​Clarify Your Silence In the Name of Love by Michon Neal

Updated version. Previously appeared on Postmodern Woman.
Are you one of those people who hates awkward silences? Do you feel like you have to fill in the quiet with something, anything? Have you ever dated or talked with someone who went silent and assumed they were bored, angry, or shutting you out?

My longest term partner felt like that a lot. He still isn’t very comfortable with silence. And he couldn’t stand it whenever I would go quiet, or when I wouldn’t respond, or when I’d simply sit on my own without making conversation.
There has been a lot of talk going around about how silence is a form of violence. And this makes a lot of sense. After all, we all grow up with the messages that to be shunned (usually depicted by people literally turning their back on a character) is awful and that the silent treatment is a go-to move (especially for women). And we’ve all had that person drop out of our lives without even a parting word.

Silence has become the enemy.

But this is missing the ‘words’ for the trees.

    There are two types of relational silence — one that serves the connection, one that damages it. In the first, silence comes with the qualifier “I need some quiet time to reflect”, which is healthy and respectful to the connection. In the second, silence comes with no qualifier and others are left to wonder what is actually happening. In this case, silence is actually violence — a passive aggressive attempt to cause suffering, or, at the least, a negligent self-absorption that makes things worse. Given that so many of us grew up with the silent treatment, it is essential that we let others know what is happening when we go quiet. It is respectful and it keeps the love alive. Even something like “Time out!” can be enough to keep silence from turning into violence. (~an excerpt from ‘Love it Forward’)

For those of us who are introverted, who value our independence and individuality, who are autistic, who are empaths, who have been abused, who are creative (especially writers), who meditate or think a lot, or who are simply naturally quiet it is our default state.

For us, silence means many things:

  • It may mean we’ve been hurt.
  • It may mean we’ve been ignored.
  • It may mean we recharge with silence.
  • It may be that we’re just one of those who revel in it.

When people constantly talk over you, when you’ve been belittled or abused, when you think before you speak, when you recharge by focusing inward, when you need to focus it is by being silent if you are a person who is quiet.

Yet for those who don’t understand this sort of silence things can go terribly wrong. People have their feelings hurt. They don’t understand what went wrong. Like the quote above says: there are two kinds of silence. How are you to tell the difference? How can these types of people come to a healthy understanding?

Well, each one has a job to do.

The onus lies on the quiet person to speak up about their need for silence. Tell your partners what duration works best for you. Tell them if they’ve triggered you. If you’ve shut down then tell them why at the soonest possible moment or warn them that it’s coming. Tell them you need time to think about your reply. Tell them you enjoy having them near because being in the same space is a way to share yourself.

For the not-quiet person here are things to try: listen (quietly) while they speak. If you’re the type to interrupt or if you’re thinking about what to say next then work on that. You need to give them the space to open up in their own time. Instead of assuming they’ve shut down or shut you out, ask if they’re thinking or need time. If you find it hard to sit without talking then play some music.
Because for the empath, autistic, or the introvert it’s easy to be overwhelmed. Think about it as a smell. At first the scent is light and pleasant. But as the day wears on, the scent grows stronger and stronger, until you can barely concentrate on anything else. Even if you love the smell (say it’s your favorite perfume) you definitely feel uncomfortable when it’s caked on too much.

So the next time you find yourself panicking when your partner takes a breath that lasts three seconds (even if it seems like an eternity) or if you panic because only three seconds have passed before you’re being asked another question (they’re not trying to bombard you) please keep in mind that everyone is different. Remember that you must speak up so that they know your experience. Remember that you must listen so that you don’t miss anything. Remember that there are as many kinds of silence as there are people.

It is not something to fear. It is something to embrace. Because even if the silence is intentionally meant to hurt you, I can guarantee it still has nothing to do with you. And either way, you have to learn to deal with it. Let it go. Let it be.

Poly Advice for the Mentally Ill: “Set Clear Boundaries and Expectations”

I’ve written a fair bit about boundaries in the past. There is a fair bit of theoretical discussion in polyamory about the benefits of using boundaries or agreements in relationships. Theory aside, no matter which you use for relationships, we all have personal boundaries. For instance, many people have a boundary about respect in relationships. They will not be in a relationship with someone who does not respect them.

