People in lifestyles that are outside the “mainstream” often face particular challenges when it comes to recognizing and dealing with abuse – and polyamory is no exception.
Regardless of our own relationship style, most of us know hundreds of monogamous couples, and we’ve seen hundreds more depicted in movies, books, and TV. We have many, many examples to look to when assessing our own relationships, as long as they follow monogamous patterns.
Even actively poly people, though, often know at most a dozen or fewer other poly relationships, and there are very few fictional representations of polyamory. This means that poly people have to do a lot more learning by trial and error.
We have fewer resources to develop maps of poly relationship territory ahead of time, let alone to mark the spots on the map that should say Danger: Here Be Dragons.
For example, it can be hard to tell the difference between “I’m experiencing jealousy and insecurity that I need to learn strategies for handling” and “My partner is using their other partners to keep me feeling devalued and unworthy.”
It’s hard to get an outside perspective, as friends and counselors may be equally unsure. Without resource books and trusted, knowledgeable advice, most of us have little to go on besides our own intuitions and the discussions we have with our partners.
For many people, their first mentors in polyamory are also their first partners. And while often, this works out fine, as more experienced people help their less-experienced new partners navigate the difficult waters, the power imbalance creates the potential for control and manipulation.
And we need to be talking about it.
Abuse in poly relationships can look very similar to abuse in any romantic relationship, but there are some ways it can show up that are particular to polyamory. (There are also, by the way, particular challenges due to the way social networks and communities function in the poly world, but these are so complex that they deserve a post of their own to discuss.)
Here are a few toxic dynamics that seem to come up often when poly people share stories of abuse.
While none of the situations described below are necessarily abusive, they indicate potential for abuse.
1. “You’re Here to Serve Our Relationship”
A lot of people come to polyamory as part of a monogamous couple opening up.
Understandably, the first concern for many is making sure that polyamory doesn’t damage the relationship they already have. And while prioritizing existing relationships is fine in and of itself, some couples apply it in ways that are deeply damaging to any secondary partner that comes into their lives.
Ways this can manifest include:
- Expecting the secondary to adapt to all their rules, preferences, and habits – without letting the secondary have a voice in how the relationship goes
- Requiring the secondary to be romantically or sexually involved with both people – or break up entirely
- Not communicating rules or boundaries to the secondary – and then being angry or threatening the end the relationship when the secondary unknowingly crosses a line
Any secondary partner needs to be treated as a person with needs and feelings in their own right, not just a sexy and exciting diversion.
A Secondary’s Bill of Rights is a good read for anybody who is involved in hierarchical poly relationships.
2. ‘I’m Watching for Your Mistakes’
A common feature of abuse in monogamous relationships is unwarranted jealousy: scrutinizing a partner’s interactions for any signs of flirting or betrayal, suspecting the partner of cheating on the slightest grounds.
At first glance, this behavior would not seem to translate to poly relationships. While jealousy usually exists in some form, accusing a partner of betrayal because they were making eyes at someone at a social event just isn’t a part of most poly relationships.
The same dynamic of vigilance and suspicion can crystallize around other areas, though.
Jealous accusations put the accused partner in the role of defendant, striving to prove their innocence and potentially accepting “just” punishment if they can’t. They work because both parties agree cheating is wrong, and it’s very hard to prove that a friendly social interaction wasn’t flirtatious.
In polyamory, principles like honesty, good time management, fairness, and consideration can serve the same role.
An abusive partner can accuse the other of being dishonest about their interest in a new person, when really the partner wasn’t sure yet how they felt. They can harp on every little lapse in time management and scheduling and turn them into huge transgressions and signs that the partner doesn’t really care.
The key dynamic is that, instead of healthily expressing hurt and frustration, the abusive partner uses every mistake or perceived mistake as an excuse to shame and control their partner.
3. ‘You Are Responsible for My Emotions’
One of the challenges of being poly is dealing with the insecurities and jealousy that can arise when your partner is with somebody else.
Some people respond to these feelings by trying to control the other person’s behavior. They may fly into a rage or make increasingly strict rules about when and how you can see other people.
Insecurity, jealousy, and loneliness can arise even when everybody is being ethical and considerate.
However, a lot of us carry some “poly guilt” – feeling that by being poly, we’re getting away with something, that we don’t really deserve to have the happiness that multiple partners bring us.
Poly guilt can make it easy for a partner to pressure, punish, and coerce us into dancing on eggshells around their negative feelings, even if we haven’t actually done anything wrong.
4. ‘I Don’t Have to Care About Your Emotions’
The flip side of the above point: Because boundaries and taking responsibility for your emotions are so essential for healthy polyamory, some people will use these principles to justify being indifferent or hostile in response to their partner’s feelings.
Yes, we will certainly feel jealous and insecure from time to time, and yes, we need to take responsibility for those feelings and not ask our partner to tiptoe around our every insecurity.
But if a partner treats those feelings as evidence that you’re immature, irrational, or bad at poly, or if they claim that “boundaries” means not having to consider your needs and feelings when they make decisions, that’s a problem.
Your feelings always matter.
They don’t give you the right to punish or control anyone, but they also don’t give anyone the right to shame or control you.
In healthy polyamorous (or monogamous!) relationships, all parties are given space to have their feelings heard and considered.
