Amber Heard’s recent allegations of verbal and physical abuse in her marriage to Johnny Depp have been plastered across magazines from People to The Guardian. Heard, Rihanna and other celebs have raised public awareness about intimate partner abuse through these scandals. Listicles detailing “15 Undeniable Warning Signs Your Relationships is Abusive” are trending. But these articles concern traditional heterosexual relationships in which the man is the abuser; gay relationships, relationships involving multiple partners, and other non-standard relationships are left undiscussed.
Yet, harmful behaviors are just as common in non-traditional relationships. People in these partnerships tend to keep a lower profile because the cost of living everyday life in a non-traditional relationship is high. Even “perfect” queer couples may have their children taken away by Child Protective Services; seeking help for abuse in such a relationship can bring about further scrutiny.
Those in ethically non-monogamous relationships find it particularly hard to recognize when they’re being abused, and where they can find help if they need it. The term ethically non-monogamous describes anyone who has loving, romantic, or sexual partnerships with multiple people at a time. Examples include: people in triads (three-person relationships), polyamorous people (people who may or may not be committed to a primary partner but who believe in loving and dating more than one person at a time), and people in polycules (networks of polyamorous people who are closely connected to each other, as in a family).
Traditional couples define their relationships in part by sexual exclusivity, so abuse in multiple-partner relationships can be hard to describe. If having sex with other people is okay, then what’s not okay in a polyamorous relationship?
As Ginny Brown of Everyday Feminism wrote,
Regardless of our own relationship style, most of us know hundreds of monogamous couples, and we’ve seen hundreds more depicted in movies, books, and TV… [P]oly people have to do a lot more learning by trial and error. We have fewer resources to develop maps of poly relationship territory ahead of time, let alone to mark the spots on the map that should say Danger: Here Be Dragons. For example, it can be hard to tell the difference between “I’m experiencing jealousy and insecurity that I need to learn strategies for handling” and “My partner is using their other partners to keep me feeling devalued and unworthy.”
Any relationship in which one partner is systematically devalued is abusive. But while thousands of internet feminists quickly rally to Amber Heard’s defense, popular reactions to abuse stories from within non-traditional relationships are mixed. Since poly relationships are subject to so many outside threats, some poly people are not receptive to valid criticisms of the lifestyle, its rhetoric, and its participants. As stories like Heard’s have trended in mainstream media, narratives of abuse in poly communities—and poly communities’ responses to those narratives—are becoming hot topics in alternative media. Dawn M. Davidson of Love Outside the Box noted,
[I]n trying to distinguish that not all polyamorous relationships are abusive—which is a normal and natural desire!—we can sometimes, unwittingly, create a situation in which people who are doing these “bad behaviors” can hide out, flourish, and have a perfect place in which to prey on their victims.
Resistance to critique not only allows abusers to flourish, but also silences victims of abuse. Victims of intimate-partner abuse already feel isolated as a result of their partners’ actions. When victims do not feel empowered to speak out about their suffering in their home communities, they become further isolated. They may be less likely than monogamous partners to leave their abusive relationships. Why? Their families may have already shunned them for leading a non-monogamous lifestyle. And if they are part of a group relationship or polycule, their family of choice may comprise their entire social circle. So the victim may feel even more trapped, with no one to turn to for emotional or financial support.
“There was a time, long ago,” Franklin said […], “when I had this naive idea that polyamorous relationships were less likely to be abusive than monogamous relationships. Isolating a person is one of the hallmarks of abuse. So if you’ve got more people in the relationship, it’s harder to isolate someone, right? You have more eyes on a potential problem, right?”
However, said Franklin, he came to realize that because abusers are often influential and charismatic—and because groupthink is such a known bug in human nature—an abuser can sway an entire group against a person he or she is mistreating, belittling, controlling, or gaslighting. (Gaslighting: undermining a person’s confidence in their own perceptions and memories.)
Alan M.’s final point underlines one of the ways in which relationship structures and expectations unique to poly relationships can foster abuse. There are many others. For example, most people arrive on the poly scene as part of a monogamous couple that is opening up their relationship.
The act of opening up the relationship often involves coercion of one partner by another who is more interested in or adamant about non-monogamy. This coercion can be the first of a series of abuses which may run the gamut from gaslighting to emotional blackmail to repeated boundary-crossing, all under the auspices of a radical, ethical relationship—one free of all the trappings of monogamy. But like a frog in boiling water, the traumatized partner may take a while to realize what’s happening and exit the toxic relationship.
