• Sarah M. Neal

Couples' Privilege in a Polyamorous Landscape


This use of [couples'] privilege stunts the growth of your partner’s other relationships. It may keep possible relationships from growing at all. This type of privilege doesn’t exactly fall in lines with the ideals of polyamory. This type of behavior is harmful to our partners and their other partners, and ultimately to us as individuals.
Photo by Julie Wolpers on Unsplash

In today’s social climate, “privilege” is a word that is heavy, loaded, and at times, extremely dangerous. Yet, it is something that needs to be discussed until we are blue in the face and have a clear idea about what exactly “privilege” means in each arena and how we can use it for the bettering of ourselves, our relationships, our communities, and society as a whole.

Because most of my readers are in the Polyamorous Community and because I focus on growth and development, not just within ourselves, but within our relationships, I want to talk about Couples Privilege. Couples Privilege is a touchy, delicate subject within the world of polyamory. In my humble, and likely biased opinion, there is a very precarious balance here.

Couples’ Privilege can be defined as when the needs/desires of someone in the “primary” (cringe because I hate those terms “primary” and “secondary” in this context) couple takes precedence over the relationships outside of that central core.


If you are married or nesting with someone and especially if there are children involved, the relationship between you and your nesting partner likely looks very different than your non-nesting relationships. Therefore, what you need from your nesting partner looks very different than what you need from your non-nesting partners and vice versa.


On the one hand, we have the obligations that come with choosing to live with and possibly have children with. These obligations sometimes take away from the availability for time with other partners. For instance, if John was in a bad way emotionally or physically and needed me at home instead of going out with Tyler, I would. However, if Tyler is in a bad way emotionally or physically and needed me there with him instead of being with John, I would absolutely be there. There have been times when one of us had to stay home with the kids while the other went out so other plans had to be cancelled, turned down, or rescheduled. That becomes a balancing act. Kind of also a first come, first serve when it comes to dating. I also have strong feelings about John dating any current clients because I feel it is unethical.

At the same time, if one of his partners chose to start working with me, I wouldn’t make them end the relationship with John. We would just have to establish very clear boundaries. It isn’t about using my status as his wife to manipulate his other relationships.


On the other hand… when someone uses their “status” of “spouse” or “primary” as a tool for manipulating their partner’s other relationships, we see the dark side of couple privilege. This shows up in the form of relationship veto, using your insecurities as a weapon to keep your partner from going on a date with someone, consciously using “family obligations” as a manipulation tool, or restricting activities for your partner and their other partner. For example, not going to a certain restaurant, not calling them “baby”, not touching them in a certain way or not doing a certain thing in bed.


This use of privilege stunts the growth of your partner’s other relationships. It may keep possible relationships from growing at all. This type of privilege doesn’t exactly fall in lines with the ideals of polyamory. This type of behavior is harmful to our partners and their other partners, and ultimately to us as individuals. It keeps us from forcing ourselves to step outside of our comfort zones and growing. There is a strong chance it could harm your relationship with that particular partner.


So, what do we do about it?


I don’t think it is cool or realistic to tell people that there should be absolutely NO couples’ privilege because the line between privilege and obligations/commitments can get convoluted. And the privilege likely won’t disappear.


We need to acknowledge our own privilege. We alone are responsible for what we do with our privilege and how we handle it. There will be times that we abuse that privilege because our gremlins get so noisy, we can’t find the stability we need to make a logical or ethical choice in the situation. There will be times when we are swimming in our own despair that it will make it difficult for us to check our privilege.


But, guess what.


That does not mean we are exempt from checking our privilege, doing everything we can to alter our behavior and heal the damage our behavior causes. It does not mean that we don’t have to figure out a way not to pull the same shit again causing even more damage.


While we are entitled to feel what we want to feel, we are also solely responsible for what we do with those feelings.


The next time you find yourself in a situation that holds your “primary” relationship over your partner’s other relationship, take a close look at it. Are you invoking your privilege rightly and justly or are you invoking it out of insecurities or selfishness?

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