Updated: Apr 21, 2021
I'm so excited to kick off the beginning of our "Non-Exhaustive Guide to Relationship Structures" series with this zine about Compulsory Monogamy.
I can clearly remember the first time I learned that people could date each other in ways that were non-monogamous. I was in high school and up until that educational moment, my only reference point for non-monogamy came from shows like Sister Wives or MTV’s True Life, which portrayed non-monogamy as a strange, alternative lifestyle that was so taboo that it could be packaged as entertainment. As someone socialized through this kind of media, it seemed so bizarre to think that someone might voluntarily choose to not be part of an exclusive, closed relationship. I hadn’t even considered the idea that this could be a choice.
I learned about non-monogamy from a polyamorous college student who was part of a triad. We’ll get into different terms for relational structures later on in this series, but in this triad the person had two partners and they all dated each other. Our talk was open and informative, but I left the conversation with the lingering notion that non-monogamy was still different, almost like a replacement or substitute for a “real” relationship. I was suffering from a very common, cultural condition called compulsory monogamy. Compulsory monogamy is the idea that it is natural and somehow morally superior to be in monogamous relationships. This is a very common idea in our society, right along with compulsory heterosexuality or compulsory cisgenderism, which work in similar ways dictating people’s sexuality and gender identity respectively. It wasn’t until I got to college that I truly understood this affliction and began to strip it away. In college I met so many people who were either experimenting with or practicing non-monogamy. This looked like many different relationship structures; open-relationships, multiple partners, polyamory, the list goes on. It wasn’t just a few outliers who were non-monogamous; it was a cultural shift, a reframing of what I was taught to view relationships as. The biggest ideological shift that I underwent was the realization that there are numerous types of relationship structures, and that monogamy is not the “goal” type, neither is it the most natural, common, or healthy.
At the end of the day, that’s really all monogamy is. It is one option of many, many relationship structures. Each has its own value and unique applicability which shifts depending on time, physical location, or different people’s needs and boundaries. There is an extensive list of structures for relationships, and more are being created everyday as people learn how to navigate being in relation with each other. It can be intimidating but also incredibly liberating to ditch the constrictive idea that we have to love people under such a restrictive model; one partner at a time, full devotion, no exploration, no questions. These restrictions don’t necessarily come from the act of being monogamous, but rather the societal pressure to uphold a relationship style that often is not the best fit for people. So many factors influence our relationships. Things like age, physical location, identity, politics, and so much more affect our relationships. Oftentimes we are asked to ignore the many components of relationships or to sacrifice certain elements of ourselves in order to prioritize this social mandate over our own comfortability and happiness.
At the end of the day, that’s really all monogamy is. It is one option of many, many relationship structures.
How did monogamy come to be our cultural default? It’s important to state that in many cultures, both throughout history and across the globe, monogamy is not the default. In fact, it wasn’t until about 8,000 years ago, when people began shifting from nomadic life to agriculture, that human partnerships began to emerge. Even then, these partnerships may have looked more like strong, familial communities rather than single human partnerships. And the idea of romantic love only came about 4 or 5 centuries ago. Before that time, marriage was simply a legal contract. Today, monogamy is intertwined with laws, politics, even medicine, and science. It exists not only as a social fantasy but as a material, political idea. It is often the only structure we are taught, and it is the only structure recognized in the many social institutions we exist in. It’s not surprising that the idea of compulsory monogamy is widespread and pervasive in our Western society.
Compulsory monogamy tells us we have a goal, and our goal is to find our one, true love. It asks us to prioritize this one relationship above non-romantic relationships, like friends or family members. Sometimes, it even tells us to prioritize our relationship over ourselves; our personality, our desires, or our safety. It promises fulfillment once we achieve this standard. When we examine compulsory monogamy this way, it’s easy to see why many people fall into similar traps in this relationship structure. The harsh rules of how desire must be silenced can lead people to betray a partners trust to flirt or have sex with someone outside the partnership. The promise of fulfillment once monogamous relationships are achieved can lead people to feeling depressed or disappointed when, despite having a happy partnership, they still hold wants and needs that their partner cannot fulfill. And the prioritization of a single relationship can lead people to becoming isolated or withdrawn from the many human connections that offer love and community.
The structure of compulsory monogamy is very different from intentional monogamy. Compulsory monogamy tends to be full of assumptions based on narratives that we are fed through media and other examples. It’s rarely constructed through conversations between partners. Intentional monogamy, on the other hand, is an agreement between partners to actively choose to be monogamous. Intentional monogamy recognizes other structures as valid, but just not opportune for this partnership, at this moment in time. It also recognizes that there is more than one way to be monogamous, and each monogamous relationship will differ according to boundaries, preferences, and the various wants and needs of partners.
It can be scary to unlearn an idea that is so deeply embedded in our social and personal beliefs. For many people, the promise of exclusive access to their partner offers security, assurance, safety. In reality, forcing relationships into the mould of monogamy without conversations and mutual understanding can lead to toxic patterns and betrayals of trust. This is not to say that monogamy isn’t valuable and advantageous for some people. It just simply isn’t the only option, or the most strategic option. Relationships should be about mutual trust and respect, in addition to the communication of love and affection. Non-monogamous relationships don’t deter from the parts of relationships that we yearn for: quality time, affection, honesty, romance, and everything else.
“Monogamy's Law: Compulsory Monogamy and Polyamorous Existence” by Elizabeth Emens