed a committed partnership, then he became one of my Dearly Beloveds (my admittedly slightly-sappy nickname for my family-of-choice.)

    When he began dating someone (with whom I was not/am not involved), they were “dating,” then she became his “girlfriend,” and now she’s my co-primary/metamour — but we never treated “girlfriend” like it was a dirty word. I’m his girlfriend, too, and I’m my other partners’ girlfriend. They’re married to each other, so they are husband and wife, but in practice, when one of us needs something, we’re equally available and invested.

    I really dislike referring to people as “secondary,” even if it is a handy term for a more casual relationship — it just strikes me as reinforcing a dyad paradigm/couple privilege, as well as just feeling offensive and disrespectful to that person’s humanity and full agency.

    I’m not going to directly crap on people who use it and find it useful, or people who are happy to be described as secondary, but I am not a fan of the term.

    — A <3

  92. I really, REALLY hope we get some serious health-care reform in the immediate future (not just half-assed insurance reform), in part for reasons like this — no one should have to get married in order to receive health care.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Wishing all of you good health and happiness.

    — A <3

  93. Yep, I always find it incredibly touching and meaningful when one of my partners deliberately rejects a social “couples” benefit, like asking me to a traditional event like a wedding or office party or home for the holidays. I would like for, one day, not to feel so touched at that kind of gesture, because it would mean that including me as an equal member of the family had become the norm and was no longer so unusual as to stand out and *mean something*. It would mean that, to *not* do that would be as shocking as a mono married person *not* doing that for their spouse – unthinkable.

    But, in the meantime, the ones who know how to reject Couple’s Privilege and treat their partners well are pretty special, and I certainly appreciate them!

  94. 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”?

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

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

  97. 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.

  98. 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?

  99. “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.

  100. I didn’t mention flirting or kissing, I mentioned romantic and sexual exclusivity. If you don’t have either of those things, I think it’s pretty clear that it isn’t monogamy.

    “Discussing with a new partner what you need” for monogamous people includes “going into a relationship with a set of rules”. The rule is “don’t have sex with other people”, and yes, as you say, there may also be others that have to be negotiated around that rule.

    I’m not saying you shouldn’t talk about it, and ask whether or not it’s okay to flirt or kiss other people. I’m saying that if it isn’t okay to go into relationships with any pre-conceived rules, then you’re saying that it isn’t okay to look for a monogamous relationship.

  101. 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.

  102. I disagree with you that this couple privilege is earned.
    I agree that relationships are earned. However what Sally got as a privilege isn’t the relationship benefits that she earned. Her unearned privilege is being allowed to get to earn them in the first place simply because she was there first. She did not earn being there first. Betty might earn/deserve the same things but she’ll never get them.
    Therefore the difference between Sally and Betty isn’t that one earned something and the other didn’t. The difference is that one was given the privilege of being allowed to get the things she earned, and the other wasn’t.

    Everything that follows, in the contrast between how they’re treated, comes from the fact that Sally got there first. THAT is her privilege. THAT is completely unearned and accidental. It’s easy to prove by knowing that if you reverse the order you meet them, you reverse the rights they eventually get. That proves it’s not just about earning these rights, it’s about being there first.

  103. If it was just a question of who got there first, I would still be with my first boyfriend. I have never made any commitments to anyone because they “got there first”. I made my commitments because I was able to make them and wanted to make them. I have no idea whether or not I would have made the same commitments to Betty had I not already made them to Sally. I would need to make guesses as to what Betty and I were like x years ago, what our different situations were then, and what effect that might have had on our mutual attraction. Maybe Betty hadn’t yet taken up the hobby that first got us talking. Maybe before I met Sally, Betty wasn’t ready for the serious commitment that she wants now. Maybe being with Sally has made me grow so much as a person, that without her, Betty wouldn’t have been interested in me. This sort of guesswork is not “easy to prove”. It’s not only impossible to prove, it’s useless speculation.

    The idea that we should consider the fact that Sally had just a chance to have a certain kind of relationship with me as an unearned privilege is bizarre to me. Betty isn’t the only one without that “privilege” – just about everyone I’ll ever meet (and everyone I won’t) isn’t going to get the chance to earn those things either.

  104. Oooh, I’m 100!

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

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

  105. Oooh, I’m 100!

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

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

  106. +10

    This was my first major issue with this post.

    Once I realized that the content after that part contradicted this statement, I was willing to read more, but I think more readers will stick around if this is fixed.

  107. Oh man, thank you so much for your articulate response to this already-articulate post. I’m a bisexual ciswoman, and consistently being on the receiving end of this sort of shitty behavior, and being told (implicitly or explicitly) I had no right to even consider it shitty because, well, OF COURSE, couples come first, really fucked up my self-esteem for a long time.

    I had so many instances of this sort of thing happening and making me feel utterly and completely disposable, I’m surprised it didn’t put me off polyamory completely. Nobody deserves to be treated like a skeleton in someone’s closet. If you’re so crazy in love with your partner and they’re so crazy uncertain about this whole “open relationship” thing, maybe you should buy a vibrator and some lingerie to spice up your sex life, instead. Ugh.

  108. >> 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.

