Abuse Culture Tips: Questions and Thoughts to Keep in Mind

Updated version of an article originally published on Medium.

When it comes to abuse, there’s much confusion surrounding what to do, who to blame, etc. In polyamory, this can be further complicated by the amount of people involved and how they are involved. But never fear; there are some things to keep in mind no matter what. While they may not prevent abuse, these tips can go a long way to ensuring the victim’s ongoing safety.

  • On abusers and repentance: If you want to “help” someone who’s transgressed, you only need to offer it once. Then move on. They know where to find you if they need to. Like, the problem is their overabundance of options, not lack thereof. Where’s the support and restoration for the people who actually need it? That’s what matters. Be wary of a continued focus on the perpetrator to the victim’s detriment.
  • And we do need to consider context for who to trust and inform and maintain ties with: those who don’t know what was done, those keeping an eye on perpetrators to actively keep them from doing harm, and those who just dgaf.
  • Speaking of harm: I’m thinking of that scene from The Craft: I bind you. I bind you from doing harm against yourself and others. That is basically the goal and requirement for bystanders who need to become anti-abuse agents. The point is massive harm reduction, barring healing (which takes forever, and often never)

Ask Some Questions of Yourself and Others:

1. Is there a power imbalance?

The difference between hurting and abusing is always power (as opposed to responsibility and accountability).

That’s why it occurs nearly everywhere, even within “social justice” and “feminist” spaces. Colonization and evo psych have distorted our thinking to the point where people assume hierarchies, competition, and barbarism are natural, normal, and the default for humanity.

It is absolutely not! But that’s an exploration for another time.

The point is that concentrated power inevitably will draw abusers and will lead to abusive dynamics and systems. It doesn’t matter if you call it democracy or utiliatrianism or communism or socialism; if you are concentrating power, you are building a foundation for an abuse culture to arise.

I’ll discuss ways to avoid that elsewhere.

Abuse is power gained — nonconsensually — at the expense of another. It is not hurting someone’s feelings. It is not merely rudeness; some of the worst abuse is perpetrated via niceness. Abuse is inertia. A limit. A purposeful distortion and delusion imposed upon reality.

It is the opposite of emotional intelligence; it is making other people responsible for your feelings instead of dealing with your own shit. It is projecting your expectations onto human beings and demanding they comply. It is a harmful erasure of reality.

2. Has someone been hurt? If so, is that hurt harmful? Is it ongoing?

Tend to the hurt appropriately. Some hurt is inescapable, some is to be dealt with by the individual (ie, yte guilt, rejection, etc are personal issues and are not matters of abuse).

Harm, on the other hand, is where abuse begins. Harm is senseless, meaningless, petty, unnecessary, and the only goal is to gain the upper hand. That is the bedrock of abuse culture.

3. Can you tell the difference between a trauma response, mental illness (usually a trauma response of a specific kind), neurodivergence, assholery, and abuse?

4. Concentrate on the victim(s). What do they need to feel safe? What do they need to BE safe? (By safe I simply mean having the space to heal and/or recover organically)

If you’re not constantly and consistently keeping the most vulnerable safe (giving them room to exist), then there is no ethical or moral fiber to whatever it is you think you’re doing, whether you call it restorative justice or not.

5. Is the person, idea, or system more based on appearances (reputation or other surface concerns) rather than actual efficiency or effect?

Abusive dynamics are all about control: controlling the narrative, controlling reputations, controlling choices.

Control is not discipline. It is not responsibility. It is not accountability. Control is about power.

A loss of control experienced by someone with mental illness or disability is best dealt with by grounding that person or having them ground themselves. Illness is not abuse; abuse is a choice to take unearned and unagreed upon power by any means necessary (by force). Abuse is not self-defense or maintaining or reclaiming boundaries.

6. Is the focus on soothing hurt feelings or on solving the actual problem?

7. What are the actual consequences for being abusive? What is the ongoing cost to the victim(s)?

8. When considering letting people or systems who’ve been abusive remain or “come back” or whatever: does the power imbalance still exist? Have they been held accountable? Has the victim been compensated and/or restored (which may never happen fully, but should still be aimed for)?

9. Consider the wider context: Are you considering intersectionality and an integrated view of the situation?

Yes, the marginalized and oppressed and disabled, etc, can abuse. Some do. That doesn’t change the overall overarching systemic abuse in the form of oppression that happens. In general, and overall, it is far more likely that someone benefiting from the oppression (macro-level abuse) is abusive.

