What is Toxic Monogamy?

By Jae Lin

Monogamy, the practice of having only one sexual and/or romantic partner at a time, in itself is not a bad, lesser, or toxic structure for romantic relationships. However, through its prevalence and influence in patriarchal and heteronormative systems, many harmful concepts of control and power have been entwined with common messages of what true love and monogamy means. Toxic monogamy, as defined by Hillary Berry in her article “Toxic Monogamy Culture,” refers to “monogamy as a cultural institution [that] has been interpreted and practiced in ways that are unhealthy.”

These ideas are often romanticized or perpetuated in media, cultural norms, and social expectations. They are so pervasive that even in polyamorous relationships, where people may have more than one sexual and/or romantic partner at a time, these concepts and their toxicity often carry over and manifest in their own ways.

By interrogating and unlearning these limiting and harmful messages about love, we can share healthier relationships without fostering shame, in whatever way we practice romantic love. Here are 6 myths perpetuated by toxic monogamy about love, relationships, and jealousy—and how we can redefine that narrative towards healthier and more respectful love stories.

If you truly love someone, you will never be attracted to anyone else.

There’s this idea in which when a person is truly in love, they won’t even look at anyone else ever again, and the idea or feelings of attraction to another person will never cross their mind. If it does, that automatically means that they are unfaithful or not wholly loving of their partner.

For many people, feeling physical, sexual, or romantic attraction to those around them (whether it’s a stranger passing by on the street, a close friend, a celebrity, a colleague, etc) is a natural and inevitable thing that will happen. It doesn’t devalue the love they have for their partner(s), and these feelings should not be equated with cheating, since they are not within anyone’s control.

In any relationship structure, it’s worthwhile to have ongoing conversations with your partner(s) where each person can talk about what actions or behaviors would feel hurtful or betraying to them, while recognizing that exclusive feelings of attraction may not be a realistic expectation. This helps to minimize the shame that someone may hold around the natural feelings that occur to them while moving through the world.

The Relationship always comes first.

Toxic monogamy dictates that there is a hierarchy for love, with the romantic relationship on top. One must forsake all else—anything that threatens The Relationship, and even at times friends and family—in order to protect The Relationship. If another loved one is disapproving of or raising concerns with the relationship, that person gets cut off. If other plans have been made, but something else comes up in The Relationship (however small), all other plans get blown off in order to first address and protect The Relationship.

The Relationship is often used as a trumps-all excuse for anything that must always be excused or accommodated for. When one person is getting hit on, the most effective response is to say that they already have a partner (meanwhile, responding “I’m not interested” is not as respected). When stuck in a conversation or phone call, an effective out is to say that a partner wants you to do something with them (meanwhile expressing a desire to spend time on yourself is not as respected).

With this perspective, everything and anything is a worthwhile sacrifice in order to protect The Relationship. This discounts all the other types of significant and loving relationships that people build throughout their lives that don’t happen to involve romance. Commitment is not synonymous with exclusivity and willingness to forsake all others. Commitment is about follow-through and honesty. We can commit to our relationship(s), ourselves, our family, and other people, and these commitments can make us stronger; it doesn’t cheapen our romance(s).

Your romantic partner needs to fulfill every single emotional, social, and physical need that you have.

Romantic comedies would have us believe that The Right Person can be everything for us. But being everything for another person is exhausting, often impossible, and it doesn’t leave room for anyone to be themselves.

This myth is deeply rooted in the concept of the nuclear family—the idea that a small, contained group of blood-related people within a limited number of generations (usually just two) creates the best environment for love, growth, and family connection. While this structure may work for some, it is not a universal ideal. Many people and communities can benefit greatly from a wide and interconnected, interdependent network of support.

Expecting one person to perfectly know and fulfill your every need is unfair and unreasonable, and forcing it to work will only leave each person stifled and unfulfilled. Instead, reach out to and build strong connections with friends, family, and community members for support in areas where your needs don’t align with or aren’t met by your romantic partner(s).

Sufficiently passionate and true love will always overcome practical incompatibilities.

This one can be a sad reality to hold for a lot of people. It’s so romantic to believe that Love Conquers All, but it’s not always true. Sometimes, it’s better to let go of a relationship when fundamental or practical incompatibilities are disrupting lifestyles, principles, or happiness. Things like distance, fundamental beliefs (particularly around religion, politics, or other world views), goals for family structure, career, or lifestyle—these can all strongly impact a relationship between two people in a way that cannot be overcome or would require fundamental and unreasonable compromises. The Relationship does not always have to come first, and sometimes it needs to take a back seat to self identity, personal happiness and dreams, and/or simply being able to live the life you want to live.

This doesn’t make that love or connection any less passionate or true, only incompatible.

Jealousy and possessiveness are an indicator of love.

Jealousy is a natural human emotion that most people experience in many aspects of life, including romance. It is normal to expect jealousy to arise when a partner shows affection or love (or what is interpreted as affection/love) towards another person. Unfortunately, our mainstream culture and media has normalized the idea that possessive and controlling behavior borne of jealousy are romantic and acts of true love. For example, one common idea is that a significant other who demands constant updates, enforces a laundry list of rules, and regularly has jealous outbursts just really loves and values their partner. In reality, this behavior is harmful and unfair and not at all loving.

It’s okay to feel jealous, and it’s healthy to talk about those feelings with your loved ones. But jealousy is not an excuse to control a partner or blame your feelings on them. Possessiveness and control are not loving behaviors, in any type of relationship.

Affection and love are in limited supply.

A “zero sum game” refers to a situation where one player’s gain is exactly balanced by another player’s loss. In relationships, this translates to the idea that when you partner feels love or affection for someone else, they will now feel less love or affection for you.

This mindset leads to behaviors that enforce greediness, selfishness, and hoarding of love, where partners might try to control or reserve actions, words, and emotional investment. This also means that anything or anyone with the potential for evoking affection or love in one’s partner is a threat to the existing relationship.

This is a very limiting and paranoid way of looking at love, and it puts us at odds with the whole world. Whatever relationship structure is in practice, remember that love is not a zero sum game. Even when in a monogamous relationship, the more love you can give to others in any form (familial, platonic, worldly love), the more love you will feel in your life, and likely in your relationship as well.
How do you avoid the pitfalls of toxic monogamy in order to build healthier and stronger relationships? Share with us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter!