Abuse in polyamory, 2019 edition

The other day, I was browsing an online polyamory forum and I read something that made me angry enough to break my usual principle of disdainful disengagement. I posted a response that used words like “abusive” and “dangerous” and I didn’t try to soften them, and that’s how you know I’m pissed.

In a nutshell, a person had come in hoping for help unpacking a situation where her boundaries were being walked all over by her boyfriend and his new-to-polyam partner, and amid many reasonable and compassionate responses one person spoke up saying, “I think you need to check your entitlement as well, you used the phrase ‘my boyfriend’ here – he doesn’t belong to you, you know.”

This is a spot-on example of how the more “enlightened” pieces of polyam/RA discourse can be used as a tool of abuse. Not (and I did make this clear in my comment) that I think the commenter was being abusive in the context of an online discussion. But in the context of a relationship?

Imagine this: there’s a pattern in your relationship that’s making you unhappy, that’s preventing you from freely occupying your own home and making you feel like you have to disappear to make space for another person. And you finally bring it up with your partner, and your partner responds with, “Whoa, you used the phrase ‘my partner’ there – I don’t belong to you, you know.”

And suddenly you’re in a conversation about possessiveness, about how in order to really do ethical non-monogamy right, you both have to let go of a scarcity mindset and accept that nobody owns another person and you’re all whole in yourselves and relationships are free exchanges and nobody has a right to another person’s time or attention. And you’re nodding, because yes, all those things are part of the values you hold, and of course you don’t want to treat your partner like a possession or coerce them into giving you things they don’t want to give. And the conversation ends, and your partner smiles encouragingly and says how glad they are that you had this talk, and you agree and that’s the end of it. And you come away feeling hollow and small, feeling like something went wrong but you don’t know what.

Context is so important, you see. In a different context, a conversation about possessiveness and scarcity and freedom would be a great thing to have. In a conversation that started with one hurting partner expressing their pain, it is cruel, manipulative, and destructive. What the other partner is actually communicating is “your pain is uninteresting and irrelevant to me; I would prefer instead to focus on what you’ve done wrong, and on reasserting my rights.” They might even say the words “I care about your feelings” – but focusing the conversation on philosophical points and making a case that the other person is incorrect is an action that contradicts those words.

Now at this point you could say, “Sounds like you’re saying it would be bad if our partners talked to us the way some people in online forums do: no shit.” And yes – although I do think our virtual communities need to be careful about what we normalize and reinforce, it’s not about the online discussion. My anger didn’t come from the discussion. My anger came from the ways in which this exact tactic was used against me years ago, and from the freshness of that pain in light of the recently-published accusations against Franklin Veaux.

I’ve never met Franklin, and I don’t have first-hand knowledge of any of his actions apart from things he’s written and shared publicly. I do know that the way he writes, and some of the ways I’ve seen him respond to criticism, remind me strongly of my abusive ex. This is in some ways a compliment to both of them: they are thoughtful, incisive, and skilled with language, and they often use those skills in the service of good and important ideas. My ex was also a master at using rhetoric and conversational sleight of hand to put his partners in the wrong whenever it suited him. He had a knack of placing his own wishes and feelings behind large philosophical principles, so that you could never discuss conflicts on the basis of what you each needed and wanted – it became instead a matter of objective rights and wrongs.

My ex gave me a master class in how a person can use good principles and polyamorous ideals to make their partners feel crushed and invalidated. I don’t know if these tactics are similar to the ones Franklin employed against his partners, but I do feel confident that there are other polyamorous relationships where the same tactics are being played out, other partners who feel lost and off-balance and unable to name what’s being done to them. I’m writing this for them. I’m writing this because it’s what I needed to read, half a dozen years ago.

Here are a few tactics I’ve seen, in my own and other relationships: what they have in common is using the language of relationship principles and values as a tool for abuse.

The values shield

In a healthy conflict, needs are discussed against other needs, feelings against other feelings. You say “I want this thing because I feel X, Y and Z” and your partner says “I want the opposite of that because I feel Q, R, and S,” and then you work together to see how you can best accommodate both sets of feelings.

If instead you say “I want this thing because I feel X, Y and Z” and your partner says “Let’s have a rational discussion of whether X, Y and Z are good things to feel, or whether the thing you want will actually get you them, or whether Q, R and S are objectively more important than X, Y and Z” – that is a power play. Whether they admit it or not (they almost certainly won’t), the principles they’re injecting are in defense of the thing they want, but rather than meeting you on equal ground, direct personal want against direct personal want, they’re going to jump to the higher ground of ideals and values. And you can’t jump to the same level, even if you’re able to think fast enough to dredge up whatever ideals and values would support your position, because you’ve already admitted you have a personal want on the line.

