Toxic Relationship Memes

There is a meme that is posted regularly in virtually every polyamory-related group I participate in. It is a bullet point list that is titled: “What I mean when I say ‘toxic monogamy culture.'”

I remember the first time I saw it posted on a freind’s timeline on facebook. I “liked” the post, because it made some valid points about relationship behaviors that I agree have a measure of toxicity (or unhealthiness) to them. I even understood the nuance between the concept of calling out “monogamy” as inherently toxic, and recognizing that the “culture” surrounding society’s current “default” relationship style had some inherent toxicities.

But, memes are not known for their ability to convey nuance to a mass audience. Over time I started seeing people (especially polyamorous people) who used the words “toxic monogamy culture” interchangeably with “toxic monogamy.”

At that point, they’re just calling out monogamy as toxic, rather than focusing on the reality that many of those characterizations of toxicity are present in polyamorous relationships too.

Once the meme had been reposted several times in the span of a couple weeks in the poly + mono group I help moderate, the admins suggested coming up with a standard response for it, and I did.

Now every time I see it posted, I just find that canned response and post it, rather than having to reiterate again and again that monogamy by itself is not inherently toxic, (nor is polyamory), and that “toxic relationship culture” can happen in every lovestyle.

Sometimes people push back. Especially the so-called “enlightened” polyfolk. The ones that are so angry (or traumatized) for having been subjected to the pressures of conforming to society’s standards that they’ve decided that if monogamy is wrong for them, it is obviously wrong for everybody.

Let me be clear – they have every reason to be angry. I was livid when I found out that, as a woman, I could have higher aspirations that marriage and motherhood. I will admit that I don’t fully understand why people feel such a strong urge to procreate, and I will also admit that I often think that a significant population of people who make babies happen are unknowingly pressured or influenced by family and/or society to make that decision.

I am also aware that some people really, really, really wanna make babies. Like, even if society didn’t put pressure on people to get married and have babies, they would 100% willingly choose to have them.

I support that.

I support people doing what they truly want to do with their lives and their bodies, whether than means having 2.5 children or 2.5 romantic relationships. I won’t say that I don’t judge. I wanted to be able to say that, I really did – but as I wrote this paragraph I knew it wasn’t true. I judge in the sense that I weigh people’s decisions based on my perception of their circumstances and question whether I would make the same decision under the same parameters. I don’t for a moment think that my judgement has any authority to influence their choices, but what is a judgement if not asking oneself the question: “would I do that?”

When it comes to monogamy, I know far too many people (including my own boyfriend) who have come to recognize that it’s not their default setting. Monogamy is not their preference, and they won’t be forced to do it, just like the decision to participate in the making of a baby is up to me. Hell, like sticking with just one partner is up to me.

I have the option: I can choose to date more people. Sometimes I even wish I wanted to, but as of the moment I’m writing this – I don’t want to, and that’s fine. My choice. It’s cool.

So, when the post came up again today – the meme about “toxic relationship culture” I paraphrased and posted my standard response. Effectively: these examples of toxic behaviors appear in all kinds of relationships including polyamorous ones. They are examples of potentially unhealthy relationship values. The values are set by a culture that is predominantly monogamous, but monogamy by itself is not inherently toxic.

My message was received, but there was still a little pushback and I decided (for the first time in over a year since I’ve been posting the canned response to the meme) that I would read through the bullet points again and verify whether or not my response to them has changed.

I realized that for each of them, there was a counter-example that I would consider to be part of a “Toxic Polyamory Culture.”

Honestly, I love the concept of polyamory. I’m all for it. I wish it were standard operating procedure and that choosing monogamy was more of an active and informed personal decision than society’s default, but folks – some of y’all are need to recognize that neither one is “better” or “more enlightened” than the other. They can coexist, and in my relationship (and many, many others who are successfully poly+mono) they do.

So, let’s take a look at each of these points one by one:

Toxic Monogamy Culture: The normalization of jealousy as an indicator of love.
Toxic Polyamory Culture: The mischaracterization that jealousy does not exist nor drives people’s actions or reactions in polyamorous relationships.

Toxic Monogamy Culture: the idea that a sufficiently intense love is enough to overcome any practical incompatibilities.
Toxic Polyamory Culture: the idea that one can avoid dealing with practical incompatibilities by opening the relationship.

