Category Archives: Abuse

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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Living with an Abusive Metamour (Guest Post by Liz Gentry)

This week Liz Gentry of Learning Many Loves has chosen to share her experiences of living with a mentally ill and abusive metamour. Many thanks to Liz for opening up about this difficult experience.

Don’t forget to stop back next week, when we’ll be taking a close look at the intersection of abuse and mental illness.

First, a little background: I met my partner Jon a couple of years ago. Jon was dating another woman, Lora for about nine months before Jon and I started dating. A few months into Jon and I dating, Lora moved in with Jon. After dating Jon for a bit over a year, the three of us moved in together. We lived together for about fourteen months before Jon broke up with Lora. His reason for breaking up with her was (as he has told me) the abusive cycle that their relationship followed.

In writing about a day in the life of my experience living with someone who is verbally abusive and emotionally, the first thing I need to say is that what I expect from the day varies greatly with where we are in the cycle. The beginning of the cycle has no abuse. Lora and Jon would get along fine. Then small instances of verbal abuse and control would begin to creep in. Those instances would escalate over a several month period. Then there would be a huge screaming fight where Lora was repeatedly verbally and abusive towards Jon. The week after the fight, there’s a period of constant low-level fighting with a lot of controlling behavior and attempts to impose control through badgering, gaslighting, black and white thinking, and threats. Eventually, a resolution was reached, and there would be a honeymoon period again, with no abuse for some days to a few weeks before slowly beginning to escalate again.

The hardest thing for me (being a metamour living in and observing this abusive dynamic) was watching someone I love be abused, ridiculed, mocked, screamed at, and badgered. I am definitely someone who would rather be hurt myself than see someone I love being hurt. For all that experiencing this second-hand hurt, as I was not the one being abused, there was a deep sense of powerlessness about this. I couldn’t control my partner’s boundaries about what behavior he would accept. But I did need to figure out where it was appropriate for me to draw my boundaries, without becoming controlling or coercive myself. Although I viewed Lora’s behavior as abusive, Jon didn’t always agree at that time (later, he painfully came to the conclusion on his own that her behavior was really abusive many of the times when he said that it wasn’t). This put me in a very uncomfortable spot – if he doesn’t believe the behavior is abusive, is pushing him to understand that it is gaslighting? Even if I’m doing it out of pure concern (we could say “for his own good”), do I have a right to push until he agrees with me?

I think the answer to that is no. Even if I’m doing it out of concern, forcing Jon to agree with me about Lora abusing him is still forcing Jon to do something, and that is abusive. He had to come to his own conclusions, and live his life accordingly.

But trying to let him live his life, and live with him and his abusive partner was incredibly hard. It was scary. It was enormously stressful. When Lora was gaslighting Jon, I doubted my own ability to evaluate situations for harm. I repeatedly went to my friends and asked “Is this normal? Is this healthy? Jon doesn’t seem too upset about it, so maybe I’m just causing problems by being upset by it. Maybe I’m not really poly. Maybe this is a way that jealousy is manifesting itself and I’m really just trying to get rid of Lora so that I can have Jon all to myself. What is wrong with me?”

Admitting to myself that Lora behaved abusively took a long time, because I didn’t want to have an abusive metamour. I didn’t want to believe that my partner was willingly being in a relationship with someone who was abusive. Complicating matters were Lora’s diagnosed mental illnesses of PTSD and anxiety disorder. Was a behavior really abusive if it was fueled by those mental illnesses? Having gone through several hard times with depression myself, not cutting Lora slack with her mental illnesses felt hypocritical, shitty, and like I was being a bad metamour and a bad person.

Inside myself, there was a cycle of anger, fear, guilt and doubt. Anger at the way Lora treated Jon. Fear at seeing how it impacted him and wore him down over months. Guilt for not cutting Lora some slack and being more understanding, given her mental illnesses. Doubt that I was really poly, doubt that I was overblowing things, as I seemed to be the most concerned of the three of us, when it came to Lora’s behavior and the impact it had on Jon. But then, that doubt would give way to anger the next time I heard Lora and Jon fighting and she told him that he was as abusive towards her as her drug addicted ex had been.

