When your partner is accused of abuse — some additional thoughts

So, hey there! My last-post-but-one got a surprising amount of attention, and there are probably a lot of you here for the first time! Welcome.

As is inevitable, some questions have come up about nuances in the whole “what do you do when your partner is accused of abuse” question. By far the stickiest is the case where you, the partner, feel that your accused partner is themself being victimized by these accusations. Eve Rickert of More Than Two (and it is cool to admit that I squee’d like a fangirl when Eve and Franklin reblogged my post?) messaged me directly to discuss that point, and ask for some clarification. So here it is.

Situations where a person (or several people) is self-identifying as an abuse victim, while simultaneously being accused by others of perpetrating abuse… these are hard. And not uncommon. How can you support victims and hold abusers accountable when you don’t know who is which?

The thing I think that was sticky for people in my original post was that I suggested that if you believe your partner is being victimized by accusations of abuse, you should support them privately, while still sticking to the victim-supporting behavior I had named above of not attacking the victim publicly. In general I think this is a good principle, but I want to make a couple of clarifying points and perhaps note some exceptions.

1) My advice is absolutely only meant to apply to intimate partners of the accused person. I do not think that a community needs to default to believing and supporting the first person to come forward with abuse accusations — that would be disastrous. I do think that an intimate partner of the accused person is likely to have some pretty strong biases toward coming to the conclusion that attacks on their partner are themselves a form of abuse, and that having intimate partners come out swinging at their partner’s accusers is not usually going to be conducive to truth or healing for anybody.

2) There are things I think it is completely appropriate for a partner to do, when their partner is being accused of abuse and they feel that this is unjust. If there are any facts that they are a direct witness to, I think it is completely appropriate for them to give their account. “X said Y punched him on the night of August 4th. I was there the whole time, and I never saw any physical contact between them.” Other people can make their own judgements about the reliability of the partner’s testimony, but it is completely reasonable to speak to things that you have observed.

I also think it’s appropriate, as I said in the original post, for partners to speak about their own perceptions and beliefs, as long as they are careful to frame it in those terms. “Based on what I’ve seen between them, I feel that Y has been hurt and controlled by X at least as much as X has been hurt and controlled by Y… and honestly, I think a good bit more.” That’s a very different statement from “Y never abused X!” (Which, again, is not something you can really speak to of your own knowledge, no matter how close you were to their relationship.)

3) I’m still thinking on this one. When there is an overwhelming tide of community support toward person X, such that their social standing and ability to move and speak freely are pretty well unaffected, while person Y is functionally ostracized… I think maybe it’s fine for partners, or anybody, to be more aggressive in defending person Y. I’m thinking of situations like the one described here. When the tide of public opinion is strongly in favor of one side, the power differential has shifted such that having a couple of partners speak more loudly in defense of the accused is not going to do the damage it might otherwise do. If it’s a situation like Shea Emma Fett describes, where the abuser had successfully manipulated the community into viewing himself as the victim, then you’re standing up for an oppressed person where no one else will. If, on the other hand, the community opinion has accurately and rightly weighed the situation and come down against your partner, your words in their defense aren’t going to have the same detrimental impact that they would in a more open playing field.

I still think it’s inexcusable in any circumstance to attack a self-identified victim in ways that are dehumanizing, shaming, or devaluing. You can say a lot of words to the effect of, “I don’t think that person’s accusations are true” and “I have suspicions about their motives” and “I actually think they treated my partner really horribly” without undermining their personhood. Especially, I think it’s never acceptable to attack a self-identified victim on the basis of their sexuality or mental health — which are two of the ways abuse and assault victims are most often discredited.

