Friday, 11 May 2012

On Coupledom and Privilege

GalateaPosted by Galatea

Over the past six years or so, I have run up against a number of the ways in which twenty-first century Western society is set up to assume that people of my age bracket will be partnered or actively looking to be, and have sometimes had bad times as a result (with some irony, a lot of this running-up-against happened while I was actually part of a couple, just not one that operated in the assumed-default mode). Thus, to beginning to think about couples privilege and the privileges associated with coupledom, and to beginning to compile a Couples Privilege Checklist.

This isn't, of course, to suggest that people in couples are all evil, or that there's a giant social conspiracy wherein everyone come up with ways to mess with single people (although if you've met some of my relatives, you might start to have Suspicions...)! However, I do think it's important to look at some of the ways in which our charming heterocentric nuclear-family oriented society creates (or fails to smooth over) obstacles for people who don't fit into the one-man-one-woman-couple model for whatever reason.

I'm deliberately leaving out the sex-and-romance parts of coupledom in this post, and just focusing on the privilege points that affect daily life. A lot of these points are heavily tied to straight or m/f couple privilege, and some of them are tied to class and race privilege as well. I'm also sure that there's a lot of stuff I'm missing, and would appreciate it if anyone is able to point any missed issues out in the comments.

ETA: As andustar pointed out below, many of these privileges also apply only to people in non-abusive relationships.

I should also say that as a sexual/romantic person who has been in relationships (and indeed, is in one now), I've experienced most of these privileges from the 'good' end as well as the pointy one -- I have some brief and transient experience of what might be a much more long-term problem for, eg., an aromantic person.

The final added caveat, of course, is that these are my issues seen from my perspective, and that YM, as ever, MV.


As a member of a couple...

- I can take holidays! Most package holidays and hotel stays will be available to me significantly more cheaply if I am able to book as part of a two-person unit (* see below for example). I will also probably enjoy wherever I go much more if I have someone else to travel with, and will be able to take part in activities that would otherwise only be accessible to me if I travelled as part of a club or other group. This, FWIW, is why I basically didn't have a holiday for six years, and it sucked some major no-funningtonness through a no-fun-flavoured straw.

- If I live with another person, I will be able to afford accommodation much more easily. The accommodation that I can afford is also likely to more spacious and of better quality, and quite possibly safer (ohai, rooming houses with shared kitchens and bathrooms). This is particularly the case in my lovely home-town of Oxford, where one-person apartments are vanishingly rare (** see below for example), but I suspect it's still an issue in other places. Admittedly, this can be worked around by people who are able to live in shared accommodation, but for various practical and mental health reasons that is not a long-term solution for the Galatea.

- Unless I'm very well-organised, I will probably find it easier to minimise fresh-food wastage if I'm cooking for two or more people. I will also be able to buy larger packages and use them before they spoil, which often come with a saving in cost.


- Re the last point under the 'Economic' header: When part of a couple, I'm also likely to cook more, and to eat significantly more than I would left to my own devices. This isn't necessarily an emotional issue, but it's worth mentioning in terms of general wellbeing.

- With another person around to share in the care, feeding, vet's bills etc., it's easier for me to have and look after a pet, which for many people improves emotional wellbeing significantly. Also slight crossover to the 'economic' issue above.

- I feel that I have a legitimate claim on someone's time and attention: if I'm upset or need help, I don't feel guilty or embarrassed about asking for comfort in the same way that I would in demanding a friend drop everything to help me (although of course, I have very good friends who will do and have done exactly this, and I'm profoundly grateful for them).

- I feel cared-for in other ways. I have someone to peform ridiculously tiny services for me, of the kind you don't even notice until they're not there -- an example might be when you're standing in line at a coffee shop, and the person in line behind you is part of a couple, so hir partner goes and snags the last table for the two of them while ze queues to order their drinks, leaving you without a seat even though you were technically there first. I don't even know what to call something as small as that, but little tiny moments like that do add up in the end.

- I certainly don't have somebody who always agrees with me: in fact, there's probably something quite disturbing about my relationship if that's the case. However, I do have someone who is always prepared to listen to me: if you have never tried to live without that, you don't know quite how precious and important a gift that is.

