Does Daring to Abandon Monogamy Make You a “Failure?”

Two people holding hands after agreeing to abandon monogamy.

“The first divorce in the world may have been a tragedy, but the hundred-millionth is not necessarily one.” – Anatole Broyard

I want to talk about the notion that daring to abandon monogamy if you’re nonmonogamous represents a “failure.” This belief reflects the tremendous investment of the Overculture. It wants to keep people locked into relationships. (Or, until very recently, keep other people locked out of certain relationships.) It wants to shame people and disparage alternatives to lifelong, heterosexual monogamy. There are a range of reasons for this. None are particularly valid today.

The stigma surrounding divorce – and who’s still pushing it

Although I’m no youngster, within my lifetime there was a huge stigma surrounding divorce. Many still bemoan the supposed “easy accessibility of divorce.” They seek to repeal or otherwise severely restrict access to divorce. Another vocal group resorted to the scare tactic that divorce irreparably harms children. They insisted that people should stay together for “the sake of the kids.” Research on this is mixed, but trends away from this view. Yet this attack continues.

An unholy alliance took place between three groups:

  • Those who opposed recognizing same-sex marriages or relationships;
  • Those who disparaged non-marital cohabitation; and
  • Those who simply opposed divorce, especially so-called “no fault” divorce.

What united them was a maniacal devotion to lifelong, exclusive, heterosexual monogamy. They brooked no opposition or examination of alternatives. In 1996 they were at the peak of their power. They pushed successfully for a federal law enshrining their views. The law mandated what should be taught to young people about marriage and sexuality. It specifically mandated exclusivity.

Now that’s no longer true. That law was, fortunately, repealed, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision. I’d like to think that the social climate has changed positively. But the defenders of “traditional” monogamy still seek to influence public discourse. They work in somewhat more sophisticated ways, but with the same ultimate intention. They promote “marriage” as a one-step solution to a host of social ills. But make no mistake. By “marriage” they absolutely mean exclusive monogamy. No room for swingers, polyamorists, or those with open relationships.

When you realize you’re at a crossroads

So, what does this mean? I’ve seen many people realize that monogamy doesn’t work for them. They’ve engaged in a good-faith effort to try to live authentically. They’ve fairly and respectfully tried to renegotiate their relationship.

There are four possible outcomes for this negotiation. Some are successful in renegotiating the relationship to live more authentically. Often, both partners grow and benefit from the fruits of the renegotiation. This is the best case.

Another outcome is a “poly-mono” relationship. In these, one partner lives non-exclusively, and the other freely chooses to remain exclusive. Despite some criticism by some nonmonogamy community voices, it works well for many people.

A third group can’t renegotiate. They then resign themselves to staying in a disappointing relationship. Or worse, decide that their only alternative is cheating. This is a very unfortunate outcome. It doesn’t bode well for the future of the relationship. But that’s the subject of a different post.

The fourth segment tries good faith negotiations. But they then conclude it isn’t going to work. The monogamously-oriented partner’s right to live authentically is not in question. So, what happens? The people involved must navigate an appropriate relationship transition. It’s time to abandon monogamy.

Pitfalls to be avoided

This transition can have varying degrees of complexity based on the situation. But what happens to the nonmonogamously-oriented partner who engages in a relationship transition? The pressure of the Overculture to remain exclusive at all costs is potent. We are still all marinated in an invisible social pressure. It enshrines lifelong, exclusive monogamy as the “ideal” relationship.

Many divorces, regardless of the cause, unfortunately are acrimonious. The nonmonogamous transitioning from monogamy can feel guilt, shame and other unpleasant emotions. These are made worse by a common tendency of a monogamous partner. These seek solace, reinforcement and affirmation from family or mutual friends. To preserve their self-image, they often disparage the nonmonogamous partner. Their supporters then “pile on.”

This can create ruptures within the nonmonogamous partner’s social support network. In some cases, it damages their bond with their children from the ending relationship.

I can’t fix the Overculture that punishes nonmonogamous thoughts. I can’t fix how the monogamous try to relieve their guilt, insecurities, and low self-esteem by avoiding all responsibility. But I believe I can help those who have chosen to move on from a relationship that no longer nourishes them. With help, they may avoid some of the negative outcomes associated with a transition.

If you find you must move on from monogamy

I rely on techniques from my Affirmative Intimacy® method for managing relationships. These tools can also help you manage transitions in relationships.

Most appropriate among the tools is Mindful Reason. This manages the negative self-talk from the emotional baggage of the Overculture. The other is Differentiation of Self. This is the ability to stand, independent from any relationship, without feeling incomplete.

Mindful Reason can be an important tool to address the negative messages you may receive. The dislocations caused by a relationship transition are unfortunate. These are not outcomes you would have chosen and embraced. But neither are they a tragedy nor a cataclysm. They are a natural, temporary outcome of your desire to live in authenticity. You have a right to grow in the direction of your particular rays of sunshine.

Avoid internalizing negative messages from the Overculture. Immunize yourself from those acting in solidarity with your monogamously-oriented former partner. They are often driven by fear of losing their grip on their own monogamous relationship.

Listen to the messages, including your own self-talk. You can then analyze their source and validity. Then, replace the harmful ones with new, healthier beliefs.

Differentiation of Self is a complex subject. But too often, as social animals, we invest too heavily in being “part of a relationship.” It is one of many roles assigned to us since infancy. The positive attributes of being connected to others is certainly a net benefit. But not when carried to an extreme. Clinging desperately to a relationship that no longer serves you is harmful.

Differentiation of Self means being able to be your true self both in and out of a relationship. It’s about not being dependent upon a relationship to function. It’s about not deferring to a partner to “keep the peace” and preserve a relationship. Of course, compromise and negotiation should happen and they’re often positive. But when compromise becomes capitulation, you’ve crossed the line. The more capitulation within a relationship, the less functional it becomes.

What you need to do

So, where does this leave us? If you’re looking at a relationship transition, take stock of what’s at stake. What are your pros and cons? Realistically assess the impact those would have on your life. Compare that to the opportunity to live with authenticity.

Have you tried for a satisfactory renegotiation of the relationship? Have you taken into account the reasonable desires, needs and orientations of both parties?

If a transition is inevitable, for your own sake and that of other persons involved, take the high road. Avoid recriminations, disparagement or other negative behaviors directed toward your soon-to-be ex-partner. You should seek fairness in any distribution of assets. Always take the high road in any interactions with third parties.

Be ready for negative messages from people invested in monogamy. Their fear demands they shame anyone daring to live outside their inflexible boundaries. But don’t let it get to you.

As importantly, you need to be prepared to grapple with your inner mononormativity. You’re not immune to the messages that you’ve been marinated in since childhood. Ditch the myth about finding your “one true partner” and “living happily ever after.” You must marshal your inner resources to overcome any negative self-messaging. Research shows that even those who are practicing nonmonogamy haven’t fully escaped this.

So, in short, you need to embrace the challenge in exchange for the powerful benefits you hope to receive. Scientific research suggests that you’ll be happier, healthier and more satisfied. Doing so is not a failure. A brighter future is open to you if you have the courage to step through that door.