This is easy to do in polyam relationships because we are already used to talking about ethics, principles, and ideals in relationship choices. And I love that about us! But a pivot to principles when the other person is trying to have their feelings heard and their needs met is adversarial, it’s a bid for control, and if exercised regularly it can be a form of abuse.

The narrow focus

“Score-keeping is a bad relationship habit, and bringing up old grievances is a bad way to handle conflict” – this is a common and true piece of relationship advice. A subtle and calm abusive partner can weaponize this by insisting that every one of their actions be looked at singly, never in a larger context or as part of a pattern.

The more subtle types of abuse never feature an outrageous action: they are a buildup of small line-crossings or put-downs, each one fairly innocuous in itself. They’re the kind of thing that happens in most relationships from time to time. If your partner makes a joke that goes too far, if they forget something important to you, you might complain to a friend and they might say “Oh yeah, I hate when my partner does that.” But there’s a world of difference between this kind of thing happening occasionally (and reciprocally) and a continual pattern that slowly erodes your feeling of being worthy and valued.

If you try to address this, though, your partner will complain that you’re making a big deal out of nothing, because the single incident looks so minor. And if you try to say that it’s part of a pattern, and bring up other similar incidents – boom! you’re keeping score. And they can, if they’re inclined to this kind of thing, bring up dozens of articles talking about how damaging and unfair it is to keep score and bring up old grievances.

Partners who are good at the language of self-analysis and mental health can often throw a bonus tactic on top of this, by trying to help you figure out why you’re so upset by this one little thing (always just the one little thing, never a pattern.) Is it something in your past? A known mental health issue? Jealousy and insecurity? They may be very, very understanding about this, kind and patient and forgiving. You go away feeling grateful that they would take so much trouble. You never even notice how deftly they’ve substituted “You did this thing that hurt me” with “What is wrong with me that I was hurt by that?”

But you never said –!

In ethical non-monogamy we preach the values of open communication and asking for what you need. An abusive partner can use this to refuse responsibility for anything that was not a direct, blunt conversation. Once again, all context will be ignored. If you did not state a feeling in words, in the moment, they will throw up their hands and ask how they possibly could have known what you wanted. They may gently lecture you on the importance of honesty and asking for what you need. At the same time, they are constantly behaving in ways that ensure that you will not feel safe to express those feelings.

They may do this by making it extremely unpleasant for you to express yourself. An unsubtle abuser might get angry or threatening – a subtle one will withdraw coldly, have an emotional breakdown, or drag you into an unending debate where you have to justify your feelings to the last degree. After a few rounds of this, you learn that it’s better to just keep it to yourself.

Polyamory also creates marvelous potential for using other partners to train you. You can watch how they respond when another partner expresses a need. They may complain to you about how another partner, current or former, does this kind of thing and how hard it is on them and how unfair it is. By the time you start to feel the same feeling, you’ve already internalized that it is not acceptable. If you dare to speak up anyway, you can bet you’ll hear “Wow, you sound just like [other partner that you have listened to them complain about for hours.]”

Regardless of how they did it, if they once learn that you’ve been keeping things to yourself, they will be shocked and hurt. How are they supposed to be a good partner to you if they didn’t know what you needed? How can this relationship work if you’re not both willing to be honest and open with each other? They would never acknowledge that safety is a necessary condition for honesty, and that they are also responsible for that.

***

These are just a few tactics I’ve personally observed, that are especially adapted for use by smart, articulate, thoughtful people who think and talk a lot about relationship ethics and healthy personhood. It’s a very incomplete list, but if you recognize any of these things, and if you’ve been feeling diminished or eroded in your relationship, know that you’re not imagining it and you’re not unreasonable. (And definitely, definitely read Lundy Bancroft’s Why Does He Do That? – whatever your and your partner’s gender. If you can’t access it, I’ll buy the ebook for you.)

When I was first escaping my abusive relationship, I needed to think of all these behaviors as deliberate, conscious, and intentional. I needed to believe that my ex knew what he was doing. Now I don’t – I can much more easily see these things as a pattern of panicked ego defense, moving from one thing to the next in an unconscious dance to avoid taking responsibility for harmful actions. I can see the pain and the fear that lies behind a lot of these tactics. But when I was first coming to terms with the abuse, I had to ignore all that, because I still had a powerful impulse to tend to and care for my ex. If I had acknowledged his pain, I would have felt obligated to prioritize it above my own needs.

Bottom line, it doesn’t really matter to what extent these things are conscious or unconscious, knowing or involuntary. The damage is still there, and the need for accountability. If you’ve been hurt by these behaviors, believe whatever helps you heal. Other people can worry about the abusive person.

There is no discourse, no philosophy, no set of principles, that is immune to being used for manipulation and abuse. The best we can do is call out what we see when we are seeing it, and show others how to avoid the traps we’ve been caught in. I hope it helps.