Maybe someone has accused you of being abusive. Maybe you’ve been reading along and started to recognize some things I’ve been describing. For whatever reason, you’re wondering if you may be the bad guy in your relationship(s).
First off, major kudos for being willing to ask. Western culture tends to portray abusers as irredeemable monsters or people helpless to change their behavior until their ‘one true love’ redeems them. Both are real shitty tropes that make it even more difficult than it should be to face the fact that you may be abusing your loved ones. Just asking this question is a huge deal.
If you are worried about being an abuser, I highly suggest seeking out a professional relationship counselor or therapist. They can help you work through what is causes you to seek control of your partners and learn new ways of being in relationships.
That said, not everyone has access to professional therapy services, so here is my unofficial, inexpert, advice:
Face facts. Specifically the facts of your relationships.
- How do you react when a partner tells you they can’t or won’t do something? Do you accept it gracefully? Try to find another way to get what you need?
- Or do you try to convince, badger, or push them into doing what you want?
- When your partner states a boundary do you respect that boundary?
- Or do you try to make them change their boundaries?
- If your partner has questions or concerns about your relationship, do you support them reading books, talking with friends, or checking out forums?
- Or do you insist that you know the right way to do things and they don’t need anyone else’s opinion?
- Are you okay with your partners discussing your relationship with other people?
- Or do you try to keep them from discussing your relationship and accuse them of “bad mouthing” you or similar to their friends and family?
- Do you listen when they say no? (And I don’t just mean about sex).
- Or do you try to change their minds or make them do things your way?
- Do you respect their right do decide what to do with their body, their money, their possessions, their relationship?
- Or do you try to make them do what you want instead of what they want?
Regarding power exchange relationships: Discussion about abuse in power exchange relationships makes the whole thing way too complicated, IMO. If you the dominant in a consensual power exchange relationship, you do you not need to try to control your submissive partner, because they have given you control. You do not make them do what you want, they want to do what you want. While I am uncomfortable with consensual non-con, I believe this applies even there. They want you to force them to do something. Questions above still apply. If they’ve given you control, right on! If you’ve taken control against their wishes, you got problems.
While you are looking at these questions, remember the vectors of control.
If you answered “yes” to part 2 of any of the questions above, you may be abusing your partners.
How Do I Stop Abusing My Partners?
Before anything else, you need to talk with your partners. Tell them that you realize you’ve been trying to control them. You want to stop and build a healthy relationship with them. Will they forgive you and help you start again? Can they be patient while you learn how to have a healthy relationship?
If they are willing to stick with you, thank your lucky stars and don’t let them down. If they aren’t, try to move on without bitterness and commit to doing better in your next relationship.
Now, some nitty gritty.
First, you need to recognize when you are doing it.
This may sound obvious, but it isn’t. Most of us don’t think in terms of “Today I’m going to force my partner to do something they don’t want to do.” You may think in terms of “I need my partner to do this for me because….” or “My partner is going to get hurt if they don’t do this….”
Reading up on personal boundaries can help. So can talking with your partner and setting clear boundaries for what is any isn’t acceptable. Try to identify, hopefully with your partners help, the situations where you are most likely to try to control them.
You need to learn new ways of relating.
You may have difficulty stating your needs without being manipulative or coercive. Bad behavior can become habit. I was raised in a home where lying and manipulating were survival traits. It wasn’t until I had been out of my parents house for over a year that I recognized how much I tried to manipulate to get what I wanted, rather than simply asking. Even after I realized I was being manipulative, it was such a habit that often I would only realize that I had been trying to manipulate someone after the fact.
If this happens to you, the best thing you can do is own it. “I’m sorry. I did this, I shouldn’t have. Can I make it up to you?”
If you partner(s) are willing to work with you, then ask them to call you out. “You’re doing it again.” “Stop trying to change my mind.” “You need to stop. Now.”
Read up on the roots of abuse, and try to identify why you are trying to control your partners. If you can identify the underlying cause (insecurity is a common one), work on fixing it.
And you probably want to spend some time reading up on and practicing healthy relationship skills. If the only way you know how to relate is unhealthy, then wanting to fix your unhealthy relationships won’t do shit. You need to have healthy relationship skills to replace the unhealthy ones, or sooner or later you will find yourself back where you started.
This post is part of the Abuse in Polyamory blog series.