Lora’s ex used to do things like “punish” Lora by having unprotected sex with other women, and then telling Lora that he’d done so while he and Lora were having sex the next day. Knowing this about Lora was painful and evoked a lot of sorrow in me for what she went through, while simultaneously enraging me that she would compare our loving, supportive partner to such a dirtbag. Who wouldn’t get angry at that and think to him/herself “No matter what is going on with me, it is WRONG to say that to a loving partner in a fit of anger”?

Living with Lora was also hard because I didn’t know how to treat her. She seemed to like me. She claimed to want to have a closer relationship with me. She wanted us to be close friends. In theory, I wanted that too, but seeing how she treated Jon…did I really want to get closer to Lora? And as time went on, she slowly began to treating me in ways that concerned me deeply.. She didn’t hear that I said to her, and attributed behaviors to me that I’d never do, but she would. For example, one day, I was getting home from work as she was leaving to go to the store. She said to me “Jon is a little sick, and he’s sleeping. I wanted you to know so that you don’t get angry with him that he doesn’t come and greet you as soon as you get in”.I have never been angry at a partner for not coming up and greeting me as soon as I got home. But a long-standing fight between Jon and Lora was that if Jon didn’t drop whatever he was doing and greet Lora when she came home, it was a sign that he didn’t really love her. Because Lora felt that Jon should always be excited when she gets home, and eager to greet her immediately, if he really loves her.

There’s a lot in that paragraph, that describes the level of control and expectation of behavior that Lora had towards Jon. It’s also a good example of the kind of difficult situation I was in. We all have our quirks and vulnerabilities. Was Lora feeling strongly about Jon greeting her as soon as she gets home just a little quirk? If Jon agreed to do this, then did it mean it wasn’t controlling? Did I have any right to judge or have an opinion about these things?

I didn’t know the answers to those questions. I did know that if getting closer to Lora meant that she would expect the same of me, then I didn’t want to get closer to Lora. I’ve never expected such a thing from a partner, and I didn’t want to be close to someone who would have that kind of expectation of me.

Because of the number of things that Lora could take offense to, coming home slowly become stressful and unpleasant. I never knew what small thing would send Lora into an enraged tailspin. I never knew when a quiet night would turn into a stressful night, as Lora found fault with something that Jon said or didn’t say, did or didn’t do. There were many instances where it seemed like Jon couldn’t win. When he wasn’t being berated for saying something Lora didn’t like, he was being berated for not talking to her enough.

While these fights fueled by Lora’s insecurity and masked as problems with Jon’s behavior raged on, I would think to myself “What does he see in this relationship? Do I have the right to judge it? What do I do about this? Can I do anything?”

This is a glimpse of what it was like, living with an abusive metamour. The self doubts, the anger, the hatred, the fear…it was all terrible. It took a toll on my health, my sleep, my ability to function at work, my ability to trust myself. I restarted therapy to work through these problems.

I’ve become passionate about having a dialogue and creating some form of action plan for other metamours who find themselves realizing that their hinge partner is being abused by another partner. I believe it’s very important to address controlling and coercive behaviors as soon as they begin and to push back against them immediately. I think that – had we all been willing to open our eyes and admit that Lora’s behavior was abusive earlier – it’s possible that our relationships could have been salvaged. By denying the reality of her abusive behavior for so long, I hit a point of no return, where I cannot have anything to do with her. Likewise, Jon (who is still in contact with Lora) isn’t certain if he’s able to have her in his life in any capacity. He’s trying to figure that out, but he’s said that it would have been easier to stay a part of her life had the abuse not escalated to the degree it reached while they were together.

The abuse of one partner by another will reverberate into the relationships with all other partners. I think we owe it to ourselves, as people committed to multiple loving relationships, to figure out different ways to handle this kind of situation. We need to work through finding the tools to do what we can to combat abuse, while respecting the agency and humanity of all those involved. Doing so would reap enormous benefits not just for the poly community, but potentially for our other friends and family members who may be dealing with abuse.

Liz Gentry is a pragmatist disguised as an optimist. In addition to her day job as a corporate desk-jockey, she specializes in hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. Though of a poly-friendly mindset all her life, she didn’t start living polyamorously until about five years ago. She chronicles her polyamorous journey at https://learningmanyloves.wordpress.com/.

