Update: If you are looking for help with an abusive situation, please see this list of resources.
Eve and I have been writing quite a lot about abuse in polyamorous relationships here lately. We’re even doing a workshop on it at Poly Living in Philadelphia next weekend. I realize it’s a bit of a downer, and it’s not a lot of fun to talk about. Most of the poly community is awesome, and polyamory itself is wonderful and rewarding.
But I believe the community—by which I mean all the folks who are interested in polyamory and who get together to talk about this multiple relationship thing that we do—is at a crossroads. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I am not impressed with the way the organized BDSM community walks the walk when it comes to abuse. It certainly talks the talk about consent, safety, and respect, but in more than sixty years I don’t think it’s managed to turn that talk into a meaningful culture of consent. I know a lot of people are working hard to change that. Some of those people are friends of mine. That’s awesome.
Right now I think the poly community has come to a place where we can either content ourselves with talking about respect and consent the way the BDSM community has, or we can work to make it a cornerstone of the social groups we create. I look at the kink scene and the path it’s taken, and I’m afraid. I don’t want the poly scene to become like that.
But the problem is, I don’t have all the answers about how to make it a place that genuinely enshrines consent. Dealing with people who abuse is hard. It’s hard to stand up and speak out when you see something happening in your community that’s not okay, but that doesn’t involve you directly. It’s hard to get involved. It’s hard to tell someone, “Look, you’re not welcome in this space because you did that thing you did.”
And hard as that is, it’s only the start.
This is something that hits home to me. I’ve seen abuse happen in my polycule. It’s incredibly disempowering to see someone you love being abused by, for example, your metamour—especially when your metamour is also your friend. Folks who have never experienced it cannot easily understand how disempowering it feels to see someone doing things that are harmful and destructive to someone you love, and to know you can’t make them stop, or make your partner leave.
The thing we don’t like to admit is that people who abuse are not necessarily evil. They’re not necessarily bad people. If you ask someone, “What makes a person abuse?” you will hear a lot of answers like “some people are just monsters.” That black-and-white, Marvel Comics caricature of what “an abuser” looks like helps nobody. Often, people who abuse are friends. Often, people who abuse are hurting themselves. Often, people who abuse genuinely do have good things about them. Often, they’re not committing physical violence, and the abuse is hard to spot.
See, here’s the thing. Abusers often sincerely believe themselves to be victims. That was, and is, the case with the person in my polycule.
People don’t wake up one morning and go “You know what? I think I’m going to become an abuser today! Boy, doesn’t that sound like fun? I’ll undermine and mistreat the people close to me!” Every person who commits abuse that I’ve ever met, without exception, is someone who is in a lot of pain. They feel that the abuse they do isn’t abuse—it’s a reasonable and natural response to the pain they’re in.
As people working in domestic violence prevention will tell you, abuse is about power and control. Lots and lots and lots of people, abusers and non-abusers alike, believe that if your partner does or says something and it makes you feel uncomfortable, threatened, jealous, or hurt, it’s okay for you to control them in order to deal with your feelings.
Look around. This idea has a lot of social currency. Among monogamous folks, you’ll find tons of people who say things like “if your girlfriend talks to other guys and that upsets you, don’t let her! Make her stop!” “If your boyfriend is still friends with an ex, tell him he can never speak to her again!” “If your girlfriend likes some other guy’s Facebook posts, tell her she has to stop doing that!” In the poly community we don’t do that, but we still cling to the idea that if something your partner does makes you uncomfortable, it’s reasonable and appropriate to try to get them to stop.
Is everyone who believes this an abusive person? Of course not. But the idea that if you feel something bad, it means someone else is doing something wrong and you should be able to make them stop doing it…well, that’s the root of all abuse.
And people who abuse genuinely feel that if they tell a partner to do something and the partner doesn’t do it, they’re the ones being abused. I’ve talked to so many people who complain, “My partner isn’t doing what I tell them to!” It hurts me when my partner doesn’t let me control them! That’s abuse! My partner is abusing me by not obeying me!
There’s an essay that sums this up brilliantly at The Community Response to Abuse:
“I was victimized by acts of control” is not the same as “I was victimized by the other person’s resistance to my control.”
Because a person who abuses is in genuine pain, and genuinely feels victimized, and sincerely can not distinguish between “victimized by someone else’s control” and “victimized because I can’t control someone else,” it’s really, really hard to show these folks why their actions are wrong. They believe that if someone else sets a boundary, that boundary is an abuse of them.
In order to crack the problem of abuse, you have to cut all the way down to why we think it’s okay to control other people, and that’s extremely difficult. Look at all the people who agree with this idea! Look at how many social messages say that if someone does something that makes us uncomfortable, the best way to handle it is to control that person! Everything social message we’re confronted with reinforces this idea.
So people who abuse aren’t (necessarily) monsters. They’re just like us. They’re hurting. And that presents one hell of a problem—one that we need to be able to talk about, and get a handle on, if we are to make safe spaces for survivors of abuse.
Yes, we need to be willing to step up when we see abuse. Yes, we need to be willing to confront those who abuse, and to be willing to exclude them from the spaces we make.
But that isn’t enough.
We also need to recognize the essential humanity of people who commit abuse. Our first priority needs to be to protect and make safe spaces for survivors, to believe survivors, and to support survivors.
But if that’s all we do, if we think it stops there, we can end up perpetuating the cycle.
Anti-rape activists say, rightly, that if you tell women things like “Don’t drink alcohol” or “Don’t go down that alley,” what you’re actually saying is “Let the rapist rape someone else.”
