Vectors of Control in Abusive Relationships

In dealing with abusive relationships, it is important to recognize that playing the victim can be an extremely useful tool for the abuser. A classic example of this in polyamory is when one person tries to control their partner’s relationships. When their partner objects to this attempted control, the abuser responds with, “There is no one true way to do polyamory—you are just trying to control me and force me to do polyamory your way because you don’t like rules.”

Or as Franklin Veaux recently put it:

Abusers can take high-sounding ideas, like “there is no one right way to do polyamory,” and turn them into weapons, like “if you object to anything about the way I do polyamory, it’s YOU who is abusing ME.”

For both the victim and those on the outside looking in, this can be extremely confusing and make it hard to sort out what is actually going on.

Franklin recently proposed a very simple solution to this problem. Look for vectors of control. What direction is control moving in?

Let’s take a look at two different scenarios involving someone saying they want to leave a relationship.

Sandra is in a relationship with Bob and Steve. Bob wants to be able to date Cindy. Every time Bob tries to go on a date with Cindy, Sandra has a breakdown and tells Bob that she is going to break up with him because of the way he treats her. If he really loves her he’ll reschedule the date with Cindy and stay home with her until she is feeling better.

Sandra is in a relationship with Bob and Steve. Bob has been increasingly critical of Steve and insists on more and more restrictions in how Sandra and Steve spend time together. One day, after another fight about her time with Steve, Sandra tells Bob that if he doesn’t stop trying to dictate her relationship with Steve, she will break up with Bob.

Both scenarios involve Sandra saying she will break up with Bob unless…

The critical difference is the “unless.” In the first example, Sandra says she will break up with Bob unless he doesn’t see Cindy and stays home with her. Sandra is trying to control Bob through emotional abuse. In the second example, Bob is placings restrictions on Sandra’s time with Steve. Sandra says that if Bob doesn’t stop dictating her relationship with Steve, she will break up with him. Bob is trying to control what Sandra does (probably through various kinds of psychological abuse) and Sandra is resisting him.

When you are facing an abuse situation, ask yourself this: who is acting to control someone else’s actions or choices, and whose actions or choices are being controlled. Control is always exerted by the abuser and felt by the abused.

This post is part of the Abuse in Polyamory blog series. It is related to Polyamory and Mental Illness.

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2 responses to “Vectors of Control in Abusive Relationships

  1. Emotional extortion is always abuse, and threatening to break up with someone is emotional extortion.

    In both of the above examples Sandra is trying to control her partners. In one case she is trying to stop abusive behavior, in the other case she is trying to stop behavior that is causing her to feel threatened, but both acts are coercive.

    In the second case Sandra needs to express that it is important to her that Bob stop trying to involve himself in her other relationships. That’s all that needs to be said. If Bob continues his behavior than a break up or down grade may be in order, but not as a tool of coercion, but as a path to Sandra’s own well being.

    • So how would you differentiate between emotional coercion and drawing a line in the sand? Or to put it another way, do you believe there is anyway to say “This is a hard limit for me and if it happens I can’t stay in this relationship,” that isn’t coercive?

      For me, there is a difference between threatening to break up with someone and establishing my limits. Michael knows that if he ever raises a hand to me or the kids, I’m gone. Neither of this see this as a threat. Rather it is mutual understanding of what I require for a healthy relationship.

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