I was in a polyamorous and abusive relationship for 7 years… here’s what I learned
It took me three years and a ton of therapy to be able to write what you’re about to read. I’m doing it mostly for the ones who might need it, whether because you’re considering polyamory or some other form of ethical non-monogamy, or because you’re already practising it, or because you’ve just got out of a bad relationship of any kind and you’re still trying to figure out what happened, or maybe you just want to be in a romantic relationship. Even if you’re monogamous, you should keep reading, because this is about romantic relationships and emotional and psychological abuse.
I dated a narcissist for seven years. Our relationship was polyamorous from the start. I lived with my boyfriend and my boyfriend’s girlfriend and the three of us became family. Each of us was free to see anyone we wished to. This was the theory. Five years into this relationship, I fell in love with a woman and we started dating. I was dating a man and a woman, and living with part of my poly-cule. People came and went, our family went through several changes along the years. We all became known in the community for speaking about our relationship orientation and being activists for the poly community. All good. If not for the tiny detail that one of my partners — the one I lived with and maintained a relationship with for seven years — was manipulative, emotionally abusive, controlling and lacking in empathy. Whatever he didn’t have, he searched for in his multiple girlfriends. We were all nice, warm, sincere, strong and empathic women. We were also feminists and active members in the LGBTQ community. We kept his reputation clean. No matter how shady he got at times, there we were: inteligent, feminist women, still dating him, defending him and generally giving our voices to keep him above any suspicion. It still pains me to talk about this. Writing this feels even scarier. Words are my thing. Yet, like Tori Amos in the song, I was silent all these years. It took nearly everything I had to leave this relationship and leave that house. When I left, I did so without knowing why I had to leave. I just had to. Alarms were going off in my head, my anxiety was acting up so badly I couldn’t sleep and I didn’t know why. I had managed to shut down all the alarms before, but this time I couldn’t. I left, telling myself that whatever I’d felt for him was long gone. Love died, I thought. It happens to everyone, I thought. It took me almost a year in therapy to realise that love dying had nothing to do with it. Love had been there in the beginning, yes, but it had drowned in years of abuse.
Love is no match for abuse. But love — or what we think love is — will keep us trapped in dangerous relationships. So, what does all of this have to do with being non-monogamous?
It almost goes without saying that abusive and toxic relationships can take any shape. Abuse happens in any configuration. Talk of abuse in heterosexual monogamous relationships is more and more common these days, but we’re still far from approaching same-sex relationships and non-monogamies the same way. We all know it can happen in same-sex relationships. We all know it can happen anywhere and everywhere. We just don’t talk about it.
During all the years I was non-monogamous, I read almost everything about polyamory and ethical non-monogamy I could get my hands on. I gave talks about my experience. I was interviewed for TV, magazines, radio. I was on the cover of national magazines as one of the young faces of polyamory in my country. As a poly activist, I was on nearly every LGBTQ gathering, sharing my experience as a poly queer woman in a small country where little about the issue was known. Since poly was my life and my unpaid job as an activist, I read everything I could about it.
I turned to poly self-help books everytime I had doubts. I read all the poly bibles, then read their critiques, wrote about poly both in its practical and theoretical aspects, shared my everyday experience online, read other’s experiences. Those years felt like taking a PhD on relationships. I’ve always been good at learning stuff. I was, and still am, a bit like Hermione Granger, always searching for life’s answers inside books. Poly books became my go-to when anxiety peaked, when I felt lost, when I didn’t know what to do or how to deal with a new challenge. When something out of one book didn’t solve the problem, I searched for the solution in the next book. I’m great at studying. I became very good at poly theory. It was the practical side of it that I struggled with, but there I was, many years into a poly relationship — and didn’t that prove that it worked? The years where I dated my boyfriend and girlfriend were the best and also the worst. I proved to myself I could do it. Not only was I able to deal with my partners having other loves, I could also have others. I had graduated from my PhD on relationships. Poly worked. And then, slowly and all of a sudden, it didn’t.
