Primary Partnership Risks

This was originally a comment in response to Couple Privilege: Your Thoughts? on SoloPoly.net. If you have not read that post (or the blog in general), then I recommend you do so! The blog overall looks at polyamory from the perspective of someone not in a “primary” relationship, and the post discussed various problems with couple privilege. Since polyamory has traditionally been presented from the perspective of “couple exploring while wanting to protect their existing relationship,” this serves as a real reminder that polyamory is about individuals loving other people, not about couples dictating how a third can best accommodate them.

The post requested reactions to and views on couple privilege. I agree with the original post that couple privilege is an insidious and harmful issue, but feel that there should be some recognition of the risks inherent in being a “primary” partner. The following is my comment on that post.

December 11, 2012 at 5:57 pm

Warning: Really long comment.

For reference: I am a married woman in a currently monogamous (monogamish?) relationship. For the past year and more, we have had a “friend with benefits” relationship with one man and hope to establish similar relationships with more people. I also want to open ourselves to polyamory and my husband wants to stay monoamorous. To sum up, my perspective is that of one poly-friendly monogamously married person.

I do not support couple privilege as much as the recognition of primary responsibilities, risks, and rights. (“Primary privilege”? “Primary rights”?) Being part of a primary partnership — including sharing a home, intertwining finances, and raising a family together — requires constant work and magnifies risks to the primary partners.

(I employ for this discussion the definitions that primary partners are those that share finances, residence, and other major life details while non-primary partners do not, but the terms do not imply an emotional investment or lack thereof. Likewise, non-primary partners refer to both people in the non-primary relationship. In an example “V” relationship of a married couple who live together and the husband’s girlfriend who does not live with them, Wife and Husband are primary partners to each other, while Husband and Girlfriend are non-primary partners to each other. It is not just that Girlfriend is the non-primary partner, all on her own.)

Couple privilege includes advantages that are not earned by the efforts involved in being a couple. However, being a primary partner (whether as a couple, thruple, etc.) does take work and heighten risk, and that should be taken into consideration. In my example “V”, Wife and Husband have responsibilities to Girlfriend. They need to treat her with respect and remember that she is a human being with her own needs, wants, expectations, schedule, etc. This has been covered well in recent SoloPoly posts and comments. However, Wife and Husband also have responsibilities to each other, and should be able to expect certain rights. Likewise, Girlfriend also has responsibilities to Wife and Husband.

Regardless of emotional investment, being primary partners requires a much bigger life investment than being non-primary partners. (Previous SoloPoly posts have pointed out some advantages to being non-primary.)

Example 1a

If Girlfriend suddenly goes crazy and gambles her life savings away, then Husband may have to determine whether he wants to cover their dates entirely for a while, and ask whether he wants to continue a relationship with someone so irresponsible.

Example 1b

If Wife suddenly goes crazy and gambles their life savings away, then Husband is not only left having to decide whether he wants to be tied to someone so irresponsible, but he also has to figure out how he is going to pay for food and the roof over his head; that was his money, too.

Example 2a

If Husband abruptly cancels a date with Girlfriend to go drinking with the boys, then Girlfriend unexpectedly has her night open, which sucks, but she can find something else to do and start rethinking whether she wants to date someone so inconsiderate.

Example 2b

If Husband was going to spend a family night with Wife and Child or was going to watch Child while Wife went out and Husband instead decides to abruptly to go out on the town, then Wife has to cancel her date or be alone with Child, either way having to explain to Child why Husband just bailed.

In either case, Husband and Wife have a much higher hurdle if their problems require a breakup. While a breakup could be painful for Husband and Girlfriend, it would require legal, material, and financial considerations for Wife and Husband.

By living together and sharing their finances, home, and other burdens, Husband and Wife jostle each other much more easily, and factors that jostle one much more easily jostle the other. Again, none of this even looks at how long any of the relationships has lasted or how emotionally serious they are; this is about the sheer logistics of intertwining lives to the level that separates primary partnerships from non-primary partnerships.

I do agree that couple privilege is hurtful for the reasons cited in the post, and certainly agree that non-primary partners have rights and responsibilities. However, while attempting to treat non-primary partners well, primary partner responsibilities, risks, and rights should not be forgotten or ignored.