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

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Roots of Abuse: Intent, Insecurity, and Shitty Boundaries

In popular imagination, abusers are fully aware of what they are doing. They are horrid people who act with full intent to control and destroy the people they claim to love. A modern monster for a modern society.

The reality of abuse is much more complicated. While some abusers make a conscious decision to abuse, others are acting from the best of intentions and see themselves as the “good guy” in their relationships. Today we are going to look at three possible roots of abuse: intent, insecurity, and shitty boundaries.

Intent

Some people just plain are shitty people. They deliberately seek out partners they can dominate, overwhelm, and control. They make a conscious decision to separate their victims from all support and help. They may or may not think of themselves as abusers, but they take their right to control the lives of their loved ones as a given. Their abusive behavior is done with the intent of getting and keeping their partner(s) under their thumb.

These abusers can be extremely charming, sociable, and enticing. They often know how to play social dynamics to make themselves the “good guy” that no one can pin anything on. They probably know that their behavior is not socially acceptable, but they don’t care. These abusers may be classic sociopaths, unable to really see others as people or they may “just” be entitled control freaks.

My grandfather, who definitely fell into this category, saw everyone in his family as an extension of himself. Therefore A) as parts of himself we were all his to control and dictate to, and B) everything we did reflected on him in a very personal way. Therefore he “needed” to control everyone to protect himself and his standing.

Insecurity

Of all the abuse I have seen in polyamorous relationships, insecurity has been the most common root cause. Insecure abusers don’t think in terms of trying to control their partners. Instead, they think they are protecting themselves. The problem is that they try to “protect” themselves by imposing their will on the people around them.

The “good news” for this type of abuser is that they are usually easy to identify. Both their partners and the people around them will be able to see clear signs of their attempts at control. Unfortunately, it is also very easy to get taken in by them. We don’t want our loved ones to be scared or feel threatened, so we bend over backward to reassure them. In the process, we give in to emotional manipulation and other forms of abuse. In time, we give up all control of our relationships, and sometimes our lives, for someone who is willing to harm us in order to protect themselves.

Abusers acting out of insecurity are all over poly forums and discussion groups. One of the best (and most) heartrending) fictional depictions of this type of abuse is in Lois McMaster Bujold’s “Komarr.” Tien Vorsoisson, in fear of losing his wife, uses gaslighting, accusations of affairs, and even their son in order to separate her from all family and friends, and force her to back down every time she tried to question or challenge him. Another character describes Tien as “One of those parasitic individuals that leaves their spouse scratching their head and asking ‘Am I crazy? Am I crazy?’ ”

Shitty Boundaries

This is an interesting and disturbing case, because the abuser actually believes they are acting for the good of the person they love. They aren’t trying to control their partner(s), they aren’t trying to protect themselves. They are acting out of love and care. But as the saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

In my (limited) experience, this type of abuser is actually the one you are most likely to be able to salvage a healthy relationship with. Boundaries can be learned, but you very much need to be willing to enforce yours. These abusers are harder to recognize than the insecure abusers, but easier to catch than many of the intentional abusers. Their ability to cast themselves as the hero protecting their loved ones gives them a camouflage of sorts. However, if you are aware of boundaries and the difference between support and control, you can usually catch the signs.

I first recognized this type of abuser in an “Ask Dr. NerdLove” blog post. The letter writer was concerned because his girlfriend had a very unhealthy relationship with her family. He wanted to prevent his girlfriend from contacting her family anymore because of how they were harming her. I’m pretty sure that every partner I’ve ever had, and many of my friends, can empathize with this person’s desire to protect someone he loved from her toxic family. But when he decided he had the right to dictate whether or not she could see her family, he went too far.

There are probably other roots to abusive behavior, these are the three I have run into and recognize. And these types don’t exist in isolation. Shitty boundaries and “for your own good” can go hand in hand with the belief that someone has the right to control their partner (intent). My mother acted both from insecurity (fear that I would grow up and leave her/choose my birth family over her) and a belief that I have shitty judgement and she needs to save me (and my children) from myself.

If you are familiar with other roots of abusive behavior or have had experiences dealing with these, please share in the comments.