Yeah, that means cishet yte abled dudes are the most likely to be abusers. That information gained from the sources in power is not reliable. It is what it is.

Hurt people don’t hurt people. That is emotionally unintelligent bullshit. Taking power is always a choice. Feelings are not actions, nor are they reasons to make certain decisions. To be abusive is to decide your comfort/desire/delusion is more important than the other party’s right to informed choice.

Such myths leave the most vulnerable fending for themselves. And what the fuck is the point of talking about justice or human rights or a better world if you blame the victim or kill the messenger?

10. Are you conflating ability to abuse with personality?

It’s not about likeability. It’s not about who the people involved are on an individual level. It is about the tether between them, and whether it lends itself to unfairness, inequality, and harm. The only way to end it is to place and enforce rational boundaries — even up to the point of banishment in egregious circumstances — until the abuse stops!

That means the abuser has to actually stop abusing, folks, before they can be considered nonabusive. Ignoring it just ensures it will continue.

Possible Things To Do:

  1. Speak up. You don’t have to be a jerk but niceness is not required. Don’t accuse; just state what is.
  2. Remember that abuse doesn’t go away on its own. Something has to change; usually this means giving the victim space to recover. Yeah, that means the abuser may have to go away for a bit, or a while, or forever. So what?
  3. The victim owes nothing. They determine the terms because they know what they need. Give space for their agency in the matter because your opinion is not relevant, especially if you haven’t actually survived shit.
  4. The survivor is the expert so defer to their judgment. They were actually on the front lines.
  5. Be vigilant. Work on your own emotional intelligence. Dismantling and stopping abuse is a never-ending active process, not just something that’s done once.
  6. Provide space — if necessary and feasible — for the abuser to reflect and be accountable, but fucking do it AWAY from the victim(s)! Don’t fucking put them in therapy or some other shit together if it’s serial abuse!
  7. If the abuse is just one singular instance, that’s a sign that the person in general is not an abuser but was just abusive. That means they’re more likely to be successfully rehabilitated.
  8. For serial abuse, that person tends to be an actual abuser, and rehabilitation is counterindicated. Rather, harm reduction measures are required. That simply, practically, means limiting their access to those they tend to victimize. Like, don’t fucking put them in charge of the vulnerable populations they abused. Don’t put them in positions of power period.
    Abusers (as opposed to people who’ve been abusive) are opportunists. Recall the above: it’s about power. They will absolutely exploit it.
  9. If you haven’t experienced it, it doesn’t matter how much you study; you don’t know shit. As a bystander, you are a support and your job is to help create, place, and maintain boundaries between the victim and the abuser. Not protecting, but taking direction from.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a mean or nice person.

It doesn’t matter if you’re oppressed.

It doesn’t matter if it wasn’t your intention.

It doesn’t matter what they did to you.

It doesn’t matter if they don’t realize it was abuse until it was too late.

It doesn’t matter if you dress it up as romance or social justice or parenting.

You cannot force anyone to do anything!

No one is entitled to anything. No one is owed anything. No one “deserves” anything.

Agency is what we have to nurture and focus on within any context. Situations and practices that remove or inhibit agency (ie, these are all examples of abuse). This list is nonexhaustive:

  • rape by deception (like that recent shit about amabs pretending to wear condoms)
  • gaslighting (more likely within polyamory due to societal factors, though not inherent to it)
  • bullying
  • hazing
  • assault
  • control of finances/resources
  • delays and interference not contingent upon survival (ie. consistently making someone late for work, blocking access to family, friends, or other support sources, etc)
  • denial
  • lying
  • stalking
  • spying and other invasions of privacy
  • racism (any ism, really, but the current incarnation of abuse culture houses everythin under racism, anyway)
  • belittling
  • nonconsensual spanking (or hitting, biting, etc)
  • manipulation
  • yelling
  • pressuring
  • ongoing negligence
  • artificial selection (not just genetically — yes, I mean the holocausts, eugenics, and breeding — but also actively seeking to limit someone’s choices to things that impact their ability to care for themselves and live)
  • fetishizing
  • dehumanizing
  • rape
  • molestation
  • theft
  • policing
  • brainwashing
  • imposing religious or personal ideas
  • constantly interrupting or speaking over
  • facilitating abuse or abuse by proxy (ie. selling your kid to an abuser)
  • avoiding informed consent
  • unjust and/or discriminatory laws/policies
  • redlining
  • medical abuse/experimentation
  • victim-blaming
  • surveillance
  • negging
  • ‘splaining
  • cruel and unusual punishments
  • declaring anyone “illegal” or treating them as such
  • false reporting
  • harassment
  • tone policing
  • evasive projecting
  • extortion
  • silencing a victim or marginalized perspective
  • demanding unpaid emotional/intellectual labor
  • anything else that interferes with agency and power in a nonrational, unnecessary, controlling manner

