On Halloween of 2016, I published a post titled “Toxic Monogamy,” in which I wrote:
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.
In that essay I coined the term “toxic monogamy culture” to describe this specific type of maladaptive monogamy. One that is inherently isolating and carries with it a number of unhelpful beliefs:
- 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.
That article became extremely popular, as did the concept of toxic monogamy culture. Since that post came out, toxic monogamy has been the subject of many popular memes. Groups have formed that share posts demonstrating toxic monogamy culture in action (for example, the Facebook group Sounds Like Toxic Monogamy Culture But Ok). And mainstream online media outlets have published their own articles on the subject (for example, Everyday Feminism’s October 2017 article “How TV Teaches Us Toxic Monogamy“).
Sure, not everyone is in love with the term. Some don’t realize that “toxic monogamy culture” is a phrase that refers to a specific kind of monogamy, not to monogamy in general. “Toxic” is a modifier. Much in the same way that one can decry “abusive relationships” without 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.
But of all the new phrases that I’ve put out there these past two years, “toxic monogamy culture” is the one that caught on the most.
Why It Was So Easy for Me to Write About Toxic Monogamy Culture
There’s a reason that I found it easy to write about toxic monogamy culture. And that’s not because I’m some kind of super enlightened polyamorous person native to Planet Non-Monogamy.
No way, Jose. I am no such thing.
Unlike a lot of other polyamorous educators, I didn’t always know I was polyamorous — or even that polyamory was something people should be doing at all. And I certainly didn’t think it was something I should be doing. Indeed, I considered myself quite a monogamous person growing up. Even now, I think of myself as being more ambiamorous than anything else, able to happily practice either polyamory or monogamy, all depending on the situation and the individuals involved.
And truth be told, I didn’t have the easiest transition to polyamorous life when I first realized such a thing was possible a decade ago. I struggled with many things. I entered polyamory a highly jealous person and had to learn ways to productively face and work through jealousy and insecurity. To be frank, I started out my romantic life as a jealous hosebeast.
Part of my personal difficulty adjusting to consensual non-monogamy stemmed from the fact that I’d internalized a cultural script about monogamy and romance that was very all or nothing. Or in other words, I was the poster child for toxic monogamy.
The reason I coined the term toxic monogamy to describe a form of relationship exclusivity that leads to social isolation wasn’t that it was some abstract foe that I was fighting that existed somewhere out in the ether. No, I knew a great deal about the toxic version of monogamy. Because I had lived it.
But at the time, it hadn’t seemed toxic at all. It had seemed normal, like the way things simply are. The way that people did relationships. I was the proverbial fish who didn’t realize I was surrounded by water.
Pretending You’ve Never Been in Love With Anyone Else
I used to believe that you had to be someone’s One and Only for a relationship to be valid. And not only did you have to be their One and Only right then, but you also had to come out on top when considering their connections with others throughout their life. To be someone’s One True Love, you had to be the only person your partner ever really loved.
Not only could I not imagine myself being polyamorous, it drove me crazy even thinking about my current partner’s ex–lovers. The fact that they existed and had once been important to my partner tormented me.
And most of my partners over the years felt the same way. It was deeply painful for them when I’d start telling a story from my past that had an ex as a positive character in it. Even if the anecdote weren’t about anything sexual or romantic.
Since this was True Love we were in. And everyone knew there was only one True Love. So there was no way the feelings in those past relationships could be real. Which meant those relationships didn’t count. And that I wasn’t really in love.
It was easy to rewrite history in that manner. To pretend I’d never truly cared about people that I had once been completely taken with. And it was expected.
But you know, I did care about my exes. Maybe we weren’t compatible. Maybe things didn’t work out. But those relationships were real. They happened. And I certainly experienced joy, love, and a sense of commitment while I was in them.
Polyamory wasn’t an easy transition for me. But one of my favorite things I discovered was that there was suddenly no pressure to pretend that I’ve never been in love with anyone else. And that alone was pretty freeing.
These days, when I do practice monogamy, I only practice the non-toxic kind. (Yes, non-toxic monogamy certainly exists!) Part of that is the freedom to honestly acknowledge past and present attractions to others, even if I’m consciously not acting on them.
I’m No Stranger to Bisexual Erasure
While I didn’t practice polyamory until the last decade or so, I’ve been bisexual for as long as I can remember. And as such, I’m no stranger to bisexual erasure. It’s been a constant companion no matter where I go.
Bisexual erasure involves basically any attempt to invalidate bisexuality as a real sexual identity, whether intentional or unintentional. Bi erasure can take many forms, but I’ve found two to be the most common:
- The belief that bisexuality isn’t a real sexual orientation but instead a “phase” or transitory state, that self-identifying bisexuals are confused and experimenting, and that any bisexual person will eventually come out as “actually” straight or gay/lesbian when they stop being confused
- The assumption that when a bisexual person takes on a single partner that the bisexual person in question is no longer bisexual and is now either straight or gay/lesbian
That second one’s a killer. When I got married, many relatives expressed relief that I was finally “straight” and over my “gay phase” (i.e., quite a phase as it included a 6-year entanglement with a woman and a multitude of briefer/more casual connections). Lovely.
Bisexual Erasure Is a Natural Byproduct of Toxic Monogamy Culture
I grew up being taught to disregard past relationships as mere shadows of love, impostors, not real. And being taught that true love had to be monogamous.
I was raised to believe that you’re not allowed to have more than one loving relationship at a time. And that everything that happened in your romantic past doesn’t really count.
Bisexual erasure is a natural byproduct of toxic monogamy culture. It stems from the obligation to dismiss past relationships as less real than your current one. And to pretend you’ve never been in love with anyone else.
Under these terms, there’s basically no way to have “real” relationships with more than one gender. Because you’re not allowed to have “real” relationships with more than one person. Not just at a time, but over the course of your lifetime.
Like a coupon that reads “Limit of One Soulmate Per Customer.”
Under these terms, it’s awfully hard for bisexuality to exist.