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.


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.


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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8 responses to “Roots of Abuse: Intent, Insecurity, and Shitty Boundaries

  1. Betty Williams

    “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.”

    This is a perfect description of what has become of my transcendently loving polyamorous relationship with my partner of 7 years. I grew close to a mutual friend of ours, with my partner’s blessing, and found myself wanting to begin a physically intimate relationship with her. This inflamed a mountain of insecurity and fear that my partner and I did not know they had. They had a legit (diagnosed) mental breakdown and became emotionally and even a little physically abusive, using emotional blackmail, gaslighting, severe intrusions of my privacy, surveillance, explosive anger, and cruel attacks on my and our friend’s character to attempt to get me to agree to a closed relationship, with veto power over everyone in my life, including my husband and relatives, to protect them from ever having to feel insecure again. They view my resistance to this and refusal cut our friend out of my heart and life as sadistic on my part. They have become paranoid, suspicious, hostile, possessive, jealous, contemptuous, condescending, angry, and constantly miserable. It is a knife in my heart to say these things about my sweet love. This was not true before; they have become someone I don’t recognize. My partner is not a bad person; they are just very, very scared. I walk on eggshells day and night. There are emotional repercussions every time I jostle them in the tiniest way. The only way to keep the peace is to silence my own needs and feelings and support them unflinchingly, on demand. If they happen upon this comment, we will fight for days.

    We have been locked in this cycle for many months, so in love that we can’t bring ourselves let go. But they can’t bear the thought of not strictly controlling me (if I loved them enough, and if I were truly trustworthy, I would do what they say and let them surveil my interactions so they’d never have to take risks or feel insecure). And I can’t bear the thought of breaking my own heart and the heart of my beloved friend to please them. It makes me shudder to think that what would please them is my broken heart. I am aching to see our friend, who has been supporting me from afar through the abuse, and who longs to see me. Not for sex. Just for a long, unsupervised hug and a beer. Staying away from her to please my abusive partner is torture.

    We have spent thousands on therapy, individual and couples, and it doesn’t seem to be getting better. And I spend hours every week reading blog posts like this, trying to figure out how to start taking care of myself again without being unkind to my partner. So thank you for writing. It means the world.

    • Betty,

      Something that I learned a few months ago is that couples counselling can actually reinforce abuse. Basically, going to therapy to fix your relationship doesn’t work until the abusive element is addressed. Because abusers can very easily twist the therapy into another tool for abuse.

      Speaking as someone with severe anxiety disorder and PTSD, the only way past fear is facing it. You cannot make your partner feel safe enough that they will stop being afraid. I have seen this over and over again, not only in my own life but the lives of people I love.

      I’ve written elsewhere about salvaging an abusive relationship, and you may find some of my thoughts there helpful. Ultimately, if your partner isn’t willing to work with you to have a healthy relationship, you are going to need to choose how to break your heart. Because either you will let them dictate your life and loves, or you will leave with.

  2. I have a question — this is something that a former partner and I clashed over.

    I have a hard boundary about STI exposure. I am immune-compromised, so the consequences of picking up a virus could be very serious.

    The “price of admission” for dating me is to agree that you will not choose partners with incurable STIs, or partners who are in endlessly-open relationship networks (where ongoing STI exposure cannot be guaranteed through testing.)

    I had one partner agree to this for 6+ years, and then decide that it was controlling and abusive, when they met someone with an STI that they were extremely attracted to.

    I get mixed messages from various sources as to whether this boundary is “controlling my partner’s behavior” versus “setting known limits from the beginning, for a legitimate health reason.”

    I had no interest in controlling my partners’ dating or sex lives outside this boundary — but because the partner in question was fluid-bonded with me (and I am fluid-bonded with my other partners), I feel that it was appropriate to protect myself by saying that *I* did not want to be exposed to an STI.

    Where is the line on this one?

