In our society, monogamy is the ideal to which all relationships are meant to aspire. We throw expensive parties to celebrate those who commit to it—and have made these commitments an all but mandatory milestone for those who wish to belong to mainstream culture—while vilifying people who cheat on their partners or otherwise diminish the esteemed institution. With all this veneration, monogamy has become a bit smug as a concept; it, and the people who perform it, are healthy. Full stop.
A recent Instagram post by Philadelphia-based couples therapist Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, however, challenges the notion that monogamy is unimpeachable. Earnshaw calls out the signs and symptoms of what she terms “toxic monogamy.” She writes: “There are many underlying beliefs about monogamy and what it should look like that can cause harm to a relationship.”
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Toxic monogamy – what is it? . There are many underlying beliefs about monogamy and what it should look like that can cause harm to a relationship. . The belief that your partner is your be all and end all and that you will be theirs sets a relationship up for disappointment at least and toxicity at worst. . There has never been a time we’ve expected so much from our partners. Historically, they provided us children, a place to live, financial stability. It was an arrangement. . Now, it’s a choice. A choice based on love, shared values, friendship, fun, sexual connection, etc. . This is beautiful. It’s wonderful to choose to spend our time and resources on a person we value and that brings support, joy, and growth to our lives. . With that, we also have really unhealthy expectations. We expect that all of those things be met solely by our partner. And that we meet all of those things for them. . This is unrealistic. One person cannot do it all for you and you cannot do it all for them. That’s not the point of a committed relationship. . But, when we think it is then jealousy, anger, and resentment creep in when we cannot accept the humanness of the other person. Sometimes, these feelings are romanticized. . But being everything for the other person is not the point. The point is to develop a relationship that embraces vulnerability, growth, connection AND autonomy. To recognize both of you are separate individuals while developing a life together. . This is not suggesting monogamy isn’t healthy , but to have a monogamous relationship it’s important to create healthy thoughts around it. I have a monogamous relationship that makes me very happy and other people have ethically non monogamous relationships that they are very happy with. Our expectations is what matters.
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Chief among these beliefs, she says, is the crushing expectation that your partner will play every major role in your life. “There has never been a time we’ve expected so much from our partners. Historically, they provided us children, a place to live, financial stability. It was an arrangement. Now, it’s a choice. A choice based on love, shared values, friendship, fun, [and] sexual connection,” she explains.
While she describes this as “beautiful” and acknowledges that it’s “wonderful to choose to spend our time and resources on a person we value and that brings support, joy, and growth to our lives,” she also points out that this setup primes us for disappointment. After all, no one person can stand in for an entire village, as relationship Esther Perel puts it. “We still want all the same things that traditional marriage was about: family, companionship, economic support, and social status,” Perel has said. “But now I want you to also be my best friend, trusted confidant, and passionate lover to boot—and all for the long haul.” (I’m priming my horse for a Runaway Bride escape just reading that.)
This, Earnshaw says, is not just unrealistic—it’s also not the point of a committed relationship. “When we think it is, then jealousy, anger, and resentment creep in,” she explains. “But being everything for the other person is not the point—the point is to develop a relationship that embraces vulnerability, growth, connection and autonomy, to recognize both of you are separate individuals while developing a life together.”
Monogamy can, of course, be healthy. Earnshaw says the key to ensuring your relationship’s vitals are in the green is replacing unhealthy thoughts around the composition of committed relationships with healthy ones. Below, she elaborates on the seven symptoms of toxic monogamy and provides advice for how to deprogram the burdensome expectations which give rise to them.
7 questions to ask yourself to determine whether or not you’re engaged in “toxic monogamy”
1. Do you see jealousy as a symbol of love?
Jealousy, Earnshaw explains, is a normal human emotion which arises when something within us is triggered that makes us feel less than or not enough; however, it’s not healthy to think of it as something another person can make us feel or, on the flip side, prevent us from feeling. “Rather than buy into the idea that being jealous means you’re in love, it’s more helpful to look at the emotion as a signal. Why am I feeling this way? Is there a true threat to our relationship? How can I productively communicate these thoughts and feelings? If there is no true threat, am I feeling less than for some reason? What can I do to build up my sense of value and worth internally?” she says.
