“Just the Two of Us” – What is Couple’s Privilege?

“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do

I’m half crazy, all for the love of you

It won’t be a stylish marriage

I can’t afford a carriage

But you’ll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two.”

–Harry Dacre, “Daisy Bell”

Hey, my kinky, polyam peeps. I hope everyone enjoyed their Memorial Day weekend. I tried to keep it low-key by attending a baseball game with my Dad and seeing a movie with Panda. Other than that, I spent most of my time working on this article, trying to load some content to our YouTube Channel, and helping prep for York Pride later next month.

Today’s post, like most others, comes from recent news and interactions I’ve had with the community. The topic of “Couple’s Privilege” keeps popping up in my Internet searches and Facebook feed, namely through this article that I highlighted in my May 13 News Update, as well as more than one post in Facebook polyam groups from fellow members of the community seeking guidance. While couple’s privilege is usually discussed concerning triads (because that seems to be where it’s most prevalent), I’m going to expand the conversation about how couple’s privilege can exist anywhere in not just the polyam community, but even among monogamous folx.

As always, before we get started, it’s time for the resource dump:

For today’s post, I’ll be referencing this 2022 article from Polyamory For Us, this 2013 article from SoloPoly.net, and the Polyam educator’s staple, Unicorns-R-Us.

So, before we can discuss couple’s privilege, we need to understand the second half of the term, “privilege”. I can already feel some of my reader’s eyes rolling as a I write this. So much emphasis has been put on privilege in social commentary these days, you’re probably tired of hearing about it. White Privilege, Male Privielege, Straight Privilege, Rich Privilege. I get it. It seems like for every class of people, there’s a privilege associated with it. More so, people get offended when they hear the term “privilege” because it brings about this idea of social oppression by one ruling class over another. As a rich, cishetero white guy, I tell people that I am DROWNING in privilege, so I get it. I understand why it’s become a tiresome subject. However, I’ve also discovered that most people don’t really understand what “privilege” is. I’ve also found that once I explain it, people tend to lower their guard and be more open to what they can do to help counteract it.

Earlier this week, during one of our many daily phone chats, Bunny told me something that I found hurtful, yet not entirely surprising. You see, I wasn’t always such the generous soul I am today. Concepts like empathy used to frequently allude me, because I grew up in a sheltered world with a very black-and-white way of thinking. While Bunny and I have only been involved with each other for about the last year, and only been engaging in a kink sense for about the past three years, we’ve known each other through the community for about a decade. She told me: “When we first met, I couldn’t stand you. You were someone who was completely immersed in privilege and didn’t want to acknowledge it.” The truth is, she was right. Looking back on my teens, twenties, and early thirties, I couldn’t empathize with other people because I refused to recognize that they were dealing with problems that I didn’t have.

Google defines privilege as “A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.” When discussing societal privilege, I like SoloPoly.net’s definition, which is “How society accommodates you. It’s about advantages that you have that you think are normal.” Let me tell you a story that I think demonstrates this example perfectly.

I make it no secret that I come from a very fortunate background. While my parents like to call themselves “middle-class”, I grew up rich. I’m not talking Jeff Bezos rich, or even “our house had a heated indoor pool” rich, but significantly better off than my friends and most of America. By the time I was in my teens, I was living in a nice suburban neighborhood in a four bedroom, two and a half bath house, with parents making about $220,000 a year in income (That’s adjusted for inflation to 2022 dollars). I think my parents didn’t think we were rich because they didn’t drive flashy cars or golf club memberships and we rarely took vacations to anywhere that wasn’t within driving distance, but our household income put us in the top 10% of all U.S. families, so we were doing all right for ourselves.

