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The Monogamous People Who Live in Fear of ‘Polybombing’

Traditionalists worry that any closed relationship is at risk of being pried open against their will

It’s virtually impossible to discuss dating in 2022 without an arsenal of pseudo-psychiatric buzzwords. You’re down in the dumps because someone ghosted you. It’s unclear if that person on Tinder is catfishing.  That ex was a shameless gaslighter. You might get cuffed, benched, orbited or breadcrumbed. And if you’re monogamous, you stand the risk of being “polybombed.”

Reddit’s r/monogamy, in theory a small community to discuss the benefits and challenges of sharing your life with one committed long-term partner, more often devolves into angst over polyamorous arrangements. Formerly poly members share horror stories of open relationships that ended in heartbreak, while strident monogamists condemn the poly scene as a pit of selfishness, hedonism and false superiority. While it’s true that non-monogamous individuals can be a little smug or self-aggrandizing in their abandonment of traditional romantic mores, there is a tacit understanding throughout the subreddit that such a lifestyle can never be healthy or sustainable. They’re united in the corollary belief that only an asshole would want to try it. 

A newcomer lamented in a recent post that the group, instead of being “a place that supports monogamy as a normal okay thing, without shaming polyamory,” was focused on “over-generalizing and straw-manning” the practice. An established user replied that such venting was necessary, “since so many people here have been polybombed and manipulated, and so many poly people like to manipulate.” 

Another generalization! And a wobbly conceptual framework that gives us a peek at what’s really going on here. The idea of “poly people” is misleading to begin with: You may comport yourself according to polyamorous principles, enjoying intimate love with multiple partners, but it is not a sexual orientation — it is behavior. You, alone, cannot be poly; only relationships, and people operating within them, are poly. 

Yet the notion that someone can be innately polyamorous — here, in every case, a pejorative characterization — is critical to the narrative that nice, well-adjusted monogamous folks live in constant danger of being coerced into toxic poly culture. “Polybombing,” a term for when someone in a couple raises the prospect of either party dating outside of it, has its clearest antecedent in “love bombing,” which refers to excessive affection, generosity and close contact in the earliest stages of a relationship, widely considered a red flag and a scheme for gaining dominance. To call even a discussion of polyamory “polybombing” therefore implies sinister manipulation, if not psychic violence, from a non-monogamous type who is abusive by nature.

Thing is, sexual liberalism isn’t any better a predictor of nefarious intent than sexual conservatism. Your partner can fiercely disavow infidelity while still controlling and harming you. Someone who proposes marriage isn’t “matrimony-bombing.” These are decisions made between two adults with equal say in the matter, but r/monogamy operates from the assumption that the “polybomb” is a concerted attack, unforgivable in its own right. 

No doubt this is partly the result of both sides’ unfortunate tendency to value their chosen paradigm by disparaging the opposite — that is, endorsements of either monogamy or polyamory may proceed from a case for why the other model is unrealistic or “wrong.” By that reasoning, the hardened monogamists, most of whom are only discussing this on a web forum because of their negative experience with poly liaisons, can regard mere curiosity about the same as aberrant and traumatizing. One redditor even complained to OKCupid that the app was rife with non-monogamous daters, claiming they “feel nearly overwhelmed with the amount of polygamy I’m exposed to on a daily basis.” (This conflation of polyamory with plural marriage is another dubious piece of rhetoric.)

Obviously, there’s much that can go wrong in any kind of romance. To live in fear, however, of a specific complication — especially if you’ve never encountered it before — is a strange way to approach love. As for the survivors of terrible, reluctant experiments in polyamory, well, you’re more than justified in avoiding it from now on. But had you broken up with a cruel and deceitful monogamous partner, you’d rightly criticize them, and not the institution of monogamy, for what you’d gone through. “Polybombing” language is used to spin personal stories into moral panic at some psychosexual evil lurking in plain sight, infecting mainstream culture, degrading the fabric of society. 

It would be simpler, and far healthier, to recognize that matches fail for innumerable reasons, few of which merit a broad diagnosis of entire swaths of the dating field. Besides, it’s not as if fixating on repulsion is an effective means of attracting who and what you really want.