But when we kick a person out of a poly group for abusing someone and then pat ourselves on the back for this amazing thing we’ve just done, we do the same thing. In refusing to engage with people who abuse, we say, “Let him abuse someone else. Let him abuse in some other community. Let him abuse out of our sight.” And we leave the abuser in an echo chamber.
That’s not good enough.
Survivors of abuse need support. Abusers also need support. They need a different kind of support, though. They need someone to hold them accountable. They need someone to challenge their feelings of entitlement to control. They need someone to call them on their bullshit.1 And even if, for whatever reason, we can’t get through to them, we still need to work to change the cultural idea that controlling others because you’re hurting is okay. As Eve says, “Rape culture is founded on the idea that women’s bodies are presumed available; abuse culture is founded on the idea that it’s okay to control our partners.”
When abuse happened in my polycule, I was not able to do that. Two people I love were hurt by the same guy. He’s not a bad guy. He’s not an evil guy. He’s an insecure guy who is carrying a tremendous pile of sexual insecurity around with him. He believes—really, sincerely believes—that it is okay to control his lovers when he feels insecure, and he really, sincerely believes that if someone resists his control, they are doing something wrong to him.
He’s not a monster.
But I am not able to engage with him. I just can’t do it. He hurt people I love, and I can’t separate myself from that enough to be able to talk to him again, to say, “Dude, what the fuck? It’s not cool to try to tell someone else what to do because you feel insecure. Someone isn’t abusing you by refusing to surrender her bodily autonomy to you.”
But someone needs to do that. I can’t do that in this particular case because I am too close to this particular situation. But I can do it in other situations. And someone needs to be able to do it.
It’s not enough to cast out the person who abuses. That often does need to happen, don’t get me wrong. But that’s the beginning of accountability, not the end.
I’m not sure what the rest of the path to accountability looks like. But I really, really want to learn. And I really hope that other people in the poly community want to learn, too. I’m asking for a lot. I get that. But we need to be able to do this.
The cycle has to stop.
1 There’s a really, really good episode of the Polyamory Weekly podcast that talks about this. I recommend you listen to it.
I really like this article. I think part of the difficulty of these situations relates to the way in which, for a human being to grow and change in deep, cultural/belief/cognitive-behavior ways, they kinda have to want to change. In recovery/12-step circles, people come to growth and change — recovery — because they have no where else to go, or they’re forced into it but the roots take hold. People go to therapy because they are driven to by desperation, by pain, or by the fear that they’ll lose everything if they don’t.
How do communities nurture that “desire for change” in the people who need it most, but don’t see it — the abusers?
Should the poly (and kink) communities maybe start doing “interventions” as a kinder, gentler precurser to ostracization? Like, “we’re gonna kick you out, but if you’re willing to work on personal growth so you stop trying to control people and confront your pain, maybe you can stay” …?
On re-reading and reflection, I see more how the issues in the poly world are distinct from kink, whatever overlap their may be. To be in a relationship with someone who has another relationship with abuse involved is … well, it’s sortof like being a sibling or parent of someone in an abusive relationship. Powerlessness, helplessness, what can be done? With the added tension of your own attachment and desire to be in a relationship with the person, whereas a sibling or parent can, not without difficulty, maintain boundaries and distance.
But should they? I see this post asking the poly community to develop a stronger subcultural toolbox for dealing with abuse, and maybe it (the poly community/culture) is actually a great venue to do that — because, does the larger culture have such a toolbox? What could, would, should a sibling or parent do? Could poly partners behave the same way?
The closest toolbox I can think of is, again, recovery culture and, as a specific example, Codependents Anonymous, which includes people trying to learn not to be controlling and “recover” from the fears and emotional/behavioral habits that drive them to be so.
But I don’t know how one gets from point A to point B. In 12-step, the line is basically, you just can’t make a horse come to water when it doesn’t want to. But you try to be available for and watch for windows of willingness, and nudge where you can.
It’s painful to see a loved one in an abusive situation we cannot control, and reasonable and compassionate to ask what influence one might have. Thank you for writing this and asking those questions.
Brilliant. Can’t wait for your workshop at Poly Living.
Another facet of the problem is that the people most likely to recognize the abuse are the ones most intimately involved with the person being abused. Those who aren’t may be mystified as to why someone is even considered an abuser, much less recognize that they may need to be called on their abuse.
This is really excellent.
I read a blog post in a similar vein some months ago, in reference to abusers/harassers in community organizing groups. (Possibly Black groups?) It was really thoughtful as well and I really wish I could find that link again!!
I didn’t find the original post I remember reading, but I did find some interesting books (and lots of zines) about anti-violence approaches in activist communities, e.g.
Zine which became a book – “The revolution starts at home: confronting partner abuse in activist communities”. http://incite-national.org/sites/default/files/incite_files/resource_docs/0985_revolution-starts-at-home.pdf
Thank you for talking about this.
I have to ask – what do you do when people in your polycule use an unwillingness to cast out an abuser, a rapist, or so on as a way to stop short of actually holding them accountable? What do you do if this means an insistence on staying in close relationship with someone who has harmed you?
That’s a really good question, for which I don’t have an answer. I have removed myself from the social sphere of the abusive person who was formerly in my polycule; both of my partners who were involved with him have, thankfully, ended their relationships with him. But I don’t know if there’s a good solution to peope who stop short of casting out a person who abuses.
In fact, I believe one of the reasons he abuses is he has surrounded himself with an echo chamber of people who tell him he is right to want to control others as a way of dealing with his insecurities, and that people who resist his control are actually abusing him.
