Over the years, one thing I’ve encountered many times is the accusation from (some) monogamous folks that poly people present ourselves as “more enlightened” and “smug.” There are bound to be some poly people who legitimately look down their noses at monogamous people, but the vast majority of us are not at all critical of monogamy itself. We’re critical of the institution of compulsory monogamy, the set of norms which present monogamy as the only possible option. Even in trying to clarify this, though, I’ve encountered defensive responses from some monogamous folks: “you’re implying all monogamous people are mindless sheep,” “I freely chose monogamy after considering all the options,” etc. Now, to be clear, I certainly don’t want to imply that anyone is mindless. But the reality is that society does circumscribe the choices we feel capable of making. That doesn’t mean we’re mindless, it means we’re human—social creatures who long for the acceptance of a larger community and are vulnerable to criticism and shame.
If a lot of poly people seem particularly bitter toward compulsory monogamy, and sometimes even toward monogamy itself, it’s probably because very few of us were able to identify and live polyamorously from a young age. Most of us spent years—often long, heartbreaking, damaging years—trying to force ourselves into a kind of relationship that was inauthentic for us. And yes, a lot of us have come out of that holding a bit of a grudge against compulsory monogamy.
I have always been polyamorous. As soon as I was old enough to have serious crushes, I had them on more than one person at a time. I ended some early relationships not because I stopped wanting to be with one guy, but because I started wanting to be with another and thought that was the only option. When I fell deeply in love and knew that I wanted to spend my life with someone, I never considered that could mean anything other than only that someone. The options were either: settle down and remain exclusively with this person you love, or have variety, but without long-term meaning and commitment and depth. I chose love. And I’ll spare you all the drawn-out details, but suffice it to say that I spent several years of marriage trying desperately to actually conform to monogamy. I knew that I loved my husband, that I couldn’t imagine my life without him. I thought that was supposed to just flip a switch to make you stop developing feelings for others, and it felt like something was broken in me when that didn’t happen. I hated myself, I wondered what was wrong with me. The only thing that prevented me from developing feelings for others was completely isolating myself from meeting new people, and that was just trading one misery for another. I contemplated affairs. I contemplated divorce. I contemplated suicide. Realizing I was polyamorous—that I had no choice to be anything but polyamorous—and beginning to actually live authentically to who I am was like opening up the curtains and letting all this sunlight in and seeing things clearly for the first time.
When I look back now on all those years of trying to force myself into contentment with monogamy, it seems absurd. Being happy, having a life that actually feels right, is so easy, and yet I was made to feel that it was impossible. As liberating it was to finally be myself, it was also infuriating to realize that I could have been happy all along if not for some artificial, repressive social structures. And yes, there are moments when that kind of realization does make you want to go up and shout from the rooftops: “look everyone! There’s another way!”
I know that monogamy is right for a lot of people. And I know that a fair amount of people actually are aware of alternatives, and still choose monogamy freely. That’s wonderful. I want all people to be able to live the lives that are right and meaningful for them. But I also know there are still countless people in the same place I was in, trying to force themselves into a role that doesn’t feel right and never will. Right now, there are people who are ending relationships they don’t want to end, or having affairs and hating themselves for it, or forcing themselves to follow the rules but feeling miserable and not understanding why. And I want those people to be able to be happy. I want them to know they can have a different life.
Monogamy, just like any other relationship structure, can be great. But compulsory monogamy, quite plainly, sucks. And just as one can be heterosexual and still hate the institution of compulsory heterosexuality, I hope that even monogamous folks can find it within themselves to sympathize and to understand why I’m not about to stop hating compulsory monogamy anytime soon.