Toxic Monogamy, Why Mono/Poly (and Poly) is Hard

a cannister with the image of a man wearing a gas mask spray painted onto it
Image by eggrole / CC BY

Mono/poly relationships, i.e., a relationship between a partner who is monogamous and one who is polyamorous, are notoriously difficult. Traditional poly blogger wisdom points the finger at both parties having to compromise and feeling somewhat shortchanged. The difference between the relationship structures is to blame for the trouble, they write. But I think it’s even simpler than that. I think the problem isn’t poly, mono, or some clash of cross-purposes.  The problem lies with toxic monogamy.

Toxic monogamy is basically the worst.

Monogamy in and of itself has so many good qualities. Sexual exclusivity in particular has a large upside. When practiced perfectly (although not always the case, even when it’s meant to be), it carries a lower STI risk. I’ve previously written that I could easily be sexually monogamous,  if I could still have emotional connections with more than one person.

However, many people in long-term monogamous relationships become emotionally and socially isolated in a profound way. This is because a number of socially connected behaviors are perceived as infidelities. Toxic monogamy culturally trains us to be on high alert to detect cheating in our own relationships — and the ones of those around us. This makes us overly sensitive to prosocial acts that could signal something insidious lurking beneath the surface.

Notably, I recall a conversation I overheard between people who agreed that posting pictures with members of the opposite sex on Facebook was in fact cheating on your significant other. Even setting aside the fact that I’m not straight, this idea perplexed me.

As Noah Brand writes:

Hegemonic heterosexuality is the model for straight relationships that carries as many damaging, ridiculous, impossible assumptions and requirements as does hegemonic masculinity. Shall we list a few?

Relationships are about finding The One you’ll spend the rest of your life with. Naturally, a jealous and possessive form of monogamy is a strict requirement. It is necessary to hate all of one’s exes, because they were not The One, and one must also be jealous of all one’s partner’s exes, because they touched your property before you even got there.

It’s not that mono/poly is unworkable. It’s that the beliefs that accompany toxic monogamy will consistently torture a person in a polyamorous environment.

How to proceed given this?

Challenge the underlying assumptions of toxic monogamy:

  • Affection is zero sum. When you care for someone, that leaves less caring to give to others.
  • One person must meet every possible emotional and social need that we have.
  • We must do whatever is needed to protect The Relationship — a simultaneously fragile and all-important entity. If this involves complete isolation, then so be it.
  • If a love is true and valid, we will never, ever be attracted to anyone else. Ever.
  • If the intensity of that love changes, there is something wrong.
  • If we are attracted to someone else, this means that our love isn’t true. Or we’re a horrible person. Or both. Probably both.

Even poly folks can struggle with some of this. These beliefs linger as nagging doubts. Even though we have actively rejected monogamy as a relationship style, we were raised in the same world. Toxic monogamy was modeled for us over and over again (through media, the relationships of others, etc).

Whether you’re poly, mono, or poly/mono, one thing is true: Toxic monogamy is terrible for you.

Counter to what one might think, acting as though love is scarce is an easy way to lose it. Worrying you’ll lose someone can drive them away. At the very least it can drive a wedge between you.

*

My book is out!

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory

Liked it? Take a second to support Poly.Land on Patreon!

13 Comments

  1. I personally don’t think mono/poly is workable. I think it should be avoided at all costs 🙁

    The main problem with monogamy the way I see it is that you enter a predefined ‘frame’ so you are not challenged to be intentional and work out agreements that suits the particular couple’s needs. But now, as poly is expanding in the western world – at great speed actually (I’m european) – I think this could change, and before you know it monogamy has become more conscious and intentional and/or polyamory has become more toxic …

    I think both outcomes are possible because the problem is not structural per se. The problem is unspoken expectations, lack of intention and lack of communication. When something – anything – becomes mainstream, it stops being conscious/ intentional and becomes rigid. I hope this will not happen to polyamory. But I think it could.

    The poly lifestyle seems, at least from the outside, to be incredibly energy and time consuming, and I suspect as more people enter they will start making shortcuts. They will prefer “predefined” frames of polyamory and skip the hard work. Like we do in monogamy. I may be wrong, of course.

    Page, I have another questions for you. What about polyamory and age / aging / ageism?

    1. Vilde, you ask an interesting question here, re: polyamory and age/aging/ageism?

      Were you thinking in regards to people limiting the age of potential partners? Of the particular jealousy that can come when your metamours are quite a bit younger than you are? Both of these? Something else?

      In any event, I think this is a really good area to think and write some in.

