Why Non-Toxic Monogamy Is a Beautiful Thing & Why Yes = No, No = Yes

a house with a colorful abstract mural painted on its side that reads "Be Excellent to Each Other"
Image by Jeremy Segrott / CC BY

Even though I run a site called Poly.Land, sometimes people are surprised to find out that these days I don’t consider myself to be primarily polyamorous per se — but ambiamorous.

I’ve written about ambiamory many times on this site, for example:

To Make Mono/Poly Easier, View Monogamy and Polyamory as a Spectrum, Not a Binary

Reasons Why 5 Ambiamorous People Are Functionally Monogamous…At Least for Now

But perhaps my most comprehensive work on it so far has been a piece for Kinkly called “You’ve Heard of Polyamory, but What About Ambiamory?

As I’ve written before, it’s also safe to say that I subscribe to the “it’s all bullshit” school of relationship anarchy (and very solidly do not subscribe to the “jimmie rustling” school, sorry not sorry).

If you want to go in deeper, feel free to read all of that. But basically, what you need to know is that I’m comfortable being monogamous or non-monogamous. I do not consider one relationship structure style to be superior to the other. What’s more important to me is who exactly it is I’m dating. What they’re like. How they treat me.

How many people I’m dating at once is less integral to my identity.

Monogamy, Bad Fits, and Good Ole Tox-Mon

I’ve spoken a bit about potential downsides of a monogamous relationship. Sometimes when a monogamous relationship is bad it’s because of a bad fit (here’s everything I’ve written that deals with compatibility in some form). But that’s not monogamy’s fault or anything. That’s literally a problem with all relationships. Compatibility can be fussy.

The other thing I’ve found to happen in monogamous relationships, that seems to happen more frequently in that relationship structure than in others, is social isolation perpetrated by maladaptive jealousy-coping behaviors (something that’s also called toxic monogamy culture). You know what I’m talking about. People not being allowed to even have friends because there’s a fear of infidelity. “If another woman so much looks at my man, I’ll KILL HER!” Etc.

Now, this doesn’t happen in every monogamous relationship. At all. Typically, I’ve found the folks in healthy, non-toxic monogamous relationships (which has included people I know and even me from time to time) easily acknowledge that those sorts of beliefs are NO BUENO (more on that below).

But just like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead, when toxic monogamy is bad, it’s horrid.

When Non-Monogamists Drag Toxic Monogamy With Them Into a Larger, More Complicated Relationship Structure

As many people have pointed out, toxic monogamy beliefs aren’t exclusive to monogamous relationships either. You can be non-monogamous and try to socially isolate your partners (systemically, through guilt, whatever) rather than coping with your own jealousy.

Look, it’s true. I dated someone like this. A polyamorous person who didn’t want me to make friends. Who wanted control over my calendar. And you know, it was awful.

Typically, I’ve found the non-monogamists who are acting all tox-mon are less experienced ones, bringing in socially isolating behaviors. Newbies.

But it’s possible given a certain support system (typically an enabling nesting partner) for someone to never grow or challenge their own jealousy coping, even in a non-monogamous context. And to effectively combine the most challenging parts of monogamy (relationship policing and potential for isolation) with the most challenging parts of polyamory (the complexity and increased scale) – creating a chimera of disappointment and disaster.

It happens.

When Toxic Monogamy Is Effectively Challenged By Non-Monogamous Experiences

But toxic monogamy in longer-term polyamorists happens less than the other outcome I’ve seen: People arriving with tox-mon beliefs, having them challenged and challenged hard by non-monogamy, and reaching a crisis point because of it. Finding that they have to either become monogamous again or push past the beliefs.

What’s interesting here is that a lot of people who try open relationships do stay open.

But others decide monogamy is better for them. And those folks seem to internalize something from the experience that changes the way they view monogamy.

It’s different depending on the person. But I’ve found a lot of them become profoundly non-toxic monogamists afterward. (And for the record, there are tons of non-toxic monogamists out there, just like there’s a lot of non-toxic masculinity in the world.)

Rejecting the Assumptions of Toxic Monogamy Can Be Done While Monogamous

Being non-monogamous is not the only route to non-toxic monogamy (and as I noted, as a strategy it doesn’t work every time). Honestly being a non-toxic monogamist is mostly about questioning and rejecting 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.

