It’s the holidays, and once again, Facebook and Instagram feeds throughout the land are bedazzled with photos of happy couples, a ring conspicuously featured on one of their hands. A clever caption that might as well (but doesn’t actually) say “We’re engaged!” floats nearby or inside the photo itself, while a gazillion “likes” and congratulatory comments trail at the bottom.
You want to feel happy for them. And you probably do! But happiness isn’t always the only emotion present –especially if you are single. Yes, my single compatriots, you feel joy in the celebration of your friends’ love, yet you also feel jealous. And then you feel bad about yourself for feeling jealous.
And perhaps you aren’t even jealous of them and their engagement, but of the social status that goes along with it. The engagement announcement carries with it a strange sense of failure, and perhaps the shame of Why do I not have a partner?
If this sounds familiar, congratulations. You have stumbled upon one of the many manifestations of Partner Privilege, the invisible force in society that rewards people for being in committed romantic relationships, and shames those who are not.
Partner Privilege, like most types of privilege, lurks beneath the surface, so ingrained and internalized that we rarely notice it. In fact, it wasn’t until this summer that I even recognized its existence.
I had agreed to be a bridesmaid in my friend’s wedding. Let’s call her Emma. I didn’t know most of the other wedding guests, so I asked her if I could bring a +1. Emma flatly said no, explaining that they were trying to keep the guest list small to keep costs down. I totally understood this, and did not have a problem with it. However, I later found out that other bridesmaids, (as well as guests) were allowed a +1 if they were married or had a serious significant other.
This news hit me hard. It felt overtly unfair, and covertly insulting. I was being treated as less than those attendees who were in romantic partnerships. It wasn’t like Emma and her fiancé were close friends with all of their friends’ spouses and S.O.s either. In some cases neither the bride nor groom had even met these +1s before. If they wanted to restrict attendance, why didn’t they just stick to a guest list comprised of their actual friends and family? Instead, they resorted to random discrimination. I was being denied the privilege of bringing a companion to the wedding, a privilege granted—without question—to those who were partnered.
Her wedding’s “+1 policy” was literally telling me that since I was not in a relationship I had to be alone. I knew that message wasn’t an accurate portrayal of my life, but it hurt all the same. I was made to feel as if I was not worthy of any companionship, despite the bountiful meaningful relationships in my life. I have amazing friends and family, and I am a part of several communities. Just because I haven’t found a life-partner doesn’t mean I am alone.
And the fact that I am single does not make it legitimate to treat me as lesser.
But this policy was treating me as lesser. That’s just how Partner Privilege works. I started asking around and found, to my dismay, that disallowing +1’s for singles at formal events is fairly common practice.
Ever since then, I have been seeing Partner Privilege everywhere, and, I mean, it isn’t all bad. At the institutional level, Partner Privilege actually does a lot of good. I’m talking, of course, about the institution of marriage itself, and the various privileges that go along with it—things like tax breaks, hospital visitation rights, sharing of health and dental benefits, etc. Marriage rights are vital to safeguarding the welfare of families. It’s no wonder that they were a huge driver in the LGBT community’s fight for marriage equality. Likewise, Partner Privilege can also help legitimize queer identities. As my co-editor Lucy Small says, “Parents may be more likely to accept their child’s identity as homosexual if they are in a long-term monogamous partnership. In a way, partnering is enough to “prove” sexual preference, whereas other sexual acts and thoughts are not.”
However, at the individual level Partner Privilege does more harm than good. Emma’s wedding was a uniquely clear, tangible example of this, but most of the time individual-level Partner Privilege is difficult to see. We are generally unaware of the way singles are perceived as immature, stubborn, abrasive, or vaguely deficient, while coupled people are perceived as “adult”, admirable, level-headed and somehow more worthy of our respect.
Intellectually, we know that entering a relationship does not magically make someone a better person, but this realization does not stop our respect from instantaneously leveling-up for someone upon learning they are in a relationship. Even if we do realize we are making these judgments, we try to rationalize them by telling ourselves that the very act of being in a relationship requires more maturity and “goodness of character”.
