Is Polyamory Abusive?

Occasionally in both mainstream discussions and polyamorous spaces, someone will claim polyamory is abusive. Before we get into the ways abuse can happen within polyamorous relationship, I want to tackle this idea that all poly relationship are inherently abusive.

Abuse:

Actions or behaviors intended to control or gain power over another, especially within a close or intimate relationship.

(from What is Abuse?)

Polyamory:

a) The term ‘polyamory’ refers to the practice, desire, or acceptance of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved.

b) Among the concepts critical to the understanding of consent and of ethical behaviour within polyamory are gender equality, self-determination, free choice for all involved, mutual trust, and equal respect among partners.

(from the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association, as read into Canadian law)

Mainstream opponents of polyamory and ethical non-monogamy often claim polyamory is abusive. However, they rarely actually talk about polyamory. They almost always reference forms of abuse common in some polygynous (one man married to many women) cultures. Things like forced marriage in religious polygyny communities, child marriage, etc.

Looking at the definition of polyamory above, it is clear that what these mainstream opponents are objecting to is not polyamory. Forced marriage of any sort is in direct opposition to the consent, self-determination, and free choice of polyamory. The gender-based abuse common in many polygynous societies doesn’t fit polyamory’s emphasis on ethical behavior, gender equality and self determination.

These mainstream claims that polyamory is abusive don’t hold water.

Sometimes people who have tried polyamory and found themselves in an abusive relationship will claim that all polyamory is abusive or unhealthy. These people may have been pressured or coerced into non-monogamy. Or they may found themselves in another abusive form of polyamory. Maybe their local community has many abusers within it. If they are firmly monogamous and were pressured into trying polyamory, they may not believe that anyone would willingly be polyamorous.

Abuse is common to all forms of relationships. And it is unfortunately true that is some areas abuse is extremely common in polyamory. Just like in some times and areas abuse has been extremely common in monogamy. In fact, some human rights literature proposes that monogamy, especially in patriarchal societies, is highly prone to abuse. The women in those relationships are often trapped and unable to appeal to society to escape their abuser.

The truth is that neither polyamory nor monogamy are inherently abusive. Both structures can be used by abusers, but that doesn’t make the structures themselves abusive. There are many healthy polyamorous relationships, just like there are many healthy monogamous relationships. Researchers such as Eli Sheff, Sina Muscarina, Jim Fleckenstein, and others have been studying healthy polyamorous relationships for decades. If you look at the definition of polyamory and the definition of abuse, there is no overlap.

“That’s Not Really Polyamory!”

It is debatable whether someone in a relationship with an abuser can give consent. The more an abuser gains control over their victim, the less their victim is able to freely choose things for themselves. At a certain point, the victim is no longer able to give consent, because they are no longer in control of themselves or their life. This is why many polyamorous folk say that if someone is being coerced or manipulated “That’s not really polyamory!”

And it isn’t—any time someone has entered into a non-monogamous relationship because of coercion or manipulation, they have not freely consented. It doesn’t meet the definition of polyamory.

Unfortunately, abusers aren’t interested in ethics, honesty, or giving their victims accurate information. For people trying to deal with an abusive relationship, or trying to figure out if they are in an abusive relationship, saying “That isn’t really polyamory” isn’t very helpful. This blog series will address forms of abuse that include coercing or manipulating partners into agreeing to polyamory. These relationships don’t meet the definition of polyamory, but the people in them may identify as polyamorous. And even if they don’t, they need and deserve the help and support of the poly community in overcoming the abuse.

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

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5 thoughts on “Is Polyamory Abusive?

  1. I do not want to claim that polyamory is all bad. I just wish there was more light to the issue of people being forced into polyamory not because I want to demoralize the polyamorous community but because there isn’t enough about this issue – about the people who don’t want to do it and are forced to do it anyway. I realize as a social justice issue that the group itself has to defend it’s name but it still has a long way to go in identifying the less better parts of their community.

    1. Being given an ultimatum such as “polyamory or divorce” is a horrible thing and truly traumatic for the monogamous spouse. I have, on this blog and elsewhere, tried to be supportive of mono spouses put in this position and to make a clear that the emotionally abusive tactics many have used to get their spouses to agree to poly are wrong and have no place in an ethical, consensual relationship. Joreth, franklin Veaux and others are also active in addressing this topic.

      I know someone who was literally court ordered to be monogamous. I have lost my kids because I am polyamorous. I have been kicked out an apartment because health codes made a non-monogamous family sharing a home illegal. If I tried to marry more than one partner, I could go to jail. In some states, I could be prosecuted for adultery even in spite of my spouse not wanting me to be charged and being poly themself.

      “Poly or divorce” is a shitty, horrid choice that no one should have to make. It is still a choice. You can leave your marriage and be monogamous with someone else. No matter where I go or who I am with, I am surrounded by a legal and social structure designed to force me to be monogamous.

