What is toxic monogamy?
I think “toxic monogamy” is a rather new and relatively undefined term. A Google search only really leads to one Tumblr post which has been circulating recently, and this is how I was introduced to the concept in the first place. As I attempt to introduce the term “toxic monogamy,” I would first liken it to the term “toxic masculinity.” Toxic masculinity is a better known concept defined as “the socially-constructed attitudes that describe masculine gender roles.” So, similarly, I would call toxic monogamy the socially-constructed attitudes that describe traditional monogamous relationships. The beliefs that make up both toxic masculinity and toxic monogamy are widely accepted, widely unquestioned, and have arguably negative consequences for those whose lives operate within these belief systems.
What toxic monogamy is NOT
Toxic monogamy is not the same as gender roles or gender stereotypes. The belief that within a relationship the woman is supposed to cook, clean, and raise the children while the man works and pay bills is based on societal gender roles. These carry with them their own set of negative consequences- but it’s important to note that they are separate issues and not within the definition of toxic monogamy.
Breaking down the Tumblr post
I apologize to the author of this post that I am unable to sort out exactly which Tumblr handle or author to credit. I’m sure it’s not too difficult to find, but I’m not much of a Tumblr-er so I am admittedly inept at obtaining this information. If anyone knows this or can find it, please feel free to comment below so I can add it in.
The normalization of jealousy as an indicator of love.
Absolutely. When I read this, lyrics from the popular Nick Jonas song “Jealous” immediately come to mind. “It’s my right to get jealous.” I don’t know, something about the assertion in those lyrics is really off-putting to me. Wouldn’t you rather feel secure enough in yourself and in your relationship that you don’t ever need to feel jealous? Calling it your “right” means that not only do you expect to be jealous, but also, you’re demanding complete acceptance of your jealousy. This kind of perspective doesn’t leave room for the possibility that jealousy can be inappropriate or misguided. It means that you’re not likely to work on your own insecurities, or reach out to your partner to work towards mutual trust. That’s not a healthy philosophy.
Now, let’s be clear- we’re all imperfect, fallible human beings. Having perfect security in yourself and in your partner at all times is not easy. Jealousy is arguably a natural reaction. But the other interesting thing about jealousy in a relationship is what creates it. It stems from the idea that the person you’re with is “yours”. No others are allowed to have certain types of relationships with them. I recently saw a quote I liked on this matter:
“There is another kind of possessiveness. You do not possess any other human being, no matter how closely related that other may be. No husband owns his wife; no wife owns her husband; no parents own their children. When we think we possess people there is a tendency to run their lives for them, and out of this develop extremely inharmonious situations. Only when we realize that we do not possess them, that they must live in accordance with their own inner motivations, do we stop trying to run their lives for them, and then we discover that we are able to live in harmony with them. Anything that you strive to hold captive will hold you captive – and if you desire freedom you must give freedom.” -Peace Pilgrim
This quote rings true in every way. You’ll never be able to force a person to stay “yours” in any way, and you’ll never have the right to make them stick to any agreement they’ve made to do so. Individuals can change, and their ideas and feelings can change. Now, I’m not advocating against monogamy by saying that- but I would like to point out that the love of a person probably isn’t worth having if it isn’t given by them freely- even if it once was. So jealousy, in my opinion, holds very little place in the kind of partnership most of us truly desire.
The idea that sufficiently intense love is enough to overcome any practical incompatibilities.
I don’t know about this one. I’m not entirely sure what the author means by all of this. What are “practical incompatibilities” and what is considered “sufficiently intense love”? I’m unsure what kind of incompatibility could exist that two people with “sufficient” love couldn’t work to overcome or work to accept about each other. At first, I thought sexuality might be one (for example, a gay person being part of a heterosexual couple). But then, I wouldn’t personally define that type of relationship as having a “sufficiently intense love” in the first place. I give this one a stamp of disapproval, pending any further information or other compelling arguments.
The idea that you should meet your partner’s every need, and if you don’t, you’re either inadequate, or they’re too needy.
This is a big one. It echoes the notion that a relationship is meant to complete you, and therefore satisfy you in a way that no other accomplishment or achievement ever could. If your partner doesn’t “completely satisfy” you, you might end up thinking that they’re an inadequate partner. Or perhaps, a less satisfying relationship will make you feel “unworthy” or “incapable of receiving” the type of deep fulfillment that you think you’re supposed to get out of a loving relationship. These are all untrue and lead to all sorts of expectations that neither of you will ever be capable of living up to.
The idea that a sufficiently intense love should cause you to cease to be attracted to anyone else.
Humans are incapable of voluntarily “shutting off” attraction, and no amount of love can shut it off either. Attraction exists like appreciation for music exists. Your music selection is made up of personal likes and dislikes, developed over time, which influence the music you are drawn to. No one can come in and tell you to stop liking a genre or a band that you like. It simply won’t work.
This belief, similar to many others we’ve highlighted, is inevitably going to make you believe that your partner doesn’t love you enough and/or you don’t love your partner enough, because you will both fail at changing this.
The idea that commitment is synonymous with exclusivity.
I agree that this mentality is incorrect, because there are many types of committed relationships which are just as valid, and just as serious, and just as loving. So adding this expectation about monogamy does add to its “toxicity” as a belief system.
