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Toxic Monogamy: Pop Culture's Patent Problem

Published: JUNE 3, 2022 | Updated: JULY 21, 2022 10:16:08
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Reviewed by Marla Stewart
on May 18, 2022
Through media, we're taught to celebrate possessiveness, controlling behavior, jealousy and competitiveness in relationships. But it doesn't have to be that way—you can unlearn toxic monogamy and pursue the right relationships for you.

In March 2022, Kanye West and The Game released a video for their single “Eazy,” which featured a claymation representation of West kidnapping Pete Davidson and burying him in the ground. The subtext was that this imagery represented West’s anger toward Davidson for “stealing” his ex-wife, Kim Kardashian. It’s a form of anger many deem relatable and even universal—but perhaps this would not be the case if we weren’t embroiled within toxic monogamy culture.

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READ: You've Heard of Polyamory, but What About Ambiamory?

What is Toxic Monogamy?

The term “toxic monogamy” doesn’t mean that monogamy itself is toxic. It does, however, refer to a specific form of monogamy valorized in popular culture that normalizes and even celebrates possessiveness, controlling behavior, jealousy and feelings of competition. Sex educator Hillary Berry, who coined the term "toxic monogamy," defined it as “monogamy as a cultural institution [that] has been interpreted and practiced in ways that are unhealthy.”

Jessica Fern, a psychotherapist specializing in non-monogamy, put it this way:

“Toxic monogamy is this idea that we have rights to another person, their resources, and sex with them, and that we do things out of obligation instead of choice.”

In short, toxic monogamy culture says:

  • We "own" our partners (especially if we're men and our partners are women).
  • Other people pose "competition" to us.
  • Jealousy is "proof" of our love (even, as in West’s case, when we're no longer with that person).

READ: How Toxic Masculinity Hurts Everyone’s Sex Lives.

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Examples of Toxic Monogamy in Pop Culture

It’s not just West, of course, who has promoted these ideas. In her chart-topping song “Before He Cheats,” Carrie Underwood promotes vandalism as revenge for suspected cheating, reflecting a larger cultural belief that people who cheat deserve severe punishment.

Similarly, G-Eazy proudly declares in he and Halsey’s “Him and I” that if she’d “ever catch me cheating, she would try to cut my dick off,” as if that constitutes proof of her love. In “Jolene,” Dolly Parton begs another woman not to "take my man," as if men can’t be trusted to stay with their partners—or end the relationship ethically—and attractive women automatically pose a threat.

And, of course, it's not just music, either. The sitcom "Friends" is full of toxic monogamy, from Ross and Rachel’s jealousy-plagued relationship to competition over various women among Chalder, Ross and Joey. A more extreme example, perhaps, is the "Fifty Shades of Grey" erotica series, in which the protagonist’s love interest buys the company she works at so he can keep an eye on her.

Meanwhile, Amazon sells clothes such as men’s underwear that read “property of Anna: I licked it so it’s mine” and shirts that say “Sorry, I am already taken by a freaking awesome girl,” allowing monogamous partners to visually "mark their territory."

Beyond clothing, this can be done through socially acceptable markers of possession like wedding rings.

What Does Toxic Monogamy Look Like?

Monogamy can be done in healthy ways. But whether people are monogamous or non-monogamous, these toxic cultural messages teach them unhealthy relationship ideals and encourage controlling, sometimes abusive behavior. People who have internalized toxic monogamy may end up engaging in behaviors such as looking at their partners’ phones, expecting their partners to spend all their free time with them, prohibiting their partners from having opposite-sex friends or staying friends with their exes, or saying “yes” to sex due to feelings of obligation, according to Fern.

Another consequence of toxic monogamy culture is that monogamy is painted as the only option and non-monogamy is viewed as a less serious or valid form of relationship.

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Many people go through their lives without questioning these assumptions. After all, it’s difficult to do so when you’ve never been exposed to any alternatives. However, as you become conscious of how toxic monogamy is operating in your life, you can step back and ask yourself what you truly want your relationships to look like.

“First, just being aware that it exists helps us to get space from it—like, ‘that’s a social construct; that’s not ultimate truth or ultimate reality,’” says Fern. “There's other ways to do relationships, and that could be choosing to be exclusive, which is different from toxic monogamy.”

Healing From Toxic Monogamy

Fern sometimes has clients write down beliefs about relationships that they feel they’ve inherited and then go through them and ask themselves what feels true to them and what doesn’t, or what they actually want and what they don’t.

People who are questioning whether monogamy is really their preferred relationship style—or what elements of it are—may also want to check out this “smorgasbord of relationships” that lists all different elements a relationship can involve and think about which ones they do and don’t want in their own relationships.

Some people, once they’ve unpacked toxic monogamy's influence in their lives, realize they may not want to be monogamous at all. Exploring non-monogamy may require the assistance of a therapist and is often a process that requires time and personal work.

READ: Poly Diaries: Why We Became Poly Again.

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“For some, it's easy to make that shift,” says Fern. “For some, seeing your partner with another person is one of the worst things that can happen, and that has a lot of emotional reactivity to it.

The Bottom Line

Whatever direction you want to take your relationships in, know that you deserve partners who trust you, respect your autonomy and appreciate you having a life outside of your relationship. Both monogamous and non-monogamous relationships can be healthy or unhealthy. What’s important is that all people are in agreement about the arrangement and that all parties practice basic kindness and respect for the person or persons they're in a romantic relationship with.

READ: Hey, Guess What? Monogamous and Polyamorous Couples Are Equally Happy.

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Photo for Suzannah Weiss
Suzannah Weiss

Suzannah Weiss is a feminist writer, certified sex educator, and sex/love coach. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and more.

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