Abuse in polyamorous relationships
So this is a thing that’s happening…
A couple of years ago, I checked myself into a psychiatric hospital. I said I was suicidal in order to guarantee my stay. I lied. I wasn’t suicidal, I just couldn’t go home. I sat in the car and tried to think of a way that I could injure myself enough to be hospitalized, but not so much that the crash would do permanent damage. How fast would I have to be going in order to break a bone, but avoid brain damage? 30, 40, 50 mph? Instead, I drove myself to the hospital, and checked myself in. “How you doin?” the security guard asked as I mumbled to the clerk that I was suicidal. I probably gave him the most absurd, puffy eyed look. “um, I’ve been better…”
What the hell do you say in a situation like that? It actually makes me laugh now when I think about it. Either he was absolutely terrible at his job, or the most brilliant emergency room security guard in the world. I’m still not sure.
I sat in the waiting room, trying not to cry. So this is a thing that’s happening, I thought. You’re checking into a psychiatric ward because you’re afraid to go home.
“Do you suffer from depression?”
“Do you engage in self harm?”
“Do you feel safe at home?”
“yes? No one threatened me. no. I don’t know. I might be abusing my boyfriend. My boyfriend says I’m abusive. I don’t know what’s happening. What do I need to say? Please, please, please don’t make me go home.”
It’s difficult to talk about abuse. For me, I think it has been harder still because it was emotional abuse. I wish he would just hit me, I remember thinking. Then I would know that it is time to leave. Then all the weakness and self hatred would have an identifiable cause. Then I would understand why I don’t feel like I have a choice anymore in this relationship, why I don’t trust my own judgement, why I can’t seem to say no, why I end up sobbing and apologizing over and over again at the end of every conversation where I try to stand up for myself.
It’s difficult to talk about abuse. Because abuse doesn’t always look like what you expect it to look like. It doesn’t always come in the form of rage or anger. Sometimes no one ever calls you stupid, or incompetent or ugly or lazy. Sometimes it’s your sanity, your judgement and your intentions that come into question, over and over again. Sometimes the word that hurts the most is selfish. It’s the word that makes you want to drop anything and everything to fix it, and when that doesn’t work, to punish yourself. It’s the word that keeps you caught up in a cycle of confusion and guilt and self hatred. Why can’t you stop hurting people? Why?
It’s difficult to talk about abuse. Partly because of fear of retribution. But mostly, because some part of you thinks that you will deserve it when it comes. Because when he called you crazy, you were acting crazy — crying hysterically, confused, desperate to say whatever would fix it and make the hurting stop. Maybe he’s right. And while you quietly wished that you could just find a way to not exist anymore so that you could just stop hurting everyone, his pain was bigger and louder, his threats more severe. The victim role was.. well it was taken, so all you saw when you looked in the mirror was a monster.
It’s difficult to talk about abuse. Because of shame. Because I have picked out a handful of precious memories, and I regret all the rest. I regret my behavior. I regret my desperate hysteria, my self centered pain, my own self abuse, my lack of strength and clarity. I regret the way that I was for nearly every day of that relationship, from beginning to end. And after I finally left, I was gutted and empty. The monster in the mirror turned into nothing at all, and I was just astonished that people didn’t seem to notice that no one was behind the curtain. My friends supported me, and my partners held me when I woke up crying. But nothing would clear away this fundamental emptiness and uncertainty I had in everything I did.
Nothing helped me to start to have confidence in my own judgement until I talked to other people who had experienced something similar. Not until I saw the way that they equivocate and empathize with the ones who abused them. Not until I heard that word, selfish, come out of someone else’s mouth, and saw how much it pained them, how hard they had tried, and how ridiculous that label was. I didn’t really start to feel like a real person again until I recognized the trap in someone else’s story, that you are horrible if you stay and even more horrible if you leave, and the only way to not be horrible is to hand over your own ability to choose.