Toxic Monogamy Culture: 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.
Toxic Polyamory Culture: the idea that one can outsource core relationship needs to other people, or that the only reason to open a relationship is to have additional “needs” filled rather than acknowledging it’s just something they want to do.

Toxic Monogamy Culture: the idea that sufficiently intense love should cause you to cease to be attracted to anyone else.
Toxic Polyamory Culture: the idea that sufficiently stringent “rules” and “boundaries” will protect a “primary” partner from developing unsanctioned feelings for or desires to explore certain experiences with another partner.

Toxic Monogamy Culture: the idea that commitment is synonymous with exclusivity.
Toxic Polyamory Culture: the idea that NRE is an adequate excuse to break plans or commitments to your established partner(s).

Toxic Monogamy Culture: The idea that marriage and children are the only valid teleological justifications for being committed to a relationship.
Toxic Polyamory Culture: The idea that marriage and children automatically imply and/or justify a hierarchical structure and the treatment of any other romantic commitments as “secondary” or “less important.”

Toxic Polyamory Culture: The idea that your insecurities are always your partners responsibilities to tip-toe around and never your responsibility to work on.
Toxic Polyamory Culture: The idea that your insecurities are always your metamour’s responsibility to tip-toe around and never your responsibility to work on.

Toxic Polyamory Culture: the idea that your value to a partner is directly proportional to the amount of time and energy they spend on you, and it is in zero sum competition with everything else they value in life.
Toxic Polyamory Culture: the idea that your value to a partner is directly proportional to how much MORE time and energy they spend on you than any other partners, and it is in zero sum competition with everyone else they value in life.

Toxic Monogamy Culture: the idea that being of value to a partner should always make up a large chunk of how you value yourself.
Toxic Polyamory Culture: the idea that being of value to as many partners as your partner is of value to should always make up a large chunk of how you value yourself.

Here’s the thing – I know a LOT of polyamorous people that do not represent these behaviors. But I am also aware of many polyamorous people who do – enough that the bulk of these examples are readily found in the last 20 posts in most of the polyamory support/discussion groups I frequent.

Polyamory is not inherently toxic.

Monogamy is not inherently toxic.

Relationships are not inherently toxic.

The patterns exist and are recognizable. They are reinforced by the messages we consume, whether they are generated from the society’s large-scale mononormative culture, or the small microcosms of polyamorous subcultures. We internalize and normalize them until we don’t even see them anymore.

At least, not until we take a moment to dig deep and uncover what is truly motivating our behaviors, our decisions, and our attitudes.

Find the script – tear it up. Write your own story and break free from the meme.

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On biting that apple

After spending a weekend at her sister’s wedding, a member of one of the groups I moderate wrote a post that described a feeling I think many people, especially those who are on the early side of transitioning into non-monogamy, can relate to.  She wrote:

I never “felt poly” before I met my main squeeze, who was already poly. My love for him brought me into this lifestyle, and I have other partners that I care deeply for, but I never planned out my life to include multiple partners.

As a little girl, I imagined the day I would marry someone on top of my favorite mountain, and really thought I would have a white picket fence life path.

I feel like I don’t know what a successful poly life should look like. How will I know when I’ve made it? How will I gauge my success? How do I get over this weird feeling of jealousy I have for my sister, when I don’t even want a marriage that looks like hers?

Maybe, now that I’m thinking about it, a lot of what I’m feeling is a bit of resentment that I now know poly is an option.

With her permission, I’m (lightly editing and) sharing my response:

“…a lot of what I’m feeling is a bit of resentment that I now know poly is an option.

This is such a strong statement that really gets to the guts of so many people’s fearful reactions to hearing that someone else might do relationships differently than they do. When I share with strangers how my relationship is different, they generally surprise me by taking it in stride.  Sometimes, however, I can tell that they tense up – because it is so different, and we are socialized in so many ways to believe that different is “wrong” and “wrong” is “scary”.

It makes sense that this unsettled reaction from loved ones could lead to you feeling resentful that you’ve suddenly been given the knowledge that you want something that sets you apart.  It’s so much easier to conform when you don’t know you don’t want to conform.  But I think beyond that, I eventually got to the point where instead of resenting being given this information- I resent that society didn’t offer it to me to begin with.