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

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Abuse, Boundaries, and Incompatibilities in Mono/Poly Relationships

A commenter on this blog recently mentioned their frustration with the way much of the writing about polyamory is by poly-folk, for poly-folk. This leaves monogamous people in mono/poly relationships in a difficult situation.

I may at a later time attempt to go into a detailed discussion of mono/poly relationships. Today I want to at least briefly address abuse in mono/poly relationships, and the difference between abuse, boundaries, and incompatibilities.

As I discussed earlier, the defining trait of abuse is control. This is true whether our partners are trying to control our jobs, our friendships, or our intimate relationships.

On the opposite side of relationships from control is setting boundaries. Instead of our partners telling us what WE are allowed to do, they are telling us what they require in a healthy relationship, and what is and is not acceptable to them.

For many mono/poly relationships, the greatest challenge is adjusting to a huge change in boundaries. When a member of a monogamous relationship comes out as polyamorous, they are drastically redefining their boundaries. How they redefine them varies a bit, but here are some examples.

  • I am willing and open to having multiple relationships. I’m not saying I need or want to have them, but I no longer need our relationship to be monogamous.
  • I’ve realized that I’m polyamorous, and monogamy has become unhealthy for me. In order for our relationship to meet my needs, I need to be able to have other relationships as well. I realize how big a thing this is, but I really hope you will be able to accept this change in my needs.

Of course, people rarely actually talk like this, but these general ideas, and others like them, are often behind a poly partner coming out to their monogamous partner.

An important part of these boundaries is that they are expressed as what the poly partner needs and what is healthy for them. They are not asking their monogamous partner to change or do anything. Only that their partner accept that this is what they need.

It is then up to the monogamous partner to decide, can I accept these new boundaries? Can a relationship with these boundaries be healthy for me?

If the answer is no than the mono and poly partners are incompatible. Especially in cases of long term relationships, this can be absolutely heart breaking. It can tear apart families, and destroy lives. But it may be healthier and less destructive than trying to force the relationship to continue.

Sometimes, a poly partner comes out in a way that is not setting boundaries, but exerting control:

  • I’m polyamorous, I need to have more than one relationship, and I need you to be involved in my other relationships.
  • I’m polyamorous, and monogamy is not healthy for me. I can’t be with a monogamous partner, so you need to be polyamorous too.
  • I know you are attracted to other people, you were telling me last week how hot Johnny Depp is. So you can’t object to my being in a relationship with other people.

Several of these statements are structured as “I need,” but in all of them the poly partner is dictating to the mono partner what the mono partner will and will not do, will and will not feel. This is not setting boundaries. This is abuse.

When this happens, the question of compatibility is irrelevant. One partner is trying to control the other partner and dictate their life. This is not a healthy relationship, full stop. Sometimes people choose to stay in abusive relationships, for various reasons (and I’ll be addressing this in a few weeks). Whether you stay in this relationship or leave it, this isn’t an issue of polyamory or monogamy. This is an issue of one partner being controlling and ignoring the other partners right to decide for themselves what they want.

Abuse can go both ways in a mono/poly relationship. Franklin Veaux’s the Game Changer depicts a monogamous partner using emotional abuse to control not just Franklin, but his other partners as well. On the flip side, I have heard disturbing stories of sexual abuse, where a poly partner forced their monogamous partner to participate in threesomes.

Navigating a mono/poly relationship is difficult at the best of times. Both partners (and I do mean BOTH) will need to make accommodations to make the relationship work. (Check out Hard and Soft Boundaries for a starting point in these discussions.) Especially in long term relationships becoming mono/poly, it can be tempting to try to preserve the relationship by insisting your partner toe your line or to giving in to your partners demands.

Don’t.

When you try to control your partner, or when your partner tries to control you, the relationship you are trying to preserve has crossed the line into abuse. Once that happens, what is really left to preserve? Either you need to confront the abuse and find a way to heal and start over, or the relationship is already dead—it just hasn’t stopped moving yet.

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

Want more great articles? Support Polyamory on Purpose on Patron.

