Category Archives: Abuse

How To Be An Effective Game Changer

Note: This is an edited version of a previously published article on Postmodern Woman.

People tend to look to non-monogamy for freedom. Freedom that the monogamous world rarely offers. Yet there is such struggle for so many in the beginning. It was difficult for me to understand why this was, at first. I’d had no rocky transition into non-monogamy. I never struggled with jealousy. Hell, I’ve been writing about non-monogamy in all forms for nearly 20 years in variations the polya, solo polya, and RA communities are only now realizing are even possible!
But there still exists this darkness. This oppressive and smothering air that the polya (and related) communities have yet to shake. The deeper I’ve looked into the polyamorous communities at large, the more disappointed I’ve become. These are supposed to be the vanguards of a more ethical way to conduct relationships and yet they’ve barely shaken off the assumptions our abuse culture has left us with. They’ll only go so far and then they’ll seek to normalize their experience rather than truly examining the precepts of their concepts.

Why is it more normal to want to be normal and fit in rather than wanting to the freedom to be yourself?

For those of us who tend to be the game changers (as Veaux dubbed those of us who actually speak up about oppression and other power imbalances) by the nature of our thoughts and very existence – what makes us that way? Why are so many polya people still struggling with issues that we’ve never had? Why are so many people still making it so much harder than it needs to be? To the point of requiring decades of exploiting unpaid emotional and intellectual labor from femmes and women?
My mounting disbelief and disgust weren’t for the polya community, alone, I finally realized. The rampant abuse, racism, and ignorance aren’t inherent to polyamory.
(Read my series on on abuse culture if you need more background on why I’ve been writing about romance, abuse, and non-monogamists’ unsatisfactory attempts to explain it away or actually deal with it.)

Those difficult first days of disastrous relationships and struggles with jealousy have nothing to do with polyamory. The whole idea of romo-centered compersion speaks to how backwards our ideas of love have become.

The community has to spend so much time teaching people how to love in non-damaging, nonabusive ways. We who are game changers can often see the destructive ideas that hold others captive. Myself and many others have had to consider leaving the polya label behind because so much of the community is still barely one step out of monogamy. They still treat their lovers and friends like shit. And they think they’ve actually learned something when they’re finally comfortable with their partner’s other partner.
These are merely symptoms of a deeper cultural issue. What most of these poly people are practicing is not ethical non-monogamy at all. It’s not intersectional, it doesn’t challenge societal norms, and it doesn’t extend past their polycule.
So what am I saying?
I’m saying that after the move to more patriarchal-inclined cultures, the notion of ownership seeped into every facet of our lives. I’m saying that even though many countries have outlawed slavery, owning your loved ones is still the norm. The concept of ownership is still so dreadfully common. It is the only instance in which it is considered okay, and even laudable, to exert control over another person’s actions, behaviors, and feelings.
Think about it. People are more likely to try to control their child’s behavior than to teach them a better way in the long-term. Parents are more likely to instill obedience as a virtue rather than integrity. And the biggest reason romance is such a turn-off for me is because it is the epitome of owning your partner. You’re supposed to bind together, merge together, for life. It’s “normal” to sneak into your partner’s phone to check up on them. It’s considered normal to forbid them from having sex with other people, or certain other people. It’s considered normal to feel jealousy over them spending more time with their friends than with you. The whole tradition of taking your spouse’s name is because you now belong to them.
This is why couple privilege is even a thing. Because people think of themselves in units instead of as individuals. They no longer think of themselves or others as humans first and foremost. Their partners are their property. Their children are their property. They force their loved ones to go to plays they hate, they encourage them to lie if they look fat in a dress, they tamp down on watching porn because their partner hates it. They control the other’s finances, travel, and social interactions. One partner belittles and guilt trips the other and the other partner withdraws and becomes passive aggressive.
They end up having ridiculous fights because they live on top of each other constantly, codependent rather than entwined. By trying to merge they only end up brushing against the harsh edges of one another’s realities. And when they finally tire of each other they either divorce, have a child, or open up their marriage. Really toxic situations can end in death, infidelity, or other abusive and destructive outcomes.
This is how we all learn how to live. People ignore the effects of owning your partner and wonder where they went wrong. And then they try polyamory and wonder why they’re having such a difficult time. They’ve never learned to to be free. They’ve learned to treat themselves and others as emotional slaves.
I’ll say it again; ownership is the norm.
Is it any wonder that abuse is still so widespread? 1 in 3 isn’t an anomaly; it’s a disgrace. These abusive ideals are embedded into our cultures and thrust upon us all from such young ages. And many people never shake them off.
No, not even polyamory will save you.
So how do you confront this? How do you shake off the notions of ownership, amatonormativity, heterosexism, ablism, and racism once and for all? How can your non-monogamy truly be transgressive of the norm?
Well, what’s the speed of ignorance and how do we combat it? How do we move beyond this addiction to facts to shine light on the darkness beyond? How do you become a game changer?