I get mad at the world for limiting my potential.,

I hate that every fairy tale I grew up with made it seem like marriage was the highest level of achievement I could reach, and that it was up to the men to “save me” and that i could only have this if I were the most beautiful princess with the smallest feet or the prettiest voice or the longest hair. I HATE that on top of all of that, I was given a list of what “beautiful” could look like and spent so much of my life comparing myself to (and not meeting) that ideal.

We are so indoctrinated into the idea of comparing ourselves to what we’re “supposed” to do or be or look like based on a standard someone else set for us, that even when we break free of it and accept the concept of polyamory into our lives, we’re still grasping at comparing our poly to the “ideal” of what polyamory is supposed to look and feel like and how we’re supposed to measure our success and standing within that structure.

What if where you are in your life is EXACTLY where you’re supposed to be right now? What would that be like, to stop comparing your current location to a perceived end-game?

As a young widow who got all the way to the end game significantly earlier than expected, I cannot tell you how much of my own life I got back after I realized that there was no longer a set of expectations for me. People stopped trying to put me in a box, because the box of “30 something widows” was so small that they couldn’t decide for me what I was “supposed” to do.

After I came out of the shock and the haze of my mourning period, I realized that for the first time in my life, I got to decide what I wanted for myself. It was liberating.

I know that before I ever got married, it’s all I wanted. It didn’t matter how many friends told me to wait, or to not do it, or that they’d never do it again, I KNEW that I’d been thinking about that party and my dress and all that went with it since I was a little girl. I knew the pressure that my family put on me to be a wife, because – again, it was constantly reinforced that becoming a wife and mother was the highest achievement I could ever hope to have.

It wasn’t until after I’d had the experience that I realized that those dreams of mine were heavily influenced by the limits of society’s expectations for me. They were not purely my own, and as I went through all that processing to regain my identity after my husband passed, I recognized how deeply influenced I was to make my “choice.”

Today, I’m learning to transition that resentment into pity. I feel pity for the people who can only see beauty in a certain “type”. I feel pity for the people whose self confidence is based on having to measure themselves against another person or a made-up ideal. I learned to stop worrying about how well society or my family accepts me. If they want to be part of my life, they’ll do so on my terms.

People who cannot accept me and love me aren’t deserving of the energy I would expend on being angry with them. For the ones, like my extended family members who I’m not “out” with about my relationship style, I pity that they’ll never really know me and that the person they call “granddaughter” or “niece” or “cousin” is a costume I wear in their presence. That version of who they think I am doesn’t define me.

Only I get to define who I am.

The beauty of being where you are in your life right now is that you have the freedom to redesign the life you want based on who you want to be. It takes a while to disentangle it all to figure out which parts of what you wanted are still the things you want and which parts were the things you were influenced to want.

There’s no reason why you can’t have a special moment, for example, with someone (or someones) that you love on top of your favorite mountain. It doesn’t have to be a government sanctioned marriage for it to be a meaningful and beautiful moment for you.

The possibilities are limitless.

There will be blood: When hormones affect emotions

Originally posted to my fetlife blog about a year ago.


When I’m in the middle of it, I don’t want anybody but me to say “it’s just hormones,” because the feelings are real and I don’t want them dismissed; but at the same time, I want it to be understood that the hormones involved are causing the feelings to be exaggerated to a degree where they are now affecting my mood in a negative way. I also want it to be understood that I know this is happening.

So, “it’s just hormones,” isn’t a way of dismissing the feelings, it’s a way of explaining their severity.

That’s probably why so many of us get that venomous look when someone tries to write off our feelings or behaviors as “must be that time of the month again.”

The thing that bothers me to the point of an eyeroll on a normal day may bother me to the point of frustration on a hormonal day, but the bottom line is it still bothers me either way.

I think people often mistake the hormonal amplification of a feeling as a sign the feeling has no merit at all, when it might be at the root of something that’s been bubbling under the surface for a long time.

So, what’s the right answer when an issue has come up and you are pretty darned sure that hormones are making it a bigger issue than it would be on any other day?

I don’t know how it works for everyone. For me? It’s patience and understanding. It’ll go away in a few days, but acknowledge that it’s there that day. Show compassion. Don’t dismiss it. And let’s talk about it later, when my emotions are balanced again.

I suppose this is somewhat of a PSA from a much more clear headed perspective than I was in yesterday.

Bye, Felicia

Last month I attended my first in-person training session for my coaching certification. During the course of those three days, I (rather quickly) identified the biggest block I have to achieving any of my goals.

Laziness.