COMMENTS CLOSED

With regret, I am closing this post to further comments. I am glad that many people have found this post meaningful to their relationships in some way, and I hope i have been able to help some of the people who have come here. However, I can’t do relationship advice any longer. I don’t have the spoons to keep trying to help people. And that’s what almost every comment on this blog has been–requests for relationship advice.

As an alternative, please check out Ask LouLoria’s awesome advice blog. And you might find Designer Relationships more helpful than many polyamory-focused relationship books.

“There’s no right way to do polyamory!” (But there’re lots of wrong ways)

I mentioned last week that often good ideas or positive statements can become tools for abusers. Within polyamory, “There’s no right way to do poly” has become one of these tools. In theory, the idea that there is no right way to do poly is meant to be an affirmation. You don’t need to fit yourself into a box. You don’t need to do poly in a way that other people approve os. You can find a version of polyamory that works for you.

In one sense, this statement is meant as a response to criticism. No one can tell you how to do polyamory, because what works for other people may not work for you. Unfortunately, some criticism is valid. Some ways of having relationships are flat out unhealthy. Some ways of “doing” polyamory are wrong.

And for many people who do polyamory in a way that harms others “there’s no right way to do poly!” has become a useful tool to shut down conversation and deflect attention. As soon as someone says “There’s no right way to do poly,” the person confronting them has to defend their right to express their concerns. The conversation becomes about polyamory theory rather than whatever is concerning the person who spoke up.

This tactic can be used to shut down a secondary upset with the way their voice is being silenced, a mono partner who has agreed to try polyamory and is uncomfortable with the direct the relationship is going, other people in the local community calling out abuse or unethical behavior, and much more.

My suggestion is to see this idea as a red flag in discussing personal relationships. “There’s no right way to do poly” is a powerful idea in discussing the theory of polyamory. It has no place in discussing a specific relationship or relationship network. Shut it down hard.

“Yes, there is no right way to do polyamory, but there’re lots of wrong ways. I’m worried by XYZ in this relationship and how it is harming people. If we can’t at least discuss my concerns, then this is not a healthy relationship for me.”

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

Want more great articles? Support Polyamory on Purpose on Patron.

Vectors of Control in Abusive Relationships

In dealing with abusive relationships, it is important to recognize that playing the victim can be an extremely useful tool for the abuser. A classic example of this in polyamory is when one person tries to control their partner’s relationships. When their partner objects to this attempted control, the abuser responds with, “There is no one true way to do polyamory—you are just trying to control me and force me to do polyamory your way because you don’t like rules.”

Or as Franklin Veaux recently put it:

Abusers can take high-sounding ideas, like “there is no one right way to do polyamory,” and turn them into weapons, like “if you object to anything about the way I do polyamory, it’s YOU who is abusing ME.”

For both the victim and those on the outside looking in, this can be extremely confusing and make it hard to sort out what is actually going on.

Franklin recently proposed a very simple solution to this problem. Look for vectors of control. What direction is control moving in?

Let’s take a look at two different scenarios involving someone saying they want to leave a relationship.

Sandra is in a relationship with Bob and Steve. Bob wants to be able to date Cindy. Every time Bob tries to go on a date with Cindy, Sandra has a breakdown and tells Bob that she is going to break up with him because of the way he treats her. If he really loves her he’ll reschedule the date with Cindy and stay home with her until she is feeling better.

Sandra is in a relationship with Bob and Steve. Bob has been increasingly critical of Steve and insists on more and more restrictions in how Sandra and Steve spend time together. One day, after another fight about her time with Steve, Sandra tells Bob that if he doesn’t stop trying to dictate her relationship with Steve, she will break up with Bob.

Both scenarios involve Sandra saying she will break up with Bob unless…

The critical difference is the “unless.” In the first example, Sandra says she will break up with Bob unless he doesn’t see Cindy and stays home with her. Sandra is trying to control Bob through emotional abuse. In the second example, Bob is placings restrictions on Sandra’s time with Steve. Sandra says that if Bob doesn’t stop dictating her relationship with Steve, she will break up with him. Bob is trying to control what Sandra does (probably through various kinds of psychological abuse) and Sandra is resisting him.

When you are facing an abuse situation, ask yourself this: who is acting to control someone else’s actions or choices, and whose actions or choices are being controlled. Control is always exerted by the abuser and felt by the abused.