What does this have to do with polyamory and ownership? Well, those of us who are game changers live on that liminal horizon between the known and unknown. We are the ones who edge that light further into the shadows, expanding the realm of the known for everyone else. We’re not smarter, per se. It’s not so much a matter of intelligence. It’s about knowing that the darkness is always just out of reach, and that the more we learn, the more we know, the greater the darkness gets.
What we don’t know will always surpass our knowledge. That is the very nature of the universe we live in. I was born existing on that horizon and I live there. It is my home. I cannot help but to challenge what the light shows. It’s why I’m too heavy for most people. And it’s why I cannot let these poisons continue to eat away at polyamory and non-monogamy.
Instead of paying lip service to ethics, metanoia, and growth let’s actually push the boundaries of this limiting envelope.
We will forever be chasing the darkness. If you think you’re okay, if you think you’ve discovered your one, if you think you’ve found the answers simply remember that the circumference of your light will always be less than the darkness around you.

From the edge you have a better vantage point of the knowledge and patterns within as well as a front-row seat of the newly-discovered shapes being uncovered from the darkness. You can the destructive waves coming before anyone else even feels them.
If you wish to navigate that darkness then come along. After all, there’s always more room here at the outer limits than inside the crowd.

Abuse in Polyamory Wrap Up

We’ve had nearly 5 months now looking at abuse in polyamorous relationships. Everything from what is abuse to types of abuse to salvaging or surviving an abusive relationship. It’s time to wrap this topic up. Starting next week I’ll return to the series on mental illness and polyamory.

You can find the full list of blogs in this series here.

Surviving an Abusive Relationship

Last week I talked about salvaging an abusive relationship. Sometimes you don’t want to save a relationship, but you can’t get out. There can be lots of reasons for this. When it happens, you can only survive as best you can while slowly building the resources that will let you escape.

Here are some tips for surviving an abusive relationship:

1) Pick your battles. Sometimes you need to stand up to an abuser, but don’t be afraid to back down when you need to. Don’t use up your physical and emotional health on everything that comes up. Fight for the things that matter.

2) It’s fight, flight, bluff, submit. We talk about the fight or flight response, but it’s really a bit more complicated than that. If you can’t fight, and you can’t flee, sometimes bluff works. That can mean pretending to be more beaten than you are. It can mean pretending to go along while you plan your escape. It can mean pretending to be sick so you can see your doctor more often—which may give you an opportunity to plan your escape.

And as painful as it is, sometimes submit works too. Give in for now. Let them have control. And look for an opportunity to get away.

3) Have people you can trust. Friends, other poly partners, family, a counsellor, have people you can go to. People who will give you emotional support, help you get an afternoon out, and people you can call in an emergency.

4) Build your resources. Whatever is keeping you there, you can’t escape until you have the resources to replace it. That could be a place to live, money, medical care, or a host of other things. The people you trust can help with this. If your abuser tracks your internet usage, a friend can run searches for you. A poly partner can hold onto the escape fund you are slowly saving up. A counsellor can find back-to-work programs or help you get approved for a home health aide.

Remember: there is no shame in survival. Do what you have to for now, get out when the time is right, and outlive the bastards.

This post is part of the Abuse in Polyamory blog series.

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Salvaging an Abusive Relationship

Standard advice when you realize you are in an abusive relationship is to get out. But most of us, wisely or not, want to try to save our relationships. We love our partners, we believe they love us, and there’s probably a fair bit of sunk cost fallacy at play as well.

Whatever the reason, I’m not going to try to tell you that if you are in an abusive relationship you are wrong to want to save that relationship. I am going to tell you that you need to be smart about it.

Before I get deep into this topic, be aware: it will take both of you to salvage your relationship. If your abuser isn’t willing to own up to their behavior and do the work to fix how they treat you, you on your own will not be able to save this relationship.

