Abuse in polyamorous relationships: A discernment tool, and a new roundup
At last February's Poly Living convention, you may remember, Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert spoke and led workshops on abuse in poly relationships — and especially, how poly communities should address it. The subject was hot; the Polyamory Leadership Network had just expelled a popular figure following several complaints of abuse and harassment from his local community.
Hint: If people around you have come to feel that you harass, threaten, or abuse, it's really unwise to apply to the PLN. We urge communities to make space for complainants to be heard safely, to listen to what they say, and to act decisively to ensure safe spaces.
"There was a time, long ago," Franklin said in his keynote at Poly Living, "when I had this naive idea that polyamorous relationships were less likely to be abusive than monogamous relationships. Isolating a person is one of the hallmarks of abuse. So if you’ve got more people in the relationship, it’s harder to isolate someone, right? You have more eyes on a potential problem, right?"
However, said Franklin, he came to realize that because abusers are often influential and charismatic — and because groupthink is such a known bug in human nature — an abuser can sway an entire group against a person he or she is mistreating, belittling, controlling, or gaslighting. (Gaslighting: undermining a person's confidence in their own perceptions and memories.)
Emotional abusers or harassers often turn an accusation of abuse back on the victim and say that they themselves are the victims. Often they believe it! Whole communities sometimes tear apart bitterly over who to believe.
So, how can you and your community discern the truth?
A pattern of accusers is pretty damning; think Bill Cosby. But in a recent PLN discussion, Franklin described a tool for seeing through the awful fogs when matters are not so clear or so physical. I'll call his tool The Arrow of Control. He cites Emma Fett's influential formulation and its key sentence:
“I was victimized by acts of control” is not the same as “I was victimized by the other person’s resistance to my control.”
Something I would like to see more of in these conversations is a realization that the axis of control often points in the direction from abuser to victim.
It is incredibly common for abusers to assume the mantle of victim. And in every case I’ve seen, looking at the direction in which power and control flows is an incredible tool for helping to figure out what’s going on.
Who is attempting to assert control over the other person? Not control as in “you will not interact with me in this way” [that's boundary setting, which is about oneself –Ed.], but control as in “I want to tell you what you may or may not do with your body/ your decisions/ your life.”
Now you too have this tool.
The Arrow of Control points to the truth in messy emotional-abuse disputes more clearly than anything I know.
Since my last roundup on this subject, much has been published. Here's a selection.
● Jessica Burde, who is working on her second book The Polyamory Home, is posting a series about the topic on her Polyamory On Purpose website. So far:
– Abuse in Polyamory
– What Is Abuse?
– Is Polyamory Abusive?
– Types of Abuse
– Vectors of Control in Abusive Relationships
– “There’s no right way to do polyamory!” (But, there’re lots of wrong ways)
– “Abuse, Boundaries, and Incompatibilities in Mono/Poly Relationships
Her Patreon page.
● By Ginny Brown, at Everyday Feminism: Yes, Abuse Can Show Up in Polyamorous Relationships – Here Are 7 Red Flags to Watch Out For (May 29, 2015). Excerpts:
...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 partners navigate the difficult waters, the power imbalance creates the potential for control and manipulation.
And we need to be talking about it.
Here are a few toxic dynamics that seem to come up often when poly people share stories of abuse.
1. “You’re Here to Serve Our Relationship”
A lot of people come to polyamory as part of a monogamous couple opening up.... A Secondary’s Bill of Rights is a good read for anybody involved in hierarchical poly relationships.
2. “I’m Watching for Your Mistakes”
...The key dynamic is that, instead of healthily expressing their hurt and frustration [at something], 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”
...A lot of us carry some “poly guilt” — feeling that by being poly, we’re getting away with something.... 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.... 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....
6. “You Can’t Talk to My Other Partners” (Or, “Everything You Say Will Be Shared with My Other Partners”)
...While the shared partner certainly has a stake in how metamours get along, they shouldn’t be controlling the interactions.
7. “Your Other Relationships Are Inferior”
Regardless of how metamours get along, 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....
...It’s okay to trust your instincts and seek help if you’re unhappy – or if you feel unsafe or controlled. Looking at general resources on abuse in relationships can be very helpful.
...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.
In the interest of protecting the guilty, the innocent, and the integrity of the DSM-5, I have coined the word polypath. (Portmanteau: polyamorous sociopath).
Sociopaths, especially of the narcissist variety (the personality-disordered ones, not just the flagrantly self-absorbed) are usually charming and highly sexual, charismatic, attractive, and fun. They are also [literally] incapable of feeling empathy or compassion for another human being. Yet, because they are charmers, they are very talented at pretending they can. And they are also very talented at sniffing out easy targets. Solid, decent people who are talented and smart, and who are also at a point in their lives where they are vulnerable, such as having recently gone through a break-up, divorce, job loss, sexual assault, or other trauma, are easy targets. I was an easy target....
Narcissists are also, generally, non-monogamous.... The narcs who openly identify as polyamorous are able to adopt the earnest vocabulary, ethics, and norms of the community. However, when you hand these tools to a narcissist they quickly become weapons.... In many instances, the rhetoric of polyamory, while positive and respectful... easily shifts blame to the victim, who is often found beating herself up for being insecure, jealous, or for asking for boundaries....
Here's a handy little list of red flags.
