This has been an awfully strange year for me. Since the middle of March, I’ve seen no one else in person aside from my live-in partner and the occasional delivery driver (both of us masked). The only person I’ve been unmasked around has been my live-in partner.
These are the perfect conditions for the kind of insularity that can threaten a bond, by making both parties feel trapped, smothered, or deprived. And yet, we’ve avoided that.
If anything, I’m finding we’re closer than ever. We’re getting along extremely well, despite being forced into close quarters together. We’ve not only been functionally monogamous but also just plain socially isolated on top of that. And not just in a simple romantic/sexual way. But we’ve spent basically no in-person time with friends for the better part of a year.
This is not normal for us. It seems like a potentially socially toxic environment.
And yet, we’re thriving. Wow.
So it occurred to me the other day that this experience beautifully demonstrates something I’ve tried to express many times: That being exclusive — in any way, shape, or form — doesn’t mean that a social situation is toxic. Not at all.
I’m not one of those polyamorous people who think monogamy = bad. (Nor do I think that polyamory = good in every situation). I know plenty of non-toxic, wonderful monogamous relationships.
Whether a relationship or relationship system is healthy depends less on the structure and more on the motivation for the relationship structure — why a situation is exclusive or open.
The reality is that there are people who want relationship exclusivity because they think it’ll help them control someone else. Because they’re afraid that given any sort of social freedom that their partner wouldn’t choose them. And that’s a situation that is inherently toxic. That is what people mean when they talk about toxic monogamy.
At this point, many readers will typically go, “Well, yes, Page, but what about toxic polyamory? Why don’t you write an article about that?”
Well, it turns out, that I’ve done one better than writing an article about it. I wrote an entire book about toxic polyamory. The first few years of my polyamorous experience were riddled with dubious behavior and questionable motives — from those around me, yes, but also from me, too. So if you’re looking for my views on the ugly side of polyamory, that’s where I’d recommend you look. (Fun fact: The working title I used for that manuscript when I was writing the rough draft in 2012 was Bad Polyamory, a Case Study.)
Toxic Monogamy in the Time of Lockdown
Anyway, it’s interesting. I have certainly seen some examples of toxic monogamy culture during lockdown — in other relationships.
What would that look like? Well, here’s an example drawn from a work from home situation a friend conveyed to me: My friend has a group chat that she uses to communicate with her coworkers. For the most part, it’s full of work stuff, but they do include safe for work bits of their personal lives — pictures of their pets, what they’re cooking for dinner, that sort of thing. Anyway, in this group chat, a female coworker posted a picture of her new haircut she’d given herself at home because she’s not going to hair salons during COVID.
Harmless. Cute. Neat.
And then after she posted it, the group chat conversation proceeded onto operational realities. Work stuff.
However, the shit hit the fan later when one of the guys who is also in the group chat had his wife go through his phone, snooping for signs of untoward behavior and saw this picture of his coworker sporting her new hairstyle in his photos folder. (Group chats often will auto-download the pictures other people post onto your phone, even if you didn’t interact with said photos at all.)
This wife took the existence of this photo on her husband’s phone as evidence that he was cheating on her. Because why would he have a (safe for work) photo of another woman on his phone if he weren’t? (This male coworker additionally has no history of unfaithfulness apparently, making the whole thing even stranger.)
It turned into a Big Thing. Even though this male coworker was able to show her the group work chat and trace the origin of the photo, his wife still didn’t believe him. And the fight that resulted stretched on for days.
I Am Very Grateful that While I May Be Isolated, I Still Feel Free
Anyway, it makes me really grateful that even when I’m functionally monogamous with my partner (we’re both basically ambiamorous people at the end of the day, for what it’s worth, not squarely polyamorous or monogamous but able to do either happily depending on the health of the situation), that our relationship never looks like THAT.
Even when I haven’t seen another friend in person for months on end, I feel very free. Very unrestricted. And not a bit smothered.
It’s a good lesson about non-toxic monogamy, I think.