Note that self-defense, mental illness, neurodivergence, and/or ongoing stress is often mistaken for abuse. I can’t get into it in more detail here, but there are ways to tell and different processes for dealing with it. Nevertheless, having a disability or mental illness is NEVER sufficient to excuse abuse. Disabled or neurodivergent people can and do abuse, as stated above, but the issue is still the abuse itself and not their disability or neurodivergence.

The Polya Bystander: I Just Want to Be Left Alone

Updated version of the article first appearing on Postmodern Woman.

If there’s one thing that helps keep polya people from experiencing discrimination like other minorities, it’s that there’s often some sense of privacy.

For many people, they can practice their non-monogamy in relative peace. They can simply spend less time with any possible family that disapproves. They can’t be picked easily out of a crowd. And even when others discover they have multiple partners, most might simply assume it’s cheating but it’s not like they kill people over it.

Well, only so long as you aren’t already in an oppressed group or surrounded by a culture that closely monitors your sexuality. Polya people like to emphasize that’s it’s not all about the sex but we live on a world in which any sort of intimacy is likely to be sexualized. The vast majority of the world is romantic and sexual in some sense and it’s already difficult enough to understand aromanticism and asexuality.

That doesn’t even begin to cover all of the dynamics that serve to leave the world an extremely unfair place due to the ways we all rank on that arbitrary scale of normality.

In other words, it’s very easy to say you just want to be left alone, and for the most part actually be left alone, the closer to normal you fall. If you already fit into the dominant group and the only not-normal thing about you is that you have more than one sexual or romantic partner without lying or coercing anyone, then you can truly choose whether to be out or not.

There are some who choose to be out. But the only topic they can speak on is their polyamory or other form of non-monogamy. For the most part, they systems of control by normality remain in place. You can see this is in the evolution of the white polyamory movement in the last few decades, where it was (and still is) considered acceptable to exert couple privilege or other forms of hierarchy and controls by default.

Even today, the polya community is overwhelming full of white and well-off voices. There was also that article posted years ago lamenting the lack of diverse voices in what was originally a very queer and colored community (and which does exist, just not within “mainstream spaces”).  The fact that they keep writing stuff like that despite the work myself and others have been doing speaks volumes. I have noticed that many of the online groups, mostly run by white people, are asking about how they can make it a more welcoming space for people of color.

But this question is a red herring. Because the polya community in general – according to many personal stories, and the need for the formation of groups like Intersectional Non-Monogamy and The Creep Shame Hall of Fame – isn’t very welcoming to anyone but straight white men, it seems.

Many women or those who are perceived as female report and complain of creepy guys cruising the polya scene. Anyone can take on the polya label, and without a critical examination or process for ensuring some actual degree of ethical behavior, pretty much everyone is taking a huge risk.

This doesn’t even begin to include further marginalized groups like queer people, intersex people, atheists, and others.

There’s this deep divide between what people think ethical non-monogamy is and what it comes to look like in practice. They may put in the effort to treat their partners well but why should they care about anyone or anything else?

At times, the desire for privacy or for a world away from the world results in the reaction to my experience in an open relationship group over a year ago, where I am told to be quiet because my experience wasn’t “relevant” or was “too political”. Where people wanted to get back to talking about how awesome their polya experience was instead of addressing – or even acknowledging – the discomfort of people like me.

When the desire for privacy and freedom outweighs building a healthier culture or acknowledging the flaws in a system (especially what’s supposed to be a more ethical one), it simply ends up being another way the rest of us are locked out and silenced. In the end, it continues to perpetuate the larger abuse culture and its ills.

It is only recently – some of it from myself and a few others posting about certain issues and some of it from the changing world climate in general – that polya people are starting to realize that maybe it’s not so easy to keep polya a private matter, at least for other people.

Here in the U.S. people are behaving irrationally, spreading hatred, and generally making it an uncomfortable and unsafe place to live for anyone they don’t trust. There are comparisons to Nazi Germany. While I really cannot speak on whether it is or not, there are parallels and Nazis totally learned it from watching us. It is true that witch hunts are explosive and addictive.