None of this requires seeing other people, for any length of time. And if you’re monogamous, and you already think these ideas are all a load of hooey, then awesome. You’re a non-toxic monogamist. And I bet your relationship rawks. Rawks hard!

Thank you for rawking out some non-toxic monogamy.

I’d Like to Talk About My Most Persistent Issue with Practicing Non-Monogamy

Anyway, that’s monogamy. Fundamental problems that I encounter, depending on context.

I’d also like to talk about what sorts of problems I have with non-monogamy. In the beginning, I struggled with the same ones that are typically most pressing for people, like coping with jealousy or insecurity (work I’ve found helpful even when I’m monogamous). In addition to those, I had a hard time with my own perfectionism. Basically, I felt like I was shortchanging my partners by having more of them, even when they assured me I was doing a good job. And that was a big struggle for me.

But I’ve done a lot of work on that stuff. (And have written a lot of articles and 3 books to help other people sort through it.) And I’m actually doing well with all of that. There’s really only one issue that remains. One I don’t think that’s going away.

I haven’t talked about this very much on the blog, but here goes.

Tradeoffs & Why Yes = No, No = Yes

The biggest issue I have with practicing polyamory is this: It’s that tradeoffs are a consummate fact of life. As they say, you can have everything but not all at once. Saying yes to some things means saying no to other things. You really do only have so much time and energy, for everything you want to do in your life.

And the opposite is true, when it come to taking on new commitments, saying no to some things means you’re able to say yes to other things.

Disappointing, but there’s really no getting around it.

It’s something I found helpful to learn as a recovering people pleaser. It was hard for me to learn to say no to people when they asked me for things I really didn’t want to do. But doing so was essential to free up the resources (time, energy, money) for me to pursue the things I wanted to say yes to.

Shifting Priorities Can Result In Shifting Relationship Structures

Anyway, I have a lot I want to do outside of my love life. I work a lot, write, and volunteer on projects that mean a lot to me.

Once upon a time, my love life, my sex life, was more central to me. Both as a focus emotionally and as part of my identity.

But I’m finding that over the years, I don’t want to spend as much time dating. And by dating, I mean both looking for partners and also to invest the time, attention, and focus it takes to build up authentic, meaningful romantic relationships with new people.

I’m definitely open to lovely surprises if and when they show up. But hunting for them? Actively looking for those connections?

I’m just not in that frame of mind. For starters, I really enjoy my own company. Reading, writing, playing music, making things. My existing love life situation is grand. And I have friends to talk to.

It’s a profoundly weird place to be. But I think it’s easy for a person who is open to way more than monogamy in philosophical and moral terms (and has even spent quite a time of actively exploring that, studying it, and teaching other people) to find their priorities shift.

It isn’t even an emotionally violent conversion, mind you, more of a drift. Not a situation where people are broken up with, kicked to the curb. But more a situation where you don’t really seek out new partners when old relationships expire of their own accord. (Because other people are experiencing their own drifts/changes in priorities, ones that potentially lead away from you.)

I know it’s happened to me. (More than once.) And I’m sure it’s happened to other people. Even if it’s not something people talk about much.

As Long As You’re Excellent to Yourself and the People You Love, You’re on the Right Track

Anyway, I’ve been meaning to write this piece for ages. I’ve tried to be as truthful as I can be in it. I really do mean it when I say that I think monogamy and non-monogamy can both be lovely, viable ways to structure relationships.

Just like I’m not about to tell everyone else on the planet that they have to eat X kind of diet or “it’s wrong and omgggg unhealthy” (people can be positively moralistic about diets, can’t they?), I’m not going to tell people what relationship structure should work for everyone. At every time in their life. Forever.

Because it doesn’t work that way.

I think as long as you’re excellent to yourself and the people you love, you’re on the right track.

*

Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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2 Comments

  1. Oh thank god. Someone finally said it out loud. Love may be infinite but time and bandwidth is not. You really can’t have it all at once.

    I’ve come to the same functionally monogamous place in my poly life, but I have been far more ambivalent and ungraceful about the shift in my priorities, particularly because my partner is not in the same place. I feel greater ease knowing I’m not alone. Thank you.

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