When I went off to college, it was to an expensive, private university just outside of Philadelphia with the price tag of about $70,000 per year (again, 2022 dollars). About 25% of the cost was covered by the school in the form of grants, my parents paid 60% out of pocket, and the last 15% was covered in the form of student loans that took me about ten years to pay off after graduation. This was a university where most of the student’s parents were lawyers, doctors, or doctor-lawyers (apparently that’s a real thing) and the student parking lot was filled with Mercedes-Benz and BMW’s that freshmen had received as graduation gifts. It was a major culture shock for someone as myself, who knew he had it good, but never really saw what “really good” looked like first-hand.

So, flash forward to April of my senior year, one-month away from graduation. For the past seven semesters, I had been working at the Campus Math Center tutoring freshmen and sophomores in calculus and business topics (I told you, service is in my blood). I’m hammering away at an amortization spreadsheet I built, trying to find out what my monthly student loan payment was gonna look like so I could build it into my monthly budget. One of the freshman math majors we had running the check-in desk saw what I was working on, and the following exchange occurred. I shit you not, this is exactly what happened, word for word, because to this day, I am BLOWN AWAY that I had to have this conversation.

Coworker: "Hey, whatcha working on?"
Me: "A spreadsheet. Trying to figure out what my student loan payment is gonna look like after I graduate next month."
Coworker: *visibly confused* "Student loan payment? What's that?"
Me: *also visibly confused* "Well, the government helped loan me money so I could come to school here, and when I graduate, I have to start paying them back."
Coworker: *more confused* "You had to pay for your education?"
Me: *with a "are you shitting me right now" look in my face: "Yeah..."
Coworker: *still confused* "Why don't your parents just pay for it?"
Me: *holding back my contempt* "Because they don't have enough money of their own to do that".
Coworker: "Man! That really sucks!"

My New Year’s Resolution this year (which was partly inspired by this blog) was “to show more grace”. I wanted to give people the benefit of the doubt and applaud them for their effort even if they fail miserably in their task. I don’t believe this woman was malicious (I worked with her for a year, and she was a wonderful person). She was however INCREDIBLY uninformed, and she made the mistake so many of us do, which is assume that our situation, our scenario, our life, is a cross-section of society. Because she came from a wealthy family and didn’t have the burden of student loans (and most likely her friends also came from wealthy families and didn’t have the burden of student loans) she assumed this was “normal”, and that anything different from that was “abnormal”. That, my friends, is what privilege is. It’s incorrectly assuming that the doors that are open to you are open to everyone, and just because something hasn’t been a problem for you doesn’t mean it’s not a problem for anyone.

The reason talk about privilege gets so much pushback is because it creates an inherent sense of guilt in those who have it, which in turn naturally makes us defensive. I’ve heard friends say “It’s not my fault I’m white!” or “It’s not my fault I’m a guy!”. The common refrain is “It’s not my fault these problems exist!” The truth is, to a point they’re right. It’s not your “fault” if you’re born a certain sex, race, or into a certain geographic location, or a certain social class. One of my mentors that I would do volunteer work with called it “The genetic lottery”. We don’t get to pick the situation we’re born into. If you didn’t make that decision, then there is no reason whatsoever to apologize for it. However, privilege should be recognized. Those in places of privilege should take a moment to stop, think, and say “Hey, maybe I need to show some grace. Maybe I need to realize that some people don’t have the advantages that I do not because of something I did, but because of something that was done for me.” On top of that, I would take it one step further and say that those in places of privilege have a responsibility to use that power for good. People with privilege carry more sway in society than those that don’t. To quote the great Ben Parker: “With great power comes great responsibility.” If you’re able to use your influence to make a change for good, I believe it’s your job to do so.

So now that we’ve defined “privilege”, what exactly is “couple’s privilege”, how does it present itself in the polyam community, and how do we combat it? Much like privilege is advantages that are bestowed on someone by society because they belong to a specific social group, couple’s privilege is no different. Whether we realize it or not, the status of “coupledom” carries unique benefits that single people or individuals outside of that couple unit do not enjoy.