There’s that saying that a person didn’t speak up until there were no more groups of people between them and annihilation. It is still true and valid today. You may think that your polyamory has nothing to do with Black people, or with intersex people, or with religious minorities. That’s not true at all.

You can freely practice your non-monogamy because the hounds are busy chasing the rest of us instead. You can live well because of the unpaid labor that my ancestors provided. You can learn about non-monogamy and attend conventions because you’re not trapped in the poverty cycle. You can plan when or if to have children because you aren’t disabled or poor. You can walk down the street holding hands with your loves because you won’t get shot for looking suspicious.

Even when you choose to speak up, you are likely much safer than I am. The more visible I become, the angrier it’ll make those who wished I didn’t exist. And the more likely they’ll respond powerfully (and negatively). I’m already being told that everything that happened to me is my fault, that my aromanticism is the result of shitty experiences, and that I’m exaggerating. How much longer until the threats and physical violence starts rolling in again?

You may think you have nothing to contribute. You may assume that you have nothing in common with us. You may not see the connections just yet.

But if you want to live a more responsible life, if you enjoy loving multiple people, and if you live in relative safety you can do so much to help make that more than a possibility for others.

Listen more. Join Intersectional Non-Monogamy. Check out resources for queer and Black people. Educate yourself.

Even if you fumble, even if you mess up, do your best to step beyond that self-contained bubble keeping you separated from the rest of the world. Your lives may or may not appear to change with the political or social climate. But my life does. And others’ lives do as well.

Be grateful for your privacy. Be in love with your freedom. I only ask that you keep those of us with less of each in mind. And maybe speak up for us and make room for us. And believe us!

Because at the end of the day, I’m sure we all value our freedom and privacy. We all want to be left in peace. Give us that chance.

Surviving an Abusive Relationship

Last week I talked about salvaging an abusive relationship. Sometimes you don’t want to save a relationship, but you can’t get out. There can be lots of reasons for this. When it happens, you can only survive as best you can while slowly building the resources that will let you escape.

Here are some tips for surviving an abusive relationship:

1) Pick your battles. Sometimes you need to stand up to an abuser, but don’t be afraid to back down when you need to. Don’t use up your physical and emotional health on everything that comes up. Fight for the things that matter.

2) It’s fight, flight, bluff, submit. We talk about the fight or flight response, but it’s really a bit more complicated than that. If you can’t fight, and you can’t flee, sometimes bluff works. That can mean pretending to be more beaten than you are. It can mean pretending to go along while you plan your escape. It can mean pretending to be sick so you can see your doctor more often—which may give you an opportunity to plan your escape.

And as painful as it is, sometimes submit works too. Give in for now. Let them have control. And look for an opportunity to get away.

3) Have people you can trust. Friends, other poly partners, family, a counsellor, have people you can go to. People who will give you emotional support, help you get an afternoon out, and people you can call in an emergency.

4) Build your resources. Whatever is keeping you there, you can’t escape until you have the resources to replace it. That could be a place to live, money, medical care, or a host of other things. The people you trust can help with this. If your abuser tracks your internet usage, a friend can run searches for you. A poly partner can hold onto the escape fund you are slowly saving up. A counsellor can find back-to-work programs or help you get approved for a home health aide.

Remember: there is no shame in survival. Do what you have to for now, get out when the time is right, and outlive the bastards.

This post is part of the Abuse in Polyamory blog series.

Want more great articles? Support Polyamory on Purpose on Patreon. We’re $15 away from adding a post the first Tuesday of every month.

Salvaging an Abusive Relationship

Standard advice when you realize you are in an abusive relationship is to get out. But most of us, wisely or not, want to try to save our relationships. We love our partners, we believe they love us, and there’s probably a fair bit of sunk cost fallacy at play as well.

Whatever the reason, I’m not going to try to tell you that if you are in an abusive relationship you are wrong to want to save that relationship. I am going to tell you that you need to be smart about it.

Before I get deep into this topic, be aware: it will take both of you to salvage your relationship. If your abuser isn’t willing to own up to their behavior and do the work to fix how they treat you, you on your own will not be able to save this relationship.