Throughout the three days in that session I worked with other members of my cohort on learning some skills to successfully coach clients to move past their blocks to achieve their goals. At the end of the three days, we symbolically broke through the biggest block that we’d identified at the beginning.

I felt really, really good.

I came home with every intention of doing the things I had planned to do. I was going to go back to weight watchers. I was going to start meditating daily. I was going to get myself organized and finish the final touches of putting together my workout area.

Apparently, symbolically counts about as much as reddit karma, ’cause I did none of those things.

In fact, when I got the email last week that alerted us that our three weeks of respite was about to end and the coursework and deliverables were about to be assigned, I became overwhelmed! The next thing I knew, I looked at my calendar and anything remotely resembling free time was GONE!

I was feeling overwhelmed. Really overwhelmed.

Tonight I spent an hour with my peer coach – another member of my cohort that is also earning her certification as a professional coach. She asked me what I wanted to work on and I said “I’d really like to work on getting healthier.”

Thus began about 20 minutes of back and forth about why my health was important to me, and how it has nothing to do with my self-esteem (which is super high) or a need to be validated by society or men or anything like that.

She seemed confused about what my block was. She finally asked me to name the thing that’s blocking me and I said “laziness.”

That’s when she suggested one of our coaching tools. What if I gave this block a name? Personified it?

I was stunned that I hadn’t thought of doing this myself. For a decade I’ve been talking about naming the depression or the anxiety or the other mental blocks that have plagued my lovers and friends. As a way of naming the thing and not internalizing it….”Jake is here right now and he’s taking up all my energy,” would be a way of saying “My anxiety is acting up and I can’t really be here for you right now.”

“OK,” I responded, feeling very open to trying it out. I walked by my bookcase and I was scrambling to try to come up with a name for my laziness. “I’ll come up with a name later, but yeah…let’s say….Uhh…..”

And then I just picked a name: Felicia.

I think it’s because it’s the name of a vendor I’m working with for an event I’m putting together, and she was the last person I spoke with before I left work today.

I figured I’d pick a better name later.

Now, to be completely honest – it took my coach and I a bit of time to get to the point where she started to listen to me and stop advising me (which is what coaches are supposed to do), but when she eventually got there, I did have quite a breakthrough.

“Felicia would say that she’ll unpack the suitcase that’s been sitting for a week in the basement tomorrow, but I am going to go downstairs and unpack it as soon as we hang up the phone.”

See, ’cause Felicia LOVES to say she’ll start things tomorrow and then find an excuse not to.

“Felicia would agree to doing 20 minutes of exercise three times a week, but I am committing to ten minutes of exercise every day for the next two weeks.”

Too many times, Felicia has committed to 3 days a week, and it’s amazing how easily three becomes two and two becomes one, and one becomes a string of excuses.

“Before I moved, I used to spend two hours a day in traffic commuting to and from work. Felicia has replaced those two hours in traffic with two extra hours of sleep in the morning, but I am going to utilize those two hours to give myself the free time that I’m saying I don’t have to exercise, meditate, or work on my blog.”

“You know what,” I said as we wrapped up our session, “the name Felicia is growing on me. I’m going to keep calling her ‘Felicia.'”

It wasn’t until my peer coach asked me what I wanted to say to Felicia that I realized what an appropriate name I’d picked for her after all.


From Urban Dictionary (modified for grammar and spelling)

Bye, Felicia

A goodbye given to any unwanted, irritating, or disliked person. Start[ed] as a [reference] to the character Felicia in the movie Friday.

This is Forty

I turned forty about an hour ago.

Minutes before that, I completed the last act of my 30th year – I turned in all the assignments for the advanced standing section of my coaching certification.

The process was more self-reflective than I imagined it would be. Much of the work I’ve already done. In fact, I went through my blog archives as part of the process of examining many of the “life review” questions I was asked about my childhood and relationships.

I can’t think of a better way to set the tone for the next ten years of my life. I spent the entirety of my 30s working at my current job. It was simultaneously a time of significant change and personal growth in some areas, and a time of stagnation and demoralization in others.

As part of the process, I was asked to idealize what my life as a coach would look like in one year, at three years, at five years, and at ten years.

It amazed me how achievable each one of those dreams is. How within my grasp it all is.

I can do this. I really can do this.