Nothing really helped until others shared their story with me. So I’m going to write a letter to myself, and hope that it’s helpful to someone else. Because I believe that being in a polyamorous relationship made me (or maybe all of us) uniquely vulnerable to abusive dynamics, and simultaneously obscured them so we could not recognize what was happening. I want to normalize this experience, because I’m concerned that it’s far too common in polyamory. And once we acknowledge that it happens, then maybe we can start talking about how we can help each other to stop it.
A lot of this comes from the book Why does he do that? by Lundy Bancroft, who has been treating abusive men since 1987. I think it’s worth repeating here, something he says in the introduction.
“One of the prevalent features of life with an angry or controlling partner is that he frequently tells you what you should think and tries to get you to doubt or devalue your own perceptions and beliefs. I would not like to see your experience with this book re-create that unhealthy dynamic. So the primary point to bear in mind as you read the pages ahead is to listen carefully to what I am saying, but always to think for yourself.”
It took me well over a year to be able to confidently call what happened to me abuse. Abuse is a very loaded word, and it feels very dehumanizing to all parties. I was not able to call it abuse until I realized that we had been acting out a social script that at least one in four women will find themselves playing out at some point in their lives. That my experience was heartbreakingly common, and that I was continuing to hurt myself and other women by not trusting and believing my own experience and perceptions.
Almost all of the literature on adult abuse talks about male to female abuse. Male to female abuse is not the only kind of abuse, but misogynistic abuse is a very real and ubiquitous phenomenon that arises from cultural beliefs about women, and it is what I’m going to focus on primarily here.
What is abuse?
Abuse is, first and foremost, about entitlement and control. Emotional abuse is the systematic use of threats and the targeted degradation of self esteem in order to get and maintain control. The objective in an abusive exchange is the exchange of power. Put another way, abuse is the degradation of boundaries in order to override consent. Most importantly, abusive behavior arises from beliefs, not from feelings, which is one of the reasons why people who are abusive are resistant to rehabilitation. I think this is a really important distinction, because people who engage in abusive behaviors can be kind and caring and gentle, and happy and wonderful to be around. They are not abusive because they are evil. They are abusive because the abuse makes sense and feels justified to them.
Patricia Evans, author of The Verbally Abusive relationship describes two models in interpersonal relationships, “personal power” and “power over.” Personal power shows up as mutuality and co-creation, while power over shows up as control and dominance. Furthermore, she says, “Verbal abuse by its very nature undermines and discounts its victim’s perceptions… In a verbally abusive relationship, the partner learns to tolerate abuse without realizing it and to lose self-esteem without realizing it. She is blamed by the abuser and becomes the scapegoat. The partner is then the victim.”
Bancroft says, “Anger and conflict are not the problem; they are normal aspects of life. Abuse doesn’t come from people’s inability to resolve conflicts but from one person’s decision to claim a higher status than another.”
Is my partner abusive? There’s no time like the present to start trusting your own perceptions. (From Why does he do that?)
- Are you afraid of him?
- Are you getting distant from friends or family because he makes those relationships difficult?
- Is your level of energy and motivation declining, or do you feel depressed?
- Is your self-opinion declining, so that you are always fighting to be good enough and to prove yourself?
- Do you find yourself constantly preoccupied with the relationship and how to fix it?
- Do you feel like you can’t do anything right?
- Do you feel like the problems in your relationship are all your fault?
- Do you repeatedly leave arguments feeling like you’ve been messed with but can’t figure out exactly why?
These are not normal, healthy things that you should be experiencing in a relationship. Still, it’s really hard to recognize abuse because it never looks like what we think it should look like. Bancroft says, “An abuser is a human being, not an evil monster, but he has a profoundly complex and destructive problem that should not be underestimated.” He goes on to say “An abuser’s behavior is primarily conscious — he acts deliberately rather than by accident or by losing control of himself — but the underlying thinking that drives his behavior is largely not conscious.”
What is this underlying thinking? Well, it’s all around you. It is the foundation of rape culture. It is the fundamental belief that women do not have a right to their own personal power. It is the fundamental belief that they can retain power over their bodies, minds and choices, only so long as we agree with those choices. It is the way in which we punish women if we feel they’ve stepped out of line. It is the way we always suspiciously ask “what is she getting out of this?” when a woman reports abuse, harassment or assault. It is the reflexive dismissal of female anger as irrational, and female pain as imaginary. It is the way we, all of us, men and women buy into the belief that we are entitled to women’s bodies, thoughts and choices. In polyamory, this belief makes it easy for us to treat our partners as things and not people.
