Couple Privilege Is One Reason Why Being Single Sometimes Feels So Hard

As with other privileges, it's not anyone's fault — but it pays to understand how you fit into this dynamic.

Smiling couple walking through town with dog
Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

The idea that your life is 10x more difficult (or at least annoyingly inconvenient) because you aren't in a two-person relationship is something called singlism.

Getting the side-eye when you dine in a restaurant alone or being told you can't receive medical treatment unless you can prove you have a way home (hello, Uber and Lyft!) are two examples of how some benign acts can have an entirely different perspective for singles. While, no, these specific instances don't seem that terrible from the outside looking in, imagine being the single person in those positions. You may not always handle them with grace, no matter how content you are with your current relationship status.

The idea of singlism goes one step further when you think about the concept of couple privilege. Both exist because of an outdated, societal concept that two-person relationships are the rule, the standard, the holy grail of relationships that everyone should strive to have, which, as you might have guessed, is not true.

To give the topic of couple privilege the explanation it deserves, a few professionals share their take on the highly complex term.

First, you have to understand the meaning of privilege.

Privilege is how society accommodates you — with (or without) your knowledge. However, it's important to make something clear from the beginning: Privilege is not your fault. It's nothing you've personally done, said, or thought. It may have given you the opportunity to do, say, and think certain things without consequences, according to PolyFor.Us, a polyamory resource and education site. Types of privilege, including white privilege, male privilege, able-bodied privilege, and socioeconomic privilege, exist because they explain this "societally-preferred way of being," says Ken Blackman, a sex and relationship coach. This doesn't mean these ways of being are actually preferred across entire societies, but somewhere along the way, they've become a foundation for social systems and standards. (

So, what is couple privilege?

The funny slash confusing thing about couple privilege? It doesn't mean just one thing. "It's a [phenomenon] people wanted attention on, but then, because it's so ambiguous, it got co-opted and used differently," explains Blackman. So, don't get hung up on one use-case for the term. Think of it as something that can be molded based on who uses it and how.

The term originally started among the scientific community as "marital and couple privilege," referring to the advantages a couple has that a single person doesn't, according to Jesse Kahn, L.C.S.W.-R., a sex therapist and the director at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center. It was co-opted by the ethical non-monogamy community as "couple privilege," where "a new person is dating one or both people within a previously established couple and the established relationship has the 'advantage,'" says Kahn.

Both definitions of the term are accurate. And, together, describe a situation where "couples are privileged in comparison to two groups of people: solo single people and all people in polyamorous/ENM relationships," says Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., a social scientist, author of Singled Out, and who coined the term "singlism."

Regardless of how happy you are being single, single-ish, a third, a unicorn, or anything that isn't half of a paired relationship, the world is set up with social, logistical, and financial advantages for people in two-person relationships. This is especially true for married, engaged, or cohabiting couples, but can extend to any traditional couple setup, according to PolyFor.Us.

A few ways couple privilege can manifest:

  • Having two incomes to split the rent or a mortgage.
  • Fostering or adoption of children is easier in a monogamous relationship.
  • Most religions endorse heterosexual monogamy above all other sexual and romantic relationships.
  • Greeting cards for every occasion tied to two-person relationships.
  • Any discount targeted toward couples, ever. (Think: a "family" gym membership that saves you money, or specials at restaurants and recipes created "for two.")
  • Rental car agreements that automatically add your spouse but charge you extra to add a second driver you aren't married to.
  • Finding affirmation of your romantic status from movies, TV, and books that reiterate its importance in society.
  • Plus-ones to events given to people in established two-person relationships.
  • The 1,100+ laws in the U.S. that benefit married couples. (As of 2013, these marriage laws apply to same-sex marriages but not poly marriages.)

To be clear, there are some things in life that make singlehood more difficult but don't actually qualify as couple privilege. Say, lugging a 40-pound package up three flights of stairs on your own, having no one to help you eyeball whether that frame you hung is straight, waking up at the crack of dawn every day to take the dog out, or watching your social calendar become more empty as your friends start to settle down with S.O.'s. While these can be annoying, the instances in the list above highlight where the system is rigged in favor of two-person couples.

How can couple privilege affect you?

"These privileges can make single people or people who are in poly/ENM relationships feel 'lesser than' because they are regarded as inferior," says DePaulo. However, not every single person responds to couple privilege the same way.

"Privileges can go beyond hurt feelings or derogation of people who are not coupled, though all of that is significant," continues DePaulo. It can also impact a person's financial security and health. As a single person, it can lead to being belittled and questioned for your entire life. It can affect the way you're treated by family, friends, and coworkers. On the flip side, people in a couple may feel compelled to stay in an unhappy relationship because it's easier financially, medically, or socially.

How can you acknowledge couple privilege?

If you're coupled up, you could be making single people feel inferior without knowing it because you may not recognize these privileges.

"Navigating couple privilege is not one size fits all," says Khan. "It can start with asking yourself where your bias shows up." If you can own up to your actions and their connection to couple privilege, then you can better understand your role in this phenomenon. (

Think about where you stand in society in relation to couple privilege: Do you feel like your romantic relationships are more important? Do you assume that everyone you know and meet is searching for a companion to spend their lives with? Do you jump to conclusions about the kind of relationships your friends are in or want to be in?

If you're part of a couple, "you can also start reflecting on how you prioritize your relationships and why," suggests Khan. Are you willing to make sacrifices for your romantic partnership to grow but not your other relationships? "Rather than assuming you should make all decisions based on this cultural relationship hierarchy, think about what makes the most sense for each specific situation, you, and your relationships." The decisions you make should reflect all of the relationships in your life, not just your romantic partnership. (

Where can society go from here?

Even though society has built a foundation on these privileges, you may feel that you need to either go with it or fight to change it, says Blackman. In all reality, it doesn't affect everyone in the same way, and there's a ton of grey area in between those two extremes.

If you catch yourself caught up in the mess of it or as Khan says, "worn down from couple privilege," seek support in numbers or in affirmations. "Navigating life solo, in our specific cultural context, is a unique experience, and having a group of friends who understands that can help."

Oh, your local restaurant has a dinner special for two? Awesome, invite a friend and enjoy a lovely meal. Go and see that new movie alone because you know how much you like talking to the screen. Remember what you enjoy about being in a poly/ENM relationship or single.

"I don't think couple privileges will disappear anytime soon," says DePaulo. "But those privileges will increasingly be questioned rather than just accepted unthinkingly. The fact that poly/ENM communities — and not just solo single people — are questioning those privileges is a good step forward."

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