For example, have you ever been invited to a formal event, maybe a wedding, or a work party, and there’s the option of a “plus one”? If you’re in a committed monogamous relationship, the answer is easy: you bring your partner. What if you’re single, or nonmonogamous? You may have to explain to your friends or coworkers why you chose the particular person you did, or why you decided to go single? Couple’s privilege means not having to answer awkward questions because society expects you to be paired off. I remember when I attended my high school prom, single person tickets were the same price as couples tickets, meaning, if you signed up with a date, it was the same price for both of you to go together as it was for one person to go by themselves. The idea was they didn’t want people going “stag”. Having a partner to go with made it easier (and cheaper) to attend.

It’s more than just social mores that push couple’s privilege on us. As I mentioned in my April 14 News Update, couple’s privilege is built into both our legal system and our tax code. I joked when Panda and I got married that I was going to start calling her “My little tax shelter” because once we tied the knot, even though our combined incomes didn’t change, our combined tax bill dropped by about $2,500 per year (that’s about $3,500 per year in 2022 dollars) simply because of how the U.S. Personal Income Tax Code is written. Even before we got married, because we were cohabitating, I was able to add her to my employer’s health insurance policy. As a trained financial planner, I’m constantly telling my unmarried friends that, even if they don’t think marriage is necessary, they should at least consider it if for no other reasons for the financial and legal benefits that our country provides to married couples that unmarried people are not eligible for.

Inside the polyam community, because being ethically nonmonogamous means, by definition, people will have more than one partner, couple’s privilege takes on a far more personal dimension that can cause strain amongst partners and their greater polycules. For example, for people who are not out of the “poly closet”, there’s typically one partner that becomes the “public face” of the relationship. For married individuals like Panda and I, it’s usually your legal spouse. They’re the person who you take to that wedding, or office party, or, in my case, Sunday dinner with your parents. Sometimes this can make other partners feel less valued because they’re hidden or treated as a “dirty little secret”. While Foxy is out to her parents as polyam, she’s only shared the existence of their two nesting partners with them. I’ve asked them about sharing my status as a partner as well and they stated their parents wouldn’t be ready for that. While I respect Foxy’s decision, I would be lying if I said it didn’t hurt just a touch knowing that my existence is kept a secret while their other partners are not.

Beyond just public perception, couple’s privilege can seep inside the relationship itself, causing hierarchy to take hold. It’s easy to pick on Unicorn Hunters because they’re the textbook example of couple’s privilege. For those needing a refresher, Unicorn Hunters are an established couple (usually a cisgender man and a cisgender woman, but not always) looking to “add a third” (usually a cisgender woman, but again, not always) to their existing relationship. The difference between a standard triad and Unicorn Hunters is that Unicorn Hunters don’t take the time to unpack their couple’s privilege. Through their actions, they often relegate the new member of the triad to a status of “the lesser” by placing the existing relationship as sacrosanct and pushing the needs of the Unicorn to the side if the pre-existing relationship starts to falter. It becomes a case of “We want you, but only if you agree to our terms” and a “two-against-one” dynamic quickly develops which can lead the Unicorn to feeling disposable.

Couple’s privilege doesn’t exclusively pertain to triads, however. Any polycule configuration can struggle with couple’s privilege, even “web” polycules like mine in which partner’s don’t share common partners. It often arises as a result of cohabitation and descriptive hierarchy. When two partners share a common living space, such as Panda and I, for practical reasons, their lives become more intimately intertwined. They usually share finances, so agreements need to be made on how money will be spent. Coordination of work and social schedules need to be made to ensure that household chores and responsibilities are addressed (“The cable guy is gonna arrive between 10 a.m. and noon. Who’s gonna be there to let them in?”). Sharing a living space also creates a certain lack of mobility as most people can’t just pack up all their stuff and move to a new location overnight. Because of all this, nesting partners often get a certain level of prioritization because it’s cheaper, easier, and less stressful to do so.

