Well That Escalated Quickly! or, Toxic Monogamy Culture

Imagine that you approach a fun-looking roller coaster and without knowing a lot about it, you buy a ticket. As you run through the line to get to the front, there are signs informing you about elements of the ride worth noting, but you only briefly glance, convinced as you are that it's the perfect ride for you. You get strapped in, the car jolts forward, and you realize after the third nauseating loop that this was, in fact, not a great decision.

Hunter S. Thompson wrote "buy the ticket, take the ride," and Dan Savage quotes this in a talk he gave about understanding and getting good with what you're buying into when you enter a relationship. I'm just as guilty as any fool of rushing into love, signing the liability waiver without so much as a skim of the fine print. There's a myriad of possible reasons for this; we live in a culture dominated by a monogamous relational model which passes some toxic mythology off as fact. For instance, under this model physical and emotional intimacy is reserved for committed relationships, and commitment is synonymous with exclusivity. If you're craving a nourishing intimacy, then you have to commit and in order to commit, you have to make a single choice. If you fold in the pernicious lie that potential love is a scarce resource, then the urgency to "lock it down" becomes all the more acute. We are so afraid to miss a "rare" opportunity that we'll sign up without full awareness of what will be asked of us.

The need for meaningful, loving connection, including physical touch, is an essential part of our humanness. There's nothing thirsty about the desire to be known intimately. Where we go sideways is assuming that intimacy has to be relegated to a romantic context, or rushed to be found in exclusive commitment. I have consciously cultivated emotionally intimate relationships with a handful of close friends over the years, so that in the absence of a lover I would still have a strong web of care and support. These relationships remain a priority no matter my romantic status because the love I share with these people is no less valid or important. I plan to grow old with them on a ranch filled with rescue dogs, and I honestly can't wait.

The leap of faith may seem to be jumping with abandon into a new love, but I propose the leap that is greater still is to pause at the ticket counter and ask a lot of questions. Walk slowly through the queue and read every sign; if it warns that the ride is contraindicated for those with motion sickness, believe it the first time. Why would they lie about that? We have a responsibility to ourselves as adults to read labels and use our wise discernment to heed red flags. It's not necessarily the ride's fault if you get ill while riding it. Sometimes the possible side effects may be downplayed or obscured, but a leisurely pace gives us time to listen and watch closely, collect data, notice patterns, read the signs.

No matter how you may suffer for it, you will never change the ride. A monstrous fast roller coaster will never be a gentle swing. We should know, as best we can, exactly what we're consenting to when we get strapped in. What is the true price of admission? Are there compromises involved that you simply cannot afford? We have to trust in the infinite nature of love, and be willing to pass on someone because we can honestly assess that they are not a good match. If we're too fixed on The Idea of a person or a relationship, we'll miss the signs while hurrying to bring our perfect dream into reality. This requires the cooperation of our new love, and it's often evident early on how capable they really are not. Pay attention. Believe them the first time.

Slowing down doesn't necessarily mean refraining from sexual or emotional intimacy. What I mean by it is, unpack the beliefs and expectations you quietly harbor about what it means to be in a relationship. We all have them. They're reflections of the environments and cultures that shaped us, and they are a part of our specific subjective reality. We should never assume that we understand what other people mean when they say "relationship," or that they understand us. Understanding comes from first getting clear about what you mean and what you're looking for, and then taking the great, vulnerable leap of expressing all this. There are no wrong desires, but there are people who won't be interested in meeting them, and it's best to clarify this early on so everyone can make fully informed choices. They may not serve the role you were hoping, but could play another valuable part in your life for which they're better suited. This is of service to everyone.

You're free to make the choice to buy the ticket and enter the ride slowly. There's no rush. And I disagree with Hunter; if after waiting in the queue and reading over the signs, if this ride isn't for you, dip out an emergency exit. Don't rush to be harnessed to a thing you haven't taken the time to honestly understand. We are so wont to give up our power to meet our human need for connection, but that's not necessary outside the bounds of monogamy culture. Intimacy does not have to be yolked to exclusive, immersive commitment. We are allowed to explore our connections thoughtfully, distributing access to time and attention with a high degree of discernment and care. We don't automatically owe anyone any degree of access to or control over our lives just because we're vibing with them. We get to explicitly articulate what we're willing to offer (or not), and are always free to adjust later.

Monogamy can be done well, it just requires reprogramming the embedded ideology that makes it toxic. The wisdom on offer for the monogamous from a polyamorous relational model is the clarity and empowerment available to those willing to exhaustively communicate. It may sound like an unsexy bummer, but if everyone is able to honestly state their needs and what they feel good about offering, imagine the time and long term suffering we'd all be saved. It's vulnerable, sure, but it's also efficient. Unnecessary, unproductive suffering and fresh traumas are things we won't be doing in 2019, thanks.

There's a Cheryl Strayed "Dear Sugar" bit that I think about a lot: "Limits are not punishments but rather lucid and respectful expressions of our needs and desires and capabilities." It's prudent and perfectly fine to place limits on any relationship, particularly as you get to know someone new. Believe me, I understand the heady allure of jumping in head first, and I don't necessarily think there's anything wrong with that so long as you remain aware of the story you're telling about it. In your story, what's happening? What do you expect from this other person in the immediate and in a longterm sense? Have you communicated your expectations and asked for their perspective? Are you willing to let this relationship develop organically, or do you have a predefined path chosen for it?

Our norms and expectations are often such a natural part of our worldview that they seem objectively correct, even obvious, and it's baffling or offensive when those around us just don't get it. It's not so easy, friend. We must accept that the meaning of Love differs for every human heart, and the only way to know is to ask. Don't assume you're on the same page and don't feel pressured to give anyone full access to your life without proper vetting. Collect enough empirical evidence to determine the true character of the person in front of you, so when you get buckled in for the ride you know what you can reasonably expect.

Life is chaos, human relationships are messy, and we can never fully inoculate ourselves against hurt. What we can do is stop willfully ignoring what we see or hear for the sake of intimate connection. Diversify your support sources so no matter what somebody who loves you will tell you there's food in your teeth. When you need that. It's also okay to be alone sometimes. You're pretty great and lacking nothing for not having a romantic partner. Being able to walk into the world on your own grants you incredible space and freedom. Take it.

You got this. You're entirely worthwhile as you are, even if you skip the ride. There will be others.


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