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

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Types of Abuse

Abuse can take several forms, and being able to recognize abuse when it happens is the first step in addressing it. So today we are going to look at some types of abuse, and a couple examples of how they might occur in polyamorous relationships.

Not everything here is always abusive. Yelling, for instance, is a form of verbal abuse, but most of us yell sometimes when we are upset or angry. Yelling, on its own, is not abusive. But if yelling is being used to coerce or intimidate someone, whether that happens only once or all the time, that is abuse.

Physical Abuse

This is the one that most people think of first. Physical abuse can include everything from physical threats to beatings. Physically restraining or restricting someone—for instance planting yourself in a doorway so someone can’t get out—is also physical abuse. Destroying someone’s belongings is another common form of physical abuse. Any physical action or threat taken to control, coerce, or manipulate is abuse.

Some forms of physical abuse are both abuse and assault. Hitting, pushing, throwing things at someone and other assaults are the most immediately dangerous form of abuse. If you ever find yourself in a relationship where these things happen, please get somewhere safe as quickly as you can.

Examples:

Paul and Cindy are fighting. Paul is getting angry and wants to leave to cool down before he says something he regrets. Bret plants himself in the doorway and says no one is leaving until this is worked out.

Jenna and Carol are both dating Sam. Jenna finds a time when she and Carol are alone, grabs Carol’s arm hard enough to leave bruises. Jenna tells Carol that if she ever tries to come between Jenna and Sam, Jenna will kill her.

Ryan wants to open up his relationship with Dan. Dan is reluctant. Ryan uses his body to pin Dan against the wall and says that they are opening their relationship and Dan better not cause any problems.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is any form of coercion, manipulation or force used to control someone’s sexual choices. The most talked about types of sexual abuse also involve physical abuse—physically forcing someone to have sex, threatening someone physically to make them have sex, etc. But there are a lot of types of sexual abuse. Everything from groping someone without their permission, to blackmailing them for sex, to making them watch while you have sex with someone else.

Sexual abuse can be a particularly pervasive problem in polyamorous relationships. Having multiple people opens up areas of abuse that aren’t possible with just two people. Worse, these types of abuse are not well known or recognized, so abusers often get away with it for a long period of time.

Examples:

Mark isn’t comfortable with threesomes. His girlfriend, Susan, is also dating Jack and doesn’t want to hear “no.” Susan tells Jack that Mark too shy to say anything, but wants Jack to join in the next time she and Mark are having sex.

Paula and George open up their relationship after Paula meets Ray. George has problems with jealousy. He tells Paula that she has to have sex with him every time she has sex with Ray or he’ll know she doesn’t really love him. He counts the condoms in the bathroom when Ray comes over to visit, to be sure they aren’t sneaking behind his back.

Ann and Donna live together. They’ve been dating Wanda together and separately for over a year when they invite her to move in with them. Once Wanda gives up her apartment and moves in with them, Ann and Donna tell her that she isn’t allowed to have sex with anyone else. If she does, she will be kicked out of their home.

Psychological Abuse

Psychological abuse includes emotional, mental and verbal abuse. Psychological abuse is the most common form of abuse, and can be the hardest to recognize. Other forms of abuse almost always happen alongside psychologcial abuse.

Psychological abuse can include gaslighting, threatening to out someone, belittling them, name calling, twisting things around so the other person is always at fault and the abuser is blameless, deliberately embarrassing someone in public, constant criticisms, and much more.

Examples:

Diane constantly compares Ken to her other boyfriends. Nothing he ever does is good enough. If she ever thinks he’s considering leaving, she reminds him that he is lucky to have her. After all, he hasn’t had any luck finding any other girlfriends (unlike her, with all the men lining up to date her). He’d better not leave or he’ll just end up alone and miserable. Who besides her would ever put up with all his failings?

Nick is dating Jane and Pamela. He plays them off each other—breaking a date with Jane and blaming Pamela or telling Pamela that he’d love to go to X event with her, but Jane won’t let him. He tells both of them how important it is for them to be friends and get along.  Then he manufactures fights between them and plays the loving, forgiving boyfriend who can’t understand why they have to make everything so difficult. As a result, Jane and Pamela both cling to him, terrified that their “rival” will convince him to leave them at any time.