First and foremost, you need to be safe. This mostly applies to situations with physical abuse, but if other forms of abuse are pushing you to self-destructive behavior that applies too. If you have any reason to believe you are not safe, you need to have space between you and your abuser. If you live with your abuser, that can mean going to stay with another partner or a friend or family for a while. If you don’t live together it can mean only seeing them with someone you trust. It can mean not seeing them at all for a while—talking over the phone or internet. It may mean not contacting them at all for a while. Whatever it will mean for you, make sure you are safe first.

Second, you need to have a clear idea of what kind of abuse is happening. Are you being gaslighted? Manipulated? Threatened? Assaulted? Coerced into sexual encounters? What is it that needs to stop?

You may not be able to identify everything right away. Abuse is insidious, and once an abuser has battered away our boundaries it can become really have to recognize some of the ways they control us.

Speaking of boundaries, step three is to define clear boundaries for yourself. Boundaries that clearly define at least some of the ways you have been abused which you will no longer accept or allow to happen. “I will only have a sexual encounter when I want one.” “I will walk away from conversations if I am threatened or manipulated.” “I am the only one who decides my schedule, I will go on dates with who I want, when I want.” “I will not spend time with someone who makes me feel unsafe.” These boundaries give you a tool to protect yourself from being controlled.

When you have done all this, it’s time to talk with your abusive partner. The word “abuse” is very polarizing in our society. So when you talk with your partner you may be better off talking about specific behavior—types of manipulation, examples of coercion, times they have belittled you, etc—rather than bringing up abuse as such. !Whether you choose to raise abuse directly or not, make it clear that you are not talking about isolated incidents but a pattern of trying to control you.

The reaction you want is something along the lines of “I’m sorry, I understand why you are upset, and I’ll try to stop it. Please tell me if I start doing it again.”

More likely your partner will get defensive because they are human and that’s what most humans do when we hear something we don’t like about ourselves. There are two broad types of defensive reactions.

1) “I love you, I would never want to hurt you!”
2) “How dare you accuse me of _____.”

The first reaction is a good one. Annoying, because they are probably too busy defending themselves to listen any longer. But it shows that their first thought on hearing they have hurt you is to be upset about it. They have heard that you are hurt and they are responding to it. Once (if) they get past the initial defensive reaction, they will want to do what they can to stop hurting you.

The second reaction is a red flag. It either isn’t registering with them that you have been hurt by their behavior, or they don’t care. In my opinion, there is nothing left to salvage from this relationship. This person is all but saying outright that they love their image of themselves more than they love you. No healthy relationship is possible with that attitude.

If they get overly defensive and the conversation starts to become all about them, you may need to get up and walk away for a while. Come back later and pick the conversation up from where you want it to continue.

Once they are listening, lay out the boundaries you have established for yourself. Tell them you will be adding new boundaries as you learn more about your needs. Make it clear that you expect them to respect your boundaries.

Be aware: abusive behavior can become a habit, so even if your partner is actively trying to fix their behavior, it will take time. Be prepared to enforce your boundaries. An abuser who is trying to stop will listen when you enforce a boundary, “Wow, I didn’t realize I was doing that, I’m sorry.” If they ignore you when you enforce a boundary, then they are not trying to fix things.

The first few times you enforce your boundaries it will be scary. You may slip a few times and not enforce a boundary when you need to. That’s okay. You are learning new habits too. Just keep working at it.

Building a healthy relationship out of an unhealthy one is hard. But sometimes it can be done.

Check here if you are the abusive partner in your relationship.

This post is part of the Abuse in Polyamory blog series.

Want more great articles? Support Polyamory on Purpose on Patron. We’re $15 away from adding a post the first Tuesday of every month.

Am I Abusing my Polyamorous Partners?

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.

    1. 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?
    2. Or do you try to convince, badger, or push them into doing what you want?
    1. When your partner states a boundary do you respect that boundary?
    2. Or do you try to make them change their boundaries?
    1. If your partner has questions or concerns about your relationship, do you support them reading books, talking with friends, or checking out forums?
    2. Or do you insist that you know the right way to do things and they don’t need anyone else’s opinion?
    1. Are you okay with your partners discussing your relationship with other people?
    2. 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?
    1. Do you listen when they say no? (And I don’t just mean about sex).
    2. Or do you try to change their minds or make them do things your way?
    1. Do you respect their right do decide what to do with their body, their money, their possessions, their relationship?
    2. 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.

Want more great articles? Support Polyamory on Purpose on Patron. We’re $15 away from adding a post the first Tuesday of every month.

