In an article on Babble titled “Is Monogamy to Blame for All of This Divorce?”, Serge Bielanko writes, “Sometimes I wonder if the whole ‘One partner for everything for life’ thing is to blame. It seems as if we’re rarely ever looking outside the tiny, ironclad monogamy box that comes along with that stack of wedding presents.”
While he covers a little bit about the idea of emotional monogamy, I want to really dig into it.
What Is Emotional Monogamy?
We usually discuss monogamy in terms of sex. That is why emotional monogamy might sound a little strange to you at first. I define emotional monogamy as expecting to have one partner who can be depended on for all of your emotional needs and desires, and being emotionally intimate with only that partner.
This idea has been hyped up for quite some time. In fact, it's been done ever since we made the shift toward marrying for love rather than tradition or economic advantage. It’s reinforced at every turn by romantic movies, TV shows and books. Love is supposed to be all-encompassing. Love conquers all.
Or, maybe we’re making our relationships harder than they need to be.
Relationships and Emotional Connection
Chances are good that you currently have more than one friend. You’ve probably made emotional connections with at least a few people; people that you have things in common with, people that you’ve known for a long time, or a few people that you just enjoy being around. Your friends are probably your friends for different reasons. You might really love going out and trying new restaurants with one friend, while another is perfect for long talks over coffee. Every individual person has their strengths, and those are what usually draw us into friendships.
You also probably would not expect one friend to fill every friendship need that you have. Even if you have a best friend, there are things that you do with other friends that are exclusive to those friendships. So, why do we expect one person to fulfill us emotionally once we enter into a romantic relationship?
Emotional Cheating Vs. Emotional Non-monogamy
You might have heard the term “emotional cheating” before. It generally refers to carrying on an emotional affair, rather than a physical one. As in, looking to another person to fulfill your emotional needs in secret. Instead, maybe we need to be honest about our emotional needs, and look for ways to have them met that satisfies everyone and doesn’t involve any dishonesty. That’s emotional non-monogamy.
Emotional non-monogamy doesn’t have to involve love in the way that you love your romantic partner. It can, but that really depends on your own boundaries and the boundaries your partner feels comfortable with. For me, effective emotional non-monogamy means that if I have an emotional need that I know my partner cannot meet, I’m not expecting him to bend to suit my desires. I can go to someone else who is close to me. It doesn't threaten my relationship with my partner. Further, I can encourage my partner to do the same.
What Does It Look Like to Be Emotionally Monogamous?
If you’re fully emotionally monogamous, you might have many acquaintances but only one truly intimate emotional connection. On one hand, it’s an amazing feeling to have someone that you can really depend on, who knows you inside and out. There’s absolutely something to be said for a close, intimate connection with a feeling of exclusivity.
For some people, it’s hard to connect. If you have trouble trusting others or forging deep connections, you are certainly not alone. Everyone has been hurt, and not everyone has bounced back in the same way.
However, emotional monogamy can hurt when you expect all things from one person. To be another person’s complete support system is heavy on emotional labor. If one of you doesn’t know how to handle a particular situation, it might just not be handled at all. This might sound pessimistic, but if things ever go south in your relationship, you might find yourself without emotional support or that connection.
What About Emotional Non-Monogamy?
You’ve probably been practicing a form of emotional non-monogamy for years without realizing it simply by having close friends outside your relationship.
Shaylee, who practices polyamory, said she agrees that having emotionally intimate connections outside of romance adds to the health of any relationship.
“People are hardwired to seek out connections, [and] I think friendships are highly underrated,” she said. “I think [pursuing intimate friendships] is a fundamental thing to do to improve your quality of life.”
If this sounds foreign to you, it’s probably because a lot of mainstream culture prizes focusing on your spouse or your significant other to the exclusion of your friends, especially if your friends are the same gender as your partner. Many blogs and articles advise keeping friends at arm’s length and never getting too close because no one should know you as well as your significant other does.
The thing is, different people bring out different traits in us. The side of you that your partner knows is going to differ a little bit from the side of you that your parents know, the side of you that your high school best friend knows, or the side of you that frequents the local coffee shop. Being able to be a truly well-rounded version of yourself means exploring all of these facets of your personality - as long as the people you’re close to are bringing out the best.
“Where people draw the line between friendship and love varies so wildly from person to person, and how you frame it makes all the difference,” fellow blogger Sugarcunt told me.
For some people, falling in love is easier than it is for others, and you may feel that getting too close is a recipe for disaster. In that case, it’s important to know and enforce your boundaries, which are going to vary from person to person.
“For me it's like the line between romance and a strong friendship blurs, and because I'm sexual [as opposed to asexual] that's ultimately what I have to rely on to differentiate between relationships, and I think that's what most other people use too, although maybe for different reasons,” she said.
How Is This Different From Polyamory?
Polyamory has recently gained some traction in mainstream culture, and it seems to be taking the sex-positive community by storm. Are more people practicing polyamory these days, or are people just more open about it? Either way, it certainly has people talking.
Polyamory (often shortened to ‘poly’) is not necessarily what we’re going for with emotional non-monogamy, although polyamory often involves multiple close, intimate and emotional relationships. Many individuals practice polyamory in many different ways, and so many flavors of polyamory exist. What it boils down to is the cultivation of nonexclusive intimate relationships, both physical and emotional.
One reason that some people choose to embrace polyamory is the belief that one other person cannot satisfy all of your needs and desires - and shouldn’t feel that they have that responsibility. Personally, I think you can embrace this idea whether you’re polyamorous or monogamous. (Learn more about poly life in Polyamory: More Than Enough Love to Go Around.)
If you have close friendships, cultivate them. Think about why your friends are your friends and what kinds of unique things they bring into your life. Appreciate those closest to you for who they are, and for what you do for each other. And finally, get to know your friends' and partners' boundaries, and what constitutes non-monogamy for them.