Relationship Culture Clash and Consensual Non-Monogamy

In last week’s post, I compared and contrasted some of the differences between two different forms of non-monogamy: Consensual Non-Monogamy and Hookup Culture. In this week’s post, I want to build on that to elaborate more on some of the differences—and similarities—between those, as well as monogamy, but this week I want to take a slightly different approach that I alluded to at the end of last week’s post; I’d like to explore a few different ways that Hookup Culture—even though it is a form of non-monogamy—might actually make a person more inclined to “revert” to monogamy rather than continue practicing some form of consensual non-monogamy within their relationships. Within that, I also want to at least touch on how consensual non-monogamy and monogamy might actually not be completely at odds with one another… if both are practiced with a few key points in mind.

A major theme of last week’s post was the way that Hookup Culture delivers on its promise of sex without commitment, but in the process it has also cultivated sexual connections that are intentionally devoid of emotionality or intimacy… or in many cases, kindness or basic respect. I also talked about how Hookup Culture can be perpetuated on a systemic level without actually being sustainable for many people on an individual level; the people who leave (because of burnout/disillusionment, or because of figurative/literal “graduation” out of Hookup Culture) are replaced by a new class of people who are perfectly happy to pursue the uncommitted sex and the resulting social status in an environment where they have no social status. Hookup Culture is also reinforced by a sort of assumption of “non-monogamy now, monogamy later” approach to relationships.

In this post, I want to zoom in on that “non-monogamy now, monogamy later” assumption of Hookup Culture. For some people (i.e. the 15% of “enthusiasts” Lisa Wade references in her NPR Hidden Brain interview on Hookup Culture who genuinely like Hookup Culture), that division or eventual transition to monogamy might inspire dread… a sense that they have to have as much sex with as many people as possible now because at a certain point they’re going to be shackled by monogamy. For others, (i.e. the roughly 50% of Lisa Wade’s sample who participate in Hookup Culture but have varying degrees of mixed feelings about it), that thought may provide comfort… a sense that soon, all the things about Hookup Culture they don’t feel good about will just go away and they won’t have to deal with those problems anymore because monogamy will provide them with both sexual satisfaction and emotional intimacy. The problem with both of these responses to the “non-monogamy now, monogamy later” assumption though is that the assumption itself is faulty.

The first problem with that assumption is that Hookup Culture isn’t just limited to college campuses (although that’s often where it’s most obvious and pronounced). For some people, this reality might already be painfully obvious. For others less so. I myself, in this blog, am often guilty of oversimplifying complex issues and talking about “culture norms” and “social constructs” that set monogamy as the standard or ideal, but the reality is that there are tons of messages within our culture that normalize non-monogamy. In America, we live in a culture (broadly speaking) that is both hypersexualized and sexually repressed. The dynamics and power hierarchies that shape the rules around Hookup Culture on college campuses aren’t different from the power hierarchies outside in the “real world”; they’re just turned waaaaay up in Hookup Culture and become even more dominant.

To support my point that Hookup Culture doesn’t just go away even when people leave a college campus for the “real world”, I’m going to make a claim for which I have no actual evidence or support other than the fact that it makes intuitive sense to me: “ghosting”* is not a random or accidental or even super-mysterious trend—it’s the natural, entirely-predictable result of a central tenet of Hookup Culture being applied to “real-world” dating. Hookup Culture actively discourages communication, on-going interaction, acknowledgment of another person’s internal emotional world. I would argue it’s impossible to get “ghosted” in Hookup Culture, because ghosting is the absence of communication when there’s the assumption that there should be communication; within Hookup Culture, that absence of communication isn’t a bug in the software… it’s a feature.

*Forgive me if you’re tired of hearing about ghosting. Please. But I just want to offer a quick definition for anyone who somehow hasn’t heard about—or experienced—this dating phenomenon. Ghosting is when a person—without notice or explanation—completely cuts off communication with someone they’ve been dating or hooking up with or “talking to”… they stop answering calls, replying to texts, etc.

I did a quick Google search: “hookup culture ghosting.” I didn’t dig very deep, but I did run across a blog post with 5 reasons why people get ghosted. All 5 of those reasons suggested that the “cause” of the ghosting was something directly related to the individuals involved… too clingy, “commitment issues,” bad sex, being rude. Sure, each of those probably does play a role in how ghosting occurs sometimes. But whenever I hear about a pattern or trend that’s showing up in a lot of different places, I’m usually pretty skeptical of explanations of a “cause” that look at individual factors but fail to address the overall trend. In this case, I would argue that the trend is: individuals who have been exploring their sexuality within Hookup Culture (where the often-unspoken-but-widely-understood “rule” is that hookup sex is meaningless and we have to show that it’s meaningless by discarding each other afterward) are entering situations where they are more likely to be interacting with/dating/having sex with people who are operating under a different often-unspoken-but-widely-understood “rule” (e.g. even if we haven’t made a lifelong commitment to each other, by having sex with one another there’s an understanding that we at least own each other the courtesy of a conversation if we decide to stop having sex or talking with each other).