Below, this and other structures of and expectations of poly relationships that lend themselves to abuse are unpacked. Hypothetical as well as factual examples from poly community members are explained. The kinds of people who are most likely to fall victim to abuse within poly communities, or even to feel unwelcome within these communities, are identified. Specious critiques of monogamy and practitioners of monogamy by poly thinkers are also discussed; when theorists, scientists, and other public intellectuals argue that non-monogamous relationships are fundamentally “more natural” or “healthier” for all people, they sometimes further gaslight those who have a different experience of themselves and their relationships.
The purpose of these criticisms is not to devalue non-traditional relationships or the people who practice them. (I self-identified as poly for 10 years.) It is also not to claim that because some aspects of poly lend themselves to abuse, or because some poly people are abusers, that polyamory is fundamentally unethical. People should be able to live with, love, and have consensual sex with whomever they please without fear of negative social or legal ramifications. The outside threats to those practicing ethical non-monogamy must be undermined.
However, no victim of abuse should feel as if she is the only one who faces such atrocities. And no theoretical framework or practice that purports to be queer or otherwise radical, such as polyamory, can be above reproach; to position oneself or one’s community as beyond critique serves to perpetuate oppression.
The most common origin story of poly people involves two partners who begin in a monogamous relationship but later decide to open it up to others. As with swingers or the Romans of ancient times, the rules for engaging in relationships outside of the primary partnership vary widely from couple to couple. Still, one partner is usually more excited to embrace non-monogamy than the other.
This is natural; whether two people are negotiating ordering Chinese food for dinner or whether to buy the red couch or the grey one, they are unlikely to be 100% in agreement all the time. Yet, for a crucial conversation in which both partners’ emotional safety and sexual health are at stake, this disparity, too, becomes crucial.
Those who are afraid to give up the one they love and the life they’ve built with that person may easily be coerced into agreeing to non-monogamy. Much like the canonical strategy of “taking a break to figure things out,” the less-enthused partner hopes that this transition will at least delay a breakup, if not “save” the relationship.
The “two become many” story is such a common narrative that there are myriad books about transitioning from traditional coupledom to poly. Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships and More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory are just two examples. These works advise newcomers to the scene as to how to navigate jealousy, what that feeling is when you’re excited about your partner’s new loves (it’s called compersion), and more.
These are responsible, helpful guidebooks in that they emphasize consent and boundary-setting for both partners. But nearly none of the available resources deal honestly with the power dynamics and coercion (framed as compromise) inherent in couples making the transition to non-monogamy in the first place.
Everyone does things they don’t quite want to do for the ones they love, but stories from poly daters indicate that the waters in newly non-monogamous relationships tend to grow murkier and murkier as both partners struggle to have their needs met. The Polyamory on Purpose blog runs counter to the current within the poly community by discussing this devolution of consent:
Sometimes, a poly partner comes out in a way that is not setting boundaries, but exerting control:
- I’m polyamorous, I need to have more than one relationship, and I need you to be involved in my other relationships.
- I’m polyamorous, and monogamy is not healthy for me. I can’t be with a monogamous partner, so you need to be polyamorous too.
- I know you are attracted to other people, you were telling me last week how hot Johnny Depp is. So you can’t object to my being in a relationship with other people.
Several of these statements are structured as “I need,” but in all of them the poly partner is dictating to the mono partner what the mono partner will and will not do, will and will not feel. This is not setting boundaries. This is abuse.
If the mono (monogamous) partner continues with the relationship, many of the couple’s subsequent arguments tend to center around what does and does not count as infidelity, cheating, or consent-breaking in the newly-defined relationship. Does accidentally falling asleep at another partner’s house count as cheating, when the agreement was to be home with the primary partner by 11PM? Does everyone meet and hang out, or are lovers deliberately kept away from each other?
In an article in the Huffington Post, one woman described how her friend discovered her poly husband was cheating on her. The man had been courting a new woman without ever mentioning that he was married, which broke an explicit agreement he’d made with his wife:
My girlfriend found her husband corresponding with a woman less than 1 mile away. Furthermore, when she read his new profile page, on the website where he’d met the new woman—there was no description of their marriage or their agreements. She was rightfully pissed off. But what was interesting was when I started coaching her about her predicament, she was reluctant to call her husband out.