According to the Big Book of Poly, it’s important to have clear boundaries. Unclear boundaries lead to miscommunication and people accidentally infringing our boundaries. Which is why clearly stating our boundaries is important.

However, the idea that we need to set clear boundaries assumes that are needs and desires are generally stable. Or at least predictable. “I need to be left alone right after work so I can recharge, but after I come out f my room I love to have you cuddle with me.”

Okay, I’m not phrasing it as a boundary, but it is a clearly set expectation, right?

So, for me, most of my triggery issues involve sex. I love to have my breasts played with–except when my anxiety or PTSD are acting up, in which case you can send me into a panic attack just brushing my nipple. Worse, sometimes I don’t know what’s going on in my head. I can think I’m fine for some sexy time, until you touch me and my brain blows a circuit.

How do I set a clear boundary or expectation about that?

“I love it when you play with my boobs, except when hate it. And I can’t always tell you ahead of time if it’s okay or not. So…we’ll play it by ear, okay?

Well, that’s clearly stated, at least. But not exactly a clear boundary.

When our partner’s ask us about our boundaries, or needs, or what works for us, there’s a pressure to find a way to smush all our illness-related unpredictably into a neat box that we can explain and understand. We owe it to our partners, right?

We don’t owe our partners clear boundaries. We owe are partners the truth.

Own Your Randomness

I don’t know anyone with mental illness who doesn’t wish that the random firings of our brains would go the fuck away. It would be nice to be able to predict for ourselves how we’re doing and what we need from one day to the next, never mind our partners.

Since we can’t, the best we do for our partners is the same thing we do for ourselves: own the randomness and try to plan for it.

“I can’t give you a clear idea of my needs and boundaries. I’m sorry about that but what I need changes a lot with how my mental illness it doing. I can promise to tell you in each moment what I need or want to the best of my ability. And I’ll try to explain how my illness affects me and my needs, so you have some idea of what to expect depending on how I’m doing.”

It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s honest, it’s respectful, and it’s the best we’ve got.

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.

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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.

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Roots of Abuse: Intent, Insecurity, and Shitty Boundaries

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?’ ”

Shitty Boundaries

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.

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

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Polyamory Boundaries and Mental Illness

There’s a bit of a debate in poly circles about rules/agreements vs boundaries.

Short version:

  • Boundaries are personal–I will not date anyone who is anti-thiest. (I’m perfectly happy dating athiests, but if you are going to attack/belittle/look down on religions and religious people I am so fucking out of there.)
  • Rules or agreements are relational–Michael and I agree not to start any long distance relationships (we haven’t–we tend to fall on the boundaries side of the debate, but its an example).

For this post I’m going to talk about boundaries just in keeping with the KISS principle (keep it simple stupid). Most of this post applies equally well to rules in poly relationships, but rules get even more complicated because they involve/require the agreement of more people. Have fun with that.

One of the defining characteristics of mental illness as this blog series uses the term is that mental illness is not static. Where developmental disorders and personality disorders such as autism, ADD, and BPD are constants in a persons life and personality, mental illness is constantly in flux. One day you are so deep in depression you can’t get out of bed, the next you manage to go to work, even if you go through half the day in a depression-daze. While episodes of mental illness can last for years, even decades, within each episode there will be fluctuations, good days and bad days. Days where you can eat and days where you don’t dare go in the kitchen.

Polyamory (and most forms of non-monogamy) work because everyone is on the same page. If I think we all want an open relationship, and my partners want a closed triad there are problems coming. Massive ones. In poly, we tend to stay on the same page partly through constant communication, and partly through establishing boundaries and/or rules/agreements to guide the shape our lives and relationships take. These boundaries can be both a blessing and a curse to someone dealing with mental illness. Let’s take those one at a time.

Boundaries as a Blessing

Hard and fast boundaries are seriously fucking amazing when mental illness is rocking your world. Everything is out of control, your mind is tearing you apart, you can’t even manage to reliably dress yourself from one day to the next, and you just know that your job, relationships, and friendships could implode at any time because of your illness. In this mad chaos you have to have something stable, something reliable, something you can fucking control and cling to as a bit of sanity in an insane you.