    (I felt that if someone knowingly exposes me to an STI, they were not acting out of love, respect, or caring — and that it would have been abusive to do so, knowing my feelings on the subject and how major the impact could be on my health.)

    The relationship ended after my former partner chose to pursue the relationship with the STI-infected person.

    My former partner told me that my boundary was controlling and abusive, because it set controls on their partner selection, and amounted to veto power. I said that the boundary was in place to protect me from STI exposure.

    (FWIW, my former partner did date and have sex with other people during our relationship, and I was fine with that — this was the only partner/potential partner that I objected to, on the grounds that they have an STI with active outbreaks.)

    I don’t feel like this is a fear/insecurity issue — I thought my former partner and I had a solid relationship, before this came up.

    I feel that saying that I don’t want my health to be knowingly and repeatedly risked is not a control issue, it’s setting my own risk tolerance — I do not want to be in a relationship with someone who willfully chooses to put me at risk.

    What are your thoughts?

    • I’m very sorry you’ve had to deal with this, it sounds like a very difficult situation to be in.

      First let me say that I agree this is not a fear/insecurity issue. This is an issue of you having specific needs for your own health and well being and your partner not wanting to meet those needs.

      There are lots of ways to handle these kinds of needs. Some are controlling and abusive, others are healthy boundary setting. There’s a grey area in the middle, too just ot make things fun.

      Without more information I can’t say whether the way you handled setting your boundaries was controlling or not. I can say that you have every right to set that boundary.

      There are (broadly) two ways you could set this boundary: “I don’t want you being sexual partners with people who _______.”

      This is controlling language–you are dictating who they can and cannot have in their lives.

      “Because of my health issues, if you have sex with people who have untreatable STIs or who are in open ended networks, I will no longer be able to have sex with you. I love you and want to continue our sexual relationship, but I need to protect myself.”

      This is establishing a boundary while acknowledging that your partner has the freedom to choose who to have sex with regardless of your needs or preference.

      Now, there are people who will say that establishing a boundary in this way amounts to an ultimatum or emotional coercion. I can understand that view, but there is literally no way to say “If you do x, I will need to do y for my own health and safety” that couldn’t be taken as an ultimatum. The key is to (if possible) have this conversation before it gets to the sticking point. that way you aren’t telling your partner, “Choose, me or them,” you are telling your partner “I need you to know before it comes up, that this is a deal breaker for me.”

      It sounds like one of two things may have happened in your relationship. Either your partner initially accepted your need and boundary, then changed their mind and rather than admitting they changed their mind turned on you and blamed you for their unwillingness to continue meeting your needs. Or you did express your needs in a controlling manner and your partner didn’t really notice that you were using your needs as an unofficial veto until they met someone with an STI who they wanted a relationship with.

      I’ve addressed issues of incompatible needs/preferences re: sexual risk in more detail in the safe sex blog series–if you’d like you can find it in the Table of Contents.

      • The way it was phrased was that we both agreed (before commencing a sexual relationship with each other), that neither of us would choose partners with STIs, that testing would happen before sexual contact with new partners, and that neither of us would choose partners who were in endlessly-open relationship configurations.

        We also agreed that neither of us was interested in setting up a primary/secondary dynamic — any new partners could become co-primaries over time (i.e., each new relationship could grow and seek its own level, and no one would be restricted regarding their feelings for other partners.)

        We agreed that the STI restrictions were in place because (a) NEITHER of us wanted to get STIs, and (b) because an STI could have a disproportionately negative effect on my health in particular.

        I was 100% clear, in advance, that this was a relationship-ending dealbreaker for me.

        What appears to have happened (there was a LOT of revisionist history and gaslighting on my partner’s end during the final months of our relationship) is that my partner agreed to those terms and didn’t find them to be restrictive or controlling… until the agreements got in the way of my partner pursuing someone with an STI.

        Instead of saying that they wanted to renegotiate the boundaries or end the relationship, they proposed that they enter into a kink-based, low-risk “play partner” relationship with their New Shiny.

