Tag Archives: Abuse

The Polya Bystander: I Just Want to Be Left Alone

Updated version of the article first appearing on Postmodern Woman.

If there’s one thing that helps keep polya people from experiencing discrimination like other minorities, it’s that there’s often some sense of privacy.

For many people, they can practice their non-monogamy in relative peace. They can simply spend less time with any possible family that disapproves. They can’t be picked easily out of a crowd. And even when others discover they have multiple partners, most might simply assume it’s cheating but it’s not like they kill people over it.

Well, only so long as you aren’t already in an oppressed group or surrounded by a culture that closely monitors your sexuality. Polya people like to emphasize that’s it’s not all about the sex but we live on a world in which any sort of intimacy is likely to be sexualized. The vast majority of the world is romantic and sexual in some sense and it’s already difficult enough to understand aromanticism and asexuality.

That doesn’t even begin to cover all of the dynamics that serve to leave the world an extremely unfair place due to the ways we all rank on that arbitrary scale of normality.

In other words, it’s very easy to say you just want to be left alone, and for the most part actually be left alone, the closer to normal you fall. If you already fit into the dominant group and the only not-normal thing about you is that you have more than one sexual or romantic partner without lying or coercing anyone, then you can truly choose whether to be out or not.

There are some who choose to be out. But the only topic they can speak on is their polyamory or other form of non-monogamy. For the most part, they systems of control by normality remain in place. You can see this is in the evolution of the white polyamory movement in the last few decades, where it was (and still is) considered acceptable to exert couple privilege or other forms of hierarchy and controls by default.

Even today, the polya community is overwhelming full of white and well-off voices. There was also that article posted years ago lamenting the lack of diverse voices in what was originally a very queer and colored community (and which does exist, just not within “mainstream spaces”).  The fact that they keep writing stuff like that despite the work myself and others have been doing speaks volumes. I have noticed that many of the online groups, mostly run by white people, are asking about how they can make it a more welcoming space for people of color.

But this question is a red herring. Because the polya community in general – according to many personal stories, and the need for the formation of groups like Intersectional Non-Monogamy and The Creep Shame Hall of Fame – isn’t very welcoming to anyone but straight white men, it seems.

Many women or those who are perceived as female report and complain of creepy guys cruising the polya scene. Anyone can take on the polya label, and without a critical examination or process for ensuring some actual degree of ethical behavior, pretty much everyone is taking a huge risk.

This doesn’t even begin to include further marginalized groups like queer people, intersex people, atheists, and others.

There’s this deep divide between what people think ethical non-monogamy is and what it comes to look like in practice. They may put in the effort to treat their partners well but why should they care about anyone or anything else?

At times, the desire for privacy or for a world away from the world results in the reaction to my experience in an open relationship group over a year ago, where I am told to be quiet because my experience wasn’t “relevant” or was “too political”. Where people wanted to get back to talking about how awesome their polya experience was instead of addressing – or even acknowledging – the discomfort of people like me.

When the desire for privacy and freedom outweighs building a healthier culture or acknowledging the flaws in a system (especially what’s supposed to be a more ethical one), it simply ends up being another way the rest of us are locked out and silenced. In the end, it continues to perpetuate the larger abuse culture and its ills.

It is only recently – some of it from myself and a few others posting about certain issues and some of it from the changing world climate in general – that polya people are starting to realize that maybe it’s not so easy to keep polya a private matter, at least for other people.

Here in the U.S. people are behaving irrationally, spreading hatred, and generally making it an uncomfortable and unsafe place to live for anyone they don’t trust. There are comparisons to Nazi Germany. While I really cannot speak on whether it is or not, there are parallels and Nazis totally learned it from watching us. It is true that witch hunts are explosive and addictive.

There’s that saying that a person didn’t speak up until there were no more groups of people between them and annihilation. It is still true and valid today. You may think that your polyamory has nothing to do with Black people, or with intersex people, or with religious minorities. That’s not true at all.

