In popular imagination, abusers are fully aware of what they are doing. They are horrid people who act with full intent to control and destroy the people they claim to love. A modern monster for a modern society.
The reality of abuse is much more complicated. While some abusers make a conscious decision to abuse, others are acting from the best of intentions and see themselves as the “good guy” in their relationships. Today we are going to look at three possible roots of abuse: intent, insecurity, and shitty boundaries.
Some people just plain are shitty people. They deliberately seek out partners they can dominate, overwhelm, and control. They make a conscious decision to separate their victims from all support and help. They may or may not think of themselves as abusers, but they take their right to control the lives of their loved ones as a given. Their abusive behavior is done with the intent of getting and keeping their partner(s) under their thumb.
These abusers can be extremely charming, sociable, and enticing. They often know how to play social dynamics to make themselves the “good guy” that no one can pin anything on. They probably know that their behavior is not socially acceptable, but they don’t care. These abusers may be classic sociopaths, unable to really see others as people or they may “just” be entitled control freaks.
My grandfather, who definitely fell into this category, saw everyone in his family as an extension of himself. Therefore A) as parts of himself we were all his to control and dictate to, and B) everything we did reflected on him in a very personal way. Therefore he “needed” to control everyone to protect himself and his standing.
Of all the abuse I have seen in polyamorous relationships, insecurity has been the most common root cause. Insecure abusers don’t think in terms of trying to control their partners. Instead, they think they are protecting themselves. The problem is that they try to “protect” themselves by imposing their will on the people around them.
The “good news” for this type of abuser is that they are usually easy to identify. Both their partners and the people around them will be able to see clear signs of their attempts at control. Unfortunately, it is also very easy to get taken in by them. We don’t want our loved ones to be scared or feel threatened, so we bend over backward to reassure them. In the process, we give in to emotional manipulation and other forms of abuse. In time, we give up all control of our relationships, and sometimes our lives, for someone who is willing to harm us in order to protect themselves.
Abusers acting out of insecurity are all over poly forums and discussion groups. One of the best (and most) heartrending) fictional depictions of this type of abuse is in Lois McMaster Bujold’s “Komarr.” Tien Vorsoisson, in fear of losing his wife, uses gaslighting, accusations of affairs, and even their son in order to separate her from all family and friends, and force her to back down every time she tried to question or challenge him. Another character describes Tien as “One of those parasitic individuals that leaves their spouse scratching their head and asking ‘Am I crazy? Am I crazy?’ ”
This is an interesting and disturbing case, because the abuser actually believes they are acting for the good of the person they love. They aren’t trying to control their partner(s), they aren’t trying to protect themselves. They are acting out of love and care. But as the saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
In my (limited) experience, this type of abuser is actually the one you are most likely to be able to salvage a healthy relationship with. Boundaries can be learned, but you very much need to be willing to enforce yours. These abusers are harder to recognize than the insecure abusers, but easier to catch than many of the intentional abusers. Their ability to cast themselves as the hero protecting their loved ones gives them a camouflage of sorts. However, if you are aware of boundaries and the difference between support and control, you can usually catch the signs.
I first recognized this type of abuser in an “Ask Dr. NerdLove” blog post. The letter writer was concerned because his girlfriend had a very unhealthy relationship with her family. He wanted to prevent his girlfriend from contacting her family anymore because of how they were harming her. I’m pretty sure that every partner I’ve ever had, and many of my friends, can empathize with this person’s desire to protect someone he loved from her toxic family. But when he decided he had the right to dictate whether or not she could see her family, he went too far.
There are probably other roots to abusive behavior, these are the three I have run into and recognize. And these types don’t exist in isolation. Shitty boundaries and “for your own good” can go hand in hand with the belief that someone has the right to control their partner (intent). My mother acted both from insecurity (fear that I would grow up and leave her/choose my birth family over her) and a belief that I have shitty judgement and she needs to save me (and my children) from myself.
If you are familiar with other roots of abusive behavior or have had experiences dealing with these, please share in the comments.