Couple privilege is the advantage that an established couple has, which is especially pronounced when a new person is added to a relationship, whether the new person is dating one or both of them. This is most obvious when the established couple has been together for a long time, especially if they live together, or are married. There is no way out of couple privilege – it’s just there, giving silent advantages that people consider normal. It is mainly brought up as a problem with “unicorn hunters” or those that enforce a primary/secondary prescriptive hierarchy, but it can come up in any scenario where two people are dating before another person comes into the picture. Even if you’re an egalitarian Relationship Anarchist, couple privilege can sneak up on you when you’re not looking.
(There are some people that completely dismiss the idea of “privilege” as a thing in any scenario, which is a completely different problem, but it definitely still exists. If you’d prefer to call it something else, you could call it “couple advantage,” but it boils down to the same thing.)
In many cases, the way in which couple privilege is most visible is when a new partner starts a relationship with one or both people in an established relationship, and the people in the existing relationship give the new partner a list of rules in a take-it-or-leave-it manner. The couple often gives the reason that if the third person doesn’t like the rules, they are free to leave. This is only one of the more obvious ways, however; there are many smaller ways that are less obvious and sometimes more insidious.
This isn’t to say that couple privilege is necessarily a bad thing on its own, it’s just a thing that is there. Having privilege doesn’t make you a bad person, as it’s just something that happens. It’s what you do with that privilege that matters.
What is (and isn’t) Couple Privilege?
There are a lot of arguments swirling around about what is and isn’t privilege, and even if it exists at all. This is often due to a fundamental misunderstanding of what privilege means. Here’s a simple explanation of privilege, from brown_betty:
Privilege is not: About you. Privilege is not your fault. Privilege is not anything you’ve done, or thought, or said. It may have allowed you to do, or think, or say things, but it’s not those things, and it’s not because of those things. Privilege is not about taking advantage, or cheating, although privilege may make this easier. Privilege is not negated. I can’t balance my white privilege against my female disadvantage and come out neutral. Privilege is not something you can be exempt from by having had a difficult life. Privilege is not inherently bad. It really isn’t.
Privilege is: About how society accommodates you. It’s about advantages you have that you think are normal. It’s about you being normal, and others being the deviation from normal. It’s about fate dealing from the bottom of the deck on your behalf.
With that in mind, we can more clearly see what privilege is. Now, to explain specifically what couple privilege is.
Couple privilege is the culturally entrenched priority and measure of value given to couples by society, both in public perception of them and the legal status of them. Generally, couple privilege exists for any couple that is open about their relationship in a mono-normative manner. This is especially true for married, engaged, or nesting partners (partners that live together and share resources). This relationship is never secret, when their other relationships sometimes are; for example, even if the couple is out about being polyamorous to their friends, they still may not be out to their grandparents, but the grandparents will know of the “main” couple. This couple has advantages over other relationships and even single people, both socially and economically.
The Difference Between Hierarchy and Couple Privilege
Hierarchy is not inherently privilege, it is the prioritization of one relationship over another, whether in big or small ways. Many couples use their privilege to enforce a prescriptive hierarchy, however, often causing problems and imbalance in the relationships.
Couple privilege is awarded to you and your partner by society. It is related to romantic (and assumed sexual) coupling, and certain assumptions about your relationship are made, for better or worse. It does not necessarily require legal marriage, but is magnified by it – by the time you’re married, the couple privilege grows exponentially, and people make even more assumptions about your relationship, and how you interact with each other and others. Couple privilege cannot be “opted out” of – it’s a natural part of being in a visible couple, just like white privilege cannot be removed.
Hierarchy, on the other hand, is enforced by those at the top of the hierarchy, and not necessarily the society around them. Those lower in the hierarchy can also do their part to enforce it, in that they can assume that those that have been around longer or have other elements of hierarchy do take priority, but it’s often more of a top-down effect. Hierarchy is made out of both conscious and unconscious choices of prioritization. It’s important to realize that hierarchy exists outside of romantic and sexual relationships, as well; for example, a parent may place their relationship with their child higher on a hierarchy than that with a romantic partner. Friendships can also fall on a hierarchy too – who hasn’t had a “best” friend?
One thing to be cautious of is remembering the difference between descriptive and prescriptive hierarchies. Though I have written on this before, a quick summary here would be helpful. In general, prescriptive hierarchies are those that use terms such as Primary and Secondary to clearly mark the difference between the relationships. These relationships often have rules over the level of involvement of the secondary, and that a secondary relationship cannot evolve into a primary relationship. The hierarchy is enforced by explicit and conscious choices, especially by the primaries. Descriptive hierarchies, on the other hand, usually don’t use the primary/secondary terminology, and are based more on the fact that relationships naturally have different levels of closeness in different categories. These categories often mix-and-match between partners; you may be more emotionally close to one partner, but more sexually compatible with another, and have children with yet another. Descriptive hierarchies are often built around commitments, not rules. They are based more in unconscious choices of who and what to prioritize, based on the various commitments made, though conscious choices are made as well as to who you spend time or resources with.