You can freely practice your non-monogamy because the hounds are busy chasing the rest of us instead. You can live well because of the unpaid labor that my ancestors provided. You can learn about non-monogamy and attend conventions because you’re not trapped in the poverty cycle. You can plan when or if to have children because you aren’t disabled or poor. You can walk down the street holding hands with your loves because you won’t get shot for looking suspicious.

Even when you choose to speak up, you are likely much safer than I am. The more visible I become, the angrier it’ll make those who wished I didn’t exist. And the more likely they’ll respond powerfully (and negatively). I’m already being told that everything that happened to me is my fault, that my aromanticism is the result of shitty experiences, and that I’m exaggerating. How much longer until the threats and physical violence starts rolling in again?

You may think you have nothing to contribute. You may assume that you have nothing in common with us. You may not see the connections just yet.

But if you want to live a more responsible life, if you enjoy loving multiple people, and if you live in relative safety you can do so much to help make that more than a possibility for others.

Listen more. Join Intersectional Non-Monogamy. Check out resources for queer and Black people. Educate yourself.

Even if you fumble, even if you mess up, do your best to step beyond that self-contained bubble keeping you separated from the rest of the world. Your lives may or may not appear to change with the political or social climate. But my life does. And others’ lives do as well.

Be grateful for your privacy. Be in love with your freedom. I only ask that you keep those of us with less of each in mind. And maybe speak up for us and make room for us. And believe us!

Because at the end of the day, I’m sure we all value our freedom and privacy. We all want to be left in peace. Give us that chance.

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?

https://youtu.be/JTvcpdfGUtQ

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.

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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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.

Abuse in Polyamory

For a lot of people, polyamory is a pretty awesome relationship style. But there’s this thing about humans—not matter how awesome something is, we can always find a way to screw it up. Most of the time, we aren’t screwing things up on purpose. We’re just doing our best and making mistakes. Or, as one of my favorite authors put it “just [people], fucking up in a fucked up world.”

But sometimes the shit that happens in relationships isn’t a mistake. Isn’t a result of honestly trying our best and screwing up because, hey, we’re human. Sometimes the shit that happens is because someone in the relationship is a manipulator. A control freak. An emotionally immature idiot.

An abuser.

Abuse is a very real issue in polyamorous relationships and one that is not discussed nearly enough.

For the next few weeks, we’re going to take a break from exploring mental illness in polyamory, and talk about abuse. What abuse is, different types of abuse, recognizing abuse, ways to respond to abuse, and more.

A great deal of what I cover here will be relevant in any relationship—gas lighting is gas lighting, whether monogamous, polyamorous, platonic or between relatives. Other topics, like the use of rules and agreements as tools of an abuser, will be more specific to polyamorous relationships.

For obvious reasons this entire blog series comes with a fairly large trigger warning.

If you have experience with abuse in polyamory and would be willing to share your story or what you learned, please leave a comment or contact me about writing a guest post.

Posts so far:

(Updated February 8, 2016)

  1. Abuse in Polyamory
  2. What is Abuse?
  3. Types of Abuse
  4. Vectors of Control in Abusive Relationships
  5. “There’s no right way to do polyamory!” (But there’re lots of wrong ways)
  6. Abuse, Boundaries, and Incompatibilities in Mono/Poly Relationships
  7. Roots of Abuse: Intent, Insecurity, and Shitty Boundaries
  8. Living with an Abusive Metamour (Guest Post by Liz Gentry)
  9. Abuse and Mental Illness
  10. Abuse Isn’t the Only Wrong Way to do Polyamory
  11. When Your Partner Is in an Abusive Relationship
  12. When Polyamory Triggers Abuse
  13. When polyamory is a tool for abuse
  14. Am I Abusing my Polyamorous Partners?
  15. Salvaging an Abusive Relationship
  16. Surviving an Abusive Relationship
  17. Abuse in Polyamory Wrap Up