I used to think that polyamory provided a built-in defense against abuse. People who abuse tend, I reasoned, to isolate their victims; in fact, DV workshops will point to social isolation as one of the hallmarks of abuse. So if there are more folks involved in the relationship, I thought, it would be harder to do that, right?
But what actually seems to happen is that other people in a polycule can perpetuate an abusive dynamic in a whole bunch of ways–helping gaslight the person being abused, validating the abusive person’s worldview, even participating (directly or indirectly) in the abuse itself. I’ve seen all those things happen. I don’t know what the solution to that is, either.
I know that poly allows people to have many different kinds of relationships, but people tend to be attracted to people who fit comfortable emotional attachment patterns for them — so an abuser is likely to attract and be attracted to mainly people who “fit” their kind of emotional behaviors. So I don’t find this too surprising. Serial daters/monogamists have the same patterns over time; in poly the patterns just happen concurrently.
I’m an abuse survivor and I really DON’T like this article. I also don’t like the implication of Adam’s comment that kicking an abuser out of a community is “bad”, and needs a “kinder” or “gentler” precursor. Believe me, the problem with various communities enabling abusers is not rooted in them being treated too harshly.
I think it’s great that you want to have a better conversation about abuse in poly communities. I think it’s great that you want to make the community save for survivors and you want people to support us. BUT, YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG!
You cannot start a conversation that purports to make a community safe for survivors by focusing on and prioritizing the abuser! You are doing exactly the same thing the BDSM community has been doing for years, and what mainstream society has been doing for, like, ever.
Before you can even begin to talk about deconstructing the inner life of abusers or whatever, you first need to actually PRIORITIZE THE VICTIMS AND SURVIVORS OF ABUSE. You need to ask us what we need to make a safe community and talk about THAT. You need to listen to our experiences and encourage others to listen to us. You need to ask US what we think of our abusers and abuse experiences and let US tell YOU how we want them to be dealt with. Our voices need to come way, WAY before that of abusers.
And, btw, please STOP using “humanizing” to describe abusers. When you “humanize” someone you aren’t just talking about how a a person isn’t some monstrous caricature of a mustache-twirling villain, but you are also creating a space to sympathize and empathize with them. Believe me, abusers already get enough sympathy and empathy and creating more only serves to continue enabling their abuse. You also have to be super careful about how you talk about abusers and why they abuse–a certain amount of explanation can be helpful in understanding and dealing with the situation, but too much focus on their “pain” or whatever turns an explanation into an excuse. Remember that, above all else, abusers make the CHOICE to abuse and no amount of pain excuses them of their responsibility for making that choice.
You say that you don’t know what the path to accountability looks like, and that shows in every part of this post. You, as a non-survivor and as someone who is very much an outsider to this, are not in a place to decide what accountability is, or should, look like. Your place is not to tell the community how to deal with abusers and abuse. Your responsibility is to ask the victims and survivors, and privilege THEIR voices.
If you really want to start a meaningful conversation about abuse in poly communities, then go out and do the legwork. Ask the victims and survivors in your community about their experiences. Ask them what they need to feel safe in the community. Ask them how they think the community should deal with abuse as it’s happening. Ask them how abusers should be dealt with in order to keep the community safe. Tell THEIR stories. NOT yours. NOT the stories of the abusers you know.
It seems like you might be reading things in this essay that I don’t intend to put there.
For example, I do not believe it’s bad to kick an abusive person out of a community. On the contrary–I think it’s necessary and vital to do so, both for the sake of the community and for the sake of the survivors. It is on all of us not to create or tolerate communities that are safe havens for those who abuse others.
Also, I don’t focus on or prioritize those who abuse, as I hope my other essays on the subject show. The first priority is and must always be the person who was abused, not the person who does the abusing.
Listening to those who have been abused absolutely is the top priority. I re-read my essay here with your comments in mind, and I’m not quite sure I understand where you’re coming from. In no way am I attempting to say that those who abuse need more support or attention than those who are abused.
What I am trying to say is that we must make communities safe from abuse, and to do that we must exclude people who abuse…but it can’t end there. We can’t merely congratulate ourselves on a job well done because we’ve stopped inviting so-and-so to our events. If we stop there, that person merely moves on to different events in different communities with a new pool of people to exploit!
Those who abuse need more than simply being excluded and sent along their way to find other pastures. They need to be called on their shit. They need to be told that not only is it not okay to do what they do in this community, it’s not okay to do what they do in any community.
It is not on the survivors of abuse to be the ones to do this. It’s on the rest of us–those who, as you say, are outsiders to this.
Understanding a person who abuses does not mean sympathizing with them and it doesn’t mean validating the things they do. Sociologist Brené Brown writes that the most compassionate people have the best boundaries, and this is why. We can understand that an abuser is a human being, without validating or justifying the abuse, and without allowing that recognition of an abuser’s humanity sway us from saying that abuse is not and must not be permissible.
Okay, a bunch of things in your comment have seriously rubbed me the wrong way but since I believe that you are sincerely trying to engage with what I said I’m going to see if I can make myself more clear.
But, first things first:
I think you should seriously consider never saying anything like that again. As an author, you need to understand that your intentions when writing something are only a small part of the work. Communication is a two way street: one person conveying something and another person interpreting it. Your intentions do not trump how other people interpret your work, and when you say stuff like what I quoted above you, intentionally or not, privilege your intentions over my interpretation. It’s considered to be a rude response in most discussions, and is likely to indicate to the person you are talking to that you don’t care enough to try to listen to them. If you have time, I would recommend you read this article Harmful Communication, Part One: Intent Is Magic, while it’s addressing a slightly different usage of the word, it includes some good discussion on how “I didn’t intend” is problematic.