But more than that, many of our fundamental beliefs in relationship create a fertile ground for abuse. The goal of marriage is often longevity at any cost, and the presumption is mutual ownership over not just intimacy, but our partner’s choices, feelings and thoughts. And even if we take care to form our commitments outside of these assumptions, we still often carry a powerful sense of entitlement in intimate relationships. In short, intimate relationships often default to the power over model, and the relationship becomes a struggle for this power.
Why is it important to recognize abuse?
1. It gives you a tangible reason to leave the relationship. A lot of times, recognizing the abusive behavior won’t actually be sufficient, but it is a good first step. You will also have to recognize that it won’t stop, and that the person who loves you, and the person who leaves you feeling like a piece of trash is the same person.
2. It changes your responsibilities when leaving the relationship. To quote the great captain awkward: “Your obligations to another person cease the second they harm or threaten or control you.”
3. It gives you a framework for recognizing and avoiding abuse in the future.
4. It gives you a context to understand what you are going through as you recover. There are good breakups and bad breakups. But leaving a situation that has become abusive is something else entirely, and you will need help to deal with what comes after.
Not everything that hurts is abuse
If you are being abused, there is a very high chance that you will be accused of being abusive or of otherwise causing the abuse. That’s because this accusation is devastatingly effective at shutting you down and obtaining control in a dispute. However, I also believe this accusation is often sincere. People often engage in abusive behaviors because they feel deeply powerless and that powerlessness hurts. But not everything that hurts in a relationship is abuse, and not everything that hurts your partner is your responsibility. It’s important to be able to distinguish abuse from other things that may happen in relationships that are hurtful, or may even be toxic or unhealthy, but are not fundamentally about entitlement and control.
Here are some behaviors that are not necessarily abusive in adult relationships (though they might be good motivations to leave a relationship)
- Being neglectful
- Being angry / being upset
- Feeling contempt
- Being controlling
Controlling behavior that you can resist may be profoundly irritating, a neglectful relationship that you can leave may be heartbreaking, a relationship filled with conflict and anger may be exhausting and painful, but an abusive relationship will leave you weak, lost and disconnected from yourself.
The purpose of abuse is to erode a person’s ability to make choices for themselves. The abuser feels justified in taking proactive and punitive actions because of a fundamental sense of entitlement to their partner’s choices. The abuse is separate from other problems in the relationship. Those problems do not cause the abuse, and as long as there is abuse in a relationship, the abuse is the biggest problem.
The tools of abuse include:
Threats which may include threats against you, and threats against themselves. I can’t live without you, I will be destroyed if you leave, you hurt me so much I want to kill myself. This creates an environment of fear.
Gaslighting, which has the objective of making the victim doubt their own memory, perception and sanity.
Attacks on self esteem, which may include not just self image attacks, but also attacks on self efficacy, which is your confidence in your ability to evaluate situations, make decisions, and handle things yourself.
Placing all responsibility on the abused partner, in other words, guilt, obligation and shame.
Remember, when your partner is hurt because of choices that you are making about your life, you are not being abusive. As you take control of your life, both the abuse and the accusations of abuse will probably escalate. Abuse is about power and control, and while your partner may feel that you are taking something that belongs to them, your life is and will always be yours.
Why are polyamorous relationships sometimes particularly susceptible to abuse?
Control and entitlement hidden in plain sight
One in four women will experience domestic violence, and that does not account for relationships where there is only emotional abuse. Something is wrong with our assumptions about relationships. It’s important to step back, before even talking about poly relationships, and recognize that there are healthy and unhealthy ways to have a monogamous relationship. While fundamentally a monogamous relationship has the expectation of sexual fidelity, in a healthy monogamous relationship both partners will see this as an ongoing choice that each person makes, not an entitlement. A healthy mutual agreement to sexual monogamy is not a power exchange, and should not be seen as a surrender of control over personal autonomy. A healthy agreement to marriage should not be seen as overriding each person’s basic choice to be or not be in the relationship. When we cross that line in relationship, and begin to see our partners as belonging to us, we are creating a relationship where abuse starts to make sense.
