Can You Find Yourself Through Serial Monogamy?

Harmony Birch
May 5 · 7 min read
“Codependence/Serial Monogamy” illustration by Matthew Hawkes

I’m a serial monogamist. It’s a brand I never wanted and always feared but it’s true.

I remember standing in the kitchen one day listening to my stepmother describe a friend.

“She was always a serial monogamist,” she said with a wave of her hand. “You’ll probably be that way too.”

A prophetic vision of my future hung before us. I would not be the cool girl who could have casual sex. I would not go on to have enriching life experiences full of exotic men who I could appreciate even if I didn’t love them.

My life would be safe.

Not like my stepmother who, before she met my father, had relationships that never lasted beyond three months. My stepmother who fed me countless tales of her college years, where she was the only girl in the group, where she would kiss just for fun.

Even now (excluding a peck when I was 15 and a kiss on the forehead from my first-grade boyfriend) I have never romantically kissed someone I haven’t slept with, exclusively, multiple times.

From the time I was 17 to now, 24, I have been single for an accumulative 19 months. That’s out of approximately 90 months. So, for the past seven years, I’ve spent about 21 percent of my life without a committed relationship. But during those 19 months, most of the time, I was pining and sleeping with one ex or another monogamously. In the past seven years, I’ve only spent approximately five months and a week truly single.

So despite my best efforts, I’m a serial monogamist.

I’m not the only one with a negative connotation towards the phrase serial monogamist.

Urban Dictionary’s number one definition reads as follows, “serial monogamists cannot stand to be alone and often suffer from vast commitment and insecurity issues.”

Likewise, among the bullet points of what “being a serial monogamist says about you,” according to Women’s Health, is that “you felt neglected growing up,” “you’re overly critical of yourself,” and “you need to work on yourself.”
Another term thrown around with serial monogamy is codependence.

Codependence is defined by Medical News Today as, “relationships where a person is needy, or dependent upon, another person.” Some symptoms include playing out the same relationship over and over again, only finding satisfaction in your partner’s desires and needs, staying in an abusive relationship to please your partner and keeping quiet to avoid arguments.

While I think of myself as an independent person, and someone who doesn’t need other people to be happy, the truth is that I don’t really know how to be single and I have, from time to time, fell into the trap of codependency.

When my first real relationship ended, a well of darkness I had forgotten sprung up all at once. I am not a person who is prone to depression but in the six-month process it took for me deal with my break up, every mean thought I ever had about myself, every trauma I’d ever experienced, engulfed me. I couldn’t rationalize the feeling that I was unlovable and didn’t deserve love.

That darkness was relieved for about a month before I entered into my second relationship. I was with someone who was also deeply depressed and who refused to seek outside help and treatment. My world was no longer as consistently unbearable. But it became gray and numb.

More than ever before my needs and wants were dictated by a man. My life became about trying to please my partner who was cold, unaffectionate and often held any perceived slight as capital to control our relationship.

When he broke up with me, I felt relieved. But the depression didn’t subside and now, I felt, I had proof that I really was unloveable. If I could just prove to him that I was good enough to love, maybe the feeling would go away. So, despite my efforts to do otherwise, I continued to let him dictate my inner self.

I canceled plans with friends when he asked me to. I never took to long to reply to his text messages, for fear that it would upset him. I let him pressure me into sexual arena’s I was uncomfortable entering, but I didn’t win him back no matter how much power I gave.

Here’s the thing though, throughout these relationships, throughout the inescapable darkness, part of me, my external self, was still persevering. I still applied and accepted jobs and internships, I still sought out high-level club positions, I auditioned for amateur Shakespeare plays and I still wrote, pouring my darkness out onto tear-stained journal pages, hoping for some relief.

Following my second break up, I booked a plane ticket to Amsterdam for one for the holiday break. My friend ended up joining me and it was the most fulfilling experience I’ve had to date. That summer, I interned by myself 3,000 miles away from home, in Los Angeles, a city where I knew no one. Every two weeks for two months, I packed my suitcase and lived at a new Airbnd until I could find more stable housing.

By the time I made it to my senior year of college, I felt I had proven to myself that I could, indeed, live without a man. I was successful, groomed to graduate early and the darkness had mostly subsided.

It was for that reason, maybe, that I decided I was ready to date again. I met a handsome, older hipster guy, who was more passionate and exaggerated in his affections than anyone I had met before. Two months in and I was hopelessly infatuated.

I hadn’t intended to fall into another relationship but I was also craving stability.

For the first time ever, my future was uncertain. I didn’t know yet what I was doing after college. I couldn’t go home. My father didn’t have a consistent place to stay at the time and my mother lived across the country with an already too full house.

The newest guy, my third boyfriend, was post-college age. He’d already been married and was separated from his wife.

When he visited he brought me fancy wine and a record player. We would lie in bed naked listening to Leonard Cohen and he’d read me Bukowski.

He acted like he was an expert on everything. He’d paint our future together with me on his family farm playing with his goats and I, who felt stuck with indecision and possibility, let myself fall into the life he promised.

Our relationship ended abruptly. It was for the best, I was worried about the possibility of being held back and increasingly disturbed by his sexist and racist views.

Still, the old feeling of being unlovable crept back hitting me whenever I was left alone with my thoughts. Logically, I knew I was stronger and better prepared but the adage “ the best way to get over someone is to get underneath someone else,” had already proven successful for me.

Two weeks after my break-up, I went on my first date with my current boyfriend.And here we are today over two years later. I sit in his basement apartment — the one I helped him pick out before he moved to New York City, following me. I know, I have for a while now, that he’s right. That this one will last. And every day I feel lucky when I wake up next to him. I feel lucky that he’s in my life.

But here’s the rub, when he moved to New York City, almost three months ago, I changed.

Left to my own devices, I’m a mess of human metaphorically and literally. I’m accustomed to a hopscotch jig to get to one side of my room to the other. Placing my foot in the rare spot of visible floor space. All of my dishes are well versed with mold, who they met while waiting on the bottom of a dirty sink.
Since my boyfriend moved, I can count on one hand the number of nights I’ve spent at my own apartment. I also can count on one hand the number of times I’ve left dishes in the sink overnight.

In fact, I’ve eaten breakfast almost every day and save money because I wake up early enough to make coffee at home. I’ve started learning how to cook. I find myself tidying because I know it makes him feel less stressed when he’s in a clean environment.

And it’s not just my domestic activities that have improved. Since he’s moved here, I’ve written more. I launched a blog about homeless people in New York. I submit pitches to feminist publications and occasionally publish on Medium.
My social life has also been more fulfilling too. Before he got here, I was struggling to make friends in my new city. But since he moved, I’ve started attending Meetups and making more of an effort to form lasting friendships, and it’s worked.

Meanwhile, if I were to go back to singlehood, I would return to a messy room and a shared kitchen with no motivation to cook, it would just be for me after all. I’d sit in my bed binging Netflix to calm my anxiety rather than writing because I wouldn’t have an outside force telling me they’re proud whenever I try. I wouldn’t leave my apartment as much, because I’d just be too lazy to go out by myself.

When I’m alone, everything is harder.

Now that I’m in a healthy loving relationship, it’s easy to act like the person I want to be. That’s the person he sees after all. Maybe someday I’ll be able to see her too.

Written by

Journalist living in New York, New York. Writing about class, politics and sexism. Cohost of the podcast Rebel Girls Book Club. Hire me

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade