Contrary to outdated beliefs, single women are now said to be the happiest people out there – the only truly frustrating thing is living in a society that seems to solely reward couples. Here, writer Hollie Richardson explores the idea of couple privilege, and why we all need to be more aware of it.
I recently found myself stepping off the pavement and onto the road to let an oncoming couple pass by. They could have unlinked arms and walked single file so that we could all stick to the pavement. But, no – they stayed a united front, while I automatically moved out of their way. Afterwards, I felt angry at myself for not just asking them to move aside. Because that small, probably unconscious, act symbolised a much bigger problem in UK society: couple privilege.
It’s a term I’ve heard bandied around for the last couple of years, but it perfectly captures something I’ve been thinking for most of my single adulthood. Every day, I notice the practical things in life that are literally easier and cheaper to do when you’re in a relationship: renting a flat; doing the weekly food shop; paying those pesky bills; booking a holiday. And then there are the bigger – often unimaginable, for many – milestones in life, like buying a house, starting a family and changing your career. Of course, I know this is no fault of the couples – it’s just the way thing are.
I feel like I need to point out at this stage that I’m not bitter. I’ve questioned myself over this, a lot. But, as someone who just called off things with a man I was dating because it wasn’t fulfilling me, I know that I’m very happy with my single life.
It’s more a sense of frustration. Why, in 2020, does it feel like I’m being financially punished for being single? Why do societal structures and expectations mean that I’m missing out? Why is it still harder to be happily single than being in a happy relationship?
I’m not the only one who’s asking these questions. My WhatsApp regularly pings with updates from single friends, updating me on the latest case of couple privilege they’ve experienced. Like the flatmate who was left in shock after finding out her friend on a similar salary to her is about to buy a flat in Zone 2 London with her boyfriend.
We would never talk about this to our coupled-up friends, no matter how close we are to them. Because, here’s the thing: society also expects us to be a little bit embarrassed about “still” living in our overdrafts, living in a flat share beyond 30 and not having a wedding plus-one.
Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s not like this for everybody – each relationship is different. And I am fully aware that I’m talking about this from a place of relative privilege: I have a job that pays for my rent, weekends away and the new Zara “it” dresses. And the only person I need to care for is myself.
But the fact is that couple privilege is very, very real.
Thanks to the housing crisis, renting a property and getting on the housing ladder is one of the biggest examples of couple privilege. You don’t need to be a mathlete to work out that paying the rent on a one-bedroom apartment on your own is twice as expensive as splitting the rent with a partner. For context: a 2019 City Hall report showed the average private rent for a one-bedroom home in London is now more than the average for a three-bed home in every other UK region.
Then, there’s home ownership.
To the best of my knowledge, all my homeowning friends – single or coupled up – had financial help from their parents. Now, imagine having two sets of parental bursaries combined. Even if a couple doesn’t get help from the Bank of Mum and Dad, their deposits, admin costs and joint mortgage payments are halved. Considering the average house price in London is an eye-watering £478,853 – with an initial £80,000 deposit – that’s a big saving.
I’m not saying it’s easy for couples to buy a house, but it’s definitely financially easier.
Last year, five hospital trusts and six clinical commissioning groups banned single women from accessing IVF treatments. Apparently, this decision was made on the basis that single mothers “place a greater burden on society in general”. There are two points to consider here. Firstly, that single women are being denied the chance to start their own family. But also, even if a single woman did become pregnant, they are made to feel like society sees them as a burden. Let’s not forget our current Prime Minister’s words on the children of single parents, calling them “ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate”.
So, what’s the solution? We’re constantly being told that our biological clock tocks at double speed once we hit 30. And current UK laws mean that we can only freeze our eggs for 10 years (although this is currently being reviewed). According to societal pressures, the answer is: find a partner before you’re 30 and make babies.
Holidays, weddings and career changes
Last week, my would-be holiday buddy cancelled our Italian sojourn and asked me to save my money for her wedding instead. I’m absolutely delighted for her, and of course I’ll be the first person to throw confetti, but that holiday was my only one of the year. Most of my other friends who I used to holiday with are already making plans to go away with their partners.
My other friend used to pay for the bills in her flat, while her boyfriend covered the rent. This meant she could go into part-time study and eventually make a career change. Meanwhile, even though I earned a significant amount more than her, well over half of my monthly wage went – and still goes – on rent, bills and paying off my overdraft.
And this year I’ll be going to yet more weddings where I’ll once again feel like a cheapskate for only being able to give a small amount of money as a wedding gift. I almost feel like I need to write a disclaimer in the card: please count the amount of money I’ve spent on travel and accommodation – on my own – as part of the total sum. Oh, and it would be double this if I came with a plus-one.
What I’m trying to say is: couple privilege is prevalent, but many people just don’t see it.
There are perks of being single that I feel privileged for having: interruption-free Outlander marathons, singing Kylie’s greatest hits in an unnatural pitch in the shower, not feeling guilty about spending my time literally just doing whatever the hell I want to do.
But I have to be honest and say that it would be nice if friends just sometimes acknowledged they’ve got things a bit easier because they are part of a couple. There’s no one to blame, it’s the world we live in. I don’t want anyone to feel guilty or bad about what they have – lord knows, if I split my outgoings with someone I really love one day, I’ll be happily strutting around like one of the Bee Gees. But I’ll know exactly how lucky I am, and always bear it in mind when talking to, making plans with and giving advice to single friends.
So it’s time for me to stop stepping aside when it comes to couple privilege. Although society might only give us all a narrow path to walk on, there should be enough space for us to get along OK on it – we all just need to look up now and again, and help each other to pass.