First and foremost, you need to be safe. This mostly applies to situations with physical abuse, but if other forms of abuse are pushing you to self-destructive behavior that applies too. If you have any reason to believe you are not safe, you need to have space between you and your abuser. If you live with your abuser, that can mean going to stay with another partner or a friend or family for a while. If you don’t live together it can mean only seeing them with someone you trust. It can mean not seeing them at all for a while—talking over the phone or internet. It may mean not contacting them at all for a while. Whatever it will mean for you, make sure you are safe first.

Second, you need to have a clear idea of what kind of abuse is happening. Are you being gaslighted? Manipulated? Threatened? Assaulted? Coerced into sexual encounters? What is it that needs to stop?

You may not be able to identify everything right away. Abuse is insidious, and once an abuser has battered away our boundaries it can become really have to recognize some of the ways they control us.

Speaking of boundaries, step three is to define clear boundaries for yourself. Boundaries that clearly define at least some of the ways you have been abused which you will no longer accept or allow to happen. “I will only have a sexual encounter when I want one.” “I will walk away from conversations if I am threatened or manipulated.” “I am the only one who decides my schedule, I will go on dates with who I want, when I want.” “I will not spend time with someone who makes me feel unsafe.” These boundaries give you a tool to protect yourself from being controlled.

When you have done all this, it’s time to talk with your abusive partner. The word “abuse” is very polarizing in our society. So when you talk with your partner you may be better off talking about specific behavior—types of manipulation, examples of coercion, times they have belittled you, etc—rather than bringing up abuse as such. !Whether you choose to raise abuse directly or not, make it clear that you are not talking about isolated incidents but a pattern of trying to control you.

The reaction you want is something along the lines of “I’m sorry, I understand why you are upset, and I’ll try to stop it. Please tell me if I start doing it again.”

More likely your partner will get defensive because they are human and that’s what most humans do when we hear something we don’t like about ourselves. There are two broad types of defensive reactions.

1) “I love you, I would never want to hurt you!”
2) “How dare you accuse me of _____.”

The first reaction is a good one. Annoying, because they are probably too busy defending themselves to listen any longer. But it shows that their first thought on hearing they have hurt you is to be upset about it. They have heard that you are hurt and they are responding to it. Once (if) they get past the initial defensive reaction, they will want to do what they can to stop hurting you.

The second reaction is a red flag. It either isn’t registering with them that you have been hurt by their behavior, or they don’t care. In my opinion, there is nothing left to salvage from this relationship. This person is all but saying outright that they love their image of themselves more than they love you. No healthy relationship is possible with that attitude.

If they get overly defensive and the conversation starts to become all about them, you may need to get up and walk away for a while. Come back later and pick the conversation up from where you want it to continue.

Once they are listening, lay out the boundaries you have established for yourself. Tell them you will be adding new boundaries as you learn more about your needs. Make it clear that you expect them to respect your boundaries.

Be aware: abusive behavior can become a habit, so even if your partner is actively trying to fix their behavior, it will take time. Be prepared to enforce your boundaries. An abuser who is trying to stop will listen when you enforce a boundary, “Wow, I didn’t realize I was doing that, I’m sorry.” If they ignore you when you enforce a boundary, then they are not trying to fix things.

The first few times you enforce your boundaries it will be scary. You may slip a few times and not enforce a boundary when you need to. That’s okay. You are learning new habits too. Just keep working at it.

Building a healthy relationship out of an unhealthy one is hard. But sometimes it can be done.

Check here if you are the abusive partner in your relationship.

This post is part of the Abuse in Polyamory blog series.

Want more great articles? Support Polyamory on Purpose on Patron. We’re $15 away from adding a post the first Tuesday of every month.

Am I Abusing my Polyamorous Partners?

Maybe someone has accused you of being abusive. Maybe you’ve been reading along and started to recognize some things I’ve been describing. For whatever reason, you’re wondering if you may be the bad guy in your relationship(s).

First off, major kudos for being willing to ask. Western culture tends to portray abusers as irredeemable monsters or people helpless to change their behavior until their ‘one true love’ redeems them. Both are real shitty tropes that make it even more difficult than it should be to face the fact that you may be abusing your loved ones. Just asking this question is a huge deal.

If you are worried about being an abuser, I highly suggest seeking out a professional relationship counselor or therapist. They can help you work through what is causes you to seek control of your partners and learn new ways of being in relationships.

That said, not everyone has access to professional therapy services, so here is my unofficial, inexpert, advice:

Face facts. Specifically the facts of your relationships.