- On a related note, in a larger social group I am more likely to feel confident that my voice will be heard if I have someone in the group who is likely to give me backup: even if my partner doesn't agree with me, I'll have confidence that ze thinks me worth listening to, and that others will follow hir lead in listening.


- As a member of a couple, it may well be easier for me to remain in the country that I wish to live in, provided that my partner is a citizen of that country. This is a privilege that has historically been denied to same-sex couples in the past, and today may be particularly difficult to access for non-monogamous people or partners who don't live together.


- I can be reasonably sure that if there's something I really, really want to see or do that nobody I know has any interest in seeing or doing, I will have at least one person who can be persuaded to accompany me (although I will probably have to be prepared to be persuaded to go places and do things that I'm not particularly interested in doing in return!)

- If I'm female (or, as Lola Olson points out below, perceived as female), when out in public with a male partner I will experience markedly less street and other harassment than when I'm alone. (This is, of course, often a specifically cis m/f-couple-privilege issue, and to some extent a same-race-couple-privilege issue too).

- I will not be subject to friends and acquaintances attempting to pity me or 'set me up' with possible dates.

- Coupled-up acquaintances are less likely to regard me as a potential threat or rival to their relationship. (I say 'acquaintances', as I don't think I've ever actually been *friends* with someone who behaves in this way).

- If my relationship is monogamous, I have a ready-made excuse for not participating in events such as traffic-light parties or speed-dating events if I don't want to.

- If I'm invited to a formal event as 'Galatea +1', I don't have to struggle to think of a person to ask along or worry about being awkward if I don't invite anybody.

- I am more likely to be included in events and gatherings that require an even number of people or a 'couples-only' set-up.

- In my birth culture, I am more likely to be respected as an adult by members of my extended family if I am long-term-partnered/married.

- If I choose to have a child, people are far less likely to concern-troll me about my ability to parent (again, this is also an area of intersection with m/f-couple, cis, class, abilist and racial privilege). It will probably also be easier for me to adopt or foster children, should I choose to do that.

An added heading, put here at the suggestion of a friend:


- If I need to attend for moderately serious medical or dental procedures as an outpatient, I will generally have less trouble being discharged if I have a partner who is able to pick me up/accompany me home. My friend suggests that in hir experience, there is a point at which hospital staff etc seem to judge you for bringing a parent or relative, rather than a partner, to medical appointments, listing parents as next-of-kin etc. Ze also points out that not having a live-in partner or person with whom you can be reasonably physically intimate can greatly complicate recovery from illness or injury (eg. if you live alone, changing the dressing on a wound can be a major challenge if it's in an inconvenient spot), etc.

If you can think of any other areas of privilege that I've missed here, please point them out in the comments.

* Example: From, here are some screenshots showing the total cost per person for a couple to spend a three-day break in Paris, and for a single person to spend the same break in Paris, using the website's 'Suggested Top Deal' function:

Couple = £293 per person

 The same trip for a single person = £468.06

** Examples: From, here are some screenshots showing monthly rent for a one-bedroom flat for a couple and a single-occupancy flat:

One-bedroom flats suitable for couples: Each flat = £400 per person

Studio flats suitable for one person, rents = £610 and £625 per person. Note that they're also smaller, and generally (in Oxford, at least) in poorer condition than larger flats. Despite that, they're also, tellingly, all already gone!


  1. By absolute far the biggest one for me is:
    * I have someone I am in consistent, frequent contact with, who is familiar and intimate with me, and who I can therefore have conversations with which don't require background explanations or 'catching up' because we already have an understood and up to date context.

    The level of difference which having or not having that makes to my quality of life is just astonishing. And yes, at various points in my life (both single and not) I've had friendships that that description applied to, but I've found that as you get older and leave a student context in which people are in constant contact with each other, and friends get coupled up and start cohabitating, friendships end up involving a lot more scheduling to spend time together, and you're really unlikely to end up speaking to them every day.

    In fact it often ends up that the only people you end up seeing on an absolutely consistent near-daily basis are colleagues and (if you share a house) housemates. And there's a relatively high chance you won't want to or be able to get your emotional needs met from those connections.

    I don't know if what I'm saying here verges too much on the 'romance' for your list, but I do think the way society is set up to assume this sort of connection is one you only have with a romantic partner puts all sorts of obstacles in your path if you're trying to get this sort of bond in a different way.

