How to Address Abuse in Non-Traditional Relationships
Nontraditional relationships, Polyamory, or being open to the possibility of multiple consensual romantic relationships, is sometimes touted in the news media as a “cure-all” for the woes of monogamy. Yet as with any kind of relationship structure, a variety of problems can manifest. Due to the fact that parties over 2 may be involved, polyamory can be especially tricky to navigate. So what happens when abuse comes into play? It may be difficult to find proper support since so many resources are monogamy-centric, your friends and family may not “get it” (or may not even know), or even that polyamory may be new to you. Unfortunately, there are very few licensed professionals trained in issues specific to polyamory and some of the stuff it may intersect with (like kink or being queer). Below are examples of issues specific to polyamory, and methods for reducing harm or avoiding it altogether.
Understand the various manifestations of abuse. Become informed about common (and not so common) ways that abuse can manifest in polyamory. This is one way you can protect yourself and others against it. Read as much as you can, and most importantly, trust your gut. Below are some examples of poly-specific abuse patterns.
Breaking consent, or breaking previous agreements about individual boundaries, is a really big problem in all types of relationships. In the case of polyamory, where multiple hearts are entangled together, and risks for transmitting sexual infections are increased due to the larger network of lovers, breaking consent can have devastating consequences. Examples of breaking consent:
Breaking a fluid bond: When lovers agree to fluid bond and share sexual fluids, they are participating in a monumental act of trust. Sometimes, that trust is broken. While some people will agree to a partner breaking their fluid bond so long as their partner then tell them so that they can make an informed decision about whether or not to continue their fluid bond, it is absolutely not ok to break a fluid bond and then continue having unprotected sex without telling your oblivious and non-consenting partner. This is a form of sexual assault that may have criminal consequences depending on your jurisdiction. If you believe that your partner may have broken your fluid bond, immediately quit having unprotected sex with them and seek STD testing (ask your health worker whether you will need to wait more time for an accurate result).
Gaslighting is a type of psychological abuse in which the abuser uses manipulation tactics to discredit or deny the victim’s understanding of reality. Gaslighting can be very pernicious in polyamorous relationships because the abuser can seek the support of their other lover(s) (the victim’s metamour(s)), and collectively silence the victim. In this case, a secondary form of abuse appears, which is the manipulation of the metamour into complacency with the story that the abuser has invented. Examples of gaslighting:
Coercion through false accusations: Jealousy is a common theme that comes up in polyamorous relationships and conversations about polyamory. The “jealousy taboo” can be taken advantage of by an abusive partner as a way to coerce their victim into agreeing to things they are not comfortable with. If you are being blamed for jealousy when you are in fact speaking up for yourself and your boundaries, you may be a victim of gaslighting. You may actually feel some jealousy, but sense that something is off. This is ok–you are doing nothing wrong. Trust your instincts, and consider taking a step back and talking with a neutral party like a crisis hotline, neutral friend, or therapist. Remember: your boundaries are never up for debate.
Taking advantage of an imbalance of power and privilege in the relationship: Polyamory is considered by some to be a “rich, white, San Francisco thing”. Whether or not that’s true, what happens when polyamorous relationships include people of different races, class backgrounds, gender identities, abilities, or other identities or intersections thereof? And what happens when you pair a person with little experience in polyamory with a seasoned pro? As in any kind of relationship, an imbalance of power, whether perceived or real, can manifest in many different forms of abuse. Here are some examples:
Sexual coercion: Oftentimes polyamory is seen as an open-minded, experimentation-friendly relationship form. There may even be a certain social pressure to conform to the desires of one’s partner(s) in order to fit in or not appear jealous or insecure (in polyamory, jealousy and insecurity, when not addressed responsibly, can unfortunately be deemed taboo). This dynamic may result in a person being pressured by their abuser into doing something they don’t feel comfortable doing. It can happen to both new poly folks and experienced poly folks alike. Sexual coercion is a form of sexual assault.
Look for warning signs. Be on the lookout for red flags, such as the ones below. There are surely many more than what’s here–please add to this list!
Your partner(s) become defensive when you want to talk about or reexamine boundaries. Boundaries are #1 in all relationships. Your partner needs to be enthusiastically accepting of your personal boundaries. Your boundaries are NEVER up for debate.
Your partner(s) become defensive when you want to know who they are dating. If you feel that you want open communication about this topic, you have that right. If your partner(s) disagree, they need to form relationships exclusively with people who are ok with “don’t ask don’t tell”. It is important to make this clear at the beginning of a relationship. You should never be coerced into non-communication–this issue is a one-way street. On a related note, partners in open relationships should never intentionally hide who they are dating from you. This is dishonest and downright abusive.
Your partner(s) coerce you (through guilt, physical intimidation, anger, etc.) into sexual acts you do not feel comfortable doing. Healthy relationships are rooted in consent. A partner that values a consensual relationship would never pressure you to do anything against your will. This includes seemingly-veiled forms of pressure, such as asking you more than once. “Yes means yes”–consent needs to be given enthusiastically!
You feel like something is off or isn’t right. Trust your gut! If you have a nagging feeling that a dynamic in your relationship(s) or something your partner(s) have said or done is off, honor your gut! Give yourself time, and seek resources for examining and understanding what’s going on. Sometimes it really takes giving yourself the time needed to process everything, or finding that one right connection to make sense of complicated or cloudy situations.
Learn as much as you can. Read articles, books, zines, blogs, etc. that speak specifically about abuse in polyamory and open relationships. Read articles. Speak with your poly friends. Here is a list of good reads and other resources:
- Beware the Unicorn Chasers, and Other Tips I’ve Learned in 10 Years of Polyamory: http://www.xojane.com/sex/polyamory-101
- Things I wish I’d known About Gaslighting: https://medium.com/@sheaemmafett/10-things-i-wish-i-d-known-about-gaslighting-22234cb5e407
- Strategies For Non-Oppressive Polyamory: http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2013/10/9-strategies-for-oppressive-polyamory/
- How to Fuck Up a Relationship: http://www.heartless-bitches.com/rants/elise.shtml
- If you are in danger, please find a safe space (like a shelter or a trusted person’s home), call a trusted friend or a crisis hotline, or just get out.
- If you are living with an abusive partner, consider your options for leaving, such as a domestic abuse shelter or a close friend or family member’s home.
- Talk with a loved one who is not involved in the abuse.
- Search for a poly-friendly therapist here: http://www.polychromatic.com/pfp/main.php or here:http://www.lovemore.com/whydonate/polyamory-professionals/
- Join Facebook groups for abuse survivors or poly people, or follow pages or people who advocate for abuse survivors. These are good ways to network with people and find resources relevant to your experience. Here are a couple of examples:
- Speak Out: Advocacy on Abuse in All types of Relationships page: https://www.facebook.com/1454798584738939
- Open Relationship Community group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/openrelationshipcommunitygroup/
- PolyWeekly (“a podcast devoted to tales from the front of responsible non-monogamy from a pansexual, kink-friendly point of view”): https://www.facebook.com/polyweekly
- Find more poly abuse resources in this list compiled by More Than Two: https://www.morethantwo.com/blog/2015/02/resources-on-abuse-in-polyamorous-relationships
Be kind to yourself. Remember these key points:
- You are not alone. There are people who will understand and support you. Sometimes they may be hard to find, but they are definitely there and do exist.
- Do what feels healing to you