    1. How do you react when a partner tells you they can’t or won’t do something? Do you accept it gracefully? Try to find another way to get what you need?
    2. Or do you try to convince, badger, or push them into doing what you want?
    1. When your partner states a boundary do you respect that boundary?
    2. Or do you try to make them change their boundaries?
    1. If your partner has questions or concerns about your relationship, do you support them reading books, talking with friends, or checking out forums?
    2. Or do you insist that you know the right way to do things and they don’t need anyone else’s opinion?
    1. Are you okay with your partners discussing your relationship with other people?
    2. Or do you try to keep them from discussing your relationship and accuse them of “bad mouthing” you or similar to their friends and family?
    1. Do you listen when they say no? (And I don’t just mean about sex).
    2. Or do you try to change their minds or make them do things your way?
    1. Do you respect their right do decide what to do with their body, their money, their possessions, their relationship?
    2. Or do you try to make them do what you want instead of what they want?

Regarding power exchange relationships: Discussion about abuse in power exchange relationships makes the whole thing way too complicated, IMO. If you the dominant in a consensual power exchange relationship, you do you not need to try to control your submissive partner, because they have given you control. You do not make them do what you want, they want to do what you want. While I am uncomfortable with consensual non-con, I believe this applies even there. They want you to force them to do something. Questions above still apply. If they’ve given you control, right on! If you’ve taken control against their wishes, you got problems.

While you are looking at these questions, remember the vectors of control.

If you answered “yes” to part 2 of any of the questions above, you may be abusing your partners.

How Do I Stop Abusing My Partners?

Before anything else, you need to talk with your partners. Tell them that you realize you’ve been trying to control them. You want to stop and build a healthy relationship with them. Will they forgive you and help you start again? Can they be patient while you learn how to have a healthy relationship?

If they are willing to stick with you, thank your lucky stars and don’t let them down. If they aren’t, try to move on without bitterness and commit to doing better in your next relationship.

Now, some nitty gritty.

First, you need to recognize when you are doing it.

This may sound obvious, but it isn’t. Most of us don’t think in terms of “Today I’m going to force my partner to do something they don’t want to do.” You may think in terms of “I need my partner to do this for me because….” or “My partner is going to get hurt if they don’t do this….”

Reading up on personal boundaries can help. So can talking with your partner and setting clear boundaries for what is any isn’t acceptable. Try to identify, hopefully with your partners help, the situations where you are most likely to try to control them.

You need to learn new ways of relating.

You may have difficulty stating your needs without being manipulative or coercive. Bad behavior can become habit. I was raised in a home where lying and manipulating were survival traits. It wasn’t until I had been out of my parents house for over a year that I recognized how much I tried to manipulate to get what I wanted, rather than simply asking. Even after I realized I was being manipulative, it was such a habit that often I would only realize that I had been trying to manipulate someone after the fact.

If this happens to you, the best thing you can do is own it. “I’m sorry. I did this, I shouldn’t have. Can I make it up to you?”

If you partner(s) are willing to work with you, then ask them to call you out. “You’re doing it again.” “Stop trying to change my mind.” “You need to stop. Now.”

Read up on the roots of abuse, and try to identify why you are trying to control your partners. If you can identify the underlying cause (insecurity is a common one), work on fixing it.

And you probably want to spend some time reading up on and practicing healthy relationship skills. If the only way you know how to relate is unhealthy, then wanting to fix your unhealthy relationships won’t do shit. You need to have healthy relationship skills to replace the unhealthy ones, or sooner or later you will find yourself back where you started.

This post is part of the Abuse in Polyamory blog series.

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When polyamory is a tool for abuse

When polyamory is a tool for abuse

We’ve all seen or heard examples of monogamy being used as a tool for abuse. From the idea that a spouse is “owed” sex to forcing a partner to stop seeing their friends, the ways monogamy can be used by abusers are well known, if rarely openly acknowledged.

Polyamory can also be a tool for abuse. However, the ways polyamory can become abusive aren’t as well known. That makes it easier for an abuser to get away with their abuse. A few months ago we looked at how abusers can use the saying “there is no one right way to do poly” to defend and obscure their abuse. They can also use it to coerce their partners to do things they don’t want to do. Here’s a blatant example:

“If this is going to work, I need you to have threesomes with me and my other partner.”
“Being poly doesn’t mean I have to have threesomes with you.”
“There’s no one right way to do poly. This is the way I do polyamory. Are you trying to tell me how I am allowed to structure my relationships? Cause that’s just wrong.”

