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Couple Privilege and the Ecology of Intimate Relationships

What happens when one form of relationship squashes diversity?

Modern Western culture has idolized romantic love within a life long monogamous, heterosexual marriage for many generations. Even though this form of relationship is more mythical than real, and even though our legal systems are beginning to reflect variations on this theme, the template of the couple continues to endure.

It's not that there is anything wrong with people coupling up, for however long they desire it, either monogamously or in some type of consensual non-monogamy. It's just that when being in a couple is valued above the true needs and desires of everyone impacted by this relationship, there is a heavy price to pay. And when the couple relationship is seen as the only important or valuable relationship, the larger web of relationships needed for sustainability begins to erode.

With same-sex marriage becoming increasingly recognized as a legitimate and government sanctioned option, and with the mass media increasingly coming out in favor of polyamory, it might appear that our cultural obsession with coupling is breaking down. In reality, I see both of these shifts primarily as last ditch efforts to preserve the primacy of the couple model by attaching a few bells and whistles.

Recently, I’m seeing more and more people discussing couple privilege. This is how one blogger defines couple privilege: “The presumption that socially sanctioned pair-bond relationships involving only two people (such as marriage, long-term boyfriend/girlfriend, or other forms of conventional intimate/life partnerships) are inherently more important, “real” and valid than other types of intimate, romantic or sexual relationships. Such primary couples (or partnerships that are clearly riding society’s standard relationship escalator toward that goal) are widely presumed — even within many nonmonogamous communities — to warrant more recognition and support than other types of intimate relationships.”

If you have spent most of your life in and around couples, and have internalized the expectations of the culture that people should be coupled, you may be completely unaware of couple privilege, just as males are often unaware of the very real impacts of sexism and whites are often unaware of the more subtle dimensions of racism. However, you have only to turn your attention to the pervasive assumptions of the culture that coupled is better and that if you are not coupled there is something wrong with you, to notice how this belief influences us all.

What I want to address here, is not so much whether couple privilege exists, but how and why couple privilege negatively impacts individuals, whether or not they are coupled up, whether or not they are polyamorous, and whether or not they are happy with the choices they (or their family members and friends) have made.

One negative impact of couple privilege is that our culture’s insistence on bonded dyads, aka married couples, has damaged our social ecology. That is, by supporting the couple with social and legal privileges, including social status, marital and domestic partnership benefits, religious sanctions, and cradle to grave conditioning, we have discouraged other forms of relationship and other lifestyles. Not everyone is suited to dyadic partnership, and not everyone has access to a desirable dyadic partner, whether gay or straight, monogamous or non-monogamous. Recognizing same sex marriage supports diversity in one dimension, while undermining it in another. Really what society is saying is that the gender of the partners is less important than whether they are pair bonded.

As I discussed in my book, Polyamory in the 21st Century, discouraging relationship forms other than coupling, is analogous to mono-cropping in agriculture. Healthy ecosystems are characterized by a diversity of habitats and species which interact in a multitude of ways which may not be obvious to the casual observer. When factory farms plant thousands of acres with just one crop, it may be profitable in the short term, but in the long term it’s disastrous for the land and for the local ecosystem, as well as economically. Dependence on petroleum based fertilizers and toxic pesticides create an addictive cycle. Government subsidies become more lucrative than the fruits of the land and political pressure becomes essential for the continued survival of the corporate farm. In the end, it’s so expensive and difficult to return the land to it’s natural, fertile condition that it’s often considered impossible.

Many people, even those who are drawn to open relationship, are no longer able to conceive of relationships outside of the primary couple paradigm. And those who desire to be in an open couple or a triad are often faced with the issue of secondary partners who feel wounded and resentful about their second class status outside of the recognized couple, even if they have no desire to take the place of one of the primary partners.

The reality is that polyamory can take many forms. Some of those forms, such as the “intimate network” can accommodate a fluid combination of singles, couples, and moresomes in a circle of sexualoving friends. For examples of what this looks like and how it works, see my latest book, Polyamory in the 21st Century. After experimenting with all possible forms of polyamory, the intimate network has been my personal choice for over two decades. Nevertheless, intimate networks continue to be marginalized by media and domestic pioneers alike in the rush to stay within the paradigm of couples, marriage, and family.

Adapted from Polyamory in the 21st Century, by Deborah Anapol, published by Rowman & Littlefield, July 2010, appears by permission of the publisher. This material is protected by copyright. All rights reserved. Please contact the publisher for permission to copy, distribute or reprint.

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