When my then girlfriend broke up with me, I felt, for the first time in my life, that I could die from heartbreak. I was trying so hard to do everything right, I didn’t know how to breathe when it all went to shit. This time, books didn’t hold the answer. In vain, I searched for it. Google couldn’t help me. That breakup opened up a hole in my chest, but it also burned down a hole in our poly fantasy. All the rotten things lying underneath it came up to the surface. For nearly a year, I watched the rotten stuff and tried to keep afloat. I thought I was rotten too. I cried everyday and still I didn’t see it. The real problem. But that breakup made me feel like I wanted to die, and that, in turn, made me look for help. I started therapy and medication for depression and anxiety. I then left my partner, went back to my girlfriend, only to break up with her later when she started dating other people and I just couldn’t deal. I had been drained of everything. I had nothing else to give. Like most PhD’s, that one nearly took my life.
I’m not getting into any details of what he did to me. I’ll give just give you a general picture. He did what most abusers do. He never hit me, of course. He never overtly overpowered me. He was discreet and careful to the point of near perfection. He made me apologise for things I didn’t do, made me feel like most things that didn’t go well with us were my fault, created rules for the relationship that served him first and foremost, started complex conversations that went on for hours to the point of (my) exhaustion, kept testing my limits and boundaries, didn’t always stop when I said no or otherwise conveyed my discomfort, used my intellectual work to improve his, co opted my ideas to further his career, used up all my empathy because he didn’t have any, controlled who I dated and the progress of my relationships, hindered my chances with women I was interested in, relying on the fact that I was an introvert and using that to his advantage, used my reputation to protect his, used my general niceness to his favour (even, yes, to get closer to women who were close to me), relied on my emotional labour, manipulated conversations and situations to his interest, even took advantage of my housework chores and labour. Needless to say that he did some of the same things to his other girlfriends and also worse things. This is the part of the story that belongs to me. What’s more: his next girlfriends (after me) were my friends. I was the one introducing them to each other. That’s his pattern. I got to know him because one of my friends was dating him. I was 21 when I met him. All his girlfriends are around that age when he meets them. Even now, at the present moment. They also have other things in common: they’re usually going through a rough patch in life and need someone to understand them. Up to this day, he uses his current girlfriends to get to the next ones. I was a portal.
There’s more to this tale. Not only more, but worse. Consider it the tip of the iceberg. His actions also affected people close to us. The bigger our constellation got, the bigger his ring of action and influence became. This is one of the aspects where poly complicates things. He got to more people because we were poly. Of course the perverse side of abuse is that he did all of this and acted as a loving partner at other times. Abuse is not a black and white thing. It has all shades. The fact that abuse has common pointers and so called red flags, but at the same time looks different in every case, the fact that so many things go into it — circumstances, other people — makes it feel personal and unique. And harder to spot.
There are things that I’m only now coming to terms with. I’m grateful every day for having found a therapist who helped me get here. My therapist didn’t save my life, he helped me save myself. And as I saved myself, I went on a self-reflection process that brought up some interesting insights I want to share with you.
It is my conviction that ethical non-monogamy and polyamory are not inherently abusive. Neither is being monogamous. But I noticed there are some things about polyamory and non-monogamy that might make it even more difficult to spot abusive behaviour. Those were the things that also allowed for what happened to me.
Poly-mainstream discourse does not talk enough about abuse
It took me a long time to understand why some of the most renowned books about polyamory and the most common communication strategies didn’t work for me. Of course I don’t mean to say that there aren’t any books or people addressing the issue of abuse inside the poly/non-monogamous communities. I’m only referring to the books I personally read and the ones more often quoted/referenced or celebrated. Poly mainstream discourse is made for the sane of mind. Or at least for an ideal poly person who doesn’t exist. It rarely addresses the experiences of people dealing with mental health issues, suffering from anxiety disorders, panic attacks, C-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder) or people living with trauma or depression. Poly bibles everywhere are intent on making you face everything: your jealousy, your fear of abandonment, your insecurities. Most of that discourse assumes you can do it as well as the next person. It doesn’t take into account that if you suffer from, say, complex post traumatic stress disorder, you might not be able to use communication standards made for neurotypical people. Or you might try it, and then go on to have an anxiety crisis for six hours — or spend years thinking pain and anxiety are a normal part of being in a relationship of this kind (aka, what happened to me). And if you live to see the next day, the next year, maybe it worked, right? Right?