Boundaries. You said that safe sex was one of your boundaries, and you would never engage in sex without protection. You also told me that that you would only be in a relationship with me as long as I had safe sex, if I ever chose to have sex without protection, you would stop being intimate with me.

I can hold to this. In a world gone mad I can know that this is solid. This thing you have told me that is one of the bases of our relationship.

Some people with mental illness will cling to boundaries, become obsessed with them, parse them and insist on defining them down to the smallest minutia. In a world where your very mind turns against you, knowing that you have something you can rely on is pretty damn awesome.

Boundaries as a Curse

On the other side of the equation, boundaries can be a fucking minefield. Remember what I said about mental illness not being static? One day I need you to not fucking touch me unless I ask you to. It’s a plain and simple boundary, right? Just don’t touch me. The next day I’m hurt and insecure because you never just come over and give me a hug anymore.

Am I playing games? Messing with you? Being manipulative? No. Yesterday my PTSD was acting up and the wrong kind of touch will trigger a flashback (what’s the wrong kind? It’s like porn, I know it when I feel it. But by then it’s too late.) Today I’m coming down off the PTSD, feeling vulnerable, and need to know that you still care for me in spite of my wackadoodle.

Poly partners (understandably) want the triggers and aids for our mental illnesses written out in a neat little “How-To” book. It doesn’t work that way. Stay the fuck away from my neck, except when I’m feeling safe and want it a little rough, and then my neck is fucking awesome. I can’t eat gooey or mushy foods, except when it’s mac and cheese, and no sauces, but ketchup and alfredo are okay, and oh I love a good pesto. Don’t touch me when I’m curled up in a ball shaking, except for when I need to you to wrap your arms around me and tell me everything will be alright. Don’t cater to my illness except when you need to take it into account in order to get anything done…

We can’t give you a clear set of boundaries regarding our illnesses. The best we can give you is vague semi-guidelines that work except when they don’t. And trying to provide clear boundaries for our mental illnesses just leads to problems in a relationship when “You told me it was okay to touch you there!” “It is, just not now…” or “You can’t do that, it triggers me.” “But yesterday you told me you liked it.”

Obviously a lot of this is highly personal stuff, but a lot of it can apply across relationships as well. “How come you said you can’t stand to be boxed in, but when we went out the other night you let Dave back you against the wall?” “Why is it that my asking you to the movies always triggers you, but you go out with Gina all the time?”

I’m not sure how much sense I’m making here. I expect a lot of people who have dealt with mental illness in poly relationships are nodding along, and a lot of folks who haven’t experienced mental illness are scratching their heads going “What does being backed against the wall have to do with relationship agreements? Who has boundaries about going to the movies?”

Mental illness. It fucks with your head in the weirdest ways. Like I said before, I tend to focus on a boundaries approach to relationships, but in my time I’ve had boundaries and rules about what I could eat for dinner, how and when I would kiss someone, how my SOs interacted, and even where I would sit when out at the movies or in a booth at a diner. All to cope with my mental illnesses.

For people trying to find ways to make boundaries and/or rules/agreements accommodate their mental illness quirks, I highly suggest using hard and soft boundaries as a starting point of the discussion. It won’t be perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Before I wrap up let me briefly mention one other fun bit about dealing with mental illness and boundaries. Some people, dealing with some types of mental illness, will be driven to break rules and boundaries. I got no good answers for the kinds of mess this can cause. The law allows an insanity plea for a reason–in some cases people with mental illnesses really can’t be held responsible for their actions. But that doesn’t stop the damage those actions do. If you someone who is self aware enough to know your illness will drive you to break agreements, rules, and boundaries, I can think of two (probably not the best) ideas. First, try to be in relationships where everyone agrees to do without rules and/or boundaries as much as possible. Relationship anarchists and such might be cool with that type of relationship, and if there aren’t and rules or boundaries to break it’s harder to be driven into breaking them. Second, work with your partners to come up with lots of little rules and boundaries with the understand that in this case some rules are literally made to be broken, and it will be a no harm, no foul situation.

Anyone with ideas, suggestions, or experience dealing with rules/agreements and/or boundaries with mental illness, please share in the comments.

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.

