Thursday, January 10, 2013

Examining Couple Privilege Versus Earned Privilege

Last night we hosted our monthly discussion group and the topic was couple privilege.

If you're not familiar with the term, Aggie at Solopoly writes extensively on the issue - and I'd really recommend bookmarking her site - but generally it refers to the bias, decisions, and restrictions implemented by a married "core" couple in web of polyamorous relationships.

Couple privilege can be found in the negotiated boundaries and expectations set by a married couple as they launch into polyamory. These conditions are designed to protect their marriage and can be perceived as dismissive, demeaning, or even cruel to secondaries who're forced to oblige by the rules to play ball.

Hopefully, over time, the married couple learns to trust themselves, and they will voluntarily release restrictions, drop controls, or, renegotiate conditions in conjunction with the new partners, so that everyone gets a voice.

If not, continued unilateral decisions made by the core couple can be rather harsh. In effect, the secondary and their feelings can find themselves sacrificed on the alter of good intentions ... all in order to preserve the core couple's marriage.

I encountered a phrase last night that I really wanted to explore in more depth. Somebody referred to it as earned privilege.

The problem that I have with the couple privilege argument is that it seeks a level of instant equality that just can't exist for me, and I've written about this before in the context of hierarchical poly.

In my understanding of life, there are inherent privileges extended to my wife. She's got eighteen years of history with me; an enormous emotional investment; financial and property entanglements; domestic chores and obligations; kids ... practically, it's just impossible for me to look at another relationship on the same level as the one I have with my wife. I've got too much skin in the game.

Thus I must acknowledge that there's inherent bias in my decision-making that will err on the side of preserving my marriage. And, honestly, I'm not really apologetic about it. It's my marriage. I dig it. I choose to keep it around. Call it couple privilege or whatever: it's important to me. It's going to affect everything I do.

Now, within the scope of couple privilege discussion, I've got a problem with implied entitlement. There ain't no such thing as "equal" or "fair". A new partner of mine can't waltz in and demand equal time, commitment, attention, and decision-making as my wife. A. That's not going to fly with her; B. It's totally impractical - I've got other commitments;  C. It jeopardizes my marriage.

But to me - and my wife - there is such a thing as sweat equity.

There's a path to earn mutual respect, trust, and joint decision-making in our lives. And that's where I triggered on earned privilege.

I believe that if a new partner can:

  • honor my marriage;
  • reach out and try to form a relationship/friendship with my wife;
  • demonstrate patience and a willingness to find common ground;
  • abide by our agreements; 
  • talk through problems and implement changes;
  • join me and yet enjoy the company of my family;
  • participate in both the domestic crap as much as the secondary bliss

... then conditions change. Instead of making unilateral agreements between my wife and I, my secondary partner becomes a part of the discussion. Through her skills, trust, dedication, empathy, and willingness, she's earned a seat at the table. And couple privilege ... erodes. It probably doesn't entirely go away but the conditions change.  It's not just about my wife and I; it's about us.

A silly example but one that kind of has resonance for me was this weekend. My wife and I are out shopping for couches. Pretty common. Husband and wife go out shopping for a new couch. She and I are laying on it, taking pictures, thinking of how it'll work, and I'm getting a quote from the sales guy. This looks like another couple privilege/unilateral decision, right? But then my wife stops me. "Wait a second. Maybe we should ask Dave and Camille what they think before we buy it?"

So there we are, getting ready to shift something big in our own personal space, and Gina wants to check-in with our other partners. Not a unilateral decision but a joint decision, involving all of us. To me, that's earned privilege in action. Dave and Camille didn't get to have a say in that decision simply by virtue of being in our lives, by just being there and inheriting equal say. They've put a lot into us and earned a place at the table.

And the couch is largely symbolic. Along with earned privilege comes more time, activities, shared space, and integration. The relationships get larger and become more meaningful. Then couple privilege erodes. It's an earned privilege. And I think I like that a lot more than the implicit demand for equity from couple privilege opponents.



Unknown said...

I've always thought the idea of partners being completely equal was naive at best for the reasons you stated. It's uncomfortable to have to admit that one person is put in higher regard, nevertheless it is completely realistic.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. Thanks, Russell. It's great to know that poly communities around the country are discussing the issues I've raised in

Re: couple privilege -- yes, I've heard a lot of pushback such as you've voiced, mostly from people in poly primary couples (and, to some extent, from non-poly people).

I understand what you're saying about "earned privilege." As I've written many times: people are absolutely free to work their relationships however they want. If you want to place certain limits on non-primary relationships, that's totally up to you.

It is important to realize that, in my experience, the vast majority of people who are non-primary partners really do not want a primary-type relationship with people who are in primary couples! Seriously, we're not trying to steal or usurp anything! We have lives and often other loves of our own, and they matter as much as your lives and loves.

Often people in primary couples assume that since the kind of relationship they've built is so valuable to them (and so prized in society) that other people certainly must want the same thing, whether or not they admit it. Honestly, having a live-in primary (or equal time as such) is not the be-all and end-all for everyone. One of the most beautiful things about polyamory is the variety of relationships and connections it makes possible. It gives room for people to get to know each other, adapt to circumstances, and negotiate compromises in ways that traditional monogamy does not.

My issue is not when primary couples decide to implement relationships in ways that effectively enshrine couple privilege. My issue is when they automatically presume that's just how relationships "should" work: that non-primary partners should basically just "know their place," that when non-primary partners voice needs or requests these are assumed to be "demands" or "drama," and that the primary couple need not bother to examine their privilege or communicate their boundaries clearly.

