What Monogamy Misses
Expanding our kinship networks can enrich our lives.
When I was 15, I liked two boys. One of them went to my church, and the other sat three rows behind me in biology class. My church boyfriend, a traditional kid with a deacon for a grandfather, was clingy. My biology class boo was laid-back, clearly uninterested in monogamy or commitment to anyone but himself. After a few weeks of realizing my feelings were growing for both of them, I decided to reveal the truth.
“I think I like someone else,” I told my church boo. His face wrinkled in confusion.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Well, there’s a guy in my biology class, and I want to date him, too. Y’all will never meet each other so it shouldn’t matter,” I said matter of factly.
He paused for a long while. “So, you want to have two boyfriends?” He looked at me incredulously.
“I mean, yeah. Something like that,” I shrugged.
“Well, I’m not OK with that,” church boo said, definitively. “I don’t want to share. And if we aren’t together, I don’t even want to be friends.”
It’s been more than two decades since that conversation, and church boo still hasn’t spoken to me. Our lives have grown in myriad ways, but that teenage decision he made to embrace traditional monogamous courtship as a means to building a nuclear family solidified that, even in adulthood, we could never be in community again.
This was the first moment I realized monogamy and the nuclear family weren’t for me; they were containers that often required that I deny my own desires to prioritize a romantic partner’s feelings and needs.
In graduate school, I learned that the “modern” family—two heterosexual parents raising biologically related children—was adopted from 18th- and 19th-century England as a direct response to the shifting labor and agricultural demands of emergent industrialization. Family wasn’t really about love or marriage as much as it was about efficiency and production. Industrialization meant these families were essentially business units that extended beyond the nuclear household to aunts, cousins, uncles, grandparents, and others invested in preserving the family’s name and property rights.
I also learned that nuclear families were established to pass down property to children and grandchildren. In the United States, this form of nepotism privileged white, middle- and upper-class landowners who continued to acquire land through nefarious means, like stealing from Indigenous people, exploiting immigrant populations, like Japanese and Mexican Americans, and enslaving Black Americans, before using state and federal constitutional amendments to create loopholes transforming slavery into “involuntary servitude,” language that still exists in some state constitutions today.
However, in the last century, the nuclear family has become deeply unstable in the United States. Property ownership has been mired in redlining, predatory lending, and other white supremacist and anti-Black systems of exploitation and exclusion. Sustaining large families on one income has become untenable, though popular media continues to promote the myth of stay-at-home moms preparing freshly baked apple pies and meatloaf for their children every night. But the reality is the nuclear family is now a minority.
A 2021 survey from the U.S. Census Bureau reported that just 17.8% of households comprised married parents with children under the age of 18. Many children are being raised by grandparents, extended family members, and other community kin who have stepped in to fight against the ravages of our capitalist family dynamic. COVID-19 taught us that isolation within the nuclear family also leads to dysfunction in larger community dynamics with regard to care, affection, and attention. Countless people in the United States find themselves “touch starved” and alienated by the requirements of a culture that situates the nuclear
family and monogamous coupling as the primary indicator of a good life.
In this moment, we are called to reimagine what the family might be and embrace the possibilities before us when we release ourselves from the culture of monogamy enforced by patriarchy and capitalism.
I rely on Black queer feminist models of community and kinship to determine how I will raise my children and build community around them. As bell hooks writes in All About Love: New Visions, “Capitalism and patriarchy together, as structures of domination, have worked overtime to undermine and destroy this larger unit of extended kin.” hooks explains that love and healing can’t actually exist where domination is present.
Rather than participate in these dominant, restrictive familial models, I have chosen an expansive model for my children. I’m polyamorous, meaning I love many people simultaneously and don’t reserve romantic love for a single person. As a lesbian who is deeply embedded in the queer networks around me, I also curate an environment wherein “chosen family,” rather than blood relatives, plays a primary role in rearing and guiding my children. This means that my children have an extended community of elders and parental figures invested in their guidance, care, and development, even when my parental bandwidth
I often reflect on that awkward breakup with my church boo in 1999. I wonder if he knew that I was one of those women who would end up fighting a system he clearly wanted to enforce, even as a teenager. But I never wonder whether or not the nuclear family serves us. It doesn’t. It serves capitalism and has only made us less safe, less protected, and less loving.
It’s time to let it go.