There is potential hazard when doing poly to become wary of appearing uptight. Polyamorous communities can have a culture of permissiveness, which can creep up on a person and you can feel like a jerk if you get upset about possible sexual transgressions.
Relationship experts advise that “your boundaries are never up for debate,” but this is a regular occurrence in many poly relationships. After a while, newly poly partners may agree to end their original relationship. But the person who initiated the transition to polyamory—the person who did not seek enthusiastic consent in this transition, and who is just starting to show himself or herself as habitually disrespectful of others’ boundaries—he or she is now unleashed on the poly scene. As former poly dater Lola Phoenix at Medium explained in her detailed post, “Why I don’t identify as poly”:
While many poly people acknowledge that “Relationship broke, add people” probably isn’t the best solution, just as many people act like polyamory is the solution for anyone’s relationship problems, or they look down on silly monogamous people who feel things like jealousy and fear (because, you know, non-monogamous people never feel that).
It’s even worse when this superiority is combined with appropriation. Not only are they superior because they’re polyamorous, but it’s in their true nature to be so, it’s their “orientation”, just like being queer! And that’s why they’ve cheated so much and hurt people when they were monogamous.
Instead of holding themselves accountable and realising that a broken commitment is a broken commitment, whether it’s to one person or many, they’ve Calypso-ed their way into a different relationship style that allows them to shrug and say “It Wasn’t Me” to anyone who points out that, actually, breaking someone’s heart is a pretty crap thing to do and just because you find yourself doing it frequently doesn’t necessarily mean that non-monogamy is your orientation, especially when it seems like being a jerk is more likely what your orientation is.
Even people who report that they’re happy in their now-non-monogamous relationships often repeat the “poly saved my boring, crappy partnership” narrative. Sara Burrows wrote for The Federalist,
We’ve gotten a lot of warnings and admonitions from well-intentioned friends and family members that we’re going to destroy our relationship and hurt our daughter, but we feel exactly the opposite. For us, this is the perfect opportunity to save our relationship, spare our daughter from the heartbreak of a broken family, and give her the blessing of happy parents and extended family.
While it may be true that adding partners to a couple can enhance each partner’s experience, this kind of rhetoric still raises the following questions: Are these two people good together at all, or should they just break up? And even if this situation works for the couple, how do their other partners feel about it—those who have supposedly spared the couple from their family’s disintegration?
People who are brought into couples’ relationships to “save” them are often called unicorns in the poly community. The stereotypical unicorn is a young, white, bisexual woman who then begins dating and/or having sex with one or both members of a couple. The couple in this stereotype is heterosexual, heteronormative, and, you guessed it—rich and white.
As Monica Helsey of Vice explains, “They’re called ‘unicorns’ because this is a very common type of relationship for couples dipping their toes (etc.) into non-monogamy to seek, whereas actual bi women willing to put up with it are few and far between.” Though Sara Burrows and her partner report having other kinds of relationships outside their marriage, the language used above still feeds into the notion of the “bright and shiny sex slave(s) who save the heteronormative partners’ day.”
And what of those new partners, who are often explicitly hierarchized by the original couple as secondary or tertiary lovers? Wikihow explained:
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.
Some people are more than happy to take lovers who do not serve a primary emotional support role in their lives. There are many kinds of secondary partnerships with people who have primaries, too; these can be stable, on-going relationships that are engaged in with relative infrequency, they can be flings, they can be flirtatious hookups that don’t include condomless sex, etc.
Other daters feel increasingly uncomfortable with the power dynamics between themselves, their lovers, and their lovers’ primaries. But once again, as multiple-partner dating may be new to all involved, people often don’t know how to identify toxic dynamics until they’re already traumatized, or how to exit their relationships after they have been made to feel unsafe. Polyamory on Purpose blogs this example of psychological abuse in a poly partnership:
Ed starts dating Maura and Dwayne. At first everything goes really well. Maura and Dwayne are just opening their relationship, and Ed is happy to be patient and give them time to get comfortable with his presence in their lives. However, Maura and Dwayne keep putting more rules and restrictions on Ed. If Ed ever asks for anything, they belittle him or attack him for being unreasonable. After all, they’ve already opened their relationship and let him into their lives. Isn’t it presumptuous for him to ask for anything else? He should be grateful for what they share rather than constantly demanding more. He can always leave if he doesn’t like it.