The abuser has now put the responsibility on their partner. In this construction, the abuser’s partner is imposing their beliefs on the abuser by refusing to have threesomes. The scary thing is, this shit works.

What are some other ways polyamory can be used as a tool for abusers?

Coercing someone into a poly relationship—including using the whole “poly is more enlightened” shtick to get someone who isn’t comfortable with polyamory to go along.
Example: Randy isn’t sure he’s comfortable with opening his relationship with Sam. Sam tells Randy that his resistance to polyamory is just because he is still trapped by his upbringing and afraid to confront his emotions. If Randy really loved Sam, he would want Sam to be happy no matter what, and would be willing to enter a polyamorous relationship with Sam—in spite of his unreasonable fears.

Insisting the ends of a V need to be involved because poly means everyone is involved!

Using “own your shit” to push someone into doing something they aren’t comfortable with or don’t want.
Example: “I’m sick of hearing about how you don’t like spending time with my boyfriend. The three of us are having dinner tomorrow. It’s time and past time for you to own your shit. I’m not going to protect you anymore.”

In hierarchical relationships, “I’m your primary/they’re my primary” is a classic for imposing one person’s will on others in the polycule.
Example: Paula tells Robert to cancel his date with Liza. Robert objects, saying that she knew about this date and had agreed to it weeks ago. He had promised Liza this. “I don’t care what you promised Liza, I’m your primary, and I need you here.”

In non-hierarchical relationships, “They/you have no say in our relationship.” When the thing being objected to directly impacts/involves the person saying they have a problem.
Example: Jane is making dinner for herself and her boyfriend Raul when her live-in partner Al and Al’s girlfriend Shona show up. Al and Shona expect Jane to include them in dinner. Jane says that she wasn’t expecting Al and Shone to be in tonight and only cooked for two. Al replies, “You have no say over my relationship with Shona and I’m sick of you trying to tell me when and where I can spend time with her. If I want to invite Shone over for dinner, I’ll invite her over for dinner.” Then Al and Shone sit down at the table waiting to be served.

These are all ways that abusers can use the tropes and ideas polyamory is built on to control and manipulate their partners. Like a monogamous abuser using accusations of infidelity to separate their partner from friends.

There are more ways for abusers to use polyamory as a tool of their abuse. Hopefully, these examples will give you some idea of what to look for. The important thing to remember is that just because something is a basic idea of polyamory or a part of your relationship agreements, doesn’t mean it can’t be used by an abuser as a tool for control.

Please share your experiences with abusers using polyamory in the comments.

This post is part of the Abuse in Polyamory blog series.

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When Polyamory Triggers Abuse

I have said before—and I stand by it—that polyamory is not abusive. Unfortunately, starting a polyamorous relationship, or opening up an existing relationship, can be a trigger for abuse. And if you’ve read about the roots of abuse, you know why.

One of the causes of abuse is insecurity. Some people are insecure in their relationship, or in themselves, or just in life in general, and they respond by trying to control everything around them. If just looking at someone attractive triggers jealousy, triggers abuse, the abuser in question is probably reacting out of insecurity.

And for people who have grown up in a monogamous culture, with a monogamous mindset (and let’s face it, that’s most of us), polyamory exposes a shit-ton of insecurities. All kinds of fears that can be silenced in a monogamous relationship–
what is they like their new So more than me?
What is someone is better in bed than me?
Why do they want to date someone else? It must be because I’m not good enough!
…and a whole host of others suddenly become very in-your-face when polyamory is on the table. And some people react to fears by trying to control the thing that makes them afraid.

It’s important to realize that polyamory didn’t create these fears. Going back to monogamy won’t get rid of them. They’ve always been there. But just like you don’t think about being afraid of heights when you are on the ground, you don’t think about your partner liking someone else better when there isn’t anyone else.

To be clear—there is no pattern fo who in a relationship will need to confront these kinds of insecurities. You might expect it to be most common among people who did not themselves want to try polyamory. However I have seen it just as often among people who convinced their partners to try polyamory—and then found the reality a lot different than they expected.

If your partner never tried to control your choices or behavior before. Never held your relationship over your head or used emotional blackmail, and now they are, you might be in a situation where their insecurities about polyamory triggered abuse.

For pretty damn obvious reasons, this can destroy a relationship. However, the destruction is often agonizingly drawn out.

What do you do when you realize that your relationship has become abusive, and if you think the abuse has been triggered by polyamory?

