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I have an utter, irrational, nails-on-a-chalkboard pet peeve, and it’s using “both partners” or “the couple” in a polyamorous context.

Partially, this is because triads, quads, and larger group marriages exist. I expect monogamous people to be constantly going on about The Couple, but if you’re giving advice in a poly context it’s a bit much to assume that only two people are going to have an opinion about the lease agreement.

But partially it’s because these words tend to show up in sentences like “as long as both partners are okay with it” or “well, whatever makes the couple happy.” And that makes me want to scream.

At best, it’s a bit of thoughtless mononormative language. You’re used to saying “both partners”, and it comes out of your mouth even though you perfectly well know that relationships ought to make everyone involved happy, even if there is more than one person.

At worst… well, I don’t like using the term ‘couple privilege.’ It’s not a terribly clear word, because ‘privilege’ is often used to mean things along the lines of ‘white people are privileged over black people’ and people who are primaries are not structurally privileged over people who are secondaries. For one thing, the latter group quite often has primaries of their own, which they may equally unfairly elevate.

But nevertheless, some people treat their secondaries’ relationship needs and desires as less important than their primary’s. The primary is allowed to make rules like “you can’t have sex in my bed!” or “you can’t watch that TV show with her!”, while the secondary is not. The primary is allowed to veto secondary relationships; the secondary is not allowed to veto primary relationships. The primary is allowed to cancel their partner’s dates with the secondary because an emergency came up; the secondary is not allowed to cancel their partner’s dates with the primary. The primary is allowed to put secondary relationships on the backburner to focus on the primary relationship; the secondary is not allowed to put primary relationships on the backburner to focus on the secondary relationship.

Obviously, the amount you prioritize someone else’s needs depends on your particular relationship. It can help to imagine a monogamous relationship of approximately the same level of commitment. If you’re someone’s fuckbuddy, you can hardly expect them to cancel plans with friends because you’re in the hospital, and you can’t expect them to put other projects on the backburner to deal with your relationship conflicts. On the other hand, if you’ve been dating for several years and see each other three times a week, you’d be pretty fucking pissed if they didn’t visit you or give you some space to work on your relationship problems. The problem is only when a secondary is treated with less respect for their needs than they would have a right to expect given the intimacy and commitment level of the relationship.

Quite often, “both partners” or “the couple” are signs of couple-privileged thinking: if the couple is okay with dating a unicorn/a One Penis Policy/insert your favorite Bad Poly idea here, then there isn’t a problem! What does it matter if the secondary feels mistreated and like their needs don’t matter? Why would the opinions of secondaries enter into it? They’re, you know, secondary!

You might say “hey, if person is dating Alice, Bob, and Eve, then there are three couples! I meant everyone in all the couples when I said ‘couple’.” But there’s no principled reason to say ‘couple’ then. There are, after all, three triads as well (Alice/Person/Bob, Alice/Person/Eve, and Bob/Person/Eve), as well as one quad. You might say that Person/Alice has a different dynamic than Person by themself, but by the same token Alice/Person/Bob has a different dynamic than Person/Alice.

How do you fix the problem? Well, you can talk in terms of individuals: “if you’re happy with your relationship, I don’t see any ethical problem with it.” There is a principled reason to talk in terms of individuals, because while both a couple and a triad are relationships, an individual is not. Or you can say “all partners” or “everyone involved”, which take about as much time to say and don’t risk excluding people.