There is a lively and timely conversation about abuse in polyamorous relationships, and the ways poly structures uniquely contribute to abusive situations, in both positive and negative ways. I have a lot to say about this. For today, though, I want to tackle one particular question: how one should behave if one’s partner is accused of abuse or consent violations.
One of the ways abuse in poly differs from many monogamous situations is that the abusive dynamics may be created and fed by several people in the poly network. While there may be a centrally abusive, controlling figure, often other members of the poly circle contribute in their own ways to creating a toxic environment that leaves one or more people feeling powerless and oppressed. This can operate a lot of different ways, but the simplest is when other partners of the abusive person insist that nothing is wrong, that the abusive partner is great and wonderful and thus any problems must be your problem. Whether this comes from a Stockholm-y place, or whether the abusive partner only operates abusively toward some partners (or some complicated mix of the two), this often leaves the abuse victim convinced that it must, indeed, be a problem with them. There’s no gaslighting like community-reinforced gaslighting, even when it’s completely unintentional on the part of most of the community members.
Despite the common (and appropriate) admonishment to “believe the victim,” when the accused abuser is someone that you love and don’t believe capable of abuse, I don’t think that you, in your heart of hearts, are obligated to believe the victim. I don’t think it serves anyone for people to try to convince themselves on principle to believe something they don’t believe. If you believe the accusation is false, for whatever reason, then you don’t need to pretend otherwise.
I do, however, think you’re obligated to behave and speak in victim-supporting ways. The only way to create a community that battles abuse and supports victims is for everybody to practice certain victim-supporting behaviors, even if they have doubts about the accuracy or severity of the accusations. The damage of siding with an accused abuser over their victim goes far beyond the immediate situation and the added pain caused to the victim; it tells all other victims of abuse that if they report, there is a danger that their community will rally around their abuser and they will feel further ostracized, victimized, and vulnerable. This fear, in turn, acts to protect and enable abusive behavior, as abuse goes unreported.
So much for the general principles. What are the victim-supporting behaviors that a partner of the accused should adopt?
1) Absolutely do not attack or question the victim, publicly or privately. You may have your doubts; you may be convinced the accusation is false; and in that case the instinct to rush to your partner’s defense may be strong. Resist it, for all the reasons stated above. By doing so, you’ll be harming not only that person, but any other current or future abuse victims in earshot.
2) Don’t try to put yourself on Team Victim if that’s not where your heart is. Being told “I totally support you” by someone whose behavior and words actually suggest that they doubt and question you sucks. It can become its own form of gaslighting and contribute to the vortex of powerlessness and self-doubt a victim feels.
3) If you must communicate with the victim, stick to validating their pain. “It’s clear this is a very painful situation for you, and I’m very sorry.” Their pain is real, and you can be compassionate toward that even if you disagree about the facts of the situation.
4) If you must express your own opinion of the situation, frame it very clearly in terms of your perspective. “He never abused you” is very different from, “I personally didn’t witness anything that I would call abuse.” This applies whether you’re talking to the victim or to outside parties. Keep in mind that you cannot actually know what happened within the privacy of their relationship.
These are victim-supporting behaviors that apply no matter what the situation is. The other side of creating a culture that rejects abuse is supporting the abuser. This set of guidelines will vary a little bit based on the situation you’re in.
Sometimes, accusations of abuse are themselves a form of abuse or manipulation. Your accused partner might themselves be a victim, in this case. If you believe that to be true, then it is absolutely appropriate to direct a lot of compassion and support to them — privately. “I believe you, sweetheart, it’s not your fault, I can’t believe they’re throwing these accusations at you on top of everything else they’ve done. I’m so sorry.”
It is also possible that the accused has behavior patterns that don’t function abusively for you, but do and did for other people. We are each vulnerable to different things, and it is possible to create an environment of manipulation and control without intending to. Also, people’s thresholds for labeling something “abuse” can vary, especially for emotional abuse. So maybe you agree that your partner treated another partner badly, but you feel that abuse is too strong an accusation.
In any of these cases — where you can see how your partner may be at least partially culpable, even if you don’t see them as abusive — you can support your partner and strengthen the community by holding them accountable in the areas where they are prone to cause harm. You don’t need to be their Personality Makeover Coach (I have a severe side-eye for relationships where one person is actively engaged in teaching the other to be a better person), but if they come to you complaining, “Can you believe X said that I was abusive because I did p, q, and r?” you can say, “I love you, but when you do those things it can feel really dominating/manipulative/invalidating to people, and I’d love to see you work on that.”
It is also possible that you, yourself, are being dominated, abused, and manipulated by the accused partner, and that at some level you feel or suspect this but are struggling with the conflict, fear, and cognitive dissonance that abuse victims so often suffer. If that’s the case, I’m so so sorry. You are in a really hard place, and my heart goes out to you. If you’re even able to acknowledge that this might be the case, you’ve come a long way. How to find your way out of the dark is way beyond the scope of this post, but know that if you keep coming back to the question, “Is there something fundamentally wrong with my relationship?” the answer is probably yes. Start reading these resources for abuse victims — maybe not for yourself, maybe just to gain a better understanding of what’s going on in your poly network and why community support for victims is so important. (But maybe also for yourself.) Follow the victim-supporting guidelines I wrote above (and if your partner is angry at you for doing that, or pressures you to go to battle for them, that is definitely a problem), but also, do what you need to do to be safe, and know that if you got co-opted into participating in an abusive dynamic, forgiveness waits for you on the other side.
*** Edited Feb 24th to add ***
I’ve gotten a few questions and requests for clarification, so I wrote a follow-up post which you can read here.