Now, in terms of my assertion about prioritizing abusers, let me try to explain better. However, let me first clarify that I am not discussing how you FEEL about the subject, but rather how your framing of the discussion COMES ACROSS in context. And keep in mind that what you DID say in your post is just as important as what you DIDN’T say.
Basically, the beginning of your post sets up the “I am going to talk about my thoughts on how the poly community should handle abuse”, and the second half of the post is all about abusers and how the community should see them as human, and how they go through pain, and how someone has to engage with them. There are a few times you say that survivors deserve support, but it’s just a minor footnote in the context of the conversation.
The thing is, when you are making a post that sets itself up to be about “community and abuse” and then you spend all your time talking about ABUSERS that’s a problem. You unintentionally perpetuate the cycle where abusers get all the attention and the survivors voices are just a footnote. That’s not what supporting survivors looks like.
You spend very little time talking about how to hold abusers accountable, how to protect people in the community from potential abusers, how to do pretty much ANYTHING that would actually benefit the community and instead spend paragraphs talking about how we need to view abusers as human. And, I reiterate, the way in which you did that not only fails to properly address the underlying issue (ie. that people fail to see abuse and abusers for what they are because they have this fictional idea of what abuse is) but also extends a lot of empathy towards the abuser, which is harmful to the people the abuser has victimized. See my comment to Adam for why extending empathy to abusers can be harmful.
Listen, I get that your heart is in the right place. But unless you are an expert on abuse and/or you have gone through it yourself, you need to be a LOT more careful about how you talk about it. Because all your good intentions mean nothing when the effects of your words are to continue marginalizing victims and survivors in a conversation where, in order to build a safe community, our concerns should always be put front and center.
I don’t think that to have empathy for one human means one can’t have it for another. In recovery, there are programs, for example, for both alcoholics and those affected by alcoholics.
So, the point I was trying to raise was actually how much responsibility a community has and to whom. I can empathize with alcoholics or hoarders, but I can’t save them; I can speak with and do what I can to help their families and others affected by them, and I can speak with them to a degree, but I can’t make them want to change, I can only nudge and suggest.
I definitely agree with you that the safety, care, and stories of victims/survivors should be prioritized.
Okay, I understand what you’re saying but two things:
1) I was specifically reacting to your wording in this:
The words “kinder”, “gentler”, and “ostracization” are all loaded words. What you wrote here implies that not allowing an abuser to continue using a community to find victims is a harsh punishment (“ostracization”, especially in geeky-leaning communities such as BDSM and poly, has serious negative connotations). It also implies that people who have harmed at least one, normally multiple, people in the community need to be treated “kindly” and “gently”. I should point out that this “kind” and “gentle” handling of an abuser often happens in an environment where the victims of the abuser do NOT get treatment that is “kind” or “gentle”.
2) You say “I don’t think that to have empathy for one human means one can’t have it for another.”, but what you aren’t understanding is that in some contexts it is MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE to show empathy for both the victims/survivors and the abuser. In many cases, extending empathy and support towards an abuser sends a clear signal to their victims on who the community finds to be important (and it’s not the people who have been victimized).
And, let me make another distinction: there is a difference between FEELING empathy towards someone and EXTENDING empathy to them. I think it is human nature, and generally a good thing, to feel empathy towards someone. But the contexts in which we choose to extend our empathy need to be carefully considered because of the impact they can have. In many cases extending empathy to abusers is unlikely to help them but it WILL hurt the people they’ve victimized. And that absolutely needs to be taken into account if any meaningful conversation on how communities should handle abusers is ever going to be had.
I see how those terms could be “loaded” and I’m sorry they upset you. I basically agree with you, but would suggest that things that I might think of as a kindness, an abuser might see as quite the opposite. Shame, for one; ostracization for another.
I agree with you about the difference between feeling & extending; I spoke of having empathy, not necessarily showing it, although, again, perception & perspective comes into play. Action informed by empathy and compassion need not be “extending empathy.”
Anyway, I found Franklin’s post useful as part of a larger discussion, as well as his perspective as someone watching loved ones in the midst of abuse and wondering what can be done. On reflection, my initial comment referencing “interventions” doesn’t really add much.
Thank you for your replies. I appreciate your dialoguing with me and listening to what I had to say. Also, thank you for explaining your perspective; I think I better understand where you were coming from with your comment.
For the record, I think an “intervention” style approach to abusers could potentially be a useful tool for a community. If done properly it would, at the very least, let the abuser know that their behavior is not accepted or endorsed.
Anonymouse, I wanted to reply to your comment as a survivor. Franklin’s post is very helpful to me, and I think there’s room for different experiences here.
One of the things I have struggled with, is that when I left an abusive relationship, the community I was a part of surrounded my abuser with support and empathy, and more or less locked me out. My abuser loudly and publicly proclaimed that he had been abused by me, and many people believed him. I went into hiding, and struggled for a long time to try to understand what had happened, whether he was right, and what I should do to fix it. I came to understand, after I started reading the experiences of other survivors, and reading a number of books on the subject of abuse, that this was a continuation of the erasure of my own memories and experience. But then I agonized over why and how the community had been so easily persuaded. His beliefs and acts of control were public knowledge. I had fled the situation multiple times out of fear, including one trip to a psychiatric ward. I was vocal about the degradation of my self esteem and my increasing fear of him. But it ended up being trivially easy for many people to demonize me. What happened?