When polyamory is a tool for abuse

When polyamory is a tool for abuse

We’ve all seen or heard examples of monogamy being used as a tool for abuse. From the idea that a spouse is “owed” sex to forcing a partner to stop seeing their friends, the ways monogamy can be used by abusers are well known, if rarely openly acknowledged.

Polyamory can also be a tool for abuse. However, the ways polyamory can become abusive aren’t as well known. That makes it easier for an abuser to get away with their abuse. A few months ago we looked at how abusers can use the saying “there is no one right way to do poly” to defend and obscure their abuse. They can also use it to coerce their partners to do things they don’t want to do. Here’s a blatant example:

“If this is going to work, I need you to have threesomes with me and my other partner.”
“Being poly doesn’t mean I have to have threesomes with you.”
“There’s no one right way to do poly. This is the way I do polyamory. Are you trying to tell me how I am allowed to structure my relationships? Cause that’s just wrong.”

The abuser has now put the responsibility on their partner. In this construction, the abuser’s partner is imposing their beliefs on the abuser by refusing to have threesomes. The scary thing is, this shit works.

What are some other ways polyamory can be used as a tool for abusers?

Coercing someone into a poly relationship—including using the whole “poly is more enlightened” shtick to get someone who isn’t comfortable with polyamory to go along.
Example: Randy isn’t sure he’s comfortable with opening his relationship with Sam. Sam tells Randy that his resistance to polyamory is just because he is still trapped by his upbringing and afraid to confront his emotions. If Randy really loved Sam, he would want Sam to be happy no matter what, and would be willing to enter a polyamorous relationship with Sam—in spite of his unreasonable fears.

Insisting the ends of a V need to be involved because poly means everyone is involved!

Using “own your shit” to push someone into doing something they aren’t comfortable with or don’t want.
Example: “I’m sick of hearing about how you don’t like spending time with my boyfriend. The three of us are having dinner tomorrow. It’s time and past time for you to own your shit. I’m not going to protect you anymore.”

In hierarchical relationships, “I’m your primary/they’re my primary” is a classic for imposing one person’s will on others in the polycule.
Example: Paula tells Robert to cancel his date with Liza. Robert objects, saying that she knew about this date and had agreed to it weeks ago. He had promised Liza this. “I don’t care what you promised Liza, I’m your primary, and I need you here.”

In non-hierarchical relationships, “They/you have no say in our relationship.” When the thing being objected to directly impacts/involves the person saying they have a problem.
Example: Jane is making dinner for herself and her boyfriend Raul when her live-in partner Al and Al’s girlfriend Shona show up. Al and Shona expect Jane to include them in dinner. Jane says that she wasn’t expecting Al and Shone to be in tonight and only cooked for two. Al replies, “You have no say over my relationship with Shona and I’m sick of you trying to tell me when and where I can spend time with her. If I want to invite Shone over for dinner, I’ll invite her over for dinner.” Then Al and Shone sit down at the table waiting to be served.

These are all ways that abusers can use the tropes and ideas polyamory is built on to control and manipulate their partners. Like a monogamous abuser using accusations of infidelity to separate their partner from friends.

There are more ways for abusers to use polyamory as a tool of their abuse. Hopefully, these examples will give you some idea of what to look for. The important thing to remember is that just because something is a basic idea of polyamory or a part of your relationship agreements, doesn’t mean it can’t be used by an abuser as a tool for control.

Please share your experiences with abusers using polyamory in the comments.

This post is part of the Abuse in Polyamory blog series.

Want more great articles? Support Polyamory on Purpose on Patron. We’re $15 away from adding a post the first Tuesday of every month.

When Polyamory Triggers Abuse

I have said before—and I stand by it—that polyamory is not abusive. Unfortunately, starting a polyamorous relationship, or opening up an existing relationship, can be a trigger for abuse. And if you’ve read about the roots of abuse, you know why.

One of the causes of abuse is insecurity. Some people are insecure in their relationship, or in themselves, or just in life in general, and they respond by trying to control everything around them. If just looking at someone attractive triggers jealousy, triggers abuse, the abuser in question is probably reacting out of insecurity.

And for people who have grown up in a monogamous culture, with a monogamous mindset (and let’s face it, that’s most of us), polyamory exposes a shit-ton of insecurities. All kinds of fears that can be silenced in a monogamous relationship–
what is they like their new So more than me?
What is someone is better in bed than me?
Why do they want to date someone else? It must be because I’m not good enough!
…and a whole host of others suddenly become very in-your-face when polyamory is on the table. And some people react to fears by trying to control the thing that makes them afraid.