But the thing is, whether we are in a relationship or not doesn’t actually say anything about our virtue as human beings. There are people in relationships that are far more messed up than single people. Being in a relationship could signify maturity and cooperative spirit, but it could also signify a bad case of co-dependence and manipulation.
The blog Wait, But Why? explores this phenomenon in “How to Pick Your Life Partner Part 1”. The post heavily features the Figured It All Out Staircase, a graphic that shows how we feel about being single vs. “how things actually are”. The idea is that being single feels like the utmost failure, but is actually better than being in an unhappy partnership.
This graphic beautifully depicts how Partner Privilege negatively impacts single people, making them feel like they are doing far worse than they actually are by being virtue of single. That said, the graphic itself is laden with Partner Privilege. Being in a happy couple is a goal, literally at the top of a staircase.
Unlike most types of privilege (white privilege, class privilege, able-ness, etc.) Partner Privilege is one that we feel we have control over. So if we “fail” to be in a relationship, we may turn inward and feel bad about ourselves.
This affects people regardless of race, class, gender, or sexual orientation. Even straight, affluent, super-privileged white dudes feel the pressure to be in a relationship! In fact, Partner Privilege may be one of the few privileges these guys are lacking, and they feel it, hard. I have several male friends who are overwhelmingly frustrated, even depressed because of their “singleness”. But their frustration is not solely sexual, nor does it necessarily stem from a desire for the intrinsic benefits of a relationship (love, emotional support, sharing of chores, life team-mate, etc). Rather, they feel that they have failed at something. Something they can’t control, but feel like they should.
Heterosexual women feel the harmful effects of Partner Privilege in an extra-special way. For women, the stigma of being single is historically rooted. Back in the day, marriage was inextricably linked to a woman’s identity and financial well-being, so the stakes for being single were high.
Although we now live in a society where women are at least theoretically granted all of the same rights as men, many of the attitudes associated with the past era linger on: namely, women still feel enormous pressure to “be pretty” and attract a man… and you better “catch” him before you get too old! Along these lines, body image issues and other endless struggles to “fit” the “male gaze” are indirectly linked to Partner Privilege.
Our culture perpetuates the privileging of couple-dom in countless ways. It’s there when we look shamefully upon single parents. It’s there when couples stop hanging out with their single friends. It’s there in the saying, always a bridesmaid, never a bride. It’s there when almost every movie depicts romantic partnership as a “goal” or “reward”. It’s there when landlords are more likely to rent to married couples. And it’s certainly there when singles are not allowed a +1 at formal events. There are too many examples of Partner Privilege for me to go into all of them here, and I am not going to try.
The point is, Partner Privilege is real and has real consequences. When society privileges people in relationships to the extent that it does, when we reward couples, and shame singles, we unwittingly encourage unhealthy relationships. Partner Privilege can inspire people to ignore aspects of their romantic relationships that are unhealthy, even abusive, in effort to keep the social status—that “success”—of being in a couple. As I mentioned before, there are plenty of intrinsic reasons to want to be/stay in a relationship: love, regular sex, emotional and logistical support, having a “team-mate”, and all of the learning and growth that comes with sharing life with another person.
But if you are “sticking it out” in an unhappy relationship, ask yourself: what is keeping you from leaving? The idea of life without that person? Or the thought of navigating a world that will suddenly be more hostile towards you?
Likewise, if a friend is having trouble with their partner, don’t encourage them to hold on at all costs. If a friend has recently gone through a break-up, comfort them with the existence your friendship (“I’m here for you, let’s hang out!”) not by assuring them of the existence of future partners (“Don’t worry, there’s other fish in the sea”). In fact everyone can fight Partner Privilege any day, in any situation by showing appreciation for the non-sexual, non-romantic relationships in life. It doesn’t matter if you are single or coupled, everyone can (and should) celebrate their friendships.
And if you are perusing Facebook or Instagram while-single this holiday season, and you start to feel ashamed and depressed when it seems like *everybody* is engaged and getting married except for you, recognize the role Partner Privilege is playing. Remember that even algorithms are privileging these posts. Remember where you really stand on the Figured It All Out Staircase…
….and then SMASH that whole idea to the ground.
Because your value as a person is NOT determined by your relationship status, and things are much better when there isn’t a staircase at all.