The first thing to do is make sure you are (physically) safe. This can include safe from physical abuse, safe from being pushed into suicidal thoughts by mental/emotional abuse, and having safe access to food, shelter, financial resources, etc.

Touch base with your support system—friends, the rest of your polycule, family, crisis networks, etc.

Next, check your boundaries. Mental and emotional abuse are most effective when you have weak boundaries. One thing the poly community does have great resources on is establishing and enforcing boundaries. Read up.

Finally, talk with your abusive partner. In this situation, your partner isn’t trying to be abusive. They are acting out of fear and uncertainty. So I suggest avoiding the word abuse entirely at this stage. Instead, use phrases such as “trying to control.” “Abuse” is a very loaded word and may shut the conversation down before it starts.

“I love you, and I know you are scared. I know you don’t want to hurt me. But you have been trying to control me. And that does hurt me, and it hurts our relationship.”

Where you go from there is up to you. Do you want to try to salvage the relationship? Do you need a break from the relationship while you heal? Do you need to tone things down a bit, see each other less often? Or do you need out entirely? There are lots of options.

If your partner is unable to understand or accept why their behavior has been hurting you, then your options get limited. If they can understand why their behavior was hurting you, or if they are willing to try and understand, you have a lot more options moving forward.

If you are going to try to rebuild the relationship, I strongly suggest seeking out a poly-friendly relationship counselor. Also, lots of discussion of boundaries. They will still need your help and support in overcoming their insecurities, and both (all) of you will be walking a tightrope while you find ways to discuss and address those insecurities without giving up your boundaries and self-determination.

Many people assume that when there is abuse the relationship has to end. That isn’t necessarily true. An abusive relationship can be salvaged if everyone, and particularly the abuser, is willing to do the work. A person driven to abuse by insecurity may or may not be willing to do that work. It’s up to you if you want to give them the chance.

This post is part of the Abuse in Polyamory blog series.

Want more great articles? Support Polyamory on Purpose on Patron. We’re $15 away from adding a post the first Tuesday of every month.

When Your Partner Is in an Abusive Relationship

As Liz shared in her guest post, watching a partner in an abusive relationship is horrid. It can create feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, do severe damage to your relationship, and, depending on how entwined you and your partner are, have a significant impact on your daily life.

Many people, when they see someone they love in an abusive relationship, immediately want to rescue them. Convince them the relationship is unhealthy and get them out of there. Unfortunately, that almost never works. Our partners are grown-ups capable of making their own decisions, not damsels in distress waiting for us to ride to their rescue. Whether or not they have recognized their relationships are abusive, they definitely know that the relationship is not making them happy. If they are still in the relationship, they have a reason.

So what can you do?

Communicate Your Concern

The first and most important thing to do is let your partner know you are worried about them. Tell them what you are seeing and why you think it is unhealthy. Tell them that you know they love this person, but you are also afraid for them.

“Abuse” is a very loaded word. You may want to avoid using it the first time you talk with your partner. Some people will stop listening when you mention abuse, unable to believe that they would be in an abusive relationship. If you think your partner might react that way, don’t use “abuse.” Instead, say that you think their SO is trying to control them and that isn’t healthy.

If your partner is already aware of the abuse, they may say things like, “I know, but I need to stay because XYZ.” If they aren’t aware, they may deny it, “No, you’re wrong, they’re just insecure and need me to help them through this.” Or, if they aren’t aware, they may listen, “I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re right. I don’t like when they do XYZ, but I don’t know what to do about it.”

However they respond, your next step is the same.

Be Supportive

Your goal is to be there for your partner. You can’t help them by making them feel defensive of their SO or by getting in a disagreement about whether or not the relationship is abusive.

Ask them what they want and how you can help. Do they want out but feel like they can’t leave? Do they want to fix their relationship? Do they feel like they are the one who is ruining the relationship by not being good enough/smart enough/etc.? With a certain kind of abuser, that last response is very common.

Tell them that you love them and want them to be happy. That you will support whatever they decide to do, even though you don’t think the relationship they are in is healthy.

You may be able to give them tools to help them make their decision. Tell them about vectors of control. If they are convinced that their SO can’t be abusive b/c they really love them, talk about the roots of abuse and how not all abusers are evil bastards, many just don’t know how to have a healthy relationship.

Perhaps most importantly:

Protect Yourself

You can’t help your partner unless you help yourself first. That means protecting yourself, and (to the extent you can) protecting your relationship with them.

