Toxic Monogamy and How It’s Impacting Your Relationships
We’re in an exciting age of relationship exploration. More and more couples are redefining what it means to be together – in taking non-traditional life paths, exploring diverse dynamics for relationships, and in challenging their own roles in the context of a partnership. As we learn new ways that we can be together, we’re also looking at some of the negative messages we’ve received around what a relationship should or shouldn’t look like. Many problematic aspects of relationships can be tied to the concept of toxic monogamy, which can be understood as the unhealthy messages we receive from living in a monogamous culture (i.e. a culture where monogamy is the assumed norm).
Monogamy in of itself is not a bad thing, just as polyamory and other ethical non-monogamy practices are not inherently good or bad. When we discuss toxic monogamy, we look at the messaging often linked with monogamous ideals and question how helpful these views are to any types of relationships, monogamous or not. Exploring toxic monogamy means exploring toxic relationships – something that’s relevant to all of us regardless of how many partners we do (or don’t!) have. In this article, we’re going to explore some of the larger messages associated with toxic monogamy and the way they impact our relationships.
All That & More
Something we cannot separate from monogamy is that for centuries, traditional monogamy (i.e. marriage) was a transaction above all else. Two parties came together to combine their assets in a way that far more resembled a business agreement than the true love we’ve come to associate with marriage. That’s not to say it’s a good or a bad thing that love has become the cornerstone of our view on marriage, but it is to say that a whole lot of weight has been added onto goals as they relate to relationships. As psychotherapist and relationship expert Esther Perel puts it:
“We still want all the same things that traditional marriage was about: family, companionship, economic support, and social status. But now I want you to also be my best friend, trusted confidant, and passionate lover to boot—and all for the long haul.”
This kind of pressure to be everything all at once serves to weaken our relationships overall. Our spouses, much like us, are only human. They will have strong points, weak points, things they know well and don’t know well, and a limited number of hours in the day. If you expect your partner to be your 24/7 support system, you will inevitably be disappointed when you discover they cannot be. The strongest partner relationships root themselves in understanding the need for other support systems outside the relationship. In polyamorous relationships, this might look like acknowleding different roles that each partner involved may serve. For all of us, this might look like acknowledging the importance of our non-romantic relationships – our friends, our families, our coworkers, etc. Dismantling the concept of “your partner is your top priority” allows us to be accommodating and forgiving more readily.
The “Other Half” Myth
Similar to the concept that our partners need to be our everything, toxic monogamy also enforces the idea that we are “completed” by our partners. This mentality can be problematic in several ways, not excluding implications it has towards folks who are polyamorous or who inversely do not wish to be in any kind of romantic or sexual relationship. Seeing people as our “other half” implies that by ourselves we are not whole and can stigmatize people who for whatever reason are not in a relationship. We can also misconstrue romantic relationships as a salve for any of our emotional concerns – “if I were in a relationship right now, then I wouldn’t feel so bad about myself”, “when I get married, then I’ll be happy”, “things will change when I meet the right guy”. In the discussion of not putting too much pressure on our partners, we must not put on the enormous pressure of being our solution to all life’s problems.
This view of one person as our one and only also puts our own attractions in a delicate box. Whether you’re monogamous or not, it’s perfectly normal to feel attraction to other people. Simply finding yourself attracted to others does not negate our commitments to your partner or partners. It also does not mean you are cheating on your partner just by having these feelings. When we take on this mindset that one person should be the apple of our eye, we neglect to have important conversations around boundaries. Regardless of relationship dynamics, it is necessary to directly define the ground rules of the relationship: How do you each define cheating? What type of behavior is okay versus isn’t? How have past experiences impacted your view towards betrayal?
You’ve probably heard it before – that jealousy can be a sign of love in relationships. You’ve likely also seen it played out in media depictions of romance: jealousy as this signifier of true love and affection. While jealousy is a natural human emotion that all of us will feel at some point in different ways, romanticizing jealousy and possessive behavior in relationships makes it acceptable to be controlling towards our partners. It sends a message that certain problematic behaviors (i.e. needs for constant updates, aggressive outbursts around jealousy, rigid rules for the relationship, demanding to always be present at social events) are okay and a sign of someone’s love.
Let’s take a note from polyamorous scholars and look at jealousy’s “opposite”: compersion. Compersion can be defined as the joy a person feels when they see another person’s joy. Traditionally, this has referred to someone feeling joy for a partner’s experiences with a metamour (your “partner’s partner”), but it can be generalized to happiness related to any experiences your partner may be having which you might not be involved in. Maybe compersion looks like excitement on your partner’s behalf when they are going on a vacation with only their family. Perhaps it's the contentment you feel when you know your partner gets to relax with a day off. Compersion may not come naturally – it may have to be someone you practice by reframing situations when you feel jealousy coming on. For example, if you feel upset that your partner is going to a concert with their friend and not you, you can reframe that envy to view the situation as a wonderful opportunity for your partner to have some time with another person they care for.
To sum it up, some of the ideas we’ve been told about what “true love” looks like actually are harmful to our relationships. Strict values rooted in monogamy around jealousy and the roles our partners must play for us work to undermine the important realization that our partners are people, too. Monogamy does not mean that our partners are everything for us all at once, it simply refers to relationships where a person only has one partner at a time. Even in polyamorous relationships, it’s important to be mindful of the roles that the messages we all receive can still impact how we interact with and what we expect from our partners. All relationships require frequent communication around expectations, boundaries, and trust. A final quote to consider is another precious gem from Dr. Perel:
“The grand illusion of committed love is that we think our partners are ours. In truth, their separateness is unassailable, and their mystery is forever ungraspable. As soon as we can begin to acknowledge this, sustained desire becomes a real possibility.”
- The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton & Janet W. Hardy
- The State of Affairs by Esther Perel
- Where Should We Begin? Podcast by Esther Perel
- Toxic Monogamy: 7 Statements That Make This Practice Harmful by Rachael Pace
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