This week Liz Gentry of Learning Many Loves has chosen to share her experiences of living with a mentally ill and abusive metamour. Many thanks to Liz for opening up about this difficult experience.
Don’t forget to stop back next week, when we’ll be taking a close look at the intersection of abuse and mental illness.
First, a little background: I met my partner Jon a couple of years ago. Jon was dating another woman, Lora for about nine months before Jon and I started dating. A few months into Jon and I dating, Lora moved in with Jon. After dating Jon for a bit over a year, the three of us moved in together. We lived together for about fourteen months before Jon broke up with Lora. His reason for breaking up with her was (as he has told me) the abusive cycle that their relationship followed.
In writing about a day in the life of my experience living with someone who is verbally abusive and emotionally, the first thing I need to say is that what I expect from the day varies greatly with where we are in the cycle. The beginning of the cycle has no abuse. Lora and Jon would get along fine. Then small instances of verbal abuse and control would begin to creep in. Those instances would escalate over a several month period. Then there would be a huge screaming fight where Lora was repeatedly verbally and abusive towards Jon. The week after the fight, there’s a period of constant low-level fighting with a lot of controlling behavior and attempts to impose control through badgering, gaslighting, black and white thinking, and threats. Eventually, a resolution was reached, and there would be a honeymoon period again, with no abuse for some days to a few weeks before slowly beginning to escalate again.
The hardest thing for me (being a metamour living in and observing this abusive dynamic) was watching someone I love be abused, ridiculed, mocked, screamed at, and badgered. I am definitely someone who would rather be hurt myself than see someone I love being hurt. For all that experiencing this second-hand hurt, as I was not the one being abused, there was a deep sense of powerlessness about this. I couldn’t control my partner’s boundaries about what behavior he would accept. But I did need to figure out where it was appropriate for me to draw my boundaries, without becoming controlling or coercive myself. Although I viewed Lora’s behavior as abusive, Jon didn’t always agree at that time (later, he painfully came to the conclusion on his own that her behavior was really abusive many of the times when he said that it wasn’t). This put me in a very uncomfortable spot – if he doesn’t believe the behavior is abusive, is pushing him to understand that it is gaslighting? Even if I’m doing it out of pure concern (we could say “for his own good”), do I have a right to push until he agrees with me?
I think the answer to that is no. Even if I’m doing it out of concern, forcing Jon to agree with me about Lora abusing him is still forcing Jon to do something, and that is abusive. He had to come to his own conclusions, and live his life accordingly.
But trying to let him live his life, and live with him and his abusive partner was incredibly hard. It was scary. It was enormously stressful. When Lora was gaslighting Jon, I doubted my own ability to evaluate situations for harm. I repeatedly went to my friends and asked “Is this normal? Is this healthy? Jon doesn’t seem too upset about it, so maybe I’m just causing problems by being upset by it. Maybe I’m not really poly. Maybe this is a way that jealousy is manifesting itself and I’m really just trying to get rid of Lora so that I can have Jon all to myself. What is wrong with me?”
Admitting to myself that Lora behaved abusively took a long time, because I didn’t want to have an abusive metamour. I didn’t want to believe that my partner was willingly being in a relationship with someone who was abusive. Complicating matters were Lora’s diagnosed mental illnesses of PTSD and anxiety disorder. Was a behavior really abusive if it was fueled by those mental illnesses? Having gone through several hard times with depression myself, not cutting Lora slack with her mental illnesses felt hypocritical, shitty, and like I was being a bad metamour and a bad person.
Inside myself, there was a cycle of anger, fear, guilt and doubt. Anger at the way Lora treated Jon. Fear at seeing how it impacted him and wore him down over months. Guilt for not cutting Lora some slack and being more understanding, given her mental illnesses. Doubt that I was really poly, doubt that I was overblowing things, as I seemed to be the most concerned of the three of us, when it came to Lora’s behavior and the impact it had on Jon. But then, that doubt would give way to anger the next time I heard Lora and Jon fighting and she told him that he was as abusive towards her as her drug addicted ex had been.