      *

      (Also, I definitely think your concerns are valid that poly may become more toxic as it becomes mainstream. And shortcuts, horrible tradeoffs, made. )

      1. Yes, exactly. Both of these examples and everything else regarding aging in polyamorous relationships and in the communities. I read a post from an older man having widowed after 40 years (of a seemingly happy monogamic relation to an even older woman), and he was now entering polyamory. It got me thinking about age. Would it be possible for middle aged or older people to enter polyamory? I mean anything is possible, but how would, say, your community react? Is polyamory mostly for young people? Would it be easy to date new people after a certain age? Are there differences between men and women in this respect?

        1. I turn 59 next week – so us old folks can certainly be as poly as the youngsters LOL. Although I have being poly since birth, I did not realize there were other people just like me until about 10 years ago – and at the time nearly seven years into a marriage with a lovely uber-mono lady (we are still happily married).

          My bride and my fiancee (who is also mono) get along famously together – the three of us have supper and play cards once a week, we go to movies and concerts and we don’t live under the same roof (13 minute drive apart).

          1. Thanks! And 59 is not that old. 🙂 Yay! Sounds like you have a good thing going. Congrats on opening up, too!

            I have a few friends who are poly and in their 50s and know one couple that I believe are pushing 70 (but they are acquaintances and I don’t know them well).

            I definitely think that the issue could use more visibility.

            I’m working (slowly) on a piece about poly and aging that pulls from a lot of what is out there.

            Oh. So you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to, but how did you meet your fiancee?

  2. Could not resist replying to this interesting post. I am the monogamous partner in a poly/mono relationship. We just celebrated our 17th anniversary, and our 12,5 year poly anniversary is coming up. I consider our relationship healthy, fulfilling, loving, and loads of fun.
    I understand and agree with the toxic factors that you describe that can make any relationship difficult. It has been a steep learning curve for me and my partner to understand how relationships and love really work for us.

    However, there is part of your post that does not seem logical to me. The intro to your post, in referring to poly/mono relationships, is not consistent with the final conclusion that these toxic relationship assumptions are harmful to any relationship. You appear to assume that the monogamous partner in a poly/mono relationship is somehow certain to fall into these traps. So it seems to me that even though you at one point appear to separate the ‘toxic’ from the ‘monogamy’, somehow that does not relate to the mono/poly relationship? Are you saying that for the mono partner the toxic behaviour or thought pattern is inherent, but for others it is optional?

    Finally I think it is fair to say that anyone who is in a committed mono/poly relationship has probably ‘done the work’ to examine where their assumptions about love come from. If you love someone who challenges those assumptions, it is the natural thing to do. For us, it meant we found a good way to be in an amazing relationship without either of us judging the other, or feeling like we have to compromise. Not saying it would work for anyone, but sometimes it helps to look at the ‘outliers’ to get the whole picture.

    1. FK, GREAT comment. I agree with you on all of the big stuff, actually.

      Congratulations on your anniversaries! That is STELLAR. Hope you have a good celebration planned 🙂

      So first off, I didn’t highlight this in this particular blog post, but I’ll share now that I have actually personally known 3 successful and happy mono/poly couples. The longest I’ve known is at 10 years, and the other two are at 6 years and one year. 🙂 So I actually really do think it’s workable.

      “You appear to assume that the monogamous partner in a poly/mono relationship is somehow certain to fall into these traps.”

      Oh no, no, it isn’t certain at all. I think it just happens to a lot of people who start mono/poly relationships, especially when they’re starting out. I’ve just seen it happen a lot (with both mono/poly couples who make it long term and those who don’t). That’s all.

      “Are you saying that for the mono partner the toxic behaviour or thought pattern is inherent, but for others it is optional?”

      Nope, I am not saying that. I think a lot of us struggle with the toxic thought patterns we’ve internalized about love (poly, mono, and everywhere in between). I am saying that it can be harder on the mono partner in a mono/poly relationship, especially at the beginning, if they haven’t “‘done the work’ to examine where their assumptions about love come from,” as you well put it.

      “Finally I think it is fair to say that anyone who is in a committed mono/poly relationship has probably ‘done the work’ to examine where their assumptions about love come from.”

      Yes, I would so much agree. I imagine you have already done what the article advised to do. And you figured it out on your own! You have conquered the problem I’m addressing in this article.

      “Sometimes it helps to look at the ‘outliers’ to get the whole picture.”

      Yes! I actually looked at the 3 successful mono/poly couples I mention in the beginning of this comment when I wrote this piece. I looked at what they had done well and offered it in the challenging assumptions piece.

      Of course, this is just a beginning! They did a bunch of other stuff right as well.

      And as a sneak preview, I’m actually working on some pieces to write about other cool things my mono/poly friends did to make it work.

