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.