Tag Archives: Mental Abuse

When Polyamory Triggers Abuse

I have said before—and I stand by it—that polyamory is not abusive. Unfortunately, starting a polyamorous relationship, or opening up an existing relationship, can be a trigger for abuse. And if you’ve read about the roots of abuse, you know why.

One of the causes of abuse is insecurity. Some people are insecure in their relationship, or in themselves, or just in life in general, and they respond by trying to control everything around them. If just looking at someone attractive triggers jealousy, triggers abuse, the abuser in question is probably reacting out of insecurity.

And for people who have grown up in a monogamous culture, with a monogamous mindset (and let’s face it, that’s most of us), polyamory exposes a shit-ton of insecurities. All kinds of fears that can be silenced in a monogamous relationship–
what is they like their new So more than me?
What is someone is better in bed than me?
Why do they want to date someone else? It must be because I’m not good enough!
…and a whole host of others suddenly become very in-your-face when polyamory is on the table. And some people react to fears by trying to control the thing that makes them afraid.

It’s important to realize that polyamory didn’t create these fears. Going back to monogamy won’t get rid of them. They’ve always been there. But just like you don’t think about being afraid of heights when you are on the ground, you don’t think about your partner liking someone else better when there isn’t anyone else.

To be clear—there is no pattern fo who in a relationship will need to confront these kinds of insecurities. You might expect it to be most common among people who did not themselves want to try polyamory. However I have seen it just as often among people who convinced their partners to try polyamory—and then found the reality a lot different than they expected.

If your partner never tried to control your choices or behavior before. Never held your relationship over your head or used emotional blackmail, and now they are, you might be in a situation where their insecurities about polyamory triggered abuse.

For pretty damn obvious reasons, this can destroy a relationship. However, the destruction is often agonizingly drawn out.

What do you do when you realize that your relationship has become abusive, and if you think the abuse has been triggered by polyamory?

The first thing to do is make sure you are (physically) safe. This can include safe from physical abuse, safe from being pushed into suicidal thoughts by mental/emotional abuse, and having safe access to food, shelter, financial resources, etc.

Touch base with your support system—friends, the rest of your polycule, family, crisis networks, etc.

Next, check your boundaries. Mental and emotional abuse are most effective when you have weak boundaries. One thing the poly community does have great resources on is establishing and enforcing boundaries. Read up.

Finally, talk with your abusive partner. In this situation, your partner isn’t trying to be abusive. They are acting out of fear and uncertainty. So I suggest avoiding the word abuse entirely at this stage. Instead, use phrases such as “trying to control.” “Abuse” is a very loaded word and may shut the conversation down before it starts.

“I love you, and I know you are scared. I know you don’t want to hurt me. But you have been trying to control me. And that does hurt me, and it hurts our relationship.”

Where you go from there is up to you. Do you want to try to salvage the relationship? Do you need a break from the relationship while you heal? Do you need to tone things down a bit, see each other less often? Or do you need out entirely? There are lots of options.

If your partner is unable to understand or accept why their behavior has been hurting you, then your options get limited. If they can understand why their behavior was hurting you, or if they are willing to try and understand, you have a lot more options moving forward.

If you are going to try to rebuild the relationship, I strongly suggest seeking out a poly-friendly relationship counselor. Also, lots of discussion of boundaries. They will still need your help and support in overcoming their insecurities, and both (all) of you will be walking a tightrope while you find ways to discuss and address those insecurities without giving up your boundaries and self-determination.

Many people assume that when there is abuse the relationship has to end. That isn’t necessarily true. An abusive relationship can be salvaged if everyone, and particularly the abuser, is willing to do the work. A person driven to abuse by insecurity may or may not be willing to do that work. It’s up to you if you want to give them the chance.

This post is part of the Abuse in Polyamory blog series.

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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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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.