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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Don’t “Dutch Oven” Your Partner(s)

It’s a common thread in the poly relationship advice forums. (Usually) the “primary” (or longer-term) partner starts to feel that their partner is taking advantage of NRE and/or taking the longevity of their relationship for granted.

Examples:
“He takes his other partners out who don’t have jobs or cars and spends a lot of money on gas and food for them, and then when he and I go out, either I have to treat or we stay in because he’s broke.”

“My only day off is Sunday and he has Sundays off as well, but he’s so tired from spending Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights with his other partners that he’s regularly postponing or cancelling our plans for Sunday.”

“My wife is seeing a new guy who is her Dom, and he has put her on orgasm restriction for the next two weeks, which falls on the week of our planned getaway to a romantic lodge in the mountains, and she refuses to ask for leniency.”

Sometimes my advice in these situations starts to get repetitive. Your partner is an adult and can make his/her own decisions. Don’t blame the other partners, talk to YOUR partner about how their actions are affecting you.

And then, today, in an (arguable) stroke of stinkin’ brilliance, I came up with a metaphor that I think very clearly describes how (in my opinion) harmonious polyamory can work:

It was in response to the first example. In that one, the person posting was concerned that her partners other partners all followed a “type” she didn’t approve of: jobless, car-less, living-with-parents types. She felt they were using him for the free rides and the free meals and didn’t really, really, really care about him.

And, during the course of her explanation, she admitted that it vexed her that the other girlfriend(s) would get treated to dinners and dates on the town, and then he’d have little to nothing left to spend on her.

Now, she said it didn’t bother her if they split it. She said she realized that she was in a financial position to absorb it. But there reality probably existed more in the “Hey, how come they get the great boyfriend and I get the comfortable one?”

So I pointed out that her problem wasn’t so much with who he was dating, but with how he was dating her. It would be quite easy to say “I don’t mind when we split the tab, but sometimes I like to treat you and sometimes I want you to treat me because it’s a nice gesture and I’d enjoy it.”

And she asked, “But shouldn’t I be concerned about the type of women he’s dating?”

Sure, I told her. Just like you’d be concerned if he was eating donuts for breakfast at work every day. It’s not healthy, but you’re not in charge of what he puts in his mouth. The best you can do is ensure that when you prepare a meal together, it’s as healthy as possible.

She wondered if it was appropriate for her to voice her concern over the women he was dating. And how to get her message across that she didn’t appreciate being taken for granted in that way.

And, (this is the part I’m excited about), is when I used a metaphor about burrito-fueled farting to make a point about poly relationships:

“I worry about you eating bean and cheese burritos every day because it’s unhealthy. But it’s your choice to do that, so I’ll just say this. I don’t want to deal with the farting. Once you’re making dutch ovens in my bed, your eating habits are affecting me and that, I am not okay with.”

(Only, obviously, not about burritos) The idea is to say “I have a concern, here is what it is, but your life is yours to lead. Where your choices affect my life with you is where I want to set a boundary.”

I’m kinda proud of that one.

Moral of the story: Enjoy that extra helping of NRE, but don’t start farting on your existing partner(s) and expecting them not to complain that it stinks.