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 Camping and Poly + Mono Relationships

Ferrett wrote this essay with a pretty solid metaphor for poly + mono relationships that centered on camping. The metaphor’s tl;dr is: if you hate everything to do with camping, you should not put yourself in a situation where you are forced (by yourself or others) to go camping.

I support this statement.

But, I am reminded of the classic 80s film, Troop Beverly Hills, in which Phyllis, the uber-privileged Wilderness Girls troop leader (played by Shelly Long) abandons a rained-out campsite with her troop to check all the girls into a suite at a swanky hotel. When the regional director shows up to find them in plush surroundings eating room service, she asks, “You call this roughing it!?”

Phyllis replies without hesitation: “One bathroom for nine people? Yes.”

Of course, not everybody does “camping” the same way, but sometimes – the experience can be made far better with the right company, even if the “roughing it” part isn’t your cup of tea. Similarly, not everyone manages their relationship(s) in the same way, and an incompatibility with one potential partner may not be an issue with another.

Over on the book of faces, I run a closed group for the mono partners of polyfolk. It’s a support group of sorts for those of us who straddle two different worlds and perfectly fit in with neither. Our group is starting to hover near 300 people, the majority of whom are making it work. I also admin another group for both the poly and mono folk in mixed poly + mono relationships, which has a membership of over 9,000.

This morning, someone shared about their feelings of fear and discomfort in the knowledge that their partner was going to be having sexual intercourse with somebody outside of their relationship for the first time. They shared that the kind of feedback they received from their friends (who are all monogamous) vilified their partner, and made them feel even worse.

I say it often – that being in any kind of relationship, is not a guarantee that you are never going to have a bad day, or a bad feeling, or a negative reaction to something that’s happening that is outside of your control. But, finding a group of people who can be supportive, show empathy, and remind you to think of the reasons why you made the choice to explore something out of your comfort zone, rather than judge for them, can go a long way in helping you overcome those negative feelings.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I actually do hate camping – and yet: if my partner reallywanted to, I’d be open to having a conversation about what it is I despise about camping, i.e.: no access to toilets or running water, long hikes to reach a campsite, and things (other than my partner) that bite. Because there are campsites that you can drive to that have showers and toilets within a reasonable walking distance, and there are locations and climates that are less prone to mosquitoes and/or bears.

To be honest, the idea of looking up at the stars, fucking in the great outdoors, and the smells, tastes, and sounds of cooking over and making out next to a campfire does have some decent levels of romantic and hedonistic appeal to me.

But, if I were a Phyllis, and the only type of “camping” that could work for me was one that included a 24-hour room service menu, 10,000 thread count sheets, and HBO access – then I think we can all agree that it’s not reallycamping. And, to that point – I do agree with Ferrett 100%. If you’re going to be in a polyamorous relationship (even if you are not polyam yourself), then don’t try to make it look and feel like a monogamous one to protect your delicate sensibilities. Own the reality you’ve chosen, or choose a different reality.

On the other hand, if you’re the polyamorous person who is dating a monoamorous person, don’t make the mistake of thinking that the responsibility for the emotional labor in finding that poly/mono relationship sweet spot is entirely up to your mono partner. You are also part of the relationship equation, and would greatly benefit from learning how to validate and support someone through their uncomfortable feelings even when they’re inconvenient.

Validating does not mean enabling or agreeing with. It simply means saying “I hear you. I believe that it feels that way for you. I support your efforts to push through your discomfort, and I will make reasonable attempts to address your concerns where it’s in my power and appropriate.”

Yes – poly + mono success stories, though they are still a bit rare, are out there; but it’s important to remember that there is no guarantee that every relationship you want to be in is going to be the right relationship for you to be in. Whether you are polyamorous, monoamorous, ambiamorous, relationship anarchist or any other label that resonates with you – if you are absolutely miserable, then you CAN make a different choice.

Unless you can’t. I have compassion for those who feel stuck for reasons that are out of their control (finances, health, dependents, or abuse). I don’t have answers for those situations, but I hope you find yours soon.

Related Posts:

Change your cookbook: A monogamuggle’s guide to cookin’ with polyfolk

Monocorn Sanctuary

The Consequences of Consequence Free Devotion

“My partner is extremely jealous. He cheats on me. He locks his phone but insists I keep mine unlocked and that he’s allowed to check it whenever he likes. I can’t be friends on facebook with any men who aren’t related to me, I can never talk to any of my exes, and he is very secretive about wherever he goes all the time with other women.”

Fifty people immediately respond:

“This is abusive.”

“Run.”

“Get out of this.”

“One million red flags here, you should reconsider your relationship with this person.”

And the OP is dumbfounded.

“I came here to get support. I don’t understand why everyone is telling me to leave. I will never leave him no matter what. I love him. So, what can I do?”

That’s when I tap out.

I used to be that person. The “I’ll never leave him no matter what,” person. That wasn’t even in a traditionally abusive situation. That was with a person with severe substance abuse and mental disorders who loved me very much, and trusted me implicitly.