From this perspective, “ghosting” isn’t some new, mysterious trend that’s started showing up in the monolithic “world of dating;” it’s a manifestation of a culture clash that’s occurring between two “cultures” that previously thought they could safely assume what the “rules” were are finding that there’s a new set of assumptions in operation… and individuals from both cultures are finding themselves ill-equipped to navigate and reconcile those conflicting assumptions.

The second reason why the assumption that non-monogamy will just disappear with Hookup Culture when someone leaves a college campus is that non-monogamy—separate from Hookup Culture—is becoming more widely acknowledged/talked about/explored/practiced/incorporated into the structures of people’s most intimate relationships. Dating apps are starting to include the option of specifying whether a user is looking for monogamy or non-monogamy. Or whether they’re currently single or already in a relationship.

How does it feel when a seemingly great match on a dating app has marked that they’re only interested in non-monogamy? What goes through a person’s mind when they get yet another message from a person who’s already in a relationship? What buttons get pushed when the person they’ve been dating for a few months—or years—brings up dating or sex with other people?

I have a lot of empathy for individuals who—having had a taste of Hookup Culture at some point in their journey—encounter the idea of non-monogamy again and think to themselves (or scream out loud) “I’ve already tried that shit, and I’ve got no interest in going back to it.” I’m not interested in trying to convince anyone to change or alter their personal boundaries or what they understand of their own needs or desires in a relationship. What I am asking, gently, is whether they’ve actually fully explored what non-monogamy could be in their life if they were the ones who actually had control over how it manifests in their relationships.

A tool I sometimes use with clients—or encourage them to do with their partners—is the Relationship Anarchy Smorgasbord. There are a few different versions of it. I believe the original was created by Lyrica Lawrence and Heather Orr. I like the variation created by Maxx Hill and Phoenyx, which is below. The foundational idea is that each person is free to structure their relationships however they want to, based on what they and the other person in the relationship want and consent to. This isn’t just related to sexual or romantic relationships; it also extends to friendships, business partnerships, housemates, etc.

The Relationship Anarchy Smorgasbord is a tool for helping people clarify and communicate about what they want—and don’t want—in their relationships with others. Credit (original idea): Lyrica Lawrence, Heather Orr; Credit (this version) Maxx Hill and Phoenyx

Although the concepts of the smorgasbord are generalizable to many forms of consensual non-monogamy (or, I would argue, consensual monogamy), Relationship Anarchy is one specific way of practicing non-monogamy, with its own assumptions, values, and “rules” (although I’m certain there are practitioners of RA who would have strong objections to my use of the word rule in relation to an anarchist framework). Hookup Culture is another form of non-monogamy, but—just like Relationship Anarchy—isn’t the only form. But because Hookup Culture positions itself as THE alternative to monogamy, someone who had spent any length of time in or around Hookup Culture could be forgiven for thinking that non-monogamy IS Hookup Culture, and deciding they want nothing to do with it. I mean, look at what the menu for a Hookup Culture “Smorgasbord” actually has to offer:

In my last post (and again at the beginning of this one) I suggested the idea that although Hookup Culture is a form of non-monogamy, Consensual Non-Monogamy (some might say ethical non-monogamy) as a framework for relationships is actually more compatible with a certain style of monogamy than it is with Hookup Culture. This is what I mean by that. I think that consensual monogamy—monogamy where both partners have talked about, clarified, been empowered to ask for what they need and want, opted-in, consented to each part of their relationship arrangement—is deeply compatible with consensual non-monogamy. That’s different from what I sometimes call “prescriptive monogamy”: monogamy that’s presented as right for everyone or the only possible (or moral) option.

Ultimately, this leads me back to a foundational element of the work that I do with clients. Although working with people who are in—or interested in—consensually non-monogamous relationships is a current area of focus within my practice, I’m not interested in convincing or “converting” people to any relationship structure. “Successful” therapy is not about getting all of my clients to a particular, pre-determined outcome.

For me, successful therapy (just like “successful” consensual non-monogamy, or consensual monogamy) is about the process. The process of clarifying desires, needs, values. The process of learning to appreciate and connect to emotional experiences—even unpleasant ones—instead of avoiding them. The process of learning to communicate honestly, assertively, compassionately. The process of learning to listen closely to better understand what’s being communicated to us. The process of learning to identify, define, fortify and protect, or renegotiate and adjust interpersonal boundaries. What people do with those tools in their lives and their relationships is up to them. I’m just here to help with the process.

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