Toxic belief #0: Being in an intimate relationship entitles me to control over my partner.
Poly Trap #1 Poly Guilt
If you start with a monogamous relationship with an unhealthy sense of entitlement, and then transition that relationship to polyamory without challenging that entitlement, you can end up with very obvious control structures that, under any other circumstance, would appear toxic and unhealthy, but because of poly guilt, are completely invisible.
What is poly guilt? Poly guilt comes from the belief that we are fundamentally harming our partners by being poly. That we are taking something away that belongs to them. Poly guilt comes from the belief that we are selfish when we enjoy our other relationships. Therefore, we agree to elaborate systems of control as a penance for that guilt. But let’s examine this critically. If, in a monogamous relationship, one partner set a curfew for the other, expected authority over how they could and could not spend their time, and told them what they could and could not feel, would we consider this healthy? Furthermore, if one partner used fear, obligation and guilt to enforce this control and coerce the behavior they wanted, would we say that this is a respectful and mutually nourishing relationship? If a monogamous friend was experiencing this, and was struggling and unhappy and self blaming, we might gently steer them towards some resources to help them reclaim their autonomy and power in the relationship or leave it.
But when it happens in poly? crickets. We are working so hard to show the world and ourselves that we are not selfish and that we can do this without harming our partners, that we give up personal power and self respect that we would never give up under other circumstances.
Toxic belief #1: I am fundamentally harming my partners by being poly.
Poly Trap #2 The prioritization of fear
Our brains are optimized to seek pleasure and avoid threat. It’s most of what we do. There’s nothing wrong with trying to avoid things that we believe will hurt us. However, most people would also agree that you can’t put a gun to someone else’s head in order to avoid the things you fear, no matter how uncomfortable the consequences. Sometimes we have to face what we fear because all other options require taking actions that we consider to be wrong. Therefore when we harm each other because of fear, let’s recognize that it was not the fear that was the problem. We all have fear. The problem was a belief system that said, well, maybe I can put a gun to your head.
The prioritization of fear arises when we replace a relationship of mutual support and co-creation, with one of parental protection. The prioritization of fear requires toxic belief #0 and usually makes a pitstop at toxic belief #1. A relationship that is hostage to fear is one where everything, the relationship, the mental health of the participants, the future, everything hinges on the avoidance of something. Every relationship that forms on top of that avoidance, forms under the premise that the fear is more important than anything else. But just because you’ve agreed to never open the box, doesn’t mean the box isn’t there, informing the health and stability of every relationship that touches it.
Toxic belief #2: I should protect my partner from everything that scares them / my partner should protect me from everything that scares me.
Poly Trap #3 You are not hurt
In every single relationship, there will be differences between what we need, and what our partners can give. There will be differences in how our partners express love vs. how we best receive love. This is part of the work of a relationship. We must work to understand each other, to extend ourselves or take care of ourselves, and to find and express our limits. This is work that we will have to do in all relationships, but in polyamory, these differences in what we need, and what our partners can give can swing to extremes. The wide and dynamic range of possibilities in polyamorous relationships in terms of “needs” and “gives” makes polyamorous relationships more vulnerable to the neglect of one or more parties. We seem, in the poly community to be afraid to admit that our relationship choices might sometimes hurt our partners. That maybe we can’t be there for our partners in the way that they need or that we want to be. That sometimes when we start new relationships, it makes existing relationships untenable.
I said above that I do not believe that neglect is abuse. We are not children. We cannot ask our partners to take the responsibility of a parent. However, we also must not gaslight a partner who is in pain. The person who is getting their needs met, is not in a position to tell the person who cannot regularly count on having a partner available what they should feel. In fact, no one is in a position to tell someone else what they are feeling and experiencing. No one else gets to tell someone what they actually need, or what kind of “self work” they need to do to get there. It is tempting to tell a partner what they should be feeling when you realize that their feelings may take them away from you. It is tempting to want to wash it away when you realize that they may be hurting because of your choices.