The overall goal of my “advice to partners” post was to avoid creating situations where a community rallies unfairly around an abuser at the expense of their victim, or where a victim fears coming forward because their abuser has several partners who will participate in counter-attacking them. We are naturally prone to support and defend our intimate partners against negative accusations, and I wanted to think and talk about some ways we can balance that impulse of loyalty against the need to create whole communities that support victims. One unfortunate fact, whenever giving advice of this kind, is that people who are conscientious, self-critical, and primarily concerned with doing the right thing may follow the advice even to their own detriment, while people who are blind to their own biases and/or primarily concerned with serving their own interests will ignore it or distort it in order to cause further harm. I don’t have a solution for that problem.

I will say, though, that “good behavior guidelines” and advice are generally best self-applied. Reading, reflecting, and deciding to hold yourself to a certain standard, is all great. Pointing to someone else’s behavior and saying, “See? See how they failed to follow this guideline here? That proves they’re bad/wrong/certainly less good than me, anyway” — that is not, in my opinion, conducive to building a better world and better relationships. Doubly so if you’re waving them in the person’s face to prove to them how bad/wrong they are, which can get downright coercive. (I grew up in a moralistic religion. I know whereof I speak.)

The larger question of how communities can and should respond when there are accusations of abuse flying around in multiple directions is — well, it’s a larger question. It’s also very timely, and I may or may not try to tackle it in a future post. I am encouraged that the poly community is so concerned with these issues, and I’ve been pleased to see people trying hard to do the right thing, and self-correcting when they recognize they’ve made a mistake. I’m confident that, as we keep talking and listening to each other, we can make our communities safe and affirming.

7 thoughts on “When your partner is accused of abuse — some additional thoughts

  1. I think one of the large issues that the community might want to focus on is the concept that people can be in a mutually abusive/abused relationship. In both poly and monagamous situations, I’ve known people who, while I enjoy their company and like them and think that they are trying to be good, healthy, people, are absolutely both abusive and abused.

    I’ll give an example of a friend who had a partner who would question her excessively about the time she spent with her male friends, and made sarcastic, innuendo-ish comments about what she did with them. Her response was to make the same kind of comments about his female friends. He escalated into starting to check her texts – she responded in kind. Which escalated to checking emails and nastier verbal commentary between them, and eventually physical violence – although she was hurt worse, it’s really hard to parse which of them actually “started” the violence. They both admit that they were in each others faces screaming. He claims that he tried to leave the room and she blocked his path, so he pushed her out of the way. She claims that he didn’t try to leave before he shoved her, he just shoved her into a wall. He ended up with scratches on his face and neck, from when she tried to grapple/grab him as she was falling; she ended up with a bleeding head wound, and assorted brusies.

    And there we go, a cycle of abuse.

    I wonder what would have happened if she’d had a conversation with him when those sarcastic, inuuendo-laden comments had started, and let him know that they wouldn’t be tolerated, and eased back or terminated the relationship accordingly?

    I think some of this stems from something that a number of people have mentioned before – that some comments that many people consider “acceptable” (like a woman telling her partner that she (the partner) can no longer talk/text/email with ex-girlfriends). I think some of it also stems from being hesitant, during those first, small signs of abuse or control, to call people on it. Is it really abuse or a joke? If I tell him to knock it off and he says I’m sensitive, do I call him on *that* being a form of control and abuse? What if it really was a joke that he genunitely didn’t mean, but now I’m pre-disposed to view his comments negatively and take them seriously because of his un-funny joke? Should we just not joke about such things?

    Myself, I’ve learned that the sooner I nip things in the bud, like un-funny “jokes” about control, the easier it is to not bring people who have the potential to abuse into my life. But that can be hard for so many reasons – being tired of being on the loockout for such things, so infrequently having really good chemistry with another person that I will internally argue with myself about what I’m willing to put up with (and ignoring that thinking of a behavior of a potential partner is something to “put up with” is a huge red flag right there), or even just missing that a behavior IS controlling – it’s really hard.