I tried so very hard to do what those books said. I had a workbook on jealousy, for crying out loud! A workbook. A bit much, right? I was, and still am, someone suffering from generalised anxiety disorder and someone living with C-PTSD. Poly living can be super triggering for people like me. For years, I was facing all of my deeply rooted trauma without any professional help and without any of the tools I needed. I was exposed to all of my fears of abandonment, rejection and comparison, and I kept going at it. I had several panic attacks without knowing they were called that. For years, I lived with nearly constant anxiety and thought it was normal to be living that way because I was doing poly and poly was supposed to be hard. When you’re part of a minority, you turn to your community for help. My community was the poly-mainstream self help. It told me to keep trying, that hard was normal, that poly was very hard work, you know, like a job.
Recently, I found the works of Clementine Morrigan about Trauma Informed Polyamory, and it was as if something lit up in my brain. Those mainstream discourses I had been listening to were violence. They might work for some people, but they can be dangerous for people living with trauma. During my years as poly, I frequently thought about “closing” the relationship. Keeping the partners who were already there and not letting anyone new in. There were times I was in so much pain, I didn’t feel able to deal with my partner starting a new relationship. I never begged them not to, because I felt that the minute I did that, I would lose my hard-won poly credentials. I would have failed. I kept repeating that as a mantra: “the second I ask that of you, I’m the one who needs to leave.” I thought that either I could take it all, or I couldn’t be poly and had to break up with everyone and leave. It was all or nothing. So I kept going, in extreme pain and anxiety at times. It got to a point where I started having breakdowns at work, crying every day, on the verge of losing my mind. This happened with both of my partners, at different points in life and for different reasons. My girlfriend was never abusive, still I struggled with near constant anxiety when she started dating other people. Nothing we talked or did helped ease my terror. I started to behave in a controlling fear-driven way. I was terrified of losing my girlfriend to those other people she kept meeting and falling in love with. I met her girlfriends in the hope that I would become their friend and cease to feel so threatened. It was even worse. I went on a loop of comparing myself to them and the conclusion was always the same: they were better than me. I felt that after years of dealing with it, I had to start all over again. I was back at the beginning of it all, feeling like I had learned nothing. I didn’t want to be an insecure controlling person. I was scared out of my mind. I was deeply unhappy. Things were just too much for me and something finally broke. I couldn’t take it anymore. I decided we were both better off if we broke up. And so I left.
Recently, I read that Clementine Morrigan asked their long-time partner for a pause in their non-monogamy. They agreed on pausing for a while. I was awestruck. I didn’t even know I was allowed to do that and still be poly and not feel like I had failed. For the first time I was comforted with the idea that I’m not the only one struggling. I understood that not being able to handle things is valid. It is even possible, without having to give it all up. I also realised that loving someone is valuing their well-being. Commiting to someone can mean that you won’t always go after every possible relationship, even if you’re non-monogamous. And none of my partners ever did that for me. It took me years to understand that asking for this is not too much. I am not too much.
Love is considering your partner’s trauma and boundaries. Love is caring for your partner. If it doesn’t do that, it isn’t love.
Just because you’re a feminist doesn’t mean it can’t happen to you
For the longest time I felt so sure that because I was a feminist, I would never be with someone who didn’t respect me. I felt self-assured and protected in this idea that I was dating a feminist man. Our relationship was feminist. Poly discourse is feminist since its beginning. Because talk around ethical non-monogamies had to fight prejudice and mono-normative standards, it tends to be a hiper-positive discourse. Jealousy is a nuisance and can be solved if you just follow these 3 easy steps. Feelings of abandonment and loneliness are passing issues, just go on a date with yourself or call your paramour and talk it out, you’ll feel better. Poly talk is sex-positive, body-positive. You can see the trend: everything-positive.
It’s also positively dangerous.