This well meaning belief, that we can fix everything, that everything can work, that we won’t hurt our partners, that our relationships won’t change — this belief can lead to abuse when we try to control our partner’s experience in order to make it so. Instead, believe that your partner is a whole person, believe that the free will and well being of each person is more important than the relationship. Believe in and respect each person’s choice to be in that relationship in the way that is right for them.
Toxic belief #3: I can fix anything, everything can work.
Poly Trap #4 External control
I have had two intensely painful poly experiences. The first was defined by rigid hierarchy and the second was a poly family, with the outward intention of equality. I thought I had understood what made the first relationship so painful, and thought that I was avoiding that trap when I made different choices years later. But they both had one thing in common. External control.
Sometimes external control is really obvious, ie. “My relationship with my spouse is more important than anything, and if they say you go, you go.” However, in my experience, it’s actually more damaging when it’s subtle.
“My other partner really likes you! That means we can spend more time together. Good job!”
“We need to have group sex so that we can build group intimacy. Don’t you want to have intimacy with the group?”
“I make bad choices sometimes, so I trust my spouse’s opinion more than I trust my own.”
“But don’t worry, everyone really likes you! You’re so much better than some other people. You really care.”
“It’s not like anyone has veto. It’s just really important that everyone likes everyone else.”
Do you hear the threat? Listen carefully to it now so you understand what you’re feeling when that approval starts to go away.
Rather than being grateful for the magnanimousness of someone who has the power to approve of your relationship, take a moment first to recognize that your relationship is not being controlled by the people in it. The trap here is that my vulnerability will correspond to my relationship, but my risk will correspond to factors outside of the relationship, which can create a feeling of being a hostage. Me personally? It is not possible for me to feel secure under these circumstances, no matter how much I’m told that I should.
Poly Trap #5 Equal, not really equal
Hey, let’s talk about how awesome questioned privilege is. Questioned privilege shines a light on the power structures in place, makes you an advocate instead of an adversary, and gives you enough awareness to listen to other’s experiences and carry awareness of those experiences into your life. Unquestioned privilege, or even worse, defensive privilege, does incredible damage to the people around you.
One of the most dangerous things about privilege in poly relationships, is our insistence that it doesn’t exist.
Signs that things aren’t really equal:
- The framing: Moves towards equality are framed as a punishment or a sacrifice by the existing partner(s), while the new partner is seen suspiciously as having special privilege and disproportionate power.
- The home: The ownership of the home (not necessarily the same as ownership of the house) is clearly not equal. Who makes decisions about the use of space? Who makes decisions about moves? Who leaves if things don’t work out?
- The hospital: What happens when my partner gets sick? What happens when I get sick? How is each person represented to the hospital staff?
- The future: How are decisions made about the future? Do some people’s opinions have more weight?
The conclusion you should not draw from this, is that all relationships should be built as entirely equal. It’s ok to build relationships that don’t work the same, as long as everyone is empowered to build a life that works for them. The trap here is gaslighting. What I’m advocating for is a willingness to acknowledge the ways in which things are not equal, and the ways in which some relationships are disempowered. It’s not about making accusations, it’s about hearing your partner’s experience instead of insisting it isn’t real. Give your partners the space to feel not secure when they are honestly not secure.
Toxic belief #4: The relationship is what I say it is.
Poly Trap #6 The group, the group, the group
I can tell you why I ended up sitting in the car, trying to calculate the proper speed to hit a wall at. It wasn’t the letter he sent to me where he outlined my failings, first called me an abuser. It seems like it should have been that e-mail, but it wasn’t. It was a very brief email from his wife.
“I don’t see any evidence that you care about him”. Thinking about it now, it’s still so tender. I cared so much. I forced myself to sleep in his bed when he started scaring me because not hurting him was more important to me than feeling safe. I prostrated and apologized about things that I shouldn’t have apologized for, because him feeling better was more important than retaining my own experience. I cared to the point of self punishment and self hatred. Caring, was not my problem.
