As someone who regularly writes about polyamory, you could easily assume I’m a ‘polyevangelist.’ You know the type: smug, thinks their relationship model is the answer to the world’s romantic/sexual problems, talks about it like they’re trying to convert you. I promise that’s not me. Honestly, if you’re into monogamy, then I have no interest in convincing you otherwise. The reality is I write about polyamory so much because I want to stop other newbies from feeling as lost as I did.
My first couple of years of non-monogamy saw me stumble a lot. There were no role models to look to for guidance, few friends with any experience in open relationships and I had no idea where to look for information. I arrogantly thought I didn’t need any help. Surely I could work it out as I went along? What I ended up learning was that we live in a mononormative society that trains us implicitly and explicitly from birth how to be monogamous. That it’s our only option and trying anything else is wrong.
When you first start being polyamorous, so much time is spent unpacking this mononormative conditioning. Shaking off these ideas that you’ve been told all your life are ‘normal’ and cross-checking with yourself if something is genuinely what you want or if it’s what you’ve always been told you should want. Sounds unnecessary and annoying, right? It is. So here’s why I believe we need to get rid of mononormativity, not monogamy.
Wait, yet another big word to wrap your head around? Yup. But this one’s pretty easy to understand because you’re surrounded by it every day. From the fairy tales you read as a child and the movies you watch at the cinema to the wedding ceremonies that take up most of your summer. Mononormativity informs how we structure our entire lives and place value on it.
So what exactly does this big word mean? Wiktionary defines mononormativity as “the assumption that romantic and sexual relationships can only occur, or are only normal, between two monogamous partners.” In their article Compulsory Monogamy and Polyamorous Existence, Leehee Rothschild expands on this idea, looking at how mononormativity is as “a social institution… religion, sexology, psychology, law and popular science all play a part in the normalisation and naturalisation of monogamy as the only normal, healthy and moral way to maintain a romantic relationship.”
I think the best way to think about mononormativity is to invert it. Imagine if you’d grown up in a world where all Disney movies and romantic comedies were about characters having multiple romantic partners throughout their lives, usually at the same time. Where religion told you it was selfish and wrong to spend your life with only one partner. Where sign-up forms only allowed you to register two or more partners.
Then imagine if you realised you wanted an exclusive relationship with just one person, romantically and sexually, for your whole life. Imagine if this was something that was difficult to find and you had to keep hidden from your family, who would worry about your ‘unhealthy’ lifestyle choices and your work, who might think that you weren’t the kind of person they wanted to employ. This would, in theory, be ‘polynormativity.’
Of course, this isn’t a world I want to live in. I would never want anyone to feel that their consensual relationships were wrong. So, why would I want to exist in a mononormative world either? A world that taught me there is only one way to have a happy relationship when it turns out — SURPRISE — there isn’t. A world that has made the relationship escalator of dating, moving in, marriage, mortgage and babies an indicator of whether your relationship (and life) has value. A world where your relationship is regarded as a failure unless you stay together until one of you dies. It’s all a bit intense and morbid, right?
Monogamy under threat
One of the hardest things for me to stomach about mononormativity is how it’s ok to laugh and complain about some of the really difficult aspects of monogamy, yet no one ever wants to discuss any alternative for it. It’s like someone is waving their arms and shouting HELP, but when you get over to them, they think you’re a weirdo for checking they’re ok.
A good example is a recent episode of Adam Buxton’s podcast (episode 131), where Caitlin Moran discussed her take on sex in a long-standing marriage. My flatmate brought it to my attention because Moran promoted the idea of the truly dismal-sounding ‘maintenance shag’. As it’s not uncommon for people to lose interest in each other sexually after a 20+ year relationship, Moran joked about how you still need to have sex with each other — whether you want to or not — because it helps keep the very idea of sex alive.
Some people will listen to this idea and nod sagely, as this has been their experience too. Some will smile dreamily at the idea of being in a loving relationship for that long. And some people will listen with horror at the idea that this is the future society expects them to have. I’m not saying that Moran is unhappy or that she should stop being monogamous but surely is it really that bad that we’re encouraging people to have sex when they genuinely don’t want to? Imagine feeling trapped in a relationship you no longer wanted to be in and hearing advice like that.
Mononormativity is the reason why people stay in monogamous relationships, especially marriages, for years or even decades when they’re unhappy. To break up, to divorce, to admit that ‘the one’ may no longer be right for you is seen as a failure. Yet spending a large portion of your life so unhappy, isn’t it? This is so sad and so frustrating. Why can’t we accept that it’s ok to change? Why can’t we do away with this whole ’till death do you part’ business and turn it into ‘I love you so much I’m going to give you space to grow’.
I think a lot of the time, people object to non-monogamy because they fear it’s a threat to monogamy when it’s really a threat to mononormativity. Our whole social structure focuses on the couple, who are expected to then become a family unit of parents with children. By presenting other options, it shakes the foundation of the way our system operates. Yes, it’s a tad dramatic, but also true.
Monogamy, mononormativity and me
You could say I’ve had a pretty reasonable shot at monogamy. I gave it 20 years of my life, lived with three partners, and married two of them, with one of those relationships lasting for 10+ years. After all of that, I feel it’s an appropriate response to take a step back and look at my bigger picture. To question if this is something that works for me, to look at other options.
A friend recently said to me that the work involved in unlearning mononormativity in order to be polyamorous meant that monogamy was probably easier. And yes, I agree that in that first year or two of any relationship, when you’re wrapped up in NRE, monogamy probably is easier. But the honeymoon period doesn’t last forever.
I don’t think anyone who has spent a decade or more in a monogamous relationship would say that it’s easy. It takes an incredible amount of work to stay together, to keep your romantic and sexual flame alight. To give each other room to grow and change yet still want to be with whoever they grow into. There’s such beauty in building this kind of commitment. I genuinely loved a lot of it. But there was nothing easy about it. So I’m now curious to see if I can channel that amount of effort and focus in my life into creating something different.
Hindsight has taught me that it’s silly for me to make sweeping statements about my life. To say I’ll always be one thing or I’ll never be another. In my 20s, I had a go at both political lesbianism and veganism — and I’m neither of those things now. I’d be a fool to say I’ll never have a monogamous relationship or get married again because, knowing me, saying that means it probably will happen.
What I can say for certain is that I’m done with mononormativity. My relationships no longer need to look a certain way so they can be valid. Yours shouldn’t either. Let’s give each other room to evolve, to explore, to understand ourselves. Perhaps without all that pressure to be normal, we’d all enjoy our choices a lot more.
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