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

·730 words·4 mins

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 culture.

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.
  • Jealousy is the best indicator of love.
  • Commitment is  chiefly about exclusivity and forsaking all others (and not  followthrough).
  • How much your romantic partner values you should be a large part of your self-worth.

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.


Note: “Toxic monogamy culture” is a phrase that refers to a specific kind of socially isolated, maladaptive monogamy. “Toxic” is a modifier. Much in the same way that one can decry “abusive relationships” and not be a fan of them — while not thinking or asserting that all relationships are abusive, referring to “toxic monogamy culture” doesn’t mean that all monogamy is toxic. That’s an absurd notion.


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