This is why, currently, non-primary partners usually bear disproportionate risk in relationships with people in primary couples. While the primary couple may perceive the non-primary partner as a threat and fear they're trying to "get more than they deserve" or "take something away," in reality the non-primary partner is actually far more likely to face the very real risk that relationship they have invested in and treasure will be "taken away" by the fiat of couple privilege -- often without consideration or negotiation.

Yes, I know that sounds harsh. But that kind of behavior is all too common.

All I'm saying is: Everyone involved in a network of relationships is a human being worthy of full consideration and respect.

Ask people what they need and want, and consider what you need and want and what you can really offer. And just be honest about your rules or how you plan to make decisions in the event of conflict. Be willing to negotiate and be flexible to the extent you can. Don't assume your primary relationship won't change because you're poly. You'll get out of non-primary relationships what you put into them.

If you're expecting someone else to put their heart on the line for you, respect that generosity and try your best to be fair to them. Make conscious choices, don't just fall back reflexively on social norms. And don't conflate "fairness" with "equality."

That's all I'm saying.

make sense?

- Aggie

Anonymous said...

We ask our 3rd about things purchased and such but I get what your saying. But it's also about opening the doors to letting a certain amount of control about things that would have never bothered you before but do now bc you have a 3rd and 4th but I just started reading so I will keep doing so.

Anonymous said...

Hey there, folks - thanks for reading!

@annelle, you wrote:

>> I've always thought the idea of partners being
>> completely equal was naive at best...

I've always had a problem with the idea that your primary partner (hierarchical language here) didn't get that kind of priority because it's ignoring the practical entanglements.

@aggiesez wrote:

>> Interesting post. Thanks, Russell. It's
>> great to know that poly communities around
>> the country are discussing the issues I've
>> raised in

Absolutely and thanks for reading :)

>> ... the vast majority of people who are non-
>> primary partners really do not want a primary-
>> type relationship with people who are in
>> primary couples!

I think you're dead-on accurate here. Definitely the polyamory style we practice is much more community oriented and seeks that kind of connection out.

>> My issue is not when primary couples decide
>> to implement relationships in ways that
>> effectively enshrine couple privilege.

I'd agree here, too, especially if these boundaries aren't ever renegotiated with the new partner as a contributing voice. If the couple continues to protect themselves without any inclusion of ideas or opinion from their third, then that would seem selfish to me.

>> If you're expecting someone else to put their
>> heart on the line for you, respect that generosity
>> and try your best to be fair to them. Make
>> conscious choices, don't just fall back
>> reflexively on social norms.

Completely agree :) - and thanks for your comments.

And @blessedbe, thanks for reading!

lynelle said...

i am both a primary and a secondary (living arrangement descriptors). My other love and I have spouses, kids, residence, finances already intertwined with other partners with no desire to undo those things. yet even with overt logistical secondary status, couple privilege sometimes comes into play for us and for people we've known, when primaries have different ideas about how to plan time, projects, or symbolism.

time-wise, it's nice to overlap family time, yet sometimes that isn't feasible, and if both people have a home and family, the nature of sharing overlap in both places results in some time away from our homes. less default time at home results in some loss of time and overlap opportunities for primary partners. to me, some dyad time is a necessary resource for any relationship, romantic or not, so it’s been hard to encounter some expectations that a secondary relationship would result in no time changes on the primary’s end. that seems unreasonable, yet if that’s an OVERT expectation, at least people can make informed choices and not be surprised or hurt by hidden time expectations.

when primaries don't have clarity about time, and/or if they change what they will allow or support, it seems that couple privilege creates arbitrary reductions for secondaries to either accept, tolerate, or leave. clarity also comes into play for projects, beliefs, and symbolism ~ can a secondary do a hobby or project with their partner? exchange rings? have a favorite love quote of their own? have different political or religious beliefs? different love languages? or does a primary perceive those things as enabling "too much" secondary intimacy? and/or too big a risk that their partner may grow apart from them? (and how much do you limit growth or censor for safety?)

as much as i dislike some aspects of couple privilege that have come up, to me, it's more about clarity up front about what is available, what might be earned over time, when or if reductions would be expected, and how time, project, and symbolism are considered, approved, denied ~ veto power, or checking in, or…? to me, that clarity enables informed choice on all ends and a better chance that what people are looking for and can offer each other might be a fit.

i’ve never expected or wanted equity from the start; that seems hugely unreasonable. to me, it's always been about wishing for some privileges to be earn-able over time, based on my actions, not indefinitely contingent on how someone else feels. if the secondary has done nothing to betray trust, surprise reductions are hugely painful and seem unreasonable when the shifts happen because a primary partner feels insecure, through no doing of the secondary. as a secondary, i'd still expect to help, support, and try to shift temporarily to enable someone to feel better, yet i also hope and wish that there is a sense of responsibility that personal insecurity shouldn't indefinitely result in reductions to another dyad.

i'd wish for behavior that also reflects support of a secondary as a real person, with fewer times of seeing primary partners asking or expecting secondaries to be indefinitely reduced and effectively at the "mercy" of the primary’s feelings. to me, that style of couple privilege becomes downright cruel by result, even if not by intent.

i wish and hope that primaries see value in identifying and sharing basic clarity about what is available initially and over time, and i wish that primaries are willing to also see and treat secondaries as real people, with real hearts, and real feelings, so that caring behavior happens in both directions.

it seems like your family operates that way. yet it's been a surprise to me when some people think secondaries are looking for instant equity. i have not (yet?) bumped into anyone who ever expected that. i wonder if that is an internal (mis?)perception, or some secondaries have actually conveyed that expectation? either way, thanks to you and PF for great discussions!

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