    But yes, you're completely right that in general being in a couple allows you to spread resources more evenly and take care of each other in a way that isn't entirely directly substitutable by any other arrangement. Of course it is possible to compensate for that, especially if you consider each component separately (someone to share living expenses with, someone to exchange show-invitations with regardless of interest, etc) - but as always with these things it costs more time, imagination, self awareness, resources, explicit negotiation and so on than going the normative way.

    To your caveats though I would like to add something about unhealthy relationships. Feeling like you have a legit claim on someone's time and attention, a listening ear, backup in social situations and so on does not describe everyone's relationship with their partner. Certainly being in an emotionally, financially or otherwise abusive relationship is going to make a lot of those benefits not apply so much on an individual level. But of course the privileging of the coupled relationship in all the ways you've described (i.e. the extra expenses and difficulties involved in living and childrearing singly, and the extra emotional expenses of navigating the world 'alone') plays a part in making it hard for people to disentangle themselves from destructive relationships.


    1. Eek, apologies for all the run on sentences. My rambling totally flowed better when it was in a teeny preview window, somehow.

      And in my first sentence I meant to say the biggest *emotional* one for me. The holidays and food portion things are guaranteed to make me fume too. I mean, I found ways to manage both, but more thought and effort were required than would be in a couple, for definite. (Having also been on both sides of this quite recently, I have been amazed at the experience of how many things just click into place the second you're a pair).

    2. I don't know if what I'm saying here verges too much on the 'romance' for your list, but I do think the way society is set up to assume this sort of connection is one you only have with a romantic partner puts all sorts of obstacles in your path if you're trying to get this sort of bond in a different way.

      Oh no, I get this So Very Hard. Without wanting to get too True-Confessions on everybody, I have a feeling that I would not have spent the years from 2006-2009 having quite so intense an emotional engagement with student and unpaid theatre if I hadn't been using it as a site for face-to-face emotional connection that I wasn't getting anywhere else. And I completely hear you on feeling unable to ask for your emotional needs to be met by friends -- there are some social barriers, particularly around the areas of 'being needy' or 'boring', that are really hard to break where that's concerned.

      To your caveats though I would like to add something about unhealthy relationships.

      Definitely -- thanks for reminding me of that!

  2. (copied-pasted from a comment on our Facebook page:

    I hesitated with this at first because so many things didn't apply to me. But, I had this same struggle when I first read the Invisible Knapsack by McIntosh. Because I'd been through classism and heterosexism, there were a lot of white privileges steeped in economics and couple with the assumption of straightness that didn't always apply to me. So... it could be as well that when I read this because I don't fall under the category of cis, heterosexual, "ablebodied", etc. many of these do not work for me. But I do understand the concept of a checklist. :) And I'd like to add a few things as well!

    I definitely agree on all of the economic points. It's true that booking couples is less. How'd you like this for a good example? I didn't go to my prom in high school for a lot of reasons, one being the cost. A "single" ticket was almost double the cost of a "couple" ticket. A single was around $75, whereas a couples was $40.

    You may also want to add for US residents that you can get health insurance through a married spouse. When I worked for an employer in the US, I couldn't get health insurance at my work because my employers wouldn't buy it. I had a full time job but everyone who worked there was married and got health insurance through their marriage. That's a HUGE benefit in the US and I know people who have gotten married purely so they could get health insurance. That's assuming of course your marriage is federally recognised. Marriage comes with 1,400+ federal rights in the US and even marriages between same sex individuals aren't federally recognised so you don't get all of the rights. In fact, sometimes same sex couples get screwed tax wise because they have to file federal taxes as single but state taxes as married, so they sometimes, depending on the state, end up paying more.

    In terms of cooking more, I think it really depends on your background. So many people didn't grow up learning how to cook, I feel like there's a lot of people who wouldn't actually just cook more because they're in a couple. I only say that because I grew up in the US where conveienice food is often relied on by working class and poor people. I grew up working class and I never learned how to cook. Obesity, healthy food, and food scarcity is very much a class issue in the US.

    "If I'm female, when out in public with a male partner I will experience markedly less street and other harassment than when I'm alone. (This is, of course, often a specifically cis m/f-couple-privilege issue, and to some extent a same-race-couple-privilege issue too)."