And she was there for me so many times as grief wracked through my body when he would pull away and stonewall me. When he would question my sanity and I would fall apart. “I’ve lost the strength to argue”, I would say. “How did that happen? I used to be so strong.” And she would pet my hair. “You deserve to have the things that you need,” she would say. And I would cry. She was kind to me. She was fair to me, to the very best of her ability. We had real intimacy until things started to come apart.
“I don’t see any evidence that you care about him”
So when she decided that his perceptions about me were right, it was a tipping point, and his perceptions of me, well they just won.
As a community, I would like to have a dialog about the psychology of intimate groups. Because something happened to me that was devastating to my sense of self, that left me hollow and ashamed, and afraid. Something happened to me that I do not believe would have happened in a one on one relationship. And my experience matters.
I struggled, for a long time, to try to figure out why her words (and the words of others in the group as the dominos fell) had mattered to me so much. I did not understand until I started researching the power of social alienation and shame. For me, the power of group disapproval was far greater than anything I had ever experienced. As I became alienated from the group, I became more afraid, more desperate, and more filled with self loathing. My experience is not unique.
Looking back, I see that the following should have been warning signs:
- The quality of my relationship with my partner was dependent on the approval of others in the group.
- Withdrawal from the group was seen as “not trying,” resulting in reduced approval.
- It was equal, not really equal. There were double standards for behavior and double standards in the interpretation of behavior.
- The loss of the relationship extended to the home, social network and support network.
- The group or parts of the group typically banded together against one person instead of letting each individual relationship play out.
- There was no good mechanism for setting boundaries.
I now believe that healthy group dynamics,
- Support individual independence, and healthy separation.
- Do not create relationships that are dependent on other relationships.
- Maintain individual supportive relationships outside of the group.
- Do not tie anything (group approval, group inclusion, relationship sustainability) to group sex.
It was letting go of the group that finally allowed me to recognize the abuse that had been happening in my relationship and leave. I had to let go of being a part of something — a community, a family. I had to let go of the social circle that I had been a part of as part of the group. I had to leave my home. I had to lose some long time friends. The threat was real, and large, and facing it meant accepting a great deal of isolation and judgement.
One of the most important skills I have ever developed, is the ability to leave a relationship. You have to be able to leave, and your partner has to be able to leave in order for the relationship to be consensual. If your relationship is eroding that ability, I believe the best thing you can do for yourself, is to rebuild the strength you need to be able to leave. Whether or not you leave is always your choice, because your choice is really what this is all about.
The community response to abuse
The myth of neutrality
In Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman explains that “neutrality” serves the interests of the perpetrator far more than the victim and is therefore not neutral. As Bancroft explains, “In reality, to remain neutral is to collude with the abusive man, whether or not that is your goal. If you are aware of chronic or severe mistreatment and do not speak out against it, your silence communicates implicitly that you see nothing unacceptable taking place. Abusers interpret silence as approval, or at least as forgiveness. To abused women, meanwhile, the silence means that no one will help…” However, he goes on to say “Breaking the silence does not necessarily mean criticizing or confronting the abuser regarding his behavior. It certainly doesn’t mean going to him with anything you have learned from her, because the abuser will retaliate against her for talking about his behavior to other people. It does mean telling the abused woman privately that you don’t like the way he is treating her and that she doesn’t deserve it, no matter what she has done. And if you see or hear violence or threats, it means calling the police.”
My friends who were willing to call it abuse, to tell me that I deserved better, and that I needed to leave, were invaluable to me when I could not see what was happening. They did not force the issue though, and I left in my own time and of my own choice. Furthermore, friends who were willing to stand up and help shield me from toxic communication after the breakup helped bolster my strength and understanding that I had a right to set boundaries. More important than anything, is support for the victim’s self determination.
“Abuse is the product of a mentality that excuses and condones bullying and exploitation, that promotes superiority and disrespect, and that casts responsibility on to the oppressed. All efforts to end the abuse of women ultimately have to return to this question: How do we change societal values so that women’s right to live free of insults, invasion, disempowerment, and intimidation is respected?”
— Lundy Bancroft