I wrote about this (there’s a link in the post). I believe it boiled down to an inability for people to understand the difference between being victimized by control, and being victimized by someone’s resistance to control. I realized that members of the community *thought* they were doing the right thing, by dehumanizing me. They thought they understood who the “bad guy” was, and knew that the “bad guy” didn’t deserve any compassion. This reflexive black/white thinking very easily worked against me. This happens *all the time.* Lundy Bancroft (from the book Why does he do that?) has anecdotes in his book about therapists who have sworn up and down that men who left their partners bloody and nearly dead, were not actually abusers. Abusers are really really good at co-opting the language of survivors. They are better at it than survivors are, because survivors are often filled with self doubt and compassion – two things that make them such good targets.
But how do you solve this? The fact is, abusers already are surrounded by sympathy, as you’ve said. They don’t need *more* sympathy, certainly *not* from their victims. But what they do need, I think, is for the people who are still engaging with them, to stop protecting them from the truth of what they’ve done. That’s what I meant when I talked about support for accountability. It’s what I believe Franklin means as well.
I think that most of us, in our heads, already think we know “what to do” with abusers and survivors and we think we already know what each one looks like. And I think this is the actual problem. For me, the only way I can clear the confusion out of my head is to try to look at the seeds of abuse. Control, dehumanization, gaslighting, mindreading. I am willing to try to identify and weed out these things in myself and ask that other people do the same. To, in fact, hold them to that standard, or move on. But when it comes to someone who has abused me? I can’t do it. Someone else has to be the one to hold him to that standard. So I want for people who are peripheral to abuse to tell their stories. Because those are the people who are going to help create safe spaces. I want them to be thinking about what they can do, and how they can hold abusers accountable. This story is important too.
Franklin and Eve have been extraordinarily supportive of the things that I’ve written about. I have gotten a signal boost that I never would have gotten otherwise and I’m incredibly grateful. It has helped enormously in my recovery and the restoration of my own voice. I wanted to put that on the record.
We ethics-focused people tend to hate each other. It’s almost a tautology.
Communities that “walk the walk” about ethics are more likely to:
1. Divide into the Good Guys Team and the Bad Guys Team;
2. Not realize they are using different definitions of vague umbrella terms;
3. React in shock at not being understood and validated;
4. Use verbal violence;
4. Stop showing up to meetings.
Very few people want to agree to disagree about grievances. When a community is about ethics (for example, “ethical nonmonogamy”), an explosive detonator is built into the culture, which leads swiftly to its end. This is why most churches either split up, or become complicit and toothless country-clubs who ignore their founding principles.
BDSM communities tend to focus on the activity, and leave their members to “dog eat dog” fend for themselves, red in tooth and claw. This is because people who “walk the walk” about not hurting other people, are the people who hate each other. If you find a way around this, I’m eager to know it.
I have led several volunteer social organizations over the past 15 years, and learned they are founded on a potentially self-defeating contradiction.
1. One of the main motivations to join is to use the group’s social health to improve one’s own individual social health.
2. If attendance is frequently unpleasant, pleasant members drift away, and mostly unpleasant members remain.
3. An unenforced code of conduct is no code of conduct.
4. Enforcement means saying “no” to someone, which damages the individual social health of the enforcer, which decreases the motivation to be in the group.
Thank you for writing about this. Reading this post actually re-triggered a lot of the powerlessness I felt as a victim of an abuser who called himself poly, and the powerlessness I felt in trying to get help in the aftermath. The problem was, he was a sociopath who called himself poly and could abuse me in ways that if I protested or said I was hurt, he could merely respond with “you need to manage your jealousy” or “I guess you’re not poly.” To actually say that he was doing things deliberately to hurt me or make me uncomfortable could very easily be turned against me. So what does one do when you’re with someone with narcissistic personality disorder who is actually getting off on hurting you, but then claims your protestations amount to trying to control what he does with other partners? And yes, he is deeply wounded and needs tons of professional help, but until he admits he has a problem, he will continue to seduce and destroy woman after woman, more likely outside of the poly/kink community, since he’s already estranged from them. I’m not sure who is going to hold him accountable.
Great post and comments. I wrote up some very similar thoughts here.
For anyone objecting to the idea of humanzing abusers, it’s important to understand that we don’t do it for their benefit, but for the benefit of past and future victims, and for the benefit of the community. If we don’t think of abusers as humans, it’s harder to admit and recognize when a human is behaving abusively. Humanizing abusers allows us to set firm boundaries early, before the abuse escalates, rather than waiting for someone to achieve supervillain status.
The importance of the interaction with the community can’t be stressed enough. We often think about abuse in terms of perpetrator and victim, but we need to ask how the greater community relates to those as well (see the Triangle Process in restorative justice). How we respond to abuse signals appropriate behavior to other members of community. Remember, abusers often believe themselves to be the victims, so they will follow the lead. If we make it ok to retaliate against abuse, we encourage abusers to retaliate against *perceived abuse* by their victim. When someone believes abuse is happening, we need a response that leads to a good outcome regardless of whether that person is the primary abuser or victim.