    This is SO true and I don't identify as female. I'm seen as female but I do think you get way less harassment when you're seen as claimed by another man. It may be helpful to add "If I'm female (or seen as female by others)". This has definitely been my experience living in the US South. The very first question I was often asked in the South when people were trying to get to know me was whether I was married or not.

    1. (and more - this was too long for a single Blogger comment, which might be why Lola was having difficulty posting..)

      On a mental health note, having a partner has been an enormous benefit to me in terms of panic attacks. When I was alone, I had to deal with my anxiety all by myself. Having a partner, especially one who lives with me, has been an enormous benefit to me. I have someone who's always there if I need help with panic attacks. But overall, I feel like therapy has made a far greater impact in my personal life, which I only got because I had the economic privilege to do so.

      And definitely within the context of open or polyamorous relationships, if you're with one person for a long time or you're seen as a "couple", even if you aren't, that may be taken far more seriously by family and other people than your relationships with other people. That's certainly been my experience as a poly person.

      However, what concerns me about the term "couples privilege" is the context I've seen it used in. Particularly, I've seen people apply this term to individuals who are in couple and decide to be polyamorous or open their relationship up, but still prioritise their relationship over the new ones they encounter. I see that choice, while it may be unfair, as more of an interpersonal issue (an issue which, if there are kids within the relationship, may be perfectly valid). This checklist and most discussions of privilege are more about how society rewards individuals for being in pairs and less about how individuals reward or punish other individuals. I'm curious to know what you think of it being used in that context. Because, I have to say, since I see privilege being about SOCIETAL and SYSTEMIC issues, the use of it applied to individuals who decide to have certain prioritise is particularly maddening.

    2. This is really interesting -- thanks so much for the US perspective. I hadn't even considered issues like health insurance (aargh, the idea of having to stay in a relationship because otherwise you'll lose health care terrifies me on so many levels) and prom price structures! Just out of curiousity, do you know what the rationale was behind that? From a naive outsider's perspective, that actually does seem very much like a moment of 'People in couples out to deliberately mess with single people'...

      Particularly, I've seen people apply this term to individuals who are in couple and decide to be polyamorous or open their relationship up, but still prioritise their relationship over the new ones they encounter.

      Aha. I hadn't heard the term used in that way, and think you're right that it does have the potential to be problematic.

  3. You might be interested in the work of Bella De Paulo, if you haven't come across it ( She's looked a lot at systemic political, economic and social disadvantages single people in the United States face, some of which applies over here. She labels it 'singlism', which makes me uncomfortable (being a white, straight, cis male, but nearly always single claiming an 'ism' seems dangerously close to Nice Guy or whataboutthemenz), but the numerical work she does is eye opening, and the work on media portrayal is enraging.

    I would add,

    - If you are, or appear, monogamously coupled your sex/romantic life is much less likely to be the target of speculation and comment either socially or professionally. (I'm thinking especially people in the public eye)

    -Expand the fresh food/holiday topic to all manners of goods and services (taxis,council tax, two for one deals on things like tickets and gym memberships)

    1. Thanks for this. And ohhhh, council tax! I had not even thought of £$%^£"! council tax -- will add that one to the list...

  4. I'm suspicious about this. I understand the point of the article, but singles aren't exactly a systematically oppressed minority. Certainly not to the extent that other groups with a privilege list are. I think it dilutes the importance of "privilege" as a concept when it's used like this.

    Also: coupledom changes. This seems different to the other lists - you're pretty much stuck black, and even though sexual fluidity exists, sexual orientation privilege lists apply to peeps currently solid in that identity - and soforth. In no other category is it so quick'n'easy to get/lose privilege.

    So these are definitely advantages of being in a couple, but there are also advantages of being single (i.e. being able to up and go to a new town), and neither are exactly linked to a huge system of injustice like the other privileges are.

    1. I do see your point, but I'm also nervous of falling into oppression olympics.

      Yes, couples privilege might be a smaller thing, just one corner of one facet of heteronormativity-under-patriarchy, but that doesn't mean it's not worth interrogating.

      In no other category is it so quick'n'easy to get/lose privilege.

