What is Toxic Monogamy?

Glass bottle of green poison labelled toxic

People ... words are hard. Especially words that make us feel feelings. Sometimes, when we hear words, we forget to listen and instead we start feeling. Because they're words that feel like they're meant to hurt us. 

But usually, if we take a breath, and unpack them a bit, we can learn a bit more about them. 

For instance, the words 'toxic monogamy'. Now, on the surface it might feel like these words are saying that monogamy is toxic. But actually, that's not at all what these words mean! Monogamy isn't inherently more or less toxic than any other relationship style. It's just a way of having a relationship.

Toxic monogamy refers to the parts of monogamy that can be unhealthy or harmful. And sometimes it's the parts we might not notice or even parts that we normalise or celebrate that can be the most unhealthy. This can make it really hard to recognise when we're doing something that might be harmful to someone we love. 

There's a temptation here, for people like myself who practise ethical non-monogamy, to smugly think, "well, clearly I don't need to worry about toxic monogamy if I'm not monogamous." But, sadly, that's not how it works. Because most of us were raised in a society that prioritises monogamous relationships and whose media reinforces messages of toxic monogamy. Most of us were raised without representation of monogamous queer or inter-racial relationships, let alone representation of non-monogamous relationships. So it makes sense that most of us have internalised many of the messages of toxic monogamy. The hard part now, is making sure we don't carry those messages into our relationships with others. 

Now, this is all good and well, but you might still be wondering what toxic monogamy actually looks like. There are a lot of different forms it can take, but let's run through just a small sample to help unravel some of the mystery around this term. 

Jealousy means love

In the media we consume, we're often fed the narrative that someone who loves you will be jealous when other people are attracted to you (in whatever form that attraction takes). For example, If your partner really loves you, they'll have negative emotions when your sexy colleague asks you out on a date. 

But in a non-toxic situation, jealousy isn't an expectation. If you're flattered by your colleague’s gesture, then your partner can be happy for you and share your joy (this is called compersion and it's really nice).   

Here's another important thing to be aware of: although jealousy is a natural human emotion, it can also be used to justify abusive behaviour. If a partner (or anyone in your life) uses their jealousy to control your behaviour or restrict your movements or freedoms in any way, let's be clear - that's not any type of love.

Your partner should meet all your needs

There's this idea that a perfect partner is someone who is able to meet all of your physical, emotional and social needs. And honestly, what are the fucking chances of that? 

For a start, if you plan on being together forever, all of those things are going to change drastically as you age. Secondly, that is a huge ask for just one person.
 
In the world of ethical non-monogamy we often talk about how it’s unrealistic to expect one partner to meet all our needs, and so it makes sense to have multiple partners. But many of these same people will still put together a dating profile that looks like a grocery list for their all-your-needs-met ideal partner. 

Because it’s easy to forget that it doesn't just have to be partners meeting our needs - we still have friends, family members and even therapists. We don't have to collect partners until we have all our bases covered. 

The relationship escalator

The relationship escalator, if you're not familiar with the term, is the idea that every relationship is on the same, intractable path towards marriage, kids and a white picket fence. Toxic monogamy really doubles down on this by seeing any relationship that doesn't have these things (or isn't actively working towards them) as less valuable. Bob and Carol might have been together for 40 years, but they never married, have no kids and apparently used to host key parties in the 70s. So their relationship isn't as meaningful as Shannon and Henry, who have been married for 5 years and are about to have their second child.

In reality, there are many other ways to value a partnership. I mean, everyone knows the only true way to judge a relationship is based on the absurd nicknames they have for each other and whether they're brave enough to use them in public … right? 

Love conquers all

Love (or New Relationship Energy, very often confused) is a hell of a drug. Under its spell, we will often put aside logic in the belief that we can make a relationship work, no matter the obstacles.

Toxic monogamy culture makes this even worse. Most romantic movies and novels of the 20th century were based on the idea that with love, anything is possible. And even though, rationally, we’re able to understand that these are works of fiction and we shouldn’t be basing our real world lives on them, sadly it's a message that’s repeated so often, that many of us do.

But the cold, hard truth is that it doesn't work that way. Loving someone isn't enough to conquer a mild flu or a traffic jam. It certainly won't overcome the tyranny of distance, irreconcilable differences or a fundamental mismatch in worldviews. 

Sometimes it's better to call it quits than to hang onto a person or relationship that just isn’t going to work out - even if there's still care and affection there. In fact, some could argue that it may even be the kindest thing to do, if you care about your partner but know it's not working. 

These are just some examples of toxic monogamy. There are plenty more out there, and maybe you'll start to notice some more in the media you consume now that you're watching for them. 

But just remember, whether you're in a monogamous relationship, an ethically non-monogamous relationship, or looking for a new relationship - none of us is immune from these kinds of behaviours. All we can do is be aware of how we're treating the people around us and be mindful of our actions.

3 comments

  • certainduo

    certainduo

    More than a month ago

    This is a brilliant read. Thanks.

    Reply
  • BEDMAN7678

    BEDMAN7678

    More than a month ago

    Shout out to MissSmutButtons for her thoughtful, reflective yet punchy posts. I love her language and the depth she provides which - to me - is way above of what the usual (often self-acclaimed) expert broadcasts on social media.

    Reply
  • MissMasBeach

    MissMasBeach

    More than a month ago

    Pair bonding is found throughout nature and human society. It is a good thing for many reasons. It is never going away. Nor should it.
    Promiscuity is also a good thing, and also not going away.
    Ethical non-monogamy reconciles the very best of both. I would love everyone to have the opportunity, or at least the knowledge that they have the option.

    Reply
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