I’m very glad to see this conversation happening, but at the same time worried about some aspects. Defining abusers as people who attempt control puts victims at risk, since victims often resort to control in an effort to save or fix the relationship. It is better to look to expert sources on relationship abuse (e. g.the power and control wheel) since abuse looks no different in polyamory than monogamy. The difference in the poly community, and the VERY SERIOUS PROBLEM is that the ideals and language of polyamory can be used to gaslight and invalidate victims while supporting and validating behavior that would be considered appalling in mainstream culture. Patphologizing jealousy is a perfect example. Intervention by community members who are not licensed psychologists could be disastrous. As others have pointed out, a standard tactic of abusers is a post relationship smear campaign that makes the victim look like the guilty one. I myself was confronted, told I was the abuser, and ostracized by my poly community after surviving emotional abuse. Victims often “look crazy” whereas abusers, particularly the most disordered types, look calm and collected. A best principle for the community would be NONintervention when it looks like someone has been abused. Support, discernment, and involvement of licensed professionals is crucial. Abusers very seldom reform, and they will not respond to peer pressure or confrontation. Poly communities need good boundaries, and individuals need to know how to identify unhealthy relationship dynamics and protect themselves. Anonymous is right that victims need to share their stories and lead the conversation. Poly communities are playgrounds for sociopaths and narcissists, and until awareness is raised, they will prevent the movement from achieving critical mass in the mainstream.
Thank you for this. Exactly my concerns as well.
I’m currently in the middle of dealing with witnessing the abuse of my love by my metamour, so this really resonates with me, especially since my metamour is still in the “but it’s not really abuse” or “ok, it *is* abuse, but she doesn’t mean it abusively, and it’s OK, I can handle it” mindset.
Some quick back story: I’ve dated my partner for about two years. He and his other partner have been together for about three years. We all moved in together a bit under a year ago.
My metamour has (as long as I’ve known her) had a history of saying and doing things that I think are problematic – here’s a for instance (and it is a good example of “I was victimized by acts of control” is not the same as “I was victimized by the other person’s resistance to my control.”): Before we lived together, we had a problem off and on with Lora (my metamour) constantly calling and texting Jon (our shared partner) when Jon and I were together. Jon would tell Lora that it wasn’t appropriate; just as I don’t constantly text and call when Jon and Lora together, she shouldn’t do the same thing to us. He laid down a boundary of “I will not take your constant calls and texts when I am with Liz, just as I would not take her constant calls and texts when I am with you. When you and I are together, I will give you the majority of my attention. When Liz and I are together, I will give her the majority of my attention.” (barring emergencies, of course).
Lora’s response to this was that it was obvious that by Jon not being available to answer her texts and calls at all times, he obviously cares about me far more than her and doesn’t value their relationship at all. So they should break up. Also, Jon is a horrible, controlling asshole for treating her like shit and expecting her to take it (I personally heard her scream that last part at him one day when he answered after her tenth phone call in a row).
To look at this from Lora’s POV – Lora is in pain. Lora doesn’t like being alone. When Jon was spending the night with me, Lora was generally alone, because she’s a loner and doesn’t trust people (to my knowledge, she has very few people she would call a “friend” and none of those people live anywhere near us). If Jon was there, Lora would feel better, he would be with her, able to pay attention to her, take her mind off of all her insecurities – he’d help smooth away them, but reminding her that he loves her and think she’s wonderful. Since Jon isn’t there to do all that for Lora, the least he could do is immediately pay attention to all texts she sends him and her phone calls. When he doesn’t do that, he’s being abusive, because he’s not giving Lora that attention that she needs to stay happy. Lora feels justified in screaming abuse at Jon, because in Lora’s mind, Jon is abusing Lora.
I think (hope) that most of us here understand a number of the ways in which Lora’s thinking isn’t heathy for her or Jon (or me. Or anybody else who gets caught in it), so I’m not going to go into them.
When we moved in together, despite past occurrences like that, things went fairly smoothly for the first months, when we all had jobs. When Lora quit her job (which dovetailed with when Jon’s seasonal work slowed down), things got really bad. I believe it’s because Lora has very bad self-esteem (which she has admitted), as well as a very bad anger management problem and a severe anxiety disorder (she’s admitted to me those things to me, and is working on getting properly medicated for, as well as looking for talk therapy). When Lora was working, having a job was something that took her time and energy away from worrying about herself, worrying about Jon, worrying about…everything. She didn’t explode about things because working tired her out enough that she didn’t have the energy to explode, thought she did still have a strong negative reaction to most change (she seems to view changes initially as a thing that is either going to attack her, or should be attacked BY her, because it will harm her).
Once her job was gone, she could focus all her energy on Jon, all her fears, all her insecurities, all the things that she felt were attacking her. So fighting with Jon (and blaming Jon for a host of things) increased exponentially.
As a person sharing a home (and love) with Lora and Jon, I spend a long time weighing in on the things that I had a “right” to get involved in. I decided that calling Lora on her verbal abuse needed to be done – I couldn’t bear to keep hearing her tell him that he fucks everything up, or is fucking with her on purpose, or any other garbage that was being flung at him. So we all sat down together and talked some things out. I let her know that I didn’t WANT to be involved, but that the abusive words had to stop – going forward, when I heard a fight going from a fight to abuse, I was going to walk into the room they were in and tell them that they needed to separate. And then they needed to separate, cool off, and resume disagreeing when it could be done without insults being hurled (by Lora only, I would like to point out. I’ve yet to hear Jon yell an insult at anybody; it’s one of the reasons I love him). If this was not acceptable to them, we would need to make alternate living arrangements, because I could no longer live with the fighting.
I also told Jon and Lora that they both need to see therapists. Which they are looking for (and I’m considering going back to therapy myself, to deal with the stress from what has gone on).