Healthy poly folks do not use poly as an excuse to “trade up.” If you find yourself involved with someone who has never successfully managed multiple relationships, or who overlaps relationships and drops the old one when the new bright ‘n shiny comes around, that’s classic narcissist behavior.
Check the intensity of the relationship early on! If you are being courted, charmed, complimented, and told you are so special after only knowing each other for a short time, this is what the experts call “love-bombing.” We all want to feel loved and special, but too much too soon, with a shocking intensity that only grows hotter after you begin having sex, is Phase One of the classic narcissist Idealize-Devalue-Discard relationship cycle....
Any poly person who cannot come up with at least one ex with whom he maintains friendly relations. [And, I'll add, who you can meet. –Ed.]
If he uses the occasion of introducing his two partners to play one against the other [perhaps behind each others' backs].
If you are being accused of hurting his other partner by asking for boundaries, with no visible concern for your feelings: narcissist! Skilled poly folks know how to make sure everyone feels heard....
Be extremely wary of anyone who says that he hates making compromises. Compromises are necessary in any relationship....
Someone who treats polyamory like an affliction that can’t be helped.
...My narcissist accused me of going on dates with other men to “get back at him for being poly.” He even told me I was “using other men as a weapon against him.” What kind of projection horseshit was that?
A note from me: It's easy to throw around clinical diagnoses like "sociopath," but some of the people who do some of the things above have just bought into bad culture.
● On WikiHow is an excellent, compact resource in outline form with categories and bullet points: How to Address Abuse in Polyamory. It's editable; that's how WikiHow works. It includes many useful links. Here are the top-level categories as of November 11, 2015:
...Polyamory can be especially tricky to navigate. So what happens when abuse comes into play?... Below are examples of issues specific to polyamory, and methods for reducing harm or avoiding it altogether.
1. Understand the various manifestations of abuse. Become informed about common (and not so common) ways that abuse can manifest in polyamory....
2. Look for warning signs. Be on the lookout for red flags, such as the ones below....
3. Learn as much as you can. Read articles, books, zines, blogs, etc. that speak specifically about abuse in polyamory and open relationships....
4. Find help....
5. Call a hotline if you are in a crisis situation, or even just to talk with someone....
6. Be kind to yourself. Remember these key points....
7. Advocate for abuse survivors. If you feel comfortable, nip dangerous attitudes in the bud....
● From Kai Cheng Thom, a Chinese trans woman writer, poet, and performance artist: 5 Common Ways Our Communities Fail to Address Intimate Partner Violence (September 10).
1. Not Talking About Abuse...
2. Defining Abuse Too Narrowly...
3. Thinking About Abuse as an Individual (Rather Than Collective) Problem...
4. Blaming Everything on a Caricature of ‘Abuser’...
5. Centering the ‘Abuser’ or the ‘Rescuer,’ Rather than the Survivor...
So Let’s Start Talking.... I believe in the courage of our communities to speak.
Her related articles.
The Poison Hidden in the Heart of Non-Monogamy (July 28).
...And despite the remarks written in More Than Two about those who’ve been abused, [the experience] in no way diminishes our ability to recognize healthy boundaries. If anything, it makes us all the more sensitive to boundary violations.... Not all survivors of abuse are the same. Those who don’t have healthy boundaries to begin with are more likely to put up with the abuse for a longer period of time, to not recognize certain actions as abusive, and to believe they deserve the abuse. The rest of us develop more awareness of what we can and cannot handle, of who is likely to be an abuser, and are quicker to notice red flags and get the hell out of there. You don’t survive long by putting yourself in danger when you know better.
Additionally, abusers can only take advantage of weaknesses that already exist. But for black women it is not any individual failing that makes us more prone to being the victims of abuse. No, our weakness is tied into our blood, woven there by history itself....
● And at Black Girl Dangerous, 9 Strategies For Non-Oppressive Polyamory by Janani Balasubramanian (October 4, 2013).
● 10 things I wished I'd known about gaslighting, by Emma Fett (July 15, 2015).
And, here are resources that I listed with my writeup of February's Poly Living conference:
● Franklin's Some Thoughts on Community and Abuse, reflecting his Poly Living talk. (Feb. 11, 2015).
● Here's the article that he references midstream: The Community Response to Abuse, by Emma Fett (Jan. 30, 2015). This continues to get a lot of buzz.
● That post was a followup to Fett's Abuse in Polyamorous Relationships, including Six Poly Traps (Nov. 22, 2014).
● Here are Eve and Franklin's Resources on abuse in polyamorous relationships that grew out of the weekend. See the interesting comment there, by Liz, that women and men may abuse in similar numbers, but that this is not visible because men are more able to inflict obvious injury, and are more ashamed to admit that they are being abused when they are the victims.
● Also helping to prompt this discussion was Cunning Minx's Polyamory Weekly podcast Episode 418, Emotional Abuse in Polyamorous Relationships (Jan. 23, 2015). Minx says it was a difficult episode to create, months in the making. In it Shannon Perez-Darby, Youth Services Program Manager for The Northwest Network of Bisexual, Trans, Lesbian & Gay Survivors of Abuse, shares her advice on how to recognize abuse of all kinds and how to respond when you or someone you love might be surviving emotional abuse.
● There's a hashtag: #AbuseInPoly
● And here's relationship coach Dawn Davidson's collection of links, with commentary: Abuse in (poly) relationships: A link roundup.