But I was miserable. His illnesses were physically crowding me out of my own space. Our sex life was a distant memory. He became a recluse that would never leave the house, leaving me to fend for myself at holidays and family gatherings, and when he would come out? He was high, incoherent, and an embarrassment I felt I had to make apologies for.

I would complain to my friends and coworkers about the mess in the house, about his uncontrollable shopping habit, about his lack of sexual interest and they would suggest to me that I consider leaving.

I’ll never leave him.

He was terrified that I would. So many times, he’d break down sobbing and inconsolable, convinced that I would wake up one day and realize he was a failure and that I could do better (his words, not mine) and that I would leave him.

Which, of course, solidified my resolve to stay.

He never changed. He was never going to change.

My leaving wouldn’t have caused him to change.

My leaving would only have (potentially) improved my own quality of life, though I would certainly have felt guilty and miserable doing it.

The truth is, as I’m writing this I can remember being her. I can remember being that one who would never leave, and I know at the very depths of my soul that I absolutely never would have. Not that version of me, anyway. He passed away, and that’s the only reason I was able to get out. I was forced out.

I didn’t love myself enough to set boundaries. I loved him so much there were no consequences if he harmed me, even in the non-traditional ways that people tend to imagine harm.

There was no magic advice that could be given that would have changed my mind. There’s nothing I’m going to ever be able to write to anybody that is going to convince them that if they are willing to accept all manner of bad behavior from their partners without any consequences to their partners, their partners are unlikely to have any motivation to change. Ever.

Why should they?

You’ll never leave them no matter what.

So, that’s where I have to tap out. That’s where I have to shut down my empathy matrix, because…believe me. I can empathize. But I can’t help. I can’t be supportive of staying in a fucked up situation, and I can’t offer the “cure” for your partner’s toxic behavior.

You won’t like anything else I have to say, and it will only strengthen your resolve to stay in a bad situation indefinitely.

I wouldn’t wish my way out on anybody.

The Exhibit

Is there a better museum for rare and priceless experiences than words on a page?

I could try to preserve all the details – how we began, how many strikes from which implements, how he moved me about the room, how taut the rope felt on my skin, and the way my thighs ached as I squirmed in the stress position in which he’d restrained me.

Those details may convey my surrender, but won’t capture my emotion.

I could record the hearing of footfalls and whispers, soft murmurs of interest or (possibly) admiration lingering in the hallway, and my vague awareness of some shadows in the door frame as the intensity of a final powerful orgasm ripped through my soul.

Those details may convey my vulnerability, but won’t capture our connection.

It’s just three words I’ll keep in this museum of intangible artifacts. The three words I whispered when, toward the end of our scene, he leaned down for a kiss, and warm tears escaped the outside corners of my eyes:

I missed this.

The Monocorn Sanctuary

Over on Facebook, I created an alt profile that’s attached to my scene-name so I could join special groups that talk about kinky shit without outing my “real life” details to people I don’t know that well. It had the added benefit of making it possible for me to join a bunch of polyamory discussion groups without being outed to my extended family and coworkers on my regular facebook account, including one specifically for mono + poly couples. I was ecstatic! I was gonna find my people!

Only, the polyfolk are the most active in the mono + poly group and there’s a lot of #polysplaining that happens where they are trying to address a struggling monoperson’s issues from their polyamorous perspective, and the monogamuggles get kind of turned off by it.

Then I found a group that was for the mono people ONLY, and I was ecstatic again! I found my people!

Only….these were not my people.

That turned out to be a group largely made up of mono people who were bitter about their partners’ polyamory. They’d spend all day talking shit about poly, blaming it for ruining lives, and going full mean-girl on the things that were discussed in other groups.

So I bailed. That is not what I wanted.

I started to think that I was some sort of wacky anomaly again. The polyfolk talk about “unicorns” and “unicorn hunters” ….maybe I was some sort of new breed: a Monocorn. A monoamorous person who is accepting of polyamory and actively works toward having a harmonious relationship with a polyamorous partner.

Recently, another poly person posted in the mono + poly group on behalf of her boyfriend, who was looking to connect with other mono people who were not bitter and angry about their partners being polyamorous.

We started talking about starting a group.

A couple of other monocorns commented that they might be interested in joining a group like that. All I’m waiting on now is for one of them to accept my friend request so I can get it started. (Facebook makes you invite at least one friend to start a group, and all my friends are polyamorous.)

Anyway, here’s what I’ve drafted as the group description and guidelines. I’m anxious to get it started….so if there are any other monocorns out there that’d like to join, let me know!

Monocorn Sanctuary

What’s a monocorn? It’s the monoamorous person that is happy (or working toward happiness) in a polyamorous relationship. Some of us take to poly-style relationships more easily than others, but the bottom line is – we don’t hate the concept of polyamory. We just don’t wanna be poly ourselves.