        Since my partner had been trustworthy until that point, I agreed.

        Then they started pushing my boundaries and comfort, engaging in activities that were higher-risk than I was comfortable with, and then declared that they were in love and wanted to pursue a dating/romantic/sexual relationship with the new partner.

        I felt like I had bent as far as I could in regard to my safety and risk tolerance… and it all imploded from there.

        (I will admit that the last couple of months were unhealthy on both sides — finding out that my partner had been dishonest and had hidden major things from me, and that I no longer trusted him to have my health and best interests in mind, made me VERY insecure, miserable, and hurt/confused.)

        But, yes. I believe (from his words and actions at the time) that my partner and I entered into those agreements of our own free will — and that my partner changed his mind at a certain point.

        He was entitled to do so — but since we were married, living together, and had very intertwined lives, the way he went about it was hurtful, damaging, and dishonest (in terms of starting a romantic/sexual relationship under the guise of a restricted play-partnership, when the restrictions had been agreed on to protect my health.)

        With other partners of his, as long as they tested STI-free, I didn’t put limits on their sexual relationships — this was meant to be a compromise, so that he could pursue kink with this new partner without exposing himself and me to her STI.

        I don’t know how I could have handled it differently — the day after they met in person, he exposed his genitals to her genital fluids, and then rules-lawyered me that it didn’t count because there was no penetration. Cue five months of that kind of thing being the new normal :/

      • May I ask which chapter, please? I’ve read a chunk of that section, and didn’t come across a post on incompatible sexual risk acceptance.

        Thanks! 🙂

        • Oh, wow. Didn’t realize it was that long since I updated the ToC. Sorry about that.

          With the added details, I’d say that while you may or may not have phrased the initial agreement in the best way, it sounds like your partner was an abusive fuck.

          • Thank you!! Your “safe driving” metaphor makes a lot of sense to me.

            I’m probably a “within 5 miles of the speed limit” driver, in that scenario. To me, avoiding highways completely would mean not having genital contact with other people, and I wasn’t *that* risk-averse.

            Regarding birth control, both my partner and I had been surgically sterilized, because neither of us wanted to start a pregnancy.

            Thus, we were really low-risk in that fashion — but due to some (genuine, not excuse-based) health issues on his part, he didn’t use barrier protection on himself for sex.

            Obviously, barriers aren’t perfect, but they would have reduced the risk somewhat. I wasn’t comfortable with him having barrier-free sex with the STI-infected partner, and we discussed female condoms but never moved forward with it (the breakup happened first.)

            He was in major, major NRE after coming out of a depressive episode, so I’m sure that his new partner felt like the One True Shining Light In His Life . . . and, yes, he not only threw away 7 years with a partner who loved him, he also did become very abusive and coercive toward the end.

            The entire relationship wasn’t like that, though — there was a noticeable major change that happened after they started chatting, which coincided with an epiphany on his part regarding kink (which he chose to share with the new partner, rather than with me.)

            Once the NRE started, he wasn’t the person I knew and loved anymore — specifically, because I had never known him to be dishonest in 6 years, I found out on our 7th anniversary that he had been lying to me (and shading the truth with his other partner.) When confronted with that, it all dramatically went to hell :/

            How would you suggest rephrasing an agreement like the one we had, in a better/non-controlling way?

            (I had thought that mutual agreement, identical standards, and an understanding that the basis of the agreement was an actual medical issue would have been enough.)

            I did say that *I* wasn’t comfortable having sex with someone whose sexual choices put me at risk, and then we crafted a mutual agreement that we would both respect these boundaries — as my other partners and I had done, years before.

            While it’s always possible that even a long-term partner can change their mind about a boundary or agreement, I’m hoping to try to figure out a loving, kind, respectful way to ask new potential partners if they’re interested in dating — with the understanding that we’d need to be in agreement on this front before intimate contact occurred.

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