When you live with your abused partner and his abuser, and your abused partner seems to still be in denial about the abuse, it’s a hard place to be. When Lora isn’t abusive or anxious, she can be a lovely person. I have seen some of what Jon sees in her – I don’t agree with Jon’s choice to continue to give her chances and be in a relationship with her. BUT THAT IS JON’S CHOICE TO MAKE. Part of what makes polyamory hard, to me, is watching someone we love make a choice that looks “bad” and seems to be causing them a lot of pain, and knowing that OUR choice is to decide if we can deal with that, or choose to walk away. Because no matter how much I disagree with Jon’s choice here, it is HIS CHOICE to make – not mine.
For my part, I am still on the fence about us continuing to live together. Lora has a lot of needs, and I’m not sure if I can feel safe, loved, and supported in a home that I share with her, as she is now. I am trying to be her friend, because she does need people supporting her in being a better person, and calling her on her shit, when she’s pulling she (which Jon also does. It just seems some days like there is SO MUCH shit).
If we walk away from Lora, chances are good that she’ll find another person (or people) to abuse. If we stay with Lora, chances are good that she will continue to be abusive towards Jon, though there is hope that those instances will decrease (number of times I’ve had to break up a fight since I said I would (which was about two weeks ago? Zero. Number of times I was hearing abusive fights before I spoke up? Three-four times a week. Also, in case anybody is wondering, I told Jon and Lora that if I learned that abusive fights were continuing and being hidden from me, we are totally, utterly done. Both promised that that wouldn’t happen. I will choose to act as though I believe that until I find evidence to the contrary).
There’s a lot here that I’m not saying (and I’ve said a lot!), but the course that I’m charting through these waters (and our progresses & backslides) is being charted on my blog.
Franklin, I can understand why you couldn’t talk to that guy. Being involved in this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, emotionally. It’s draining, frustrating, scary, infuriating…and totally my choice to do. And it’s my choice how involved I’m going to be in it, if I call it quits on us all living together right now, or continue to live with Jon and Lora full-time and do what I can there to support both of them, while also being supportive to myself. I currently think it’s worth it, because it does mean so very much to be able to live with Jon full-time. I know it means a lot to him too. I love him beyond words. If he decided to end his relationship with Lora, I would support him 100%. However, if he plans to stay with her, I need to figure out a way to support him staying with the good Lora while making it clear that the abusive Lora isn’t welcome. Right now, I can’t give 100% support to him and Lora staying together. But I can understand that that is HIS choice to make, and if I can’t support it, I also shouldn’t be working against it – which is why I focus my energies on trying to stay healthy myself, trying to be a good partner to Jon, and being a good (stern) friend to Lora and helping to bring out the good in her, while making it clear that certain behaviors aren’t allowed.
Sorry for writing a small novel , as always, you bring up some wonderful ideas and concepts.
Thinking about everything I wrote, I realized that I missed a few key thoughts that I realized I should share.
The first is that I’m writing primarily about myself (who is on the sidelines of the abuse, and not actually being abused) and the difficult time that I’m having. I am aware that things are much worse for Jon, and as much as it sucks for me, it’s far more awful for him. One thing that I didn’t see covered in Franklin’s excellent post is what we do when people we love are in relationships with abusers, but don’t want to walk away, and are still committed to being in a relationship with the abuser. I can’t force Jon to walk away, and I think trying to force that would be tantamount to abuse itself. I can (and do) point out when Lora does things that are abusive. When Jon tries to make excuses for her abuse (“she’s just really stressed – she really doesn’t mean it”), I continue to remind him that some words and behaviors are not excusable. But I do so gently – the last thing he needs is someone else jumping all over him, and from what reading I’ve done about abuse, there is a concern about alienating the abused person.
But as long as Jon says that he’s ok and he can handle it, even though I can point out when it appears otherwise, I can’t browbeat him into admitting that he’s being abused and that it’s hurting him more than it’s worth.
I also do a lot of writing about Lora and her motivations. I understand that this angers a lot of abused people, because time and resources shouldn’t be put onto the abuser, they should be centered on the abused person. Having been in several verbally and emotionally abusive relationships myself, I know that when I was in the mindset that it was all OK and s/he didn’t really mean it, I wasn’t willing to listen to how it was hurting me – I was convinced (and had a lot invested in the idea) that *I* was fine. The person hurting me just needs more help, better help, the right kind of help. How do I help them better, so that they get better?
I think that’s where Jon is now, even though he says that he knows that *Lora* is the person who needs to do the work and get better. When Jon is in denial about his abuse and how to stop it, both of our attentions switch to Lora, and what we can do to help her. As Franklin said, I know she’s operating from a place of pain. I know she’s been abused herself. I know that a way that *I* can help her (and Jon) is to take a hard line when she is abusive, continue to ask her questions about how her medication & search for therapy are going, and try to cultivate the good aspects of her.
Were it not for Jon, and Jon’s desire to do this, I wouldn’t be doing it. I’m really worried about the toll this relationship is taking on Jon. A part of me doesn’t want them to break up (because that’s A Bad Thing to want to happen with your partner and your metamour), but a part of me doesn’t see this relationship improving to a good level of functionality, so I worry that Jon’s determination that everything can be worked out isn’t realistic. I’m not really sure either of us continuing to try to help Lora is just…adding to the crazy and wasting good energy. I’m feeling my way along as I go.