I keep thinking of where I was ten years ago. I wanted a big party for my 30th, and I always loved themed parties. My partner at the time (not yet husband) organized a 60s cocktail themed party at my brother and sister-in-law’s house. It was during the time that Mad Men was all the rage. I bought a pink cocktail dress, got my hair swept up into a beehive up-do, and perfected my cat-eyeliner by tediously studying youtube videos for techniques.

It was the night that the old-school bartender gave me a sampling of all the classic cocktails and I discovered that I love bourbon the most. To this day, a Blanton’s Old Fashioned is my jam.

I was anxious and hopeful that Tony would propose to me that night. Everybody was. He made a speech. We all waited for it. I think he knew that and intentionally decided to wait, just to fuck with us.

It happened a few months later, while he and I were alone on vacation in London.

That night of my 30th birthday party, my brother had just arrived home from his first trip to China. He and his wife had been trying to conceive. My niece will turn ten in nine months.

My brother reminded me that I was ten years off from his prediction – “One day, you’ll turn 40 and decide to write a book. It’ll be a bestseller and you’ll be set for life.”

My future husband laughed. He’d written a best seller. Before he died, he would have written two best sellers.

We were not set for life.

A year later I was married.

Three years later I was widowed.

A year after that, I was here…writing. I found you all, or you found me. I’m not sure which of us is the chicken or the egg.

I spent the second half my thirties undergoing the most challenging and rewarding personal growth spurt I may ever experience. I was confronted with the consequences of 35 years of unhealthy relationship habits and addictions to external validation, codependency, and labels.

Three years ago, the work paid off. I successfully established a relationship with myself that I had previously taken for granted. I have spent the past three years loving myself unconditionally – and in the process, I’ve learned to love and be loved without fear.

These past three years have been, without a doubt, the best of my life. And I know there’s even better to come.

At this point, an hour and 22 minutes into my 4th decade of existence. I’ve successfully completed the first big milestone of the next big step in my ongoing journey. I’m engaged and enthusiastic to continue with the in-person training for the coaching certification next week.

On Monday, I’ll be featured on one of my favorite podcasts – multiamory – as a guest interview on the topic of poly + mono relationships. I’ve had my first paying client (though as I am not yet certified, I asked instead that he donate to a fundraiser I was running for my metamour).

I’m creating a business plan. I’m setting goals. I’m meeting deadlines. I’m networking. I’m investing my time into this dream, and I haven’t felt that excited about anything (other than sex and star trek) in a really long time.

Every time I have a fear, or a doubt, or that little voice of risk aversion in my head that asks me if this is the right thing…. if I should be moving away from a steady career I’ve put 20 years into to start something risky and new…

I think about the woman who had a Mad Men themed birthday party, hoping her boyfriend would propose, who had no idea that less than four years later – every expectation, every plan, and every dream she’d ever had would get thrown out the window.

It’s time for my new dreams to come true.

This is forty. This is when it happens.

I can’t fucking wait to see where this decade takes me.

From the Archives: A love letter to people I don’t like

Originally posted on FetLife in the Summer of 2017, today I was reminded that there are people in the world who don’t like me, and that’s okay.  Because there are people in the world that I don’t like…and that’s okay too. 


Dear people I don’t like,

This is not the first time I pen a message to you. It’s almost as though it happens monthly. I just try not to post them.

Now, you’re not people I hate. I don’t actually hate many people.

But there are a lot of people who I’m on friendly terms with that I really don’t like.And there are some with whom I’m not even on friendly terms that I really don’t like.

Guess what?

It doesn’t matter. My perception of you isn’t the yardstick by which you should measure your success in life, so it’s okay that I don’t like you. I don’t think you need my approval. I don’t think you should change the way you comport yourself to appease my own desire that everyone on the planet be likable by my standards

Guess what else?

My first impressions are not always correct. There are people I used to consider very close friends, people that I would have said that I loved (as friends) in the past that I barely speak with and actively avoid. There are people I used to try to be closer with that I no longer seek to create a connection with because they’ve shown something in their character that says to me “not necessary to be in your life.”

Did those people change? Not really. Maybe they did…but I wasn’t close enough to notice the difference.

Mostly I’m the one who changed, and the new me has different criteria for who I want hanging around me.

I’ve also been wrong in the other direction. There are people I used to not like so much that now I think might be pretty freakin’ cool. I think I was maybe wrong about them. Or maybe they changed too and now our personalities align better.

So here’s to you, people who make me frown. Go be you.

Over there.

Love,

phi