Ed starts dating Maura and Dwayne. At first everything goes really well. Maura and Dwayne are just opening their relationship, and Ed is happy to be patient and give them time to get comfortable with his presence in their lives. However, Maura and Dwayne keep putting more rules and restrictions on Ed. If Ed ever asks for anything, they belittle him or attack him for being unreasonable. After all, they’ve already opened their relationship and let him into their lives. Isn’t it presumptuous for him to ask for anything else? He should be grateful for what they share rather than constantly demanding more. He can always leave if he doesn’t like it.

Economic Abuse

Economic abuse uses money and access to money or other resources to control someone. Economic abuse is almost never seen alone, but usually accompanies other forms of abuse. Economic abuse usually occurs in live-in relationships, but can take place even when the abuser doesn’t live with their victim.

Examples:

When Jessica moved in with Harry and Irene, she agreed to take care of the house while they worked to support the family. She quickly found that this left her with no money for her own needs. She had no say in how money was spent, no access to any bank account, and needed to beg for $5 to go out and get coffee with friends. Harry insisted that paying for her car was a waste—he or Irene could drive her anywhere, so why pay for another vehicle? Jessica started looking for a job of her own, but applications she brought home to fill out kept disappearing or “accidentally” getting drinks spilled on them. Before she found a job, her car was repossessed. Now Irene is starting to ask why she needs a cell phone, after all they have a house line, and she never goes anywhere…

Gary, Elena, and John live together. Early on they agreed that George would manage the finances for the family. Elena didn’t want to be bothered and John didn’t feel like fighting about it. Gary filled out the direct deposit forms for Elena and John’s jobs. He didn’t tell them he was having the money deposited into an account only he had access to. All the utilities and other bills also went in his name (and only his name). John and Elena quickly found themselves with no access to their paychecks. They could have cancelled the direct deposit—but then Gary wouldn’t pay the utilities. And without account numbers or access to any information about the bills (all paperless, linked to Gary’s email account), they have little choice unless they are going to move out with (at most) the money from one paycheck to get them moved and settled into a new place.

Over the next couple of months, we’re going to take a close look at how abuse can occur in poly relationships, ways to recognize abuse, and a great deal more.

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

Want more great articles? Support Polyamory on Purpose on Patron.

Is Polyamory Abusive?

Occasionally in both mainstream discussions and polyamorous spaces, someone will claim polyamory is abusive. Before we get into the ways abuse can happen within polyamorous relationship, I want to tackle this idea that all poly relationship are inherently abusive.

Abuse:

Actions or behaviors intended to control or gain power over another, especially within a close or intimate relationship.

(from What is Abuse?)

Polyamory:

a) The term ‘polyamory’ refers to the practice, desire, or acceptance of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved.

b) Among the concepts critical to the understanding of consent and of ethical behaviour within polyamory are gender equality, self-determination, free choice for all involved, mutual trust, and equal respect among partners.

(from the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association, as read into Canadian law)

Mainstream opponents of polyamory and ethical non-monogamy often claim polyamory is abusive. However, they rarely actually talk about polyamory. They almost always reference forms of abuse common in some polygynous (one man married to many women) cultures. Things like forced marriage in religious polygyny communities, child marriage, etc.

Looking at the definition of polyamory above, it is clear that what these mainstream opponents are objecting to is not polyamory. Forced marriage of any sort is in direct opposition to the consent, self-determination, and free choice of polyamory. The gender-based abuse common in many polygynous societies doesn’t fit polyamory’s emphasis on ethical behavior, gender equality and self determination.

These mainstream claims that polyamory is abusive don’t hold water.

Sometimes people who have tried polyamory and found themselves in an abusive relationship will claim that all polyamory is abusive or unhealthy. These people may have been pressured or coerced into non-monogamy. Or they may found themselves in another abusive form of polyamory. Maybe their local community has many abusers within it. If they are firmly monogamous and were pressured into trying polyamory, they may not believe that anyone would willingly be polyamorous.