Set Boundaries

It is very important to set boundaries. All too often your partner’s abusive relationship will spill over onto your relationship. This can be anything from your time with your partner turning into endless counseling sessions (hint: being supportive does not mean turning into an unpaid therapist), to constant cancellations and intrusions on your time with your partner, to you being dragooned into actively doing things for the abusive SO.

Here are a few boundaries you might consider setting:
1. I am not willing to talk about SO on our date nights.
2. I will not remain in this relationship if SO keeps intruding on our time together.
3. I am not involved with SO, I will not help you meet his requests or demands.

Have Your Own Support

You will be dealing with your own stress and emotional strain from watching your partner deal with the abuse. You need to have ways to deal with that stress and strain, as well as people you trust to advise you when you are getting in too deep. Ways to deal with stress can be meditation, long walks, sparring practice, beating up zombies in your favorite computer game, or a bunch of other things. People to talk with can be friends, family, other partners. If the stress and strain get really bad you might consider getting yourself to a counselor or therapist. Sometimes that outside perspective can really help.

You May Need to Stop Being Supportive

If the abuse is really bad, or if nothing changes for a long time, you may need to withdraw your support. “I love you, and I don’t want to tell you what to do, but I can’t stand watching the way they are hurting you.” When they are ready to get out of the abusive relationship, or take the steps needed to change it, you will be glad to help. Until then, you don’t want to hear anything about their SO or the problems in their relationship.


Depending on how great a hold the abuser has, the steps you take to protect yourself and you relationship may lead to your relationship ending. Obviously, that isn’t what you want to happen and isn’t an easy thing to do. But sometimes it is necessary. In a way, it is a less extreme version of the choice your partner is making. Have compassion for them making their choice, and make your own choice the choice that is best for you.

This post is part of the Abuse in Polyamory blog series.

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Abuse Isn’t the Only Wrong Way to do Polyamory

Recently someone commented that by saying something wasn’t abusive, I made it sound like that behavior was automatically healthy and/or okay. I did not in anyway intend to give the impression that anything that isn’t abusive is healthy, and I am sorry that I wasn’t clearer.

Let’s be blunt: abuse gets a lot of focus as a type of unhealthy relationship, however, abuse is far from the only unhealthy relationship. From co-dependence to neglect, there are dozens of non-abusive ways for a relationship to be unhealthy.

Abuse, in my opinion, is the most dangerous form of unhealthy relationship. I don’t know of any other unhealthy relationship dynamic that causes so much long term damage. But saying that something is non-abusive, therefore it is healthy, is like saying the patient doesn’t have cancer, therefore they aren’t dying. Doesn’t fucking work like that.

“Non-abusive” is the lowest bar a relationship can meet. Something you or your partner does can be harmful or unhealthy without being abusive. Consider this extreme scenario—someone who is not an abuser can hit you or beat you up. It may not be abuse—but it damn well is assault. A partner who is not abusive can still be selfish, disrespectful, insulting, and a number of other things.

This blog series is focusing on abuse as a specific type of unhealthy relationship that does not get enough discussion in polyamory. That does not in anyway mean you have a pass to treat your partners like shit as long as you aren’t abusive.

Seriously, if the best thing you can say about a relationship is that it is non-abusive, then you might want to rethink if it is a good relationship.

This post is part of the Abuse in Polyamory blog series. It is related to Polyamory and Mental Illness.

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Abuse and Mental Illness

Abuse or Mental Illness?

In discussing mental illness, and specifically PTSD and other trauma-related disorders, I mentioned that some symptoms of mental illness can mimic abuse. I say mimic because while these symptoms may look the same as abuse, they are not about trying to control.

Here’s a classic example:

My partner has several mental illnesses which interfere with his perception and memory. So he might ask me for a drink, I bring him something, and half an hour later he says, “Where is the drink I asked for?” I say I brought it, but he insists that I never got it for him, and he needs a drink right now. If I tell him that he’s wrong and I did get it, he might try to convince me that I am misremembering and never brought him anything.

This could very easily be gaslighting, but it isn’t. He didn’t actually see me bring the drink, doesn’t remember drinking it, and is honestly upset because I told him I would do something, and to the best of his knowledge I didn’t. He isn’t trying to control me or rewrite my memories—his memories are deceiving him.

In similar ways, someone with mental illness trying to express their feelings may come across as guilt tripping, manipulative, etc. Not because they are trying to control or manipulate, but because there are damn few ways someone in the depths of depression can say, “I feel like I’m a useless waste of space and you are going to leave me because I’m such a piece of shit” and NOT come across as overdramatic at best, manipulative and guilt tripping at worst.

