Toxic Monogamy: What If Happily Ever After Isn't That Happy After All?
Consider the concept of "happily ever after." The prince and princess marry, live in a big castle, are waited on hand and foot, and are no doubt infatuated with each other and sexually satisfied forevermore.
Currently, monogamy is the core of our romantic and sexual cultural norms. We even celebrate the symmetry of the animals marching off with Noah onto the ark in neat lines of pairs.
Monogamy is everywhere. It's in our advertising, our pop music and our political speeches.
But what about toxic monogamy?
Even a concept as pervasive as monogamy can be tricky to nail down. The experts don't always agree, offering distinctly different views on what constitutes toxic monogamy and how to address it.
What is toxic monogamy?
First, monogamy isn't inherently out of date or doomed, but it's also not as defined as we've been led to believe. The "rules" of monogamy can feel exacting and inflexible—and that's where the toxicity often comes in.
Monogamy is far from being a one-size-fits-all concept. Often, the problems in a monogamous relationship start when couples are unsatisfied with the sex they are having within the rigid and assumed codes they believe constrict them.
The steel-trap version of monogamy might have its foundation in an agricultural society, Los Angeles-based AASECT-certified sex educator Suzannah Weiss said, building on author Hillary Berry's explanation of monogamy as a cultural institution in her article called "Toxic Monogamy Culture."
We learn about it from watching movies and TV and through religion, Weiss said. We're shown or told that if someone cheats, they should be punished in some way, up to and including death in extreme cases.
However, the indefinability of implied "cheating" and what constitutes unfaithfulness creates a weak spot in many relationships.
Is it cheating to watch porn? Masturbate? Chat online with someone?
Not everyone feels the same, but people might assume their partner shares an understanding of cheating and monogamy. This might lead to a situation where one partner gets upset at the other for checking someone out on their favorite show.
Recognizing that monogamy might not look the same to everyone means opening a dialogue, even if it feels silly or inherently established. Additionally, it should not be a one-time event consisting of "having the talk," after which you're done forever. As people and relationships change and grow, those views might change and grow, too.
Monogamous couples often believe rules and boundaries only apply to open or non-monogamous relationships, according to Royal Oak, Michigan-based sex and relationship therapist Joe Kort, Ph.D. However, this is simply not true.
The terms of what monogamy looks like to the people involved are a relationship contract. This requires a continual and open willingness to negotiate terms. Partners should revisit their limits and expectations every few years.
It means identifying potentially toxic elements, such as possessiveness and suspicion, which are destructive in any relationship. Jealousy is a potent source of toxicity, which we've been led to see as acceptable and necessary.
"There's an idea that jealousy is normal—a sign of love," Kort said.
We think of jealousy (and its counterpart, competitiveness) as proof of commitment, but it encourages a negative bond versus a positive one.
"Spread awareness that relationships don't have to be based on an idea of ownership," Weiss said, adding that control is only sexy when used consensually.
Another really unhealthy idea is that your partner is responsible for your happiness and, therefore, you should sacrifice everything for them. This promotes a martyr-like view of what it means to be committed to someone.
Kort said he recently went on vacation without his partner and the response on social media was intensely negative. "You should just stay home; you shouldn't do anything without him" was the prevailing sentiment, one he said insists on a uniform understanding of relationships.
"Just because we think or feel differently, doesn't mean it's wrong," he said.
Clinging to an ironclad, inflexible understanding of monogamy, however, makes some people feel more grounded.
"If you have an insecure or anxious attachment, the rules make you feel safe," he said. "When they're challenged, though, it feels like 'you don't love me anymore.'"
Weiss said that while communication can feel awkward, open dialogue is essential.
"Make it a conversation," she said, whether it's examining something in pop culture such as the toxic ownership in "50 Shades of Gray" or the staged selection of a soulmate on "The Bachelorette." "Keeping the tone non-accusatory and based on individual feelings, particularly surrounding unmet or unaddressed needs, can help to minimize conflict."
"We have all this research now that, if people cheat, their marriage is better because they're doing the work and being honest about what they want, rather than getting it outside their relationship," Kort said.
Avoiding future crisis
Where couples might have once believed that stating their wants is unnatural or inorganic, or that being forthright will scare their partner away, many are willing to communicate honestly. Especially when they believe the relationship is already threatened.
Negotiating those terms from the outset means they can be avoided in future crises.
It's no secret that talking it out is a root solution to most relationship ills. But toxic monogamy adds a tricky layer, and that's the need to recognize a root issue that needs to be solved.
When unhealthy ideas are this culturally entrenched, it's a lot more difficult to see them as a problem. Dishonesty, manipulation and cheating, however, grow from that toxic system. Clearly, it's one that needs to be removed for good.