Still, every once in a while we need a place of support from other people like us. Our families think its a phase, our friends don’t understand it, and our partners sometimes don’t understand us either. When we attend poly events, we feel a little out of place ’cause everyone assumes we’re like them; but, we don’t quite fit in with the standard-issue monofolk either.

Please only request to join if you are the MONOAMOROUS or MONOGAMOUS part of an ethically non-monogamous, open, or polyamorous relationship. Also welcome:

  • Asexual folk in poly relationships who are not romantically involved with multiple partners
  • Monogamish folk who have outside play partners, but are romantically and/or sexually connected to only one partner
  • Monoamorous people who are currently single or unattached, but are open to or interested in dating a polyamorous person.

This is a safe space to ask questions, process difficulties, share wins, and help others navigate the wacky world of mono-poly relationships. Your partners aren’t here. There won’t be any polysplaining.

In the event two monogamous metamours who are dating the same polyperson join the group, please be respectful of one another. Be aware that you can edit visibility on your posts so that certain group members can’t see them. Utilize this function if you feel like it will help keep the peace.

There also won’t be any polyHATING. It’s not okay to paint polyamory as an absolute evil that ruins lives. Remember that people define polyamory differently, so before you tell someone “that’s not poly” make sure you understand how they define it or be clear that it’s not poly per YOUR personal definition.

Except cheating. Cheating is not polyamory. Cheating is cheating.

Also, this is a sex-positive atmosphere. No slut-shaming, no kink-shaming, and please make every attempt to address your fellow monocorns with their appropriate pronouns. (Trans monocorns, please feel free to correct anybody who misgenders you. Everyone, please accept the correction without getting defensive.)

Even when venting, please do not attack polyamory as a concept. This group is for those who are accepting of our partners’ polyamorous natures, or at least actively working toward acceptance. It’s okay to vent and be frustrated and to question whether or not this is for you, but if you already know it’s not for you and you’re angry or bitter about it, then this isn’t your lily pad.

Oh…and if at some point down the line you find yourself leaning toward trying polyamory out for yourself, please voluntarily step away from the group. If or when you change your mind, you can come back. Promise.

If you’re unsure if this group is the right fit for you, please feel free to contact an admin. We’re nice people. At least I am.

Need a place to vent all your frustrations without the kum-ba-ya poly-accepting atmosphere? There is a group for that. Message the admins for details.


Edit: Yay! I got the requisite friend. The group now exists.

The thing about not feeling “enough”

The most frequent statement I read from people trying to transition into polyamorous relationships for their partner is the sense that they feel like they are “not enough.”

Whenever I see that line, my heart sort of aches for them. I understand that feeling and where it comes from, but somehow it doesn’t affect me and I had a difficult time articulating why.

And I finally figured out the answer:

The trick is in realizing that not being “everything” is still enough.

Relationship Jenga

When you imagine your perfect relationship(s), it might be a little bit like a Jenga tower: an eighteen-story stack of 54 wood blocks; organized in pallets of three in alternating directions.

It’s all the pieces you want….like that mental checklist you have of what “happily ever after” is going to look like for you one day.

Then you meet someone. Turns out they have a lot of the stuff you like, but …maybe some of the other stuff doesn’t quite line up. That’s when you start playing the game of relationship Jenga.

At first it’s easy to remove the blocks that aren’t load-bearing. Poke them with a finger and they slip right out without disturbing any of the other blocks nor the tower’s overall stability. You wanted someone who could play a musical instrument. Turns out they’re tone-deaf. No biggie. Those were the wants. Nice to have, but not necessary for happiness.

What gets stacked on top of the tower are the unexpected parts of life. Some of the things were their needs that you want to try to accommodate (they’re vegetarian, but you’re a devout meat eater.). Some of them are your needs that they want to accommodate (you want them to be your +1 to all your family events). There’s also all those pesky realities that come up like money, family, children, new partners, new jobs, illness, and politics. Over time, that tower looks like it’s carrying a pretty heavy load on top, but as long as your basic load-bearing blocks are in place, you’re still feeling pretty good about your relationship’s overall stability.

Every block that gets pulled from your structure leaves it more vulnerable to the pressures of daily life – even the blocks that were easy to pull out. What do you do when you didn’t realize that one of the blocks you pulled was less wanty than you thought it was? When, while not load-bearing – it still made up part of the overall foundation and provided stability and security in your relationship?

Can it be replaced at the top in a way that re-balances a wobbly tower?

The difference, of course, between a relationship and a game of Jenga is pretty obvious. You don’t have to keep pulling at those foundation blocks. You don’t have to keep playing until the tower knocks over.

When a relationship is good…you could just leave the tower standing and go get a pizza.

But when you have one of those wobbly moments – take a look at that tower. Is it one of the new added stressors or the absence of one of the foundation pieces that’s causing concern?

It might be a solvable puzzle – ’cause unlike a game of Jenga – you might find a way to put a missing block back in, or possibly shift one of the added stressors to a less dangerous position.

Ultimately, whether it’s a 2-player game or a 10-player group, the relationship tower lasts longer when all the players work collaboratively to keep it as stable as possible.