In March 2018 I left an abusive marriage and entered into a new phase of life: the casually slutty phase. My dating app profile included the line, “I am dedicating 2018 to non-monogamous exploration.” I had my first one time hookups, met my first friend with benefits, and soon met my first long-term partner after the split.
Me and this guy couldn’t get enough of each other, and I stopped putting energy into other dates because I was excited to see him again and again. (Real talk: Dating is hard work and takes a lot of energy). We dated a few weeks before he asked if I wanted to be monogamous. “No,” I said, “Staying non-monogamous is really important to me after leaving my marriage.” He said, “Okay, it just seems like a lot to balance, I thought maybe monogamy would feel safer.”
In retrospect, this was a yikes, but at the time I did not realize that. We continued dating and I met another long-term partner; both relationships lasted a little over a year each.
A little background
This was not my first non-monogamous rodeo. In 2010, my first husband and I opened our marriage at my request. It was definitely uncharted territory, as he was my first partner ever and he had only had one or two serious partners before me. Neither of us even knew non-monogamy was an option, but I had been researching online to try and figure out why I felt so unfulfilled in our marriage and thought that perhaps adding other partners was a great idea and would help me feel more worthy of love. My entire first 28 or so years of life were plagued with terrible self esteem and emotional abuse that led me to seek fulfillment and validation from others to feel good about myself.
I reached out while writing this blog to ask him what his thoughts were when I asked to open our marriage. He said he felt defeated overall that our marriage was so unhappy and he was willing to try anything to make it work. (PS. this is a bad reason to open a marriage, and I definitely made a mistake opening my marriage this way).
We made some of your typical new-to-polyamory mistakes. First of all, we opened from a place of fear and desperation to make things work, rather than getting our relationship on solid ground first. We had lots of rules, lots of possessiveness, lots of “well you got to do it so now I get to do it too” tit for tat behavior.
I made mistakes. I treated my partners like they were beholden to my expectations without treating them with the same respect. I treated other people like they were pawns I could move around my relationship chess-board, trying to find the configuration that would fulfill what I felt like I was missing. Maybe dating another couple would work better, maybe this, maybe that.
By 2018 when I sought out to be my authentically non-monogamous self, I had learned much more by following polyamory-positive accounts on social media (like Poly.Land), learning about relationship constructs like relationship anarchy, seeing my own friends in my social circles practice healthy polyamorous relationships, reading books like More than Two, etc.
When I left my abuser, non-monogamy the right way was my goal. Because monogamy had trapped me in a cycle of making my partner the most important thing in my life. More important even than myself.
When people say “toxic monogamy,” it might offend you as a monogamous person. You might think I’m saying that your way of living life in your romantic relationships is toxic or bad. That’s not what I’m saying.
Similar to toxic masculinity, which is “masculinity that is toxic,” toxic monogamy is “monogamy that is toxic.” Examples of toxic monogamy include creepy wedding decorations with a ball and chain or handcuffs, not allowing your spouse to have friends outside of your marriage, expecting your partner to be your “one and only” person in life, being possessive of your partner, going through your partner’s phone to see if they are talking to other people or following accounts on social media you don’t approve of, threatening to harm other people who you perceive to come between you and your partner, etc.
My mom and stepdad had a couple they were friends with whose origin story went like this: He beat up her boyfriend, so she went out with him instead because he proved how much he wanted her with physical violence. And they’re still together decades later. Aww, sweet. (No, not sweet).
Toxic masculinity and toxic monogamy go hand in hand, but that’s a blog post for another day.
My abuser had weaponized monogamy in our relationship. We met when I was in my first marriage, as was he. I had a girlfriend at the time, whom he was also seeing. He met with her for a dinner date, she talked about me on their date, and he then connected with me and feigned surprise when I asked if he was in fact the gentleman who was seeing my girlfriend. (Read: He lied about not knowing who I was when he made contact). He dated us both until he decided which of us was easier, and it became apparent when she started calling out his possessive behavior that he needed to get her out of the picture.
He convinced me she was too jealous and unstable for us to attempt a polyamorous triad, which had been our initial hope as three people who were dating each other. I broke things off with her and he did soon after. Once I filed for divorce, my abuser suggested that we be monogamous with each other, because non-monogamy was clearly too hurtful and too complicated. I readily agreed, because I had just had such a bad experience with that “crazy girlfriend!” I didn’t want to have to guard myself against that again. It really was better to just be monogamous so I couldn’t get hurt again. I was enthusiastically in agreement.
I was happily monogamous, so long as I accepted whatever treatment he gave me. He was in charge of the love, affection, and sex I received, and I had no leg to stand on to ask for more.