Abuse is common to all forms of relationships. And it is unfortunately true that is some areas abuse is extremely common in polyamory. Just like in some times and areas abuse has been extremely common in monogamy. In fact, some human rights literature proposes that monogamy, especially in patriarchal societies, is highly prone to abuse. The women in those relationships are often trapped and unable to appeal to society to escape their abuser.

The truth is that neither polyamory nor monogamy are inherently abusive. Both structures can be used by abusers, but that doesn’t make the structures themselves abusive. There are many healthy polyamorous relationships, just like there are many healthy monogamous relationships. Researchers such as Eli Sheff, Sina Muscarina, Jim Fleckenstein, and others have been studying healthy polyamorous relationships for decades. If you look at the definition of polyamory and the definition of abuse, there is no overlap.

“That’s Not Really Polyamory!”

It is debatable whether someone in a relationship with an abuser can give consent. The more an abuser gains control over their victim, the less their victim is able to freely choose things for themselves. At a certain point, the victim is no longer able to give consent, because they are no longer in control of themselves or their life. This is why many polyamorous folk say that if someone is being coerced or manipulated “That’s not really polyamory!”

And it isn’t—any time someone has entered into a non-monogamous relationship because of coercion or manipulation, they have not freely consented. It doesn’t meet the definition of polyamory.

Unfortunately, abusers aren’t interested in ethics, honesty, or giving their victims accurate information. For people trying to deal with an abusive relationship, or trying to figure out if they are in an abusive relationship, saying “That isn’t really polyamory” isn’t very helpful. This blog series will address forms of abuse that include coercing or manipulating partners into agreeing to polyamory. These relationships don’t meet the definition of polyamory, but the people in them may identify as polyamorous. And even if they don’t, they need and deserve the help and support of the poly community in overcoming the abuse.

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

Want more great articles? Support Polyamory on Purpose on Patron.

What is Abuse?

Before we can talk about abuse in polyamory, we need to talk about what abuse is. Before starting this post, I did some googling on what is abuse, and the definition of abuse. Many of the definitions didn’t really apply to abuse within relationships. For instance, the Oxford Dictionary online defines abuse as:

1 Use (something) to bad effect or for a bad purpose; misuse: the judge abused his power by imposing the fines

1.1 Make excessive and habitual use of (alcohol or drugs, especially illegal ones): at various times in her life she abused both alcohol and drugs

2 Treat with cruelty or violence, especially regularly or repeatedly: riders who abuse their horses should be prosecuted

Only the last definition would apply to this discussion, and it is both too narrow and too vague.

I did find several definitions for abuse which do fit the idea of abuse within relationships. Not surprisingly, most of these are focused on abuse-as-domestic violence.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline:

Domestic violence doesn’t look the same in every relationship because every relationship is different. But one thing most abusive relationships have in common is that the abusive partner does many different kinds of things to have more power and control over their partners.

Segen’s Medical Dictionary:

The violation of one’s human and civil rights, or action or deliberate inaction that results in neglect and/or physical, sexual, emotional or financial harm. Abuse can be perpetrated by one or more people (either known or not known to the victim) or can take the form of institutional abuse within an organisation; it can be a single or a repeated act.

Abusivelove.com:

Abuse can be physical, sexual, emotional or verbal; it is intimidation or manipulation of another person or an intrusion into another’s psyche; the purpose is to control another person. It is generally a long term pattern of behavior although specific short term interactions can be labelled abusive.

Domesticviolence.org:

Domestic violence is about one person in a relationship using a pattern of behaviors to control the other person. It can happen to people who are married or not married; heterosexual, gay, or lesbian; living together, separated, or dating.

A common thread running through most of these definitions is the intent to control. Segen’s doesn’t mention control or power over someone, but trying to control someone*—taking away their right to self determination—definitely comes under the heading of “violating human or civil rights.”

So for our purposes here, we will be defining abuse as:

“Actions or behaviors intended to control or gain power over another, especially within a close or intimate relationship.”

Abuse can occur within any kind of romantic or sexual relationship, within familial relationships and even within friendship. This blog series will be focusing on abuse in polyamorous relationships.

*I do want to make a distinction between abuse and consensual kink. In consensual kink a dominant does not try to control or try to get power over their submissive. Rather, the submissive chooses to give control to the dominant.

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

Want more great articles? Support Polyamory on Purpose on Patron.