    I don’t like the word privilege. I would not say that it’s inherently offensive. I would say that people think and speak about privilege in negative terms. Privilege is bad. Privilege hurts people. We want to get rid of privilege.

    If someone wants to be activist and call out couples for their privilege, go ahead. I support free speech even if I don’t support what is said. It’s been my experience, however, that an activist-calling-you-on-your-crap approach is not an effective strategy of education and often serves an implicit need for activists to vent their anger or make themselves seem informed and hip in a social setting.

    If you want couples to open their minds and learn something new, then it is unwise to interact with them in ways that make them feel accused of doing something bad. “What your doing is bad,” is the emotional message. “You need to stop what you’re doing.” These kinds of emotional messages make people feel attacked. The natural response to these kinds of interactions is to get defensive. People are not their best at opening their minds and learning something new when they are feeling attacked and defensive. Period.

    I’m not recommending a word to replace the word privilege. I’m recommending that we avoid the activist-calling-you-on-your-crap approach and instead adopt a gentle educational approach that promotes an atmosphere conducive to learning. It can be done. And it can be done without ever referring to the word privilege.

    My partner and I created a workshop that deals with issues of couple privilege, but never mentions couple privilege. The workshop begins by talking about the real vulnerability people face in highly interdependent relationships, and how couples (monogamous and non-monogamous) often try to manage this vulnerability through relationship containment. We explain how couples enforce relationship containment. And we explain how couples can, if they choose, relax relationship containment–and maybe get outcomes they really want (happy poly relationships).
    http://andreaandkelly.com/relaxing-relationship-containment/
    http://andreaandkelly.com/docs/Relationship%20Containment.pdf

    One workshop is not enough. We need many more workshops, articles, blog posts, and discussions to help educate couples. The question is how we approach this educational endeavor. Personally, I think the way people have conceptualized couple privilege has made the concept too toxic for use in efficiently educating couples to change.

    Kelly Cookson

  109. >> 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.

    I don’t like the word privilege. I would not say that it’s inherently offensive. I would say that people think and speak about privilege in negative terms. Privilege is bad. Privilege hurts people. We want to get rid of privilege.

    If someone wants to be activist and call out couples for their privilege, go ahead. I support free speech even if I don’t support what is said. It’s been my experience, however, that an activist-calling-you-on-your-crap approach is not an effective strategy of education and often serves an implicit need for activists to vent their anger or make themselves seem informed and hip in a social setting.

    If you want couples to open their minds and learn something new, then it is unwise to interact with them in ways that make them feel accused of doing something bad. “What your doing is bad,” is the emotional message. “You need to stop what you’re doing.” These kinds of emotional messages make people feel attacked. The natural response to these kinds of interactions is to get defensive. People are not their best at opening their minds and learning something new when they are feeling attacked and defensive. Period.

    I’m not recommending a word to replace the word privilege. I’m recommending that we avoid the activist-calling-you-on-your-crap approach and instead adopt a gentle educational approach that promotes an atmosphere conducive to learning. It can be done. And it can be done without ever referring to the word privilege.

    My partner and I created a workshop that deals with issues of couple privilege, but never mentions couple privilege. The workshop begins by talking about the real vulnerability people face in highly interdependent relationships, and how couples (monogamous and non-monogamous) often try to manage this vulnerability through relationship containment. We explain how couples enforce relationship containment. And we explain how couples can, if they choose, relax relationship containment–and maybe get outcomes they really want (happy poly relationships).
    http://andreaandkelly.com/relaxing-relationship-containment/
    http://andreaandkelly.com/docs/Relationship%20Containment.pdf

    One workshop is not enough. We need many more workshops, articles, blog posts, and discussions to help educate couples. The question is how we approach this educational endeavor. Personally, I think the way people have conceptualized couple privilege has made the concept too toxic for use in efficiently educating couples to change.

    Kelly Cookson

  110. Thank you Ashbet

    I’m commenting on Ashbets entry because it almost mirrors my very own situation. I would love to see the Game changer come about for the very same reasons. Its amazing how common it is to be in a relationship and unhappy..going with the everyday life because its comfortable and little people depend on you. Meet the one that gets you and wants in life the same things you want and your eyes fly open after seeing asleep for so long. My other relationships have tipped the balance for me and they are the game changer and possible revolutionize the way I see the world. Thank you for saying what has been so difficult for me.

  111. Thank you Ashbet

    I’m commenting on Ashbets entry because it almost mirrors my very own situation. I would love to see the Game changer come about for the very same reasons. Its amazing how common it is to be in a relationship and unhappy..going with the everyday life because its comfortable and little people depend on you. Meet the one that gets you and wants in life the same things you want and your eyes fly open after seeing asleep for so long. My other relationships have tipped the balance for me and they are the game changer and possible revolutionize the way I see the world. Thank you for saying what has been so difficult for me.

  112. read this in 2015, still awesome.

    Been poly for a while and I can really see how this plays out in my present relationships. Thanks for giving it a language that can allow for further discussion. I can tell it was NOT easy. Kudos!

  113. read this in 2015, still awesome.

    Been poly for a while and I can really see how this plays out in my present relationships. Thanks for giving it a language that can allow for further discussion. I can tell it was NOT easy. Kudos!

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