2. Do you expect your partner to meet your every need?
As evidenced by her post, Earnshaw believes modern-day monogamists expect their partners to wear too many hats. As a result, anger and resentment brew when those significant others fall understandably short in some areas. “The greatest thing you can learn to offer in your relationships is compassion—once you offer your partner compassion you look at them as a human being, and once you recognize they are a human being you understand it’s not possible for them to be everything for us all of the time,” says Earnshaw.
When I ask her how to rebalance your life so that there are others filling some of the roles for which your partner isn’t a great fit, she says it’s important first and foremost to remember that a healthy relationship includes a ‘we,’ an ‘I,’ and an ‘us‘. “We can do this by sitting down with each other and writing out who we were before we met. What did we love to do? How did we get those needs met? What has happened that has changed our ability to tap into our other relationships and activities to feel alive and connected?” she explains. Forming a clear sense of who you are as an “I” in this way is important, Earnshaw says, especially if kids become involved and things get hectic. “It creates clarity around what you can do to tap into other types of social support,” she explains.
3. Do you believe that once you are committed, neither you nor your partner should ever feel attraction for another person?
Someone once told me—it might have even been Perel—that at dinner parties in France, couples are separated in order to facilitate flirting outside of the marriage. This, whoever it was told me, helps to heat things up at home. While you may not be comfortable with enabling your partner to chat up others, it is important in a healthy relationship not to punish them for feeling natural attraction to humans who aren’t you. (Of course, acting on that attraction is a different story, depending on your definition of monogamy.)
4. Do you look to your partner to make you whole?
When people are healing from trauma or emotional pain, Earnshaw explains, they might seek things to make them feel whole. “For some it might be shopping, for others it might be diving into their work, but I think most commonly we dream of a partner that will swoop in and make us healed and whole,” she says. “We live with this fantasy for so long that when we finally meet the right person we end up putting all of those hopes and dreams onto that person—and that’s a big role for them to fill!”
5. Do you think you should be the only priority in your partner’s life?
The expectation that your partner has no other priorities but you is, of course unreasonable—especially if they have burgeoning careers, demanding kids, ailing parents, etc. Forcing them to act as if you are only furthers their isolation in the partnership, which prevents both of you from getting needs met outside of one another.
6. Do you believe that commitment can only look one way?
Earnshaw tells me that a huge part of deprogramming your unrealistic beliefs around relationships is being aware that the whole partner-as-bestie/lover/mentor/provider is a fantasy. “Once we understand that, we can release ourselves from believing our relationship is ‘less than’ because it can’t fulfill all of the roles,” she explains.
Then, she says, it’s time to design a reality that might actually work for you. This can look any way you and your partner want it to look. “Commitment isn’t only about sex,” she explains. “People can be committed and be ethically non-monogamous or monogamous, and even monogamous people have different ways of structuring their commitments to each other.” In order to figure it out, she advises having a candid conversation around what commitment means to both of you in terms of what you expect in the bedroom and beyond. Then, she says, evaluate those visions based on how, and even if, they can be fulfilled.
7. Do you expect your partner to know what you need or want without you telling them?
“People are not mind readers and we set up people for failure when we believe they can endlessly know exactly what we think and need in the moment,” Earnshaw says. “People can, of course, learn to be better for you and understand you more over time, but it’s the job of each person in the relationship to be clear about what they want and need.” If this is difficult for you, she offers a simple template for stating your needs: “When (this happens), I feel (feeling word), I need (state something you do want instead of what you don’t want).” The open communication such dialogue engenders kills the guessing games which, says Earnshaw, are both unwinnable and—like expensive parties and being someone’s everything—not the point.
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