      If you looked around this blog, you would realize that I am already doing exactly what you say you want poly-folk to do. But unless you literally cannot escape your relationship, do not come on my blog and talk about people being “forced” into polyamory.

      (for anyone reading this who is in a relationship they cannot escape, there is help.)

  2. I totally agree that we, mono people, have the choice to leave a partner who unilaterally or by coercion has decided to change the relationship agreement from mono to poly. We have that choice.

    The sad part of being mono is that we, as a group, are extremely focused on our sole partner. We make life-long commitments, and more often than not do we have an attachment style that is more anxious dependent than secure and independent. So our mentality doesn’t help us realise that we have this choice – – leaving our partner.

    And this is not the fault of polyamory.

    Poly is becoming the next big thing in relationships, and right now “everybody” who gets a crush on a coworker or someone at the gym is poly and has been so their whole life, just realising it now, and needs to open up their relationship to have sex with their crush.

    So being mono is becoming increasingly harder these days.

    I hope with time monos will have access to more resources enabling them to understand that they don’t have to stay in deeply unhappy poly relationships. They can leave. AND they will survive.

  3. This post is a few years old, so hopefully someone gets notified…

    I feel like, for the past five years, I, a monogamous person, has not had the option to leave a relationship that my partner was forcing open.

    We dated for a year, and the I got pregnant. Before getting pregnant, we had discussions about polyamory, but it was not in practice. I said very clearly, I want to me monogamous, this is how I want to raise a family. And this person agreed. However, eight months into pregnancy, they said they were Poly and interested in other people and there was no changing that and that they were just repressing their true selves through the first eight months.

    Then, our child was born with severe disabilities and needing 24-7 care. I literally could not leave. I needed this other parent to help with the immense responsibilities of caring for a child who was disabled and medically fragile and medical-technologically dependent. I literally have not felt like I could leave. I cannot provide 24-7 nursing care. And my partner has been well aware of this.

    So, over the course of 4 years, has been poly without my consent. Going on dates.Getting physical with others. Taking me to couples therapy to try to get me “okay” with having a Poly partner. I have wanted to leave every day for the past three years, and am physically/financially incapable of doing so. Did I mention…I cannot work because I am my child’s full-time caregiver? And I LITERALLY have no childcare options.

    So, I have felt forced to depend on this person to keep my child alive, all the while, being subjected to a Poly partner when I have expressed repeatedly that I want to be monogamous. Did I also mention…this person repeatedly engaged in non-consensual sexual activities with myself and others?

    Did I also mention — I have catemenial epilepsy? So, yeah, that makes things hard to leave.

    Last night, I told my partner to leave. And now, I can’t stop thinking about killing myself. I don’t know how to escape this nightmare.

    1. Anon,

      I am very sorry you have needed to live through this. As you clearly know, your partner was an absolute asshole and they way they treated you was highly abusive.

      I have known single parents caring for disabled children. It isn’t easy, and you need to rely a lot on help from the community, either in the form of government assistance or help from the neighbors, or support from the local church. But it *can* be done.

      I know you are scared right now. I know you can’t see how things will ever get better. You did a very brave, very important thing in telling your partner to leave. I know that you can continue being brave through the next few days while you find your feet and figure out where to go from here.

      I don’t know where you live, but if you are in the US, there ARE resources available for you and your child to help you get through this. Here are some things you can do:

      Call your local mental health department. They can set you up with mental health care to help you deal with the trauma you’ve been through and (perhaps more importantly) a case manager who can help you find local support services. For instance, if there is a home-health-aide service in the area that can help you or your child, they can help you cut through the bureaucracy and paperwork to get that set up.

      Call you local welfare office and see if you can get emergency assistance with money and/or foodstamps to help see you through.

      Call the local churches and religious organizations. Even if you aren’t religious yourself, many of them will either have support service to help or will know who else you can call.

      It’s coming on winter — if your housing is secure, you should apply for LIHEAP so you don’t need to worry about keeping the heat on.

      One place I have found to be a surprising source of help is Child Services. They know every service available to children and parents and if you call them and say that your partner has been abusing you and you just kicked them out but are worried about how to take care of your child, they will likely be able to give you some good information on where to get help.

      You can find more information on support services available to you if you are in the US here: https://www.needhelppayingbills.com/html/low_income_assistance_programs.html

      If you aren’t in the US, there may be similar programs where you live. Again, your local religious centers and government offices likely know what they are.

      I’m afraid I don’t have the right experience to give you the support you need right now. But in addition to making the calls I suggested above to get some practical support, I highly recommend you find a forum, facebook group, or local support group for abuse survivors. Talking with other people who have been there is some of the best emotional support available, and they are also likely to know resources and things you can do to make the next weeks and months easier. I did a quick search and found this forum, but there are certainly other forums and groups if this one isn’t a good fit for you: https://www.dailystrength.org/group/physical-emotional-abuse

      If I can think of anything else that might help I’ll let you know.

      You can get through this. You have such strength to have come this far, done this much to take care of yourself and your child. I know you can find the strength to get through this.

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