While some prioritization is unavoidable, where couple’s privilege becomes problematic is when we take this prioritization as “given” in situations where it doesn’t need to be. One example might be reserving certain activities or “date night” spots for your nesting partner and not willing to share those experiences with your other partners. For instance, saying “We can’t go see this movie because my nesting partner wants to see it and I’m obligated to watch it with them.” Polyam should be about balancing all your partners needs and desires, which means making compromises. Maybe you go see that movie that everyone wants to see with your non-nesting partner, but you make it up to your NP by doing a different activity with them that they really enjoy. Another example could be the restriction of “overnight stays” with non-nesting partners. It’s not uncommon for people new to the polyam community to get an icky feeling when one of their metas stays overnight at their home. While the mutual partner and meta should certainly be respectful of everyone in the house (i.e. don’t walk around the house naked or make the walls shake in the middle of the night from loud sex), the mutual partner lives there as well and has every right to invite their partners to stay the evening as long as it doesn’t become excessive.

Given that, as I stated above, some level of couple’s privilege is unavoidable, what can we do to minimize it and ensure that all of our partners feel valued? Outside of the obvious “don’t treat your partner like a third wheel” (a topic I delve into extensively in my piece on hierarchies), there are simple things that we can do to minimize the impact of couple’s privilege. First, speak to all of your partners and ask them straight up: “What do you need from me so you feel that I care?” This is embracing the concept of equity over equality. Equality means treating all people the same. That’s usually unnecessary and can often cause more harm than good. Because time and energy are both finite resources, they need to be allocated in a manner in which they are used as efficiently as possible. Not every one one of your partners needs the same things from you. For instance, when I asked Penguin that question, her response was “I love how you tag me on Facebook when we go out together and how you put a picture of me as the screen saver on your phone”. To her, those little things are what matters, and it’s a quick and easy way to meet her needs.

A second way to combat couple’s privilege is to actively deprioritize it. For instance, when around people to which I’m out, I don’t refer to Panda as my “wife”, but rather, my “nesting partner”. While the term “wife” is technically accurate (we are, after all, legally married), the word itself carries a tone of hierarchal privilege. I realize some people may disagree with me on this point, and that’s okay, however, a lot of my polyam friends feel the same way I do, so I use the term “nesting partner” as a way to show that, while we cohabitate, she’s not necessarily the person who gets final say on everything I do.

In addition to this change in language, I make it abundantly clear to Panda that one of my boundaries is the ability to have flexibility in my schedule. As my nesting partner, by default, she gets the majority of my time. We sleep in the same bed, we wake up in the morning together, we eat most of our meals together, and we spend a portion of nearly every evening together. Plus, she also gets the majority of my time on the weekends. In exchange for this additional time, I’ve told her that my other partners get priority when it comes to scheduling time together. This doesn’t mean that I will actively blow off plans with Panda to be with someone else. However, let’s say, if Vixen or Penguin have a quirk in their schedule and we need to move our Date Night during the week, and this in turn means I have to go grocery shopping on Thursday instead of our usual Tuesday, I’m going to do that. When I run errands is a small inconvenience to Panda, but it’s a huge deal to my other partners, so I will give them that leeway when they need it.

In conclusion, what makes couple’s privilege so problematic is, like all privilege, it often goes undetected. It’s ingrained in our thinking to the point where we make connections without realizing it. The best/worst part about being autistic is my ability to see steps in the thought process that most people miss. Where most people start at point A and jump straight to point D, I can connect the dots from A to B to C to D, which has given me a better understanding of why people make the choices they do. The first step in breaking down couples privilege is breaking down those decisions and eliminating those assumptions, because if you think about it, that’s all privilege is. It’s assumptions that both we as individuals as well as society as a whole make towards ourselves and other people, and when you put it that way, why wouldn’t we want to deconstruct privilege? To assume is to pre-judge, and I think we can all agree that’s one thing nobody wants to do.

Until next time, stay kinky, my friends…

–The Bratty Cat

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