      It's pretty much the point of the label "temporarily able-bodied privilege" to flag up that said privilege can be lost in a moment. And how about passing privilege, or straight privilege granted to bi people in relationships with people of 'opposite' genders? These are entirely contingent on other people's perceptions, and so liable to change in an instant.

      But perhaps we are having a disagreement about terminology, here - on your analysis, would you accept the existence of "passing privilege" or "straight-appearing privilege", which are also side consequences of "bigger" systems of oppression, ie, cissexism and heteronormativity? Or do you consider them to dilute the concept of privilege, also?

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. *reposted for typos, aargh*

      I see your point re: worrying about cheapening the concept of 'privilege', and I did think quite carefully about that before posting it... on the other hand, when there are a set of observable social, economic and other advantages that are afforded to a certain group of people based on their relationship status, and denied to others, what else can we call it?

      I think you're right that this is an axis of privilege that is more subject to change throughout a person's life than, say, race privilege or gender privilege, but I don't think that means that it doesn't exist. See Sebastienne's points above re: temporary able-bodied status and 'passing'.


      In no other category is it so quick'n'easy to get/lose privilege.

      I want to point out here that for some people, getting couple privilege isn't quick'n'easy. I know many people who would love to be in a proximal-two-person-couple relationship of the kind that is privileged by the social systems I've described above, but who for various reasons are not able to make that happen for themselves. For a very long time, I was one of those people. When you're already in a position of being mildly unhappy because you don't have the relationship you want, it sucks even more that society gives economic, social, etc., rewards to people who do have that relationship status.

    4. "So these are definitely advantages of being in a couple, but there are also advantages of being single (i.e. being able to up and go to a new town)"

      Seriously? As a single PARENT, is it easy for me to up and go to a new town? Or is it in fact harder than it would be for a couple, as past experience and job-seeking suggest? Common sense req here.

  5. I fell rather like those people who argue against race, gender and sexuality privilege lists with stupid argument to show how oppressed they are such as 'but if I'm straight I can't get into gay clubs'. You know the type.

    But I really feel that there are huge societal advantages to being single that we can't ignore. If I had the spoons I would come up with a counter list, but just to give you an idea of where I'd be going with it-

    * As a single person, I can progress in my career knowing that my superiors will not pass me over for promotion because of the idea that I might have a family soon, or have 'other commitments' which are more important than my job. I will be seen as hard-working and dedicated to my job.
    * In job interviews, I will not be discriminated against because of my marital status or likelihood to procreate.
    * As a single person, I can put in late hours at work and attend evening events without worrying about neglecting my partner at home, however understanding my partner might be.
    *As a single person I am more likely to be given attention from other people who find me attractive - the non-harrassing kind of attention that be be advantageous with everything for getting better service in cafes to meeting people at career and networking events.
    * I can take a promotion in another country or city without committing to a long-distance relationship or uprooting my partner's career and home-life.
    * If I wish, I will be able to participate in hook-up culture and if under the age of 30 I am less likely to be seen to be/told I am 'missing out' on any part of being a young person.

    1. As above, these all neglect the fact that if one is single and a parent, none of your 'single privileges' apply. In fact single parents are even less likely to be allowed to progress at work due to the lack of decent, affordable childcare, flexible support etc. Believe me, single people with children are still discriminated against at interview- the recent interview in which I was questioned about childcare arrangements despite being the best qualified person for the job, and then rejected for no given reason makes that very clear.

  6. Since you are in the UK (and sorry I am commenting on this so long after publication, I just found it via google for 'couple privilege'!), you could also add that the UK welfare system actively discriminates against single people in housing terms. For example recent reforms are planning to make single people under 25 unable to claim housing support if on a low income, saying they can move back in with parents instead (regardless of whether those parents are abusive). Also in a couple relationship, one is not attacked for being a 'feckless workshy scrounger' if unemployed, as happens to single parents almost constantly. A friend of mine is just discovering also, as she is a carer for her partner but cannot live with him due to the nature of his illness, and they have a young baby, she is restricted to living in a one-bedroom flat even with a child up to the age of 5 (!) whereas in a cohabiting couple she would be entitled to a space for the child also. This goes beyond consumer factors, to the point that currently in the UK being outside a couple is considered some kind of moral failing.