My paramount concern is Jon, though, no matter how much I write about Lora. I am encouraging him to find a therapist; at the least, a good therapist can hopefully give Jon better coping mechanisms for dealing with the abuse and/or healthy ways to push back against Lora. But there’s only so much that I (or anybody external) can do as long as Jon is committed to his relationship with Lora. As much as I hate the idea of someone that I love staying with an abuser, I refuse to do something that seems (in a different way) just as abusive and controlling – the end wouldn’t justify the means.
My mother, on the rare occasions that I see her, is slightly less vicious to me now than she once was. And by that I mean that if her previous attacks could be rated a 10, then she is now down to a 7 in terms of awfulness.
But this change has come about solely because she recognizes that she no longer has the leverage she once did. Her family members have largely disconnected from her, which means that she has less opportunity to control them, which means that she doesn’t bother trying quite so hard. And also she’s older and has less energy.
No amount of holding her accountable, teaching, or interventions have had any effect on her. To this day she still agrees with all the awful things she’s done in the past, or at least considers them no big deal.
She is not a monster, she has her good points. Nevertheless, she has never learned to treat people decently, and the chances that she ever will are negligible. She does not want to learn that, so she won’t. No one can make her.
“Look, you’re not welcome in this space because you did that thing you did.”
Thanks for this important lesson. I will have to cogitate on how I implement it worldwide.
Totally random note of intense curiosity because I’m not good at being an Internet detective: does abusive former metamour know that you are no longer friends with him because he was abusive?
I hear you saying you can’t be the one to hold him accountable because you’re not actually his friend anymore. You’re just mad at him for hurting your partners. I’m just wondering if you told him anything at all or if you just stopped talking to him.
Ok, in case it wasn’t clear, it wasn’t totally a random question. I keep checking back here to see if you have answered this because it’s a personal question.
My ex was abusive and I am not talking to anyone who is still friends with him, but some people I don’t know if he’s still talking to, but I have just completely left those communities because that seems safest. Also I am not in touch with my former metamour, who jumped ship before I did.
But basically I do not know how to deal with this and I don’t even feel like I have a “community.” No one will ever hold my ex accountable for anything at all, and I am working on coming to terms with that, even while I am still dealing with ongoing repercussions in my life from how he treated me.
And if anyone has some poly community, it seems like you do, Franklin, so can you please tell me about whether or not your abusive former metamour knows or might know on any level why you stopped talking to him?
My ex seems to be in deep denial and blaming me for everything which is presumably pretty typical. I am just trying to stay as far away from all that as possible, which is hard in such a small town.
I think the fundamental gap in your logic here is, leaping from EXPRESSING a need, and TRYING TO ENFORCE a need.
As an abuse survivor, it is incredibly important for me to know, down to my core, that it is ALWAYS acceptable for me to say “When you do , I feel .” And it is also incredibly important for me to know that I can ASK for something specific, as long as I can let go of the outcome. I can choose my own path based on that outcome, but I don’t get to define that outcome.
The way I like to frame these feelings and needs, that allows me to express the feelings and the need but gives the other person as much room as possible to own their truth and their needs, is this: “I believe your intentions toward me are always good. But when you do , I feel . This is what I’m doing, to take care of my side of the street, emotionally. And I can’t control you and I don’t want to. But I think I need in order to feel better about this. What are your thoughts?”
And then, I have to honor their choices, and choose my path based on their choices.
I’ve commented on this article on FB, and I believe it deserves repeating here. This article fails to take into account those with Cluster B disorders do harm to others *because they like to*. So yes, discarding someone from a group because they harm intentionally is acceptable under those circumstances. I’d be wary of making blanket statements as to the nature of abusers as victims because they are insecure, etc. Pointing out that some people need to be removed or ostracized as being black and white thinking is in itself black and white in that it does not take into account individuals with Cluster B disorders.
I have worked with survivors of abuse for over 10 years. The pattern is nearly always the same.
There is help for survivors of relational abuse – and workshops to learn how to spot abusers and get away before they can abuse. The only remedy to eliminating the abuse is to remove the abuser from their victims.
Thank you so much for writing this. My polycule works really hard at ending the control cycle that you are talking about, but of the reach of the control paradigm is deep. I was just trying to explain to a poly friend recently about how promises and even compromise are soldiers of control. If you care about someone, and you agree to do a thing for them (stay in a city that they love, give up meat for them, give them veto power over who you date), even if you genuinely are willing to give these things up for them, you start a pattern of control. It is too easy to slowly compromise away all the things that you really want in life. There are so many pressures to give up what we want (money, time, children, lovers, jobs, community, etc). The ideal for me is that if I love someone, I want them to make all of the choices that they would make without the influence of what I want them to do, and then see where there is room to have a relationship. In my eyes, the purest love supports their partners in seeing and seizing their own control.
Honestly, this article is very upsetting. I feel as though only one side of this was addressed.
I had been in a polyamorous relationship for 4 years with someone I’ve discovered has something akin to Narcissistic Personality Disorder. No matter what agreements we made about dating/loving/having sex with others, he was allllways pushing for more. Some offer would come up beyond our totally agreed upon boundaries and when I would say, “we made this agreement, I feel the desire to stick to it for right now,” I was then called controlling, jealous, insecure, etc. That I was blocking him from expressing himself. That I was holding him hostage from his happiness. That *I* was the abuser. That is blame shifting, and that is abuse. I have been berated so badly for wanting to stick to agreements, that I have become totally scared, traumatized, untrusting….and in the end, “controlling”. Because *I* had been abused.
This is important to understand. Polyamory gives license to some people to get all the things they want, when they want it, no matter how it hurts the people around them. They accuse US of being controlling. When they are abusers themselves.