Hard Boundaries and Soft Boundaries

Hey folks, sorry for the much delayed post. My family moved on Friday to a new apartment, the first time we’ve had our own apartment in several years, and we finally got internet in today. I had planned on posting from the library during the move, but unfortunately due to the holiday here in the US, the library was closed all weekend. So there’ll be two posts today, and we’ll be back on regular schedule starting Sunday. Thanks for your patience!

I’m going to take a semi-detour away from mental illness today to talk about boundaries. We all have boundaries. Some boundaries are, for lack of a better term, “hardwired.” Someone with a violent peanut allergy CANNOT eat the delicious peanut butter pie you made, and probably can’t have you bring it into their house either. Nothing that happens in life, in relationships, in anywhere will change this, barring a major medical break through. Other boundaries can change–once upon a time kissing was a boundary for me. It used to trigger my PTSD. Over time and as I’ve healed, kissing has stopped being a boundary in many situations.

Some boundaries are part of who we are–I can’t be happy in a monogamous relationship, don’t ask me too. Others are the result of life experience–Franklin Veaux will not be in a relationship that involves or includes a veto. He tried it once, it went very, very badly, he won’t do it again.

But there is one aspect of boundaries that doesn’t get discussed much in poly circles.

Some boundaries are hard, and some boundaries are soft.

I’m stealing terminology from the kink community here (hard limits and soft limits) because polyamory doesn’t have terms for discussing boundaries that are less than etched in stone. When we talk about boundaries it is either “No fucking way do you ever do this, or our relationship is over” or it is not a boundary.

As I may have mentioned before, I don’t believe in binaries. Especially human binaries.

I have some hard fucking boundaries. You raise your hand to me or my kids, there’s the fucking door. You try to come between me and my kids, there’s the fucking door. You try to make me choose between you and someone else I love, there’s the fucking door. Do not pass GO, do not collect $200, I hope the door hits you on your way out.

Franklin has a similarly hard boundary against vetos–you ask to date him when your primary relationship has a veto…well I don’t think he’d say “there’s the fucking door” but the meaning would be the same. Ditto asking him to agree to a veto in any relationship you have with him.

But some boundaries aren’t quite that firm. Some boundaries have some give in them. One of my boundaries is that I will not allow my partners to become dependent on me. I am not your bloody mother, don’t expect me to act like one. And yet when Michael got sick, he depended on me to the point that at times I helped him with his personal hygiene. And I never said, “there’s the door.” For me, this was a soft boundary. A boundary that can be bent, or circumvented entirely, sometimes, in the right circumstances, for a good reason.

Someone with a deadly peanut allergy may have a hard limit on peanuts in their house. But someone with a mild peanut allergy may have a soft limit–they may ask their partner who loves peanut butter not to bring peanuts or peanut butter over, but may be willing themselves to buy a peanut butter pie for their partner’s surprise party.

A soft boundary is not a boundary that it is okay for a poly partner to ignore. It is still a boundary, and it still needs to be respected. But a soft boundary is a boundary that you may choose to set aside in the right circumstances, and your poly partners can come to you and say “I know having X is a boundary for you, but A, B and C are going on right now, would you be willing to let X happen this once?”

You come to me and ask if it’s okay to make me choose between you and someone else I love JUST this once? There’s the fucking door. If we’re living together and you come to me and say “I know you keep kosher, and I agreed to that when I moved in, but my mom’s agreed to visit for the holidays and she always makes a Christmas ham. You know how hard I’ve worked not to ruin my relationship with her after coming out. Would you be alright with her bringing her ham?” Well, you’ll be helping me fumigate the house for the next week (the smell of ham makes me ill), but yes your mom can bring her ham. Tell your mom to bring her ham without asking me first? Well it probably won’t be “There’s the fucking door” but you’ll definitely be in the dog house with me for a damn long time.Next time you and your poly partners get to talking boundaries, you might consider discussing hard and soft boundaries, and how you prefer people to handle approaching your soft boundaries.

Next time you and your poly partners get to talking boundaries, you might consider discussing hard and soft boundaries, and how you prefer people to handle approaching your soft boundaries.


Okay, I said this was a semi-tangent from our ongoing series on mental illness and polyamory. I’ll be posting again this afternoon looking at the intersection of mental illness with rules and boundaries in poly relationships. If you found this post interesting or helpful, please share it using the buttons below.