5. ‘My Way Is Best for You’
You might think that poly people, having broken away from mainstream expectations about relationships, would be immune to the belief that there’s only one right way to do relationships.
Alas, it’s not the case.
As with anywhere else, there are a lot of people convinced that the particular way they conduct their relationships is superior to all others, and that anyone who disagrees is [irrational/emotionally immature/not committed enough to their partner(s)/fill in your own put-down here].
This is where a more experienced partner can find a lot of leverage to manipulate and abuse a trusting and less-experienced partner.
They may argue that it doesn’t matter if something feels wrong or is making you unhappy: You have to keep doing things This Way or you’re inferior in whatever ways they’ve decided people who don’t follow their path are inferior.
They use shaming and belittling language to coerce their partners into agreeing to relationship structures that aren’t healthy or fulfilling for them.
6. ‘You Can’t Talk to My Other Partners’ (Or ‘Everything You Say Will Be Shared with My Other Partners’
There are a lot of different ways to handle relationships between metamours – people who are dating the same person. Some metamours are close and consider each other family, even though they’re not dating each other. Others have only a passing acquaintance and may not even have met.
If the shared partner is discouraging or outright forbidding contact between the metamours, it may indicate that there’s some manipulation or deception going on.
On the flip side, if they insist on the right to share everything with their other partner(s), regardless of your wishes about privacy, that shows a lack of respect for your relationship as an independent entity, connected to, but separate from their other relationships.
While the shared partner certainly has a stake in how metamours get along, they shouldn’t be controlling the interactions.
A metamour relationship needs to be established based on the comfort and interest level of the metamours themselves.
7. ‘Your Other Relationships Are Inferior’
The heart of polyamory is having multiple loving relationships with the knowledge and consent of everybody involved.
Sometimes we like our metamours; sometimes we dislike them; sometimes we can’t imagine what our partner sees in them.
Regardless of how metamours get along, though, a baseline of respect and understanding toward the other people our partner loves is fundamental to healthy polyamory.
Abusive partners, on the other hand, will sometimes work hard to undercut their partner’s other relationships.
This may take the form of constantly criticizing their metamours, harping on everything their metamour does wrong, or simply refusing to acknowledge the metamour’s importance to their partner.
Whatever form it takes, the goal is the same: separate their partner from other people and make them increasingly dependent on and entwined with themselves.
Nobody should have to pretend to like a metamour if they don’t, and if you have concerns about how your metamour acts, it’s okay to raise them.
But a person who wants the best for their partner will raise concerns or express dislike in a way that respects the value the metamour has in their partner’s life – and doesn’t pressure their partner into making a particular decision about the relationship.
All of the above is only a partial list, based on stories poly people have told about past and current abusive situations. So there are likely to be abusive situations that don’t look anything like what’s described above.
If you find yourself repeatedly wondering if one of your partners is abusive, that in itself is a sign that something is off.
A Note On Stigma and Reporting
The social stigma and misunderstandings around polyamory create huge hurdles to getting support during or after a relationship with an abusive partner.
As with any stigmatized identity, most of us have to work hard to show other people that poly relationships can work and be healthy.
In even thinking about telling other people that something might be wrong, there are two common and valid fears: 1) that the person we’re talking to will decide polyamory is fundamentally unhealthy, as proved by the abuse, and 2) that we will be blamed for whatever’s the matter because we decided to get into a poly relationship in the first place.
We’re also prone to doing a similar thing in our own heads: fearing that if we acknowledge that our relationship is toxic or abusive, we’re acknowledging that there’s something broken about polyamory.
As with any lifestyle that is considered “sexually deviant” by many, polyamory can make it near-impossible to report sexual abuse and assault.
While plenty of poly people are sexually conservative or asexual, many of us engage in things like group sex, casual nudity, and make-outs among friends – and those who don’t may be assumed to anyway.
Prosecuting an acquaintance rape is difficult under any circumstances, and it can be even more so when a lawyer can argue that just the week before, you participated in a naked hot tub party with your assailant.
Many poly people don’t even try, due to the justifiable fear that reporting will just result in further harassment and scornful dismissal by authorities
Whether to report or not is a deeply personal decision, and it is always fine if a person chooses not to report abuse or assault. The problem is that social stigma around polyamory makes it much harder for those who do want to report to be able to do so safely.
Although the relationships are structured differently, the core of abuse is similar in poly and monogamous relationships.
Healthy and non-abusive relationships deal with conflict and hurt in ways that respect each person’s feelings, needs, and personal autonomy.
The coercive use of guilt, shame, and fear can hide behind a lot of different rationales – everything from “I just want to help you grow as a person” to “good poly means doing this” to “our primary relationship comes first.”
The common thread is not in the reasons and words behind it, but in the dynamics of control, manipulation, and emotional blackmail.
No rationale gives someone the right to control your actions, disregard your feelings and needs, or treat you as disposable in a supposedly loving relationship.
You deserve respect and care from all of your partners.
Ginny Brown is a writer, speaker, and educator specializing in sexuality and relationships. She writes for various publications, and has her own blog at http://thebrunettesblog.wordpress.com. She lives in the Philadelphia area with her poly family and three cats. Follow her on Twitter @lirelyn.