This makes it difficult to identify if a partner’s behavior is the result of mental illness that is out of their control or abuse.

Abuse AND Mental Illness

While mental illness often mimics abuse, mental illness can also occur alongside abuse. Having mental illness doesn’t magically stop a person from being abusive. In fact, some of the roots of abuse (like insecurity) can be worsened by mental illness.

When mental illness and abuse occur together, it can be very difficult to separate out which is which. After all, you can’t get into someone’s head to find out if they are trying to control you or not. In fact, I suggest you don’t even try.

We want to be supportive of the people in our lives. Abusive partners with mental illness can and will use this against you. You cannot support them and help them heal while they are using their illness as a tool to control you. In fact, they may actively resist healing. If they get help and get their illness under control, they lose a powerful tool for maintaining their hold on you.

How to Recognize a Mentally Ill Person Who is an Abuser

Okay, this is inexpert and based entirely on my experience.

Working to Get Better

Mental illness is hell. The vast majority of people with mental illness want to get better. Not everyone who wants to get better can or will do the work. Gaining control of mental illness is hard. And just about everyone will, once in a while, say “Fuck it, I can’t do this anymore” and stop trying for a while. But most people will (sooner or later) pick themselves up and start trying again. An abuser who is using their illness as a tool for control may be one of the people who doesn’t want to get better. Being mentally ill is too useful to them.

Not Willing to Support You

Someone with severe mental illness may not be able to give you the support they (or you) want. But they will try. A few days ago, I wanted to take our son to the park, but I wasn’t feeling well enough to go out alone. Michael was in a real bad way, hadn’t slept all night, and was having paranoid/delusional thoughts about terrorists attacking our small town. But he said, “If you need me to go, I’m there.”

Now, there have been times, lots of times, he couldn’t be there for me. But no matter how bad he got, he did what he could. Sometimes that was just holding me while I cried. Sometimes it was watching our son for a few hours so I could get out.

The mentally ill abusers I’ve known have not been willing to support anyone but themselves. They make promises about when they are feeling better, they make excuses about how bad they are doing. Any request for support (or even understanding) becomes about them and how unreasonable you are to ask them for anything when they are so ill and need so much help.

If they do help or support you in some way, it comes with a massive guilt-trip and/or is something that also benefits them.

Their Illness is About You

When people who are mentally ill say things that sound abusive, they are focused on themselves. When they talk about wanting to kill themselves because no one loves them, they aren’t trying to get a reaction. They are lost in their pain and their maelstrom of a mind. Very likely nothing you can say will effect how they feel because your voice can’t overcome the horror in their head.* (Exception: if a specific trigger set off the mental illness than addressing the trigger can help—won’t fix everything, but will help.) If you ask what you can do to help, unless they have a shit ton of experience managing their mental illness, the likely response is “Nothing,” or “I don’t know.” If there is something you can do it will usually be simple “Sit with me” “Hold me” “Get my comfort snack out of the fridge” “Make sure the kids are quiet for a while.”

A mentally ill abuser who says the same thing will be looking for and needing a reaction. They want you to comfort them, to reassure them, to tell them that you love them and will always be there for them. And at some point they will probably slip in something you can do to prove that you love them. If you ask what you can do to help, they will ask for some change in your behavior, “Don’t call her for a few days” “Promise you’ll do X from now on” etc.

Their illness becomes about the things you do or don’t do. Their mental health crisis, their panic attacks, their bad days are your responsibility to fix (and often, according to them, your fault).



Now, these aren’t constant. Someone who is mentally ill but not an abuser will sometimes do things that an abuser does. Someone who is mentally ill and an abuser will sometimes not do these things. Look for patterns. Someone who is not an abuser will usually ask for nothing more than “get me some water and sit with me a bit,” but once in a while might ask “Please don’t go out tonight, I need you with me.” Someone who is an abuser will frequently ask for you to change how your behave (using their illness to control you), but might sometimes ask you to just hold them until they feel better.

Look for those patterns.


Standard Disclaimer

*That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say anything. Your presence, your support, and your love mean a great deal and can help a mentally ill person through some horrible times. But just like hugging someone with a broken leg doesn’t make the pain go away, reassuring someone in the depths of mental illness doesn’t make everything (or even anything) better.

This post is part of the Abuse in Polyamory blog series. It is related to Polyamory and Mental Illness.

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