Most feminists know heterosexual monogamy is a tricky thing. The power imbalance between men and women and the structure of monogamy carry the weight of tradition and gender roles. We, as feminists, are aware of this structure and more conscious of it when we enter those relationships. When a feminist chooses polyamory, they might think they’re signing off on monogamy’s inheritance and problems. The supposedly feminist nature of polyamory works as a fail-safe. It makes us unaware of the possibility of living the same nightmares. And poly mainstream discourse does nothing to dismantle that notion. Positive aspects are overemphasized and problems get the self-help approach, while the real issues end up swallowed in silence. Polyamorous mainstream discourse makes a show of being focused on communication and consent. But its notion of communication and consent is a fit-for-all approach, that doesn’t take into account the danger of abuse. It’s hard to notice abuse when all you’re doing is build up on the notion of feminism. It’s even harder if you’re a feminist, if you have a masters on Gender Studies and if your abusive partner is a well-known feminist in the community and a respected scholar on polyamory and gender studies. It opens up a wide trail for gaslighting. When you kneel on the altar of The God of Communication, you end up thinking all your problems can be solved by honest communication. It’s a lie.
Communication can be a tool for abuse. A manipulator thrives on communication and on playing with notions of denial, contradiction and perception. I spent most of my years as poly, constantly communicating. Everything was dissected to the point of exhaustion. My thoughts, my desires, my doubts, my intimacy was all up for debate with my partner. It was all in the interest of coming clean, of being honest. Although I later noticed a double standard, my partner would also analyse his own feelings and talk them over in detail with me — but since he was a manipulator, he’d probably pick what was more convenient for him to share.
Those talks happened every time I had the slight interest in someone else. Most of those talks ended up being useless. After having my feelings scrutinized so closely, I ended up not involving myself with anyone. The communication and consent commandment was used to control me. It even controlled my feelings beforehand, because whatever I felt, I knew I would end up having to talk about it. Sometimes, I chose not to feel. I didn’t think it worth the trouble. Other times, I was forced into conversations where I tried to get to the bottom of my feelings, to the supposed truth, and in that process my own feelings suffered changes. Like they were under assault. Whatever I felt in the beginning of the conversation, carried so much weight by the end of it, I ended up dropping it. And of course this naturally killed all the possibility for spontaneity and going at my own rhythm.
This demand for communication left no room for privacy. I only understood the extent of it when it came up as a trauma response in my more recent intimate relationships. I felt this compulsion to come clean about things I shouldn’t have to come clean about, because they were part of my emotional internal life and thus, not up for debate. In fact, violation of privacy was the reason for our first fight, less than a few weeks into our relationship. He said he regretted it. He cried. He offered me a rose. He promised it would never happen again. And with me it didn’t — at least not in the same way. It just kept happening under another disguise. I forgave him at the time. I thought it was an honest mistake you do when you’re trying poly and dealing with boundaries and other people’s feelings. Poly opens up this space of muddled waters. It’s hard to tell where the line stands between privacy and reassurance, between mistakes and abuse.
Just because a lot of people can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not happening
You know what is great about polyamory but also kinda sucks? Poly is all about the poly, as in many, not the one-on-one. What happens when you have many? Groups happen. Groups are great. But you know what else they are? Complex. They bring up a thing called group dynamics. I’m not a psychologist, so I’m going with the basics here. Groups can be a source of identification and belonging. But they can also make you oblivious to behaviour patterns — your own, and others’. Groups can hinder or alter your perception of things. I hate the word influence — a common idea is that groups can influence us and make us act in ways we wouldn’t otherwise. I’m not someone who is easily influenced. But poly has a way of making you feel part of something special, that few people outside of your polycule will understand. In the beginning, you might feel so alone in choosing a non-monogamous life, that your group becomes very important. The group is your family, your home.
Somewhere along those years, I crossed paths with the viral blog post called The Missing Stair. The term was coined by Cliff Pervocracy. The metaphor is good:
«Have you ever been in a house that had something just egregiously wrong with it? Something massively unsafe and uncomfortable and against code, but everyone in the house had been there a long time and was used to it? “Oh yeah, I almost forgot to tell you, there’s a missing step on the unlit staircase with no railings. But it’s okay because we all just remember to jump over it.»
