In our book More Than Two, one of the dangers Eve and I talk about with existing couples opening their relationship to polyamory is the problem of “couple privilege.”

“Couple privilege” is a set of assumptions and expectations, some external and some internal, that we make about relationships. No mater how hard we try to be egalitarian or treat new partners as “equal,” we can assert privileges–sometimes without intending to–in our existing relationships, and end up disempowering anyone we may start a new relationship with.

I have written a lengthy blog post about couple privilege, which includes a long (but by no means complete!) list of examples.

But what we don’t talk about as often is the way that insidious ideas about what “real” relationships look like can seep into people who aren’t part of an established couple. Social ideas about what relationships “should” look like are pervasive, and can affect everyone, not just folks who are already partnered.

One of the clearest examples of this “reverse privilege” I’ve seen is something I’ve heard many people say when they start dating someone who already has one or more partners, or more commonly when they start dating both members of an existing couple:

Well, this is good for now, but eventually I’m going to want a partner of my own.

Did you feel it? That strange ripple on the surface of the water, hinting at turbulence lurking way down deep?

It can be very, very hard to let go of the idea that a relationship that involves more than one other person is every much as valid, legitimate, and “real” as a relationship with only one partner. The subtext of the “partner of my own” idea is that a partnership with someone who has other lovers is less satisfying, or perhaps less legitimate, than a partnership with someone you don’t “share.”

It’s a notion rooted in centuries of tradition and many a bad Disney cartoon and romantic comedy, so it’s not too surprising that it can be so difficult to let go of. Yet we must. I submit that as long as we believe a plural relationship is less real than a relationship with only one person who doesn’t have other partners, poly relationships won’t be as satisfying to us as monogamous relationships. We’ll always feel that our lives are inferior to what they could be.

Worse, when we feel this way, we don’t necessarily treat our partners well. When we see our relationships as less—less real, less authentic, less satisfying—we more easily treat our partners as expendable things, rather than as people. It’s not just couples who treat people as disposable commodities!

Another way this can happen is when a person says, “You know, it’s not really that important how I treat my partners, because they have each other. It’s not a big deal if I break commitments, or fail to show up for dates. Hey, it can’t be that bad! They still have each other, right?”

Love does not play numbers games. The heart does not see its connections as interchangeable. We all know it would be almost unspeakably cruel to tell a parent who has lost a child, “Hey, it’s not that bad! You still have another kid, right?” Why, then, would we think it would be any different for romance?

It is on all of us, no matter our relationship status, to treat our lovers preciously. When someone offers us their love, they’re offering a gift of incalculable value. Let us, each of us, recognize that, and strive to take care of one another.

I’m writing one blog post for every contribution to our crowdfunding we receive between now and the end of the campaign at midnight tonight, December 15, 2014. Help support indie publishing! We’re publishing five new books on polyamory in 2015!

Like what you’re reading on the More Than Two blog? Buy the book now.