Lora’s ex used to do things like “punish” Lora by having unprotected sex with other women, and then telling Lora that he’d done so while he and Lora were having sex the next day. Knowing this about Lora was painful and evoked a lot of sorrow in me for what she went through, while simultaneously enraging me that she would compare our loving, supportive partner to such a dirtbag. Who wouldn’t get angry at that and think to him/herself “No matter what is going on with me, it is WRONG to say that to a loving partner in a fit of anger”?
Living with Lora was also hard because I didn’t know how to treat her. She seemed to like me. She claimed to want to have a closer relationship with me. She wanted us to be close friends. In theory, I wanted that too, but seeing how she treated Jon…did I really want to get closer to Lora? And as time went on, she slowly began to treating me in ways that concerned me deeply.. She didn’t hear that I said to her, and attributed behaviors to me that I’d never do, but she would. For example, one day, I was getting home from work as she was leaving to go to the store. She said to me “Jon is a little sick, and he’s sleeping. I wanted you to know so that you don’t get angry with him that he doesn’t come and greet you as soon as you get in”.I have never been angry at a partner for not coming up and greeting me as soon as I got home. But a long-standing fight between Jon and Lora was that if Jon didn’t drop whatever he was doing and greet Lora when she came home, it was a sign that he didn’t really love her. Because Lora felt that Jon should always be excited when she gets home, and eager to greet her immediately, if he really loves her.
There’s a lot in that paragraph, that describes the level of control and expectation of behavior that Lora had towards Jon. It’s also a good example of the kind of difficult situation I was in. We all have our quirks and vulnerabilities. Was Lora feeling strongly about Jon greeting her as soon as she gets home just a little quirk? If Jon agreed to do this, then did it mean it wasn’t controlling? Did I have any right to judge or have an opinion about these things?
I didn’t know the answers to those questions. I did know that if getting closer to Lora meant that she would expect the same of me, then I didn’t want to get closer to Lora. I’ve never expected such a thing from a partner, and I didn’t want to be close to someone who would have that kind of expectation of me.
Because of the number of things that Lora could take offense to, coming home slowly become stressful and unpleasant. I never knew what small thing would send Lora into an enraged tailspin. I never knew when a quiet night would turn into a stressful night, as Lora found fault with something that Jon said or didn’t say, did or didn’t do. There were many instances where it seemed like Jon couldn’t win. When he wasn’t being berated for saying something Lora didn’t like, he was being berated for not talking to her enough.
While these fights fueled by Lora’s insecurity and masked as problems with Jon’s behavior raged on, I would think to myself “What does he see in this relationship? Do I have the right to judge it? What do I do about this? Can I do anything?”
This is a glimpse of what it was like, living with an abusive metamour. The self doubts, the anger, the hatred, the fear…it was all terrible. It took a toll on my health, my sleep, my ability to function at work, my ability to trust myself. I restarted therapy to work through these problems.
I’ve become passionate about having a dialogue and creating some form of action plan for other metamours who find themselves realizing that their hinge partner is being abused by another partner. I believe it’s very important to address controlling and coercive behaviors as soon as they begin and to push back against them immediately. I think that – had we all been willing to open our eyes and admit that Lora’s behavior was abusive earlier – it’s possible that our relationships could have been salvaged. By denying the reality of her abusive behavior for so long, I hit a point of no return, where I cannot have anything to do with her. Likewise, Jon (who is still in contact with Lora) isn’t certain if he’s able to have her in his life in any capacity. He’s trying to figure that out, but he’s said that it would have been easier to stay a part of her life had the abuse not escalated to the degree it reached while they were together.
The abuse of one partner by another will reverberate into the relationships with all other partners. I think we owe it to ourselves, as people committed to multiple loving relationships, to figure out different ways to handle this kind of situation. We need to work through finding the tools to do what we can to combat abuse, while respecting the agency and humanity of all those involved. Doing so would reap enormous benefits not just for the poly community, but potentially for our other friends and family members who may be dealing with abuse.
Liz Gentry is a pragmatist disguised as an optimist. In addition to her day job as a corporate desk-jockey, she specializes in hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. Though of a poly-friendly mindset all her life, she didn’t start living polyamorously until about five years ago. She chronicles her polyamorous journey at https://learningmanyloves.wordpress.com/.
This post is part of the Abuse in Polyamory blog series. It is related to Polyamory and Mental Illness.