It’s important to realize that polyamory didn’t create these fears. Going back to monogamy won’t get rid of them. They’ve always been there. But just like you don’t think about being afraid of heights when you are on the ground, you don’t think about your partner liking someone else better when there isn’t anyone else.

To be clear—there is no pattern fo who in a relationship will need to confront these kinds of insecurities. You might expect it to be most common among people who did not themselves want to try polyamory. However I have seen it just as often among people who convinced their partners to try polyamory—and then found the reality a lot different than they expected.

If your partner never tried to control your choices or behavior before. Never held your relationship over your head or used emotional blackmail, and now they are, you might be in a situation where their insecurities about polyamory triggered abuse.

For pretty damn obvious reasons, this can destroy a relationship. However, the destruction is often agonizingly drawn out.

What do you do when you realize that your relationship has become abusive, and if you think the abuse has been triggered by polyamory?

The first thing to do is make sure you are (physically) safe. This can include safe from physical abuse, safe from being pushed into suicidal thoughts by mental/emotional abuse, and having safe access to food, shelter, financial resources, etc.

Touch base with your support system—friends, the rest of your polycule, family, crisis networks, etc.

Next, check your boundaries. Mental and emotional abuse are most effective when you have weak boundaries. One thing the poly community does have great resources on is establishing and enforcing boundaries. Read up.

Finally, talk with your abusive partner. In this situation, your partner isn’t trying to be abusive. They are acting out of fear and uncertainty. So I suggest avoiding the word abuse entirely at this stage. Instead, use phrases such as “trying to control.” “Abuse” is a very loaded word and may shut the conversation down before it starts.

“I love you, and I know you are scared. I know you don’t want to hurt me. But you have been trying to control me. And that does hurt me, and it hurts our relationship.”

Where you go from there is up to you. Do you want to try to salvage the relationship? Do you need a break from the relationship while you heal? Do you need to tone things down a bit, see each other less often? Or do you need out entirely? There are lots of options.

If your partner is unable to understand or accept why their behavior has been hurting you, then your options get limited. If they can understand why their behavior was hurting you, or if they are willing to try and understand, you have a lot more options moving forward.

If you are going to try to rebuild the relationship, I strongly suggest seeking out a poly-friendly relationship counselor. Also, lots of discussion of boundaries. They will still need your help and support in overcoming their insecurities, and both (all) of you will be walking a tightrope while you find ways to discuss and address those insecurities without giving up your boundaries and self-determination.

Many people assume that when there is abuse the relationship has to end. That isn’t necessarily true. An abusive relationship can be salvaged if everyone, and particularly the abuser, is willing to do the work. A person driven to abuse by insecurity may or may not be willing to do that work. It’s up to you if you want to give them the chance.

This post is part of the Abuse in Polyamory blog series.

Want more great articles? Support Polyamory on Purpose on Patron. We’re $15 away from adding a post the first Tuesday of every month.

When Your Partner Is in an Abusive Relationship

As Liz shared in her guest post, watching a partner in an abusive relationship is horrid. It can create feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, do severe damage to your relationship, and, depending on how entwined you and your partner are, have a significant impact on your daily life.

Many people, when they see someone they love in an abusive relationship, immediately want to rescue them. Convince them the relationship is unhealthy and get them out of there. Unfortunately, that almost never works. Our partners are grown-ups capable of making their own decisions, not damsels in distress waiting for us to ride to their rescue. Whether or not they have recognized their relationships are abusive, they definitely know that the relationship is not making them happy. If they are still in the relationship, they have a reason.

So what can you do?

Communicate Your Concern

The first and most important thing to do is let your partner know you are worried about them. Tell them what you are seeing and why you think it is unhealthy. Tell them that you know they love this person, but you are also afraid for them.

“Abuse” is a very loaded word. You may want to avoid using it the first time you talk with your partner. Some people will stop listening when you mention abuse, unable to believe that they would be in an abusive relationship. If you think your partner might react that way, don’t use “abuse.” Instead, say that you think their SO is trying to control them and that isn’t healthy.

If your partner is already aware of the abuse, they may say things like, “I know, but I need to stay because XYZ.” If they aren’t aware, they may deny it, “No, you’re wrong, they’re just insecure and need me to help them through this.” Or, if they aren’t aware, they may listen, “I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re right. I don’t like when they do XYZ, but I don’t know what to do about it.”

However they respond, your next step is the same.

