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.

3 responses to “Is Polyamory Abusive?

  1. I do not want to claim that polyamory is all bad. I just wish there was more light to the issue of people being forced into polyamory not because I want to demoralize the polyamorous community but because there isn’t enough about this issue – about the people who don’t want to do it and are forced to do it anyway. I realize as a social justice issue that the group itself has to defend it’s name but it still has a long way to go in identifying the less better parts of their community.

    • Being given an ultimatum such as “polyamory or divorce” is a horrible thing and truly traumatic for the monogamous spouse. I have, on this blog and elsewhere, tried to be supportive of mono spouses put in this position and to make a clear that the emotionally abusive tactics many have used to get their spouses to agree to poly are wrong and have no place in an ethical, consensual relationship. Joreth, franklin Veaux and others are also active in addressing this topic.

      I know someone who was literally court ordered to be monogamous. I have lost my kids because I am polyamorous. I have been kicked out an apartment because health codes made a non-monogamous family sharing a home illegal. If I tried to marry more than one partner, I could go to jail. In some states, I could be prosecuted for adultery even in spite of my spouse not wanting me to be charged and being poly themself.

      “Poly or divorce” is a shitty, horrid choice that no one should have to make. It is still a choice. You can leave your marriage and be monogamous with someone else. No matter where I go or who I am with, I am surrounded by a legal and social structure designed to force me to be monogamous.

      If you looked around this blog, you would realize that I am already doing exactly what you say you want poly-folk to do. But unless you literally cannot escape your relationship, do not come on my blog and talk about people being “forced” into polyamory.

      (for anyone reading this who is in a relationship they cannot escape, there is help.)

  2. I totally agree that we, mono people, have the choice to leave a partner who unilaterally or by coercion has decided to change the relationship agreement from mono to poly. We have that choice.

    The sad part of being mono is that we, as a group, are extremely focused on our sole partner. We make life-long commitments, and more often than not do we have an attachment style that is more anxious dependent than secure and independent. So our mentality doesn’t help us realise that we have this choice – – leaving our partner.

    And this is not the fault of polyamory.

    Poly is becoming the next big thing in relationships, and right now “everybody” who gets a crush on a coworker or someone at the gym is poly and has been so their whole life, just realising it now, and needs to open up their relationship to have sex with their crush.

    So being mono is becoming increasingly harder these days.

    I hope with time monos will have access to more resources enabling them to understand that they don’t have to stay in deeply unhappy poly relationships. They can leave. AND they will survive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *