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6 Minutes Read

7 Signs of Toxic Monogamy

Ideas about what intimate relationships “should” look like are heavily influenced by cultural attitudes. In different parts of the world and at different points in history, some intimate relationships were expected to have reproduction but not romance, while others were assumed to involve sex but not friendship.

Monogamy defined

Today, most romantic relationships follow some style of monogamy. A monogamous relationship is an intimate relationship between two people that is emotionally exclusive and, if the relationship involves sex, sexually exclusive. Long-term monogamous partnerships or marriages often involve partners working together to address their joint needs, such as securing financial resources and maintaining familial responsibilities.

While many people enjoy fulfilling experiences with monogamous relationships, the element of exclusivity present in monogamy can create a singular focus on the relationship that is then to an unhealthy extreme. Unfortunately, this extreme is often endorsed by popular culture – think of the end of the movie Grease where Sandy changes everything about herself to be with Danny, or Beauty and the Beast where the Beast’s possessive behavior toward Belle is excused as a sign of his passion for her.

Psychologist Hillary Berry coined the term “toxic monogamy culture” to describe elements that can arise in monogamy that are not positive. 

Here are seven red flags that signal it’s time to stop and think about if you’re practicing monogamy in a toxic way.

1.You expect your partner to fulfill each and every one of your needs

Relationship expert Esther Perel writes that modern couples expect more from one another than ever before – our partner is supposed to be our best friend, our only lover, our travel companion, our domestic partner, our co-parent, our tennis doubles partner… the list goes on and on.

Is it realistic to think your partner is going to be the most satisfying companion in every aspect of your life? Are they really going to like all of your hobbies? Will they always know exactly what to say after you have a fight with your sister?

Having a partner who does not meet all of our needs and desires in life does not necessarily mean that your partner is inadequate or that you are too “demanding” – it may simply mean some activities are better done with friends, and some conflicts need the guidance of an elder or mentor instead.

2. Since you’re in a relationship, you or your partner couldn’t possibly be sexually attracted to anyone else

There is a difference between choosing to have sex with exclusively one partner and thinking that your entire sexuality should (or can) revolve around that one person.

Noticing that another human being is attractive or having sexual fantasies that don’t involve your partner are natural, normal experiences that do not necessarily have anything to do with your partner or your relationship.

This taboo about outside sexual attraction often plays into ugly, outdated ideas about gender. A woman who is attracted to someone other than her partner may be labeled as promiscuous. On the other hand, when a man is attracted to someone other than his partner it’s assumed to be a threat to the relationship, because surely the man won’t be able to control his sexual nature and will end up falling into bed with this other person.

3. You should be spending the biggest share of your time and energy on your relationship

Life is full of competing priorities – love, friendship, family, career, self-care, and more. Having a balanced life means putting time and energy into multiple arenas, perhaps putting one over the others from time to time when it needs extra care or special attention.

Permanently assigning your romantic relationship to that priority spot will eventually lead to the neglect of the other areas of your life. If you’re spending every weekend with your partner, when are you spending quality time with your friends? If you dedicate all your downtime to your partner, where do you have the space to self-reflect and learn more about yourself? If you keep saying no to after hours networking events because it would take the focus away from your relationship for a night, how will you find those opportunities to advance your career?

The amount of time and energy you spend on your relationship shouldn’t be a quantity achieved to prove a point – it should enrich your relationship while still allowing you to invest in the other areas of your life too.

4. Jealousy is a sign of love

Jealousy is not generally viewed as a virtuous emotion – it’s considered petty to be jealous of a rival’s success or shallow to want another person’s good looks. Yet somehow when it comes to romance, being jealous of your partner’s time and affection becomes a supposed sign of how much you must love them.

Of course, no one is completely immune from the jealous thoughts that can occasionally arise at moments where you doubt your adequacy as a partner or question the security of your relationship. However, it’s ineffective and unfair to expect your partner to direct ALL their time and care towards you alone, so that you don’t have to experience those insecurities.

5. Your relationship is what makes you whole

If you are focused on your romantic relationship above all else, it’s easy for it to become your identity or even your reason for being. Primarily fixing your identity on one facet of yourself or your life is psychologically risky, because it makes you highly motivated to keep that aspect stable and secure at all costs, lest your very sense of self come under threat.

You might be tempted to stay in a relationship that is unfulfilling or unhealthy, desperate to avoid the psychological toll of how losing the relationship would affect your identity. However, this avoidance could be futile from a pragmatic standpoint – since few romantic relationships are lifelong, the fracture in the sense of self created by losing a relationship that was an outsized component is all but guaranteed to occur.

6. You can love your way out of incompatibility

We’ve all heard the platitude that love can overcome all obstacles, but if the walls of therapy offices could talk, they’d tell a very different story.

If you don’t want kids but your partner has always dreamed of becoming a parent, you can’t simply love your partner into not wanting kids anymore. You can’t love your way out of irreconcilable conflicts around religion or politics or conflicting lifestyles or career goals.

Love is crucial to a relationship, but it takes more than love for a partnership to work. Strongly divergent values, interests, habits, or life goals may cause so much ongoing conflict that a partnership may be unhappy even if both parties love one another.

7. Monogamy is the only way to be in a “real” relationship

Partners who discuss, negotiate, and mutually agree to what style their relationship will take set themselves up for satisfaction and success. A romantic relationship is not somehow more valid for falling into a default position of preconceived ideas about monogamy.

Relationship styles such as open relationships, nonmonogamy, and polyamory also exist, and can also be healthy and fulfilling. These relationships may not be sexually or even emotionally exclusive, but that does not mean they don’t involve care, respect, and, if desired, love and commitment.

Are you and your partner shaping your relationship around someone else’s monogamous ideal, or finding the way of being together that truly works best for you?

Let’s explore

If you’ve been thinking about what you want out of a relationship or if you and your partner have been discussing if the structure of your relationship is really working for you, therapy can guide you in diving deeper into those questions. Click the button below to set up a consultation, and we can chat more about what you’ve been working through and how I might be able to help.


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