    Which is part of why it sounds really great that the community as a whole is talking about these things. The more people willing to have honest conversations with friends, partners, and maybe even aquaintences at parties who they see exhibiting controlling behavior, the better for all of us. I have to admit too, although I feel confident that I’ve never been deliberately abusive or emotionally manipulative, there are things I’ve said or done that I realized later were meant to exert some amount of control over a partner. When I’ve been calling of those things, I apologized after a painful discussion, and then went on to do further work myself, to identify WHY I felt entitled to do/say something, and what *I* needed to change about myself or the situation (without controlling someone else), so that I didn’t feel that need. Or I learned to feel that uncomfortable feeling, have that desire to exert control because of my own fears, but not act on it. It’s hard, and it feels shitty, but it’s doable for all of us.


    1. It’s certainly true that there are relationships with abusive (or at least toxic and damaging) dynamics going in both direction. It is *also* true that there are relationships that can look like that, but where one person is much more in control than the other. For example, in many domestic violence scenarios, the victim of the violence does fight back and ends up hurting the perpetrator as well. If two people show up with injuries, it does not necessarily mean that the power dynamic between them is equal. I don’t know your friend, so I won’t speak to her situation specifically, but a very similar-appearing set of circumstances could happen in a case where both people are struggling to control and manipulate the other, or where one person is goading the other into defensive behaviors so that they can then claim to be a victim. It can be very hard to tell.

      And yes: an important piece of this conversation is recognizing that we ALL, at times, do things intended to exert control over our loved ones. Recognizing this potential in ourselves and stamping it out is essential. Thanks for your comments on that.


  2. I definitely agree that there are circumstances where one person is being more manipulative – and I’ve seen instances where the person most strongly claiming to be the victim was “victimized” by the other person resisting their attempt to be controlling. Or (to use a personal example), I behaved in a controlling manner towards a partner who was being so controlling in so many different ways, that I did it as a sort of last resort “see how awful this feels?” tactic (which turned out to be completely useless on multiple levels).

    In the case of my friend…it was a mess. Her boyfriend appeared to be the one to first exhibit the majorly controling behaviors. But I also know that my friend has a “if I’m dating someone seriously, and they continue to talk to/see exes, that’s an insult to me” kind of attitude that, I don’t know how to put it – poisons the well a bit. Not to say that she (or anybody) deserves to be controlled or abused EVER. I’m just not sure how to proceed as a good friend if/when I point out that a viewpoint like that is itself controlling and are told “that’s just your opinion on this. most people understand that the right thing to do is not talk to exes and previous crushes once you have a serious partner”. And I know (from personally witnessing) that when she’s really angry, she will both get in someone’s face, and also follow them/stay up in their face when fighting (I’ve only see this happen with people that she’s dating – if she did this to friends, we wouldn’t be friends. Which brings up a whole other bunch of concerns, in terms of the things that people think are more acceptable to do once they are dating someone). Which is why I feel like it’s hard to believe her, when I’ve watched her do things that would have caused ME to shove her away, had she done them to me.

    I think I got caught up in my previous comment about only talking about when the attempts to control are equal-ish on both sides – I’m really not sure which scenerio is more likely in terms of abuse – one where both partners are abusive or one where one partner is more clearly and consistantly the abuser and the other person is abused – or if it even matters. But as we’re talking about this as a community, one of the biggest things I come back to is the idea of gently (and privately) calling out friends, partners and metamours when we see them doing something that is controlling. I wonder if that would help slowly educate people about abusive and abusive actions.

    I also worry that it would just make a lot of people angry and feel like their personal matters are being invaded. When is it an invasion and when is it permissible to intervene?

    But to speak to part of what your original post was about – I really strongly agree that it’s important for everybody to understand that supporting someone doesn’t necessarily mean tearing down or attacking the humanity of other person. We might not yet have a form of “court” where we can all judge if someone was abusive or abused, but taking an accusation of abuse and calling the abuser evil (if someone believes the abuse is true) or calling the abused crazy (if someone believes the abuse is false) only polarizes things and doesn’t seem to help anybody.


    1. I think this is a very important point: “But as we’re talking about this as a community, one of the biggest things I come back to is the idea of gently (and privately) calling out friends, partners and metamours when we see them doing something that is controlling. I wonder if that would help slowly educate people about abusive and abusive actions.