I read it, understood it, pinned it on someone I knew from my community and moved on. I didn’t realise I was also living in a house with a missing stair. When I first started dating my abuser, he would sometimes act out: either he was mad at something, or frustrated or simply bored, he would start treating everyone around him like shit. It came as fast as it went, but it’s the during of it that I remember most. At first, I was shocked: “why are you screaming at me?” Or: “Why are you giving me the cold shoulder? I’m not gonna stand here and be treated this way.” Except I did. We would go on a never ending argument or I’d get the angry silent treatment. Later, my boyfriend’s girlfriend would come talk to me and explain that when “he’s like that” it’s best if you don’t say anything, “he’ll come around”. Now, as I write it, I know how it sounds. It sounds like I was being taught how to tolerate abuse. And I was. She didn’t do it to hurt me, though. She was sharing her knowledge on how to deal with the missing stair. She was helping me out in the best way she knew. And it worked. I stopped getting into fights with him and waited it out.
I didn’t realise this was abuse — after all, I was already a survivor of other kinds of abuse and the technique of going around was familiar to me. I had been knocked out for facing abuse head-on. Now I’d learned a new way of dealing with it. Except, I didn’t know it was the same. I thought it had nothing to do with it.
I then helped his next girlfriends by giving them the exact same advice I’d got. The fact that we’d all learned how to deal with his abusive bursts (we called them his temperament) and even shared our knowledge between each other, enabled him to keep doing it and stopped new dissenting voices from calling it out. The group made us compliant.
I only decided to date him after I’d seen the way he treated his other girlfriends. I remember thinking that the way he showed respect and love for his partners proved I could trust him. I even told him that. I didn’t know, then, that most things he did, he did for an audience. His behaviour was calculated. When the audience left, he changed. It took me years after I left him — and several talks with some of his other ex-girlfriends — to notice this pattern.
It should come as no surprise that LGBTQ communities aren’t free of abuse inside their spaces. During my years as an activist, I was faced with the fact that important members of our community have been/are abusers and/or protected people who are abusive — even when faced with the victim’s accounts. I also learned that my community did almost nothing to address this problem. In recent years, calling out culture has led us to a place where we no longer know wrong from right. We police each other, our language, our mistakes, always ready to pin others down and throw them some insult or other. In many cases, calling out is used as a weapon to silence lonely unheard voices. It spreads fear of speaking out. It allows for some forms of abuse to go unnoticed.
Here’s the way we generally deal with abuse in our communities: people will know and warn each other privately, concerning this or that person’s behaviour. There’s no public dialogue. It all happens on our DM boxes. Everyone knows, almost no one steps forward with that knowledge. When it does come out in the open, some people will ignore the issue, others go on to publicly defend the abusers, yet others will mention libel and slander. Meanwhile, abusers go on abusing. They keep their reputation inside the community nearly intact, move freely and find their next victims.
After the breakup, I removed myself from every group I was in. I stayed away for my sanity, but that meant losing spaces that felt like home. It meant starting again from scraps. It meant finding new friends elsewhere. It meant losing almost everyone I knew. It meant I had to stay away from events and stuff I wanted to be a part of. It meant losing my sense of belonging. At some point, I stopped wanting to be there entirely. I don’t want to be in a place where he — and others like him — are welcome. For a community supposedly built by and for the powerless, it ends up on the side of the powerful more often than not.
Poly has a way of making one feel special. People assume that poly relationships are automatically more consensual, more aware, more queer, more equal. When you’re poly, you might feel you’re different from others. More enlightened. Turns out being poly doesn’t necessarily make you better at communicating or detecting abuse or even at sex. It doesn’t make you better. Period. But it does make you feel different from the norm.
When you feel different and experience discomfort, you end up thinking that’s normal. After all, you’re doing something other people don’t. Society does not get you. People discriminate against you and your way of living. So you turn to “your” people. When you’re poly, your social circle becomes the people you’re dating and the people they’re dating. Everyone I met, I met through my partners and my partners’ partners. When I left, I had almost no “outside” friends.
I accepted the unease and emotional distress because I thought they were normal. I talked publicly about those feelings and got an immense validation from my community. I thought being in pain was the deal. Suffering was part of it. Like all the books said.
I didn’t know that pain is always a warning. Our bodies and feelings know what the deal is before we do. Even if our brains convince us otherwise. Paying attention to what I feel was one of the biggest lessons I learned.