Be Supportive

Your goal is to be there for your partner. You can’t help them by making them feel defensive of their SO or by getting in a disagreement about whether or not the relationship is abusive.

Ask them what they want and how you can help. Do they want out but feel like they can’t leave? Do they want to fix their relationship? Do they feel like they are the one who is ruining the relationship by not being good enough/smart enough/etc.? With a certain kind of abuser, that last response is very common.

Tell them that you love them and want them to be happy. That you will support whatever they decide to do, even though you don’t think the relationship they are in is healthy.

You may be able to give them tools to help them make their decision. Tell them about vectors of control. If they are convinced that their SO can’t be abusive b/c they really love them, talk about the roots of abuse and how not all abusers are evil bastards, many just don’t know how to have a healthy relationship.

Perhaps most importantly:

Protect Yourself

You can’t help your partner unless you help yourself first. That means protecting yourself, and (to the extent you can) protecting your relationship with them.

Set Boundaries

It is very important to set boundaries. All too often your partner’s abusive relationship will spill over onto your relationship. This can be anything from your time with your partner turning into endless counseling sessions (hint: being supportive does not mean turning into an unpaid therapist), to constant cancellations and intrusions on your time with your partner, to you being dragooned into actively doing things for the abusive SO.

Here are a few boundaries you might consider setting:
1. I am not willing to talk about SO on our date nights.
2. I will not remain in this relationship if SO keeps intruding on our time together.
3. I am not involved with SO, I will not help you meet his requests or demands.

Have Your Own Support

You will be dealing with your own stress and emotional strain from watching your partner deal with the abuse. You need to have ways to deal with that stress and strain, as well as people you trust to advise you when you are getting in too deep. Ways to deal with stress can be meditation, long walks, sparring practice, beating up zombies in your favorite computer game, or a bunch of other things. People to talk with can be friends, family, other partners. If the stress and strain get really bad you might consider getting yourself to a counselor or therapist. Sometimes that outside perspective can really help.

You May Need to Stop Being Supportive

If the abuse is really bad, or if nothing changes for a long time, you may need to withdraw your support. “I love you, and I don’t want to tell you what to do, but I can’t stand watching the way they are hurting you.” When they are ready to get out of the abusive relationship, or take the steps needed to change it, you will be glad to help. Until then, you don’t want to hear anything about their SO or the problems in their relationship.


Depending on how great a hold the abuser has, the steps you take to protect yourself and you relationship may lead to your relationship ending. Obviously, that isn’t what you want to happen and isn’t an easy thing to do. But sometimes it is necessary. In a way, it is a less extreme version of the choice your partner is making. Have compassion for them making their choice, and make your own choice the choice that is best for you.

This post is part of the Abuse in Polyamory blog series.

Want more great articles? Support Polyamory on Purpose on Patron. We’re $15 away from adding a post the first Tuesday of every month.

Abuse Isn’t the Only Wrong Way to do Polyamory

Recently someone commented that by saying something wasn’t abusive, I made it sound like that behavior was automatically healthy and/or okay. I did not in anyway intend to give the impression that anything that isn’t abusive is healthy, and I am sorry that I wasn’t clearer.

Let’s be blunt: abuse gets a lot of focus as a type of unhealthy relationship, however, abuse is far from the only unhealthy relationship. From co-dependence to neglect, there are dozens of non-abusive ways for a relationship to be unhealthy.

Abuse, in my opinion, is the most dangerous form of unhealthy relationship. I don’t know of any other unhealthy relationship dynamic that causes so much long term damage. But saying that something is non-abusive, therefore it is healthy, is like saying the patient doesn’t have cancer, therefore they aren’t dying. Doesn’t fucking work like that.

“Non-abusive” is the lowest bar a relationship can meet. Something you or your partner does can be harmful or unhealthy without being abusive. Consider this extreme scenario—someone who is not an abuser can hit you or beat you up. It may not be abuse—but it damn well is assault. A partner who is not abusive can still be selfish, disrespectful, insulting, and a number of other things.

This blog series is focusing on abuse as a specific type of unhealthy relationship that does not get enough discussion in polyamory. That does not in anyway mean you have a pass to treat your partners like shit as long as you aren’t abusive.

Seriously, if the best thing you can say about a relationship is that it is non-abusive, then you might want to rethink if it is a good relationship.

This post is part of the Abuse in Polyamory blog series. It is related to Polyamory and Mental Illness.

Want more great articles? Support Polyamory on Purpose on Patron.