      I also worry that it would just make a lot of people angry and feel like their personal matters are being invaded. When is it an invasion and when is it permissible to intervene?”

      To me, if you want your friends to be the best people they can be, and also have the best relationships they can have, it makes sense to approach things from that place.

      So with the friend who you were talking about – her partner was clearly not going to stop talking to exes, and him talking to exes did not work for her. If a relationship is not working for you, and your partner will not change the things about their behavior that are not working, why don’t you leave the relationship? You only have control over your own behavior.

      Asking your friend, “Is this relationship working for you?” and trying to think about what your friend can do to make their life better is something we can all do. I don’t think most people would be against that kind of intervention.

      At the same time it is a sign of who is more committed to controlling the other person. If your solution is not to take action to change your life, but to double down on pressure to control the other person, that is an abusive mindset.


  3. There’s also a lot to be said for just promoting principles and philosophies that are against controlling friends and relationship partners. Some people act in controlling ways because they haven’t learned that there are other, better ways to take care of their own needs in relationships (whether that be setting boundaries, communicating cooperatively, or leaving the relationship.) Discussing and spreading wisdom about non-controlling relationship behaviors is a good way to help create a culture where relationship autonomy and personal empowerment are valued. (I have a bunch of thoughts about being an empowering friend or lover, which hopefully will get written up and posted before long.)

    None of this will help in the cases where someone exercises control and behaves abusively due to severe narcissism or psychopathy. But it will at least help de-normalize some controlling behaviors and make them stand out more readily.


    1. “None of this will help in the cases where someone exercises control and behaves abusively due to severe narcissism or psychopathy. But it will at least help de-normalize some controlling behaviors and make them stand out more readily”

      Agreed – especially the last part, about de-normalizing controlling behaviors.

      This is a thing that no longer happens (because I have a different friend group), but in the past, I’ve witnessed multiple friends do/say something to another friend that is controlling (let’s say one example is my friend Eric who tells another friend that they cannot date Eric’s exes without damaging (or possibly ruining) their friendship with Eric) . When I’ve said “just so we’re clear, if you ever do/say that to me, our friendship is going to change, because I don’t permit that kind of decision-making over my life”, I’ve had the response of “oh, I know. You and I have a different friendship than I have with that friend. I would never do that to you”. I don’t even know what to say about that – it’s OK to have that kind of control with someone who consents to it? Is it a two-way agreement, and my willingness to be OK about someone dating my exes means we have a different agreement?

      That is another gray area what I’m not sure how to proceed, if I saw/heard something like that happening again. I wonder if I’m being…a bad friend, or at least a lax one, if I wouldn’t say to my friend “Let’s talk about that. Why is that OK?” and possibly proceed into talking about why that behavior is controlling, depending on how it goes.

      When abusive behavior is perpetuated by someone with a personality disorder, in my experience walking away and/or having iron-clad boundaries does really seem like the only way to go. My mom is undiagnosed, but every therapist I’ve ever had has thought that she has borderline personality disorder and because of that, had a hard time seeing me as an autonomous person. There was a period in my life where she disowned me, because I stopped allowing her to be abusive and controling. The only reason she un-disowned me was because my dad threatened to divorce her if she didn’t stop her campaign against me. Since that time (which was 15 years ago) we’ve slowly built a relationship that does have healthy boundaries and respectful behavior. But I will alway wonder if she’d have ever gotten there on her own, had my dad not forced her hand. And although I do treat her respectually, as any human deserves to be treated, I lost my respect for her because of that. Were she not my mom (and capable of making life difficult for a lot of relatives), and someone that I could have made a cleaner break from, I probably woudln’t have let her back into my life, because of the lack of respect I have for her. Even when she behaves well (and she’s nowhere near perfect and has cycles of behaving excellent and then back-sliding), I always wonder when the next round of boundary-testing is going to happen. Because it always will.


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