In polyamory, there are unique challenges that people may experience with regard to intimate partner abuse. Certain elements of polyamory may make it more difficult to spot abuse. Polyamorous people and service providers who are aware of these common concerns and challenges will be better prepared to prevent abuse and respond thoughtfully to survivors.
Who are my “intimate partners”? Does this abuse “count”?
In polyamory, the diversity of relationship styles can confuse how people even define an “intimate partner.” Situationships, platonic partners, romantic friends, and metamours may all be part of people’s polycules, and the relationships in polycules may all feel fairly intimate. People who are polyamorous may define their relationships differently than the mainstream partner violence often does, which may cause them to struggle to identify red flags, healthy relationships, and partner violence. Some polyamorous folks may practices some principles of relationship anarchy (RA), in which each unique relationship can be defined by the people in it with less reliance on scripted roles or definitions. With RA, people might struggle to know who is and isn’t a partner for the purposes of identifying and seeking help for “partner abuse.”
How can I tell the difference between the pain from abuse and the discomfort of doing something out of the societal mainstream and cultural conditioning?
So much of mainstream dialogue about “healthy relationships” assumes monogamy as the only healthy relationship style. Because of this, polyamorous people in abusive relationships may not find sensitive, thoughtful support from their monogamous friends. Monogamous friends may not understand polyamory, and may have been led to believe that having multiple partners is itself abusive. And then because polyamorous people are doing something so far outside the mainstream, it can be challenging to know which discomforts are reasonable to “sit with” and which ones are our bodies giving us red flags that a situation is not safe or healthy. Friends within the polyamory community may encourage survivors by sharing their own stories of sitting through discomfort, when what someone might actually need is reassurance that it’s okay to leave. This often leaves polyamorous people not knowing who they can turn to for support when they are experiencing abuse. They may blame themselves, experience increased shame, and they may feel an amplification of abuses’s other impacts (isolation, confusion, and fear, for example).
I’m opening an existing relationship. What should I be thoughtful of?
In opening an existing relationship, polyamorous people may have internalized societal messages about nonmonogamy that suggest having another partner is taking something away from their existing partner. They might worry that they’re not providing the existing partner with what they want out of the relationship, and the existing partner might weaponize “not getting needs met” as a way to control their partner’s behavior. This might lead someone to want to appease their existing partner out of guilt, even if their partner’s demands become unreasonable or are expressed in unhealthy, controlling, or manipulative ways.
Those opening existing relationships also may struggle with navigating boundaries, pacing, and expectations. You can learn more about this in the article, The Most Commonly Skipped Step When Opening a Relationship. That said, nobody should ever feel pressured, manipulated, or coerced into polyamory.
My partner doesn’t meet my needs. Is that bad?
Polyamorous people get different things from different partners, and “I don’t need one person to meet all my needs” is a common benefit polyamorous people mention. And yet, there’s a difference between not getting all your needs met by one partner, and ignoring the fundamental things you need or want to feel safe and seen in a relationship. There are needs that can be met by different partners, and then there are needs that are foundational to your ability to be secure in any relationship. It’s okay to take time to get clear with yourself on which needs fall into which category.
Polyamorous people may sometimes twist “I don’t need every partner to meet all my needs” to dismiss harmful behavior from partners; partners who have rationalized manipulating their partners may sometimes leverage this same narrative to justify poor behavior. Sometimes as survivors, we gaslight ourselves because we’ve been gaslit so much to where we think, “Is this abuse? If it’s abuse, I’ll leave. If it’s not, then I can keep working on it.”
The reality is, if something’s uncomfortable, you can leave. You don’t have to get to the point where you have to label it abuse to give yourself permission to leave. If it’s not good, leave. and survivors may get caught in the trap of trying to determine whether or not the situation is “abuse.” It’s important to remember that someone can leave a situation that doesn’t feel safe, healthy, or consistent, if those are things that they need and want in their life, without needing to figure out if it’s abuse or not to justify their decision to take care of themself.
Isn’t polyamory more enlightened? Does abuse actually happen in polyamory?
Polyamory discourse that paints ethical nonmonogamy as somehow more “enlightened” leaves us less likely to collectively self-reflect on norms that can become abusive, or on the ways in which partner abuse exists in polyamorous communities and relationships. The truth is that abuse can exist in any relationship structure. Yes, polyamory may require a high level of communication to navigate, but if the communication is manipulative, controlling, or otherwise abusive, no amount will be enough to make it healthy.
The good communication skills required for polyamory will reduce the chance of abuse, right?
Non-violent communication, twelve-step recovery language, or any other self-help practices can be tools of abuse in the hands of someone who believes they can manipulate a partner into doing what they want. A hammer is designed to hammer nails and also can do a lot of damage in the hands of an abusive person. Those skills sometimes give abusive people new tools for harming a partner. Even the language learned in therapy can be twisted in such a way that it becomes part of the abuse, and abusive partners may even abuse in an actual couples therapy appointment, in front of the therapist, without the therapist catching on. Having self-help skills will help some people heal; having self-help skills might make someone more skilled at abuse.
I want to get support for the abuse I experienced, but worry that my relationship won’t be seen as a real relationship, or that I’ll lose my community.
In the wake of partner abuse, polyamorous people may have internalized cultural messages and question whether their relationship was a “real” relationship. If the abuse came from a partner that was not a long-term or nesting partner, polyamorous survivors may feel insecure about reaching out for support and services for fear that the relationship will be invalidated as not being significant or real. If the abuse came from a nesting partner, survivors may worry that leaving will somehow reinforce beliefs that nested relationships don’t survive multiple partners.
Survivors may already have lost some of their supports just by coming out as polyamorous and so they have reduced access to support from family and friends. If their primary support is in their polyamory community, they have the added layer of fearing that if they come forward about the abuse they may lose access to their primary source of support and community. Who’s going to get access to the community? What if the community doesn’t believe me and my partner who abused me is the one that stays in community and I feel like I have to leave? Maybe I should leave in advance so that I don’t have to deal with that fear of rejection.
There are all sorts of ways that the added concern of polyamory can keep you from coming forward about abuse, and a lot of service providers who do counseling, support groups, and shelters for survivors of partner violence may not have a whole lot of training or knowledge around polyamory. Survivors often find themselves in the position of having to educate their providers as they are seeking support.
I worry that my partner is being abused by another partner. It’s making me feel like I can’t tell what’s real!
Our culture does not have stories about how to navigate the big feelings that come up when a partner is being abused by another partner. Polyamorous people may be so intentional about managing their own feelings that they avoid naming the abuse out of fear that they’ll just be seen as jealous. Plus, an abusive metamour can have impacts on everyone in the polycule, and it can be hard to set the boundaries we need to protect ourselves from “abuse by proxy.”
Quote from a survivor: “I began to see that my partner’s nesting relationship was abusive long before I said anything. I was afraid that if I said something, he’d think I was jealous or trying to steal him away.”
If a partner is not yet ready to name their other relationship as abusive, polyamorous people, especially those with a history of trauma or abuse themselves, may feel like they have to “pretend” that their metamour’s behavior isn’t abusive in order to maintain access and rationalize their partner’s actions to themselves. This can lead to a sensation of “gaslighting by proxy,” in which a polyamorous person feels pressured into accepting their partner’s victimization as normal in order to preserve the relationship.
No matter what, supporting a partner through an abusive relationship or its aftermath can be challenging.