The idea that marriage and children are the only valid teleological justifications for being committed to a relationship.
I agree that this is toxic also. A couple can stay together for their whole lives and never marry each other. Does that mean they love each other less than those who do get married? No, the choice against marriage or against having children does not necessarily indicate that their love or commitment is less than any other couple’s love and commitment.
The idea that your insecurities are always your partner’s responsibilities to tip-toe around and never your responsibility to work on.
I’m beginning to see that while writing this list, the author started defining WAYS that a monogamous relationship could be toxic, rather than discussing monogamy itself and the toxic societal belief systems that surround it. I look forward to being able to further break this down as we continue.
The idea that your value to your partner is directly proportional to the amount of time and energy they spend on you, and it is a zero-sum competition with everything else they value in life.
This is definitely a toxic situation. People often get jealous of their partner’s hobbies and friends. A lot of people expect that a relationship should take up most of their time and energy if they “really loved each other.” This is not necessarily true. It is also not necessarily true that relationships must be the main “goal” that a person needs to seek in their life. Suppose they find their career more fulfilling than their marriage? Does that mean their marriage is a bad one, or they don’t love their spouse enough? No, it doesn’t. You can be completely in love with someone but not let it rule your identity. I would even venture to say that it shouldn’t ever rule your identity.
The idea that being of value to your partner should always make up a large chunk of how you value yourself.
I don’t think the problem lies in that people think their value to their partner should make up how valuable they feel as a person. But I do think they often end up feeling that way or are made to feel that way. (Although, perhaps I’m arguing the semantics of this sentence, and the author was getting at the same idea.) I definitely think this issue qualifies as systemic, because not only are we taught to value monogamous relationships and to strive to be in one, but we are also taught that our partners’ satisfaction is now our personal priority and responsibility. This can certainly make you feel like you’re failing when your partner cannot find contentment with their own life or circumstances. It’s harmful because true happiness is only possible within a person, and your partner is ultimately the only person capable of finding this for themselves. Similarly, your partner is incapable of providing true happiness for you, and it is not a failure on their part when you cannot do so.
Thinking about Monogamy
Backing it way up, we need to talk about where monogamy comes from. The theories differ a bit, but most of them state that the male animal stays with the female they mated with in order to ensure the survival of their offspring, and/or to make a claim on the female for reproductive purposes. Humans are not so easily explained, though we still share many of our animalistic instincts- like men’s desire to spread their seed, and women’s desires for a provider who also sticks around.
But that’s not all of the story. Ancient people were primarily polyamorous.
An article from Psychology Today says that “most ancestral men aspired to polygyny (even though most weren’t impressive enough to attract more than one wife), and some ancestral women preferred to be the co-wife of a really impressive man than the sole wife of a second-rate one. In other words, the genetically encoded psychological machinery of human mating behavior was built by, and for, a world in which striving for polygyny was often reproductively advantageous. That’s why people living in modern societies often seem inclined towards polygyny, even in cultures that have attempted to abolish it.”
The article goes on to explain that monogamy is a relatively new revelation, and possibly began as a way for societies to grow larger in the interest of military advantage. Men seek wives, so when a few “top dogs” have many wives, there are quite a few men left out, who then leave the group in search of their own wives. Limiting the amount of wives one man could have meant more men stayed, which was advantageous not necessarily for reproduction, but to have soldiers available. This is how laws came to be put in place about marriage.
So monogamy isn’t a natural state for any of us. But working in an office building for 40 hours a week isn’t a natural state for any of us either. Society progresses in ways to keep it functioning. What’s historically “natural” isn’t the main picture per se.
The importance of pointing out the evolution of monogamy is to realize that our ideas of monogamy are very socially-based, and therefore, so are the rules that come with it. As it currently exists, most of us not only expect to have a partner, but we expect everyone of a certain age to have a partner, to reproduce, and to be romantically and sexually exclusive with that partner. We consider these as synonymous with monogamy- and synonymous with normal social behavior- because that’s how things have always been presented to us.
Do YOU even want this?
The trap that a lot of people fall into is the belief that humankind is at the height of technology and knowledge. Hear me out on this: while it’s true that today, in 2017, we are more advanced and informed than ever before, we must recognize that humankind will soon look back on this time as more primitive than we believe it is- just as we do when thinking about decades and centuries past. Therefore, the assumption we are doing everything right is not only arrogant, but incredibly ignorant. The truth is, how we conduct our relationships with each other is primarily based on social norms, and we should note that social norms are among the least scientific, least informed driving points of our daily decisions… And that’s because they’re the ones we think about the least.
Imagine you were born in a different time, and into a different culture, where the rules were not the same. Would you still desire this? Would you still see it the way you do now? Likely you would not. It’s important to realize that your values are made up in the context of the influences around you. Once you start to see it this way, you free up your mind from the rules that don’t make sense, and choose the ones that fit your preferences.
It’s actually toxic
When we look around at each other through this lense, it becomes clear that we’re actually hurting ourselves, and each other, by perpetuating and acting upon some of these belief systems. I’ll let Louis CK (please forgive the bad timing for including him in this) add a little humor for us: