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.
Actions or behaviors intended to control or gain power over another, especially within a close or intimate relationship.
(from What is Abuse?)
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.