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.