      It’s not unworkable. Previous commenter on this thread said it was unworkable, and a lot of poly people believe and say that mono/poly relationships are impossible, but I don’t think they are, having known 3 success stories personally in my friends group.

      So there’s a big gap in poly blogger land on mono/poly, and I’m thinking it would be nice to share some of that to help some of the newer mono/poly people.

      I hope that clarified and feel free to write more!

    2. I was the one claiming mono/poly is ‘unworkable’ .. But I do have a habit of expressing myself in terms of black-and-white. (And english is not my native language, so I struggle overall with expressing myself). To be clear, of course I know that mono/poly relationships can work.

      I do see why they tend to fail, though.

      One of the challenges with a mono/poly relationship is the relationship asymmetry. In times of trouble the “power balance” could easily tip in favour of the poly partner because they can rely on multiple supporting partners outside the marriage/relationship while the mono partner has no one. This could put the mono partner in an isolated and powerless position psychologically speaking. In a worst case scenario, the anxiety of losing the partner could become overwhelming. Overwhelming anxiety can create a form of traumatic bonding, in this case to the poly partner, which makes for a very unhealthy relationship dynamic.

      This is why I said mono/poly is ‘unworkable’ – but nothing is unworkable. People are different and anything is possible. I still think there are good reasons to avoid mono/poly relationships;-)

      I would like to add that mono/poly is by no means the only asymmetric relationship with the potential of becoming unbalaced and creating unequality between the partners.

      1. My last comment comes off as very technical, I see that, so I should add that I have no personal experience in mono/poly. However, I have worked with other types of relationship asymmetry, and I was extrapolating and making conjectures … I may have completely missed the target here, so if I am wrong, please feel free to correct me! (I’m looking for “the truth” about all things human, and because anything goes there’s a million small truths but also some bigger thruths. I’d love to know them all ..).

    3. Hello. I am new to the mono/poly dynamic. I am so interested in how you have made it work. Are there any tips you can give me?

  3. Vilde, thanks for your clarification. I see this risk indeed. Interestingly enough, letting go of the idea of symmetry as being needed was something that was very helpful for us. At first, it felt like I needed to ‘do poly’ too. It made me nervous. Letting go of that made it less symmetrical, but more equal. Equal in the sense that we both could be in the type of relationship that suited our needs best. In our situation, with a very ‘mono’ group of friends, I think I received more support than he did. My general assumption when it comes to a lot of things is that I try to hold off judgment. Not always easy, but it’s working for me. So I would not say what relationship style can or can not work, or what is better. To each their own…..

  4. Hi. I stumbled across this post while searching about toxic monogamy. I’m the mono in a mono/ poly relationship. Well, as of right now, we are only monogamous. I’ve also come to understand I fall in the toxic category. Two decades of abuse, cheating, and abandonment have left me a little worse for wear. He’s beyond understanding and patient with me as I learn what a good man/ relationship/ love is. He understands my hesitance towards opening up the relationship, and has stated that he’s fine with giving poly up, until I’m comfortable with poly of not indefinitely.

    I realize the impact of that statement. I also understand how hard that will be for him, as well as the fact that it’s not necessarily feasible to ask him to only have eyes for me.

    I guess my question is, are there any mono people or there tat have overcome the crippling toxicity and made a mono/ poly relationship work? If so, any advice?

    I love this many with every piece of me and want to heal and be the best me I can be for him as well as to be able to make him truly happy, no matter what.

  5. Hi Kh! Glad you found this post.

    “Are there any mono people or there tat have overcome the crippling toxicity and made a mono/ poly relationship work? If so, any advice?”

    Yes!

    If you haven’t checked them out already, you might find these two posts helpful:

    https://poly.land/2017/04/26/whats-mono-poly-basic-introduction/

    https://poly.land/2017/04/17/make-mono-poly-easier-monogamy-polyamory-spectrum-not-binary/

    I list some groups at the end of the first post. I can personally vouch for this one on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/PolyMono/

    There are many people in that group who are happy and making it work. And they give *excellent* advice.

    For other bloggers who are the monogamous halves of mono/poly couples, I recommend this blog by scarlett willow: http://polymonoworks.blogspot.com/

    As well as this one by Phi Phi (she’s a monogamous kinkster that’s in a mono/poly relationship): https://ohthatphi.wordpress.com/category/love-relationships/polyamory/

    *
    And on a personal note, I had a *hard* time adjusting to polyamorous relationships myself when I started. I had a very monogamous mindset and definitely was affected by the more toxic aspects of monogamy.

    So last but not least, here’s a post I wrote on building up a sense of emotional security… I had to work on it a lot:

    https://poly.land/2017/03/22/5-steps-feeling-safe-secure-polyamory/

Leave a Reply

You may also like