Bisexual erasure in a straight-presenting relationship
I am bisexual: attracted to people of similar and different genders than myself. As a bisexual person in a relationship with a straight cisgender man, I was subject to some of your typical bi erasure tropes. His erasure took one of three forms depending on my behavior, confidence, doubts, etc. and the result he needed to achieve to maintain control in our abuse cycle.
- You’re not really bi, you’re just narcissistic. Any time I looked upon myself favorably in the mirror, he’d say I was preening like a bird and joke that I wasn’t actually bisexual, I was just really into myself. Looking back, I now see that this was meant to poke holes in my confidence by judging how “into myself” I was.
- If you need to explore your bisexuality, that’s fine… in a threesome. My husband routinely told me that he wanted to be monogamous, but if I felt the desire to explore my sexuality with a woman, he was open to that. All I had to do was ask! So once, I did ask. I asked if I could have sex with a close female friend of mine. My husband was livid. I called him a liar, because he said that I could explore if I wanted to, and I was communicating that desire with him. He then explained that what he meant was I could be with a woman if it was a threesome with him.
- Your bisexuality means you’re twice as likely to leave me. If I had managed to get through the first two layers of bi erasure from my esteemed life partner, this was always an option for him to bring out. When we talked about my sexuality, he’d say “I take your bisexuality very seriously. It means twice the people you could leave me for.” I honestly can’t even begin to unpack this nonsense. I guess he was implying that any attraction I felt for not-him meant a risk of me leaving him, but it didn’t occur to him to maybe not be a shitty partner.
In his mind, bisexuality was a threat to him and therefore he did everything he could to reduce its importance in my identity. If I wanted him to feel reassured that I wouldn’t leave him, I talked less about my sexuality. If the only acceptable way for him to accept my bisexuality was in a threesome I was unwilling to have, then I just didn’t bring it up. What seems obvious in retrospect as psychological abuse was, at the time, just what I needed to do to keep my husband happy and reassured of my commitment to him.
His undermining of my sexuality tied back into his skewed expectation of monogamy: that he and he alone should have been all I needed.
Again, I am not saying that monogamy is unhealthy or toxic. It can be extremely healthy and fulfilling. Just like polyamory or other forms of non-monogamy can be healthy or unhealthy. I’ve had healthy and unhealthy friendships, I’ve cut toxic and abusive family members from my life, and I’ve quit jobs with toxic bosses — any relationship has the potential to be healthy or unhealthy.
I’ve found that there’s a spectrum of identifying as polyamorous, non-monogamous, etc. similar to sexual orientation. This doesn’t mean straight polyamorous people should have a unique space at Pride or that they remotely face the same struggles as queer people. Polyamory is not a sexual orientation, but it is a relationship orientation.
You can feel called to a polyamorous relationship orientation as a very important part of your identity. You definitely need access to multiple relationships to feel romantically fulfilled, and it’s a non-negotiable aspect of your dating life.
Or maybe you enjoy non-monogamy and don’t feel that monogamy is an inherent default, but if you connected with a partner who preferred to be monogamous you could enjoy monogamy as well.
Whether you are non-monogamous by necessity and identity or you simply don’t default to monogamy, your relationship structure outside the norm of monogamy is valid.
The healing power of non-monogamy
For me personally, being non-monogamous has been a critical piece of my recovery from abuse and trauma. Being ethically polyamorous is part of who I am now, and I won’t be changing that. Dating multiple people helps me level set the bar for behavior and treatment I accept, helps me stay true to my boundaries, and just feels really good because I’m allowed to make connections with whomever I want.
I clearly communicate my expectations, desires, and limits with partners, and because I know love and affection is plentiful and available to me, I don’t settle for poor treatment or someone repeatedly ignoring my boundaries. To me, polyamory means that there are infinite opportunities to make loving connections. I no longer feel like I have to “lock somebody down” to make sure they stay interested in me, or that I have to be everything my partner wants or needs, or that I have to limit myself to avoid making people lose interest in me. More love is around the corner, and if somebody doesn’t love me the way I like to be loved, I don’t have to change the way I need to be loved, I need to change who is doing the loving.
Read more from me
If you enjoyed this post, you’ll be thrilled to know there’s a whole chapter on relationship structures including polyamory and relationship anarchy in my book, The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation. Millennials didn’t invent these relationship types but we are fairly noisy about normalizing them. I’d love for you to let me know what you think of the book, so please give it a read and leave a review on Amazon. If you’re morally opposed to Amazon, I have some other links here.
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