Couple privilege is often closely linked with cohabiting or nesting privilege. This is something that is rarely talked about, but is extremely important to be aware of. A nesting couple (or triad or more) has a definite advantage over the other partnerships when it comes to shared time, space, and resources. Simply by living together, they get more time together, even if it’s not quality time. They also generally sleep together. They often pool resources such as finances, and split up chores to be more efficient.
These privileges are not bad things, and usually they are not wielded in a way that is harmful to another partner. They are simply advantages that come with sharing resources. When these are used to hold power over another partner, that’s when couple privilege takes over. It’s important to separate couple privilege and nesting privilege in this way, because it’s a reminder that not all advantages are bad, but how we use them that matters.
That said, not all elements of couple privilege are used in a negative way, and there are some it is almost impossible to get around, especially in today’s couple-centric society. We’ll get into those more in a little bit.
Examples of Couple Privilege
One very common question that is asked is, which relationship gets “saved” when something goes wrong? This question assumes that there is a main relationship that you try to keep, no matter what, and that other relationships are “secondary” to this relationship. This is a dangerous assumption, which also assumes that any problems that arise are from a new relationship and not the existing one. This isn’t to say that if a new relationship goes wrong, you can’t end it – far from it! But instead, what happens here is that if there’s a problem in the original relationship, some people will break up with their other partners to “save” or “fix” the original relationship. This can easily have a yo-yo effect on other relationships with people that don’t know any better, as they get broken up with and back together over and over if the original couple is unstable. This is completely unfair to the other relationships.
Relationship – and Individual – Validity
Related to this is the “realness” of the original relationship, and how it can feel more valid as a relationship. Generally, since this is the pairing that is openly a couple to the outside world, that often lives together, and that benefits from society’s assumptions of everything that comes from being in a couple, this relationship can seem more “real” than the other ones. This is something to watch out for, because even if you’re a part of the original couple and don’t wish to enforce that, the partner in the newer relationship may still assume that, just because they’re newer. Each relationship is as real and valid as the next, they are just at different stages with different benefits.
This relationship is also usually validated externally. Many times, when interacting with monogamous people especially, only the original relationship will be seen as valid and worth acknowledging. Even if you’re out to friends, they may only give you a “plus one” to a party or wedding, assuming you’ll bring a particular partner with you. The same thing with family events – people will often expect to see a certain partner.
Individual validity is also often tied to one’s relationship status. How many times have you seen someone pitied because they were single, or thought of as less successful? Even if the person is perfectly happy being single, they are often looked down on by others in some way.
Other Rules and Privileges
One element of couple privilege is the very existence of rules – a main or primary couple is the one that creates the rules, and secondaries have to follow them. There are other examples of rules besides the veto that are unfair to the other relationships. One example that is a huge red flag for unicorn hunting is the rule for the third of “You can’t have sex with only one of us, but we can have sex without you.” Another very common example is that of the original couple having unprotected sex, but having a rule that they must use condoms with any other sexual partner.
There’s also the possibility of the original partner getting time and scheduling priority. While it’s not necessarily a bad thing to compare calendars and choose who you’re spending time with first, there is the possibility that this leaves other relationships in the dust or grasping for scraps of time. This sometimes overlaps with nesting privilege, but the moment this becomes problematic is when the original partner gets to have a say over cancelling time with another partner for non-essential reasons.
Couple privilege can be a lot less noticeable, however. One example that not many think of is in the language we use. Even in non-hierarchical relationships, I often hear the words “we” or “us” to refer to a nesting partner by default. Something like “We went to the park” assumes that “we” is a person plus the partner they’re most “out” about. Another example of this is the terms SO and OSO, or Significant Other and Other Significant Other; this explicitly refers to one relationship as the “other” relationship, making the relationship with the SO the “default”. Even I’ve fallen into this trap; I’ve dated two people with the same name, let’s say that name is John. My husband was John 1 and the other partner was John 2, which can insinuate a hierarchy.
Couple Privilege and the Relationship Escalator
The relationship escalator is the slow and steady ride through the upward stages of a relationship, with the eventual goal being (usually monogamous) marriage, and often other elements such as owning a house or having children together. The relationship escalator is usually at odds with the idea of stepping away from couple privilege, and in fact, is one of the biggest examples of such. Most of the time, you can only go up the escalator with one person, leaving other relationships behind at different stages. If you’re in non-escalator relationships overall, this isn’t something you have to worry about, but if you’ve climbed the escalator to any degree, it’s something you have to consider.
The end goal of the relationship escalator – marriage – is the epitome of couple privilege. It is not legally possible to be married to more than one person; it’s literally a privilege that only a couple can share.
Another common element of the relationship escalator is the idea of having children. Not everyone wants them, which is a completely valid choice, but for those that do want children, couple privilege often comes into play. Namely, it’s generally the original/primary couple that will assume they’re having children together, and that it’s not an option for the other relationships.
Many of the examples I give of couple privilege are not, in themselves, bad things. For example, you don’t need to open up to the idea of children with all (or any!) of your partners, simply because that would be the least couple privilege-y thing to do. Rather, this is about acknowledging the fact that the couple privilege exists, and to make room for your other partners and their needs.