Notice whom you’re with when you’re in pain or discomfort. Feelings aren’t random. You’re not exaggerating, being too emotional, too dramatic or too sensitive. Most of the poly literature I read kept telling me I could do it no matter how much pain I felt. It taught me to put bandages on it, to strategize around it, but never to listen to it.
Poly is very critical of feelings as commodities, of love as a scarce resource. It’s supposed to be something that values love and feeling, but instead it tackles feelings as things to be dealt with and over with. It doesn’t recognize that feelings might be there for a reason. Feelings are not meant to be simply overcome. Sometimes, they’re meant to be felt.
Just because you’re well-informed, doesn’t mean you’re self-aware
A common misconception is the idea that nowadays people are so well-informed, it’s much more difficult for them to fall for abusive crap. Statistics of violence in intimate relationships, though, beg to disagree.
Statistics apart, I actually think the opposite is true. We’re all so well-informed (via our friend Google) about everything from STDS to quantum physics, we feel invincible. Knowing gives us a false sense of security.
Like most people who have been through abuse, I questioned myself over and over again: why did I allow for it to happen? I knew what abuse was. I knew how it looked, I knew patterns, I knew stories, I had examples from close friends, I had my own background. I was hyper informed and still it happened.
You know when something is so out in the open, so obviously there that you just can’t see it? That’s how it was for seven years of my life. Most of the usual red flags were there. I knew about those too. I read about them. I posted and reposted about it — you know, those pictures with sentences titled: Red Flags to Watch Out For. I was living with those red flags and didn’t know those pictures could be about me.
Because I knew all those things, I thought there was no way in hell I’d stay in an abusive relationship. I had escaped abuse before. I thought it would never happen to me again.
Memory works in mysterious ways. While searching my notes to write this, I found an email on my inbox, sent to my then girlfriend, about abuse in poly relationships. The email is dated 2016, the year I was dating her and my boyfriend. She’d been in a supposedly poly relationship before. That relationship had been violent and abusive. I sent her that email saying I hadn’t read the article yet, but thought she’d find it useful. I don’t remember writing this email. I’m pretty sure I never read the article I sent her.
There must have been a thousand times I was faced with the reality I was living and didn’t see it. The human mind tends to compare everything. I knew the abuse my girlfriend had experienced. But because what her ex-girlfriend had done to her was so horrifying, I didn’t see the underlying, silent similarities. No matter how different her abuser and mine were, they both sought to control.
It’s strange that I remember so vividly another thing that happened later. By the end of my relationship with him, I found myself reading Reborn, the first volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries.
«In marriage, every desire becomes a decision. (…) one stops “making up” after quarrels — one just relapses into angry silence, which passes into ordinary silence, and then one resumes again.»
For some reason, I underlined this passage. I remember the strong feeling of unease that took over me. It’s such a small thing, it’s not even necessarily about abuse, but it’s about people and the way they relate to each other. It was the first time in years something felt completely off. I didn’t know why this bit resonated so deeply with me. After all, I wasn’t married! Why did I feel trapped? Powerless?
It was that tiny voice. You know the one. It’s the voice that says something’s not right. The voice we usually ignore. It had risen to the surface, only to be sunk down by my cheer will in the next moment.
I cannot stress enough times the importance of listening to this voice. You know that voice better than anyone. You would recognize it anywhere. The voice knows you too. It probably knows you better than you know yourself. Don’t shut it down. I didn’t listen or saw what was right in front of me. The same way I didn’t listen to my first gut feeling when I met him.
It took this long for that little voice I ignored to grow and be acknowledged as my own voice. It took me this long to rescue it from shadows and bring it here, into the light. I owe that voice my life.
I don’t have any answers going forward. Only more questions.
Thanks to my work in therapy, I feel that I’m now better able to spot manipulation. I’m beginning to know where my boundaries stand. I no longer let people cross them or step on them. But I’m also experiencing deep trauma. I am still healing.
We need to heal as a community. I don’t know how we can do that. It’s why I’m telling you this. I ask you all to be my witnesses. I ask you all to put your heads and hearts together and find solutions. I’m not alone. My story is yours too. We all know stories like this and worse. I’m asking you to reach out to other people you know. Let’s bear witness to our personal and collective pains. I still believe we can.