But by the time Ed has figured out he doesn’t like it, Maura and Dwayne have already gained a lot of emotional leverage over him. The “frog in boiling water” dynamic emerges once again. Or, as Sandra Holland wrote evocatively for xoJane and AlterNet, “Yes, by all means be honest about the fact that you want permission to sleep around, but also recognize that those you pursue are humans who have feelings and needs and desires and don’t cease to exist when you go home to your primary partner.”
To muddy the waters even further, pro-poly and pro-monogamy intellectuals are not interested only in describing how to engage healthily in a chosen relationship style. These camps are playing with higher stakes: which relationship style is ultimately “the best” or “the most natural”?
Everyone has an opinion on the topic. So in addition to how-to books, people who want to engage in non-monogamous arrangements have the rhetoric of relationship experts like Dan Savage to help win their partners over to their way of thinking. Savage is famous for encouraging people to stay committed to their long-term partners while finding any way they can to feel completely satisfied:
Dan has always said if you have different tastes, you have to be good, giving and game, and if you are not G.G.G. for those tastes, then you have to give your partner the out. […]
“If you are expected to be monogamous and have one person be all things sexually for you, then you have to be whores for each other,” Savage says. “You have to be up for anything.”
Savage is up-front about his overall aim: he wants to help people preserve their relationships with their loved ones for the long haul. Yet, when he insists that partners must “be whores for each other,” he is essentially proposing emotional blackmail. A romantic partner is given two options: agree to fulfill all of my fetishes and fantasies (even if they make you feel uncomfortable), or you must let me fulfill them outside the relationship on my own terms. Unspoken is the assumption that if neither of these options is agreed upon, then the initiating partner will leave the relationship.
In traditional (i.e., monogamous, heterosexual) relationships, women are usually advised to leave men who give them such ultimatums; ultimatums are understood to generally be inappropriate due to their coerciveness. Furthermore, they are not usually isolated incidents. Coercion tends to become a pattern in relationships in which one partner manipulates the other into agreeing to larger and larger demands over time. Repeatedly coercing a partner into doing things they hate (like giving the other partner fellatio) or giving up things they enjoy (like spending time with an attractive, opposite-sex friend) are touted as telltale signs of emotional abuse; they’re patterns of exhibiting control.
Healthy compromise is only possible when both partners are changing to manifest shared goals. So why does this widely-accepted view of “what’s healthy” and “what’s unhealthy” fall away when discussing non-monogamous partnerships?
People are inculcated from a young age to believe that sexual exclusivity is the primary marker of commitment, and that’s unfair to people who enjoy other kinds of relationships. The dominant culture stigmatizes their organic desires. Equally unfair, however, is to request that people who enjoy sexual monogamy do whatever their current partners want or be branded inflexible, morally backwards, and prudish. That’s gaslighting: that’s rewriting one partner’s emotional reality with the claimed historical and biological narrative that everyone must have some form of non-monogamy to be happy.
As Brown wrote in the aforementioned article, “For many people, their first mentors in polyamory are also their first partners. And while often, this works out fine, as more experienced people help their less-experienced new partners navigate the difficult waters, the power imbalance creates the potential for control and manipulation.” Or, as the NYT described:
Some of Savage’s toughest critics are feminists who think he can be a bit too glib with his injunction to please our partners.
“Sometimes he can shame women for not being into things that their male partners are into, if they have male partners,” Sady Doyle, a feminist blogger, told me. “The whole good-giving-and-game thing is something I actually agree with. I don’t think you should flip out on your partner if they share something sexual with you. But I think sometimes it’s much harder for women to say, ‘I’m not into that,’ or ‘Please, I don’t want to do that, let’s do something else,’ than it is to say, ‘Sure.’ Putting all the onus on the person who doesn’t have that fetish or desire, particularly if the person who doesn’t have that desire is the woman, really reproduces a lot of old structures and means of oppression for women.”
To act as if all humans can talk themselves into or out of their needs—whether those needs involve sex with one other person, or with many—is both personally and politically dangerous. Indeed, it paves the way for people in relationships to berate themselves until they feel “the right way” about sex. It’s dehumanizing. And it’s dehumanizing in ways that women and other historically oppressed people have been dehumanized for decades: it brands women (and people of all genders) who desire monogamy as hysterical and everyone else as rational.
As Alison Stevenson wrote for Vice in her piece, “Why Women Need to Drop the ‘Chill’ Act and Embrace the Hysterical”:
Being a chill woman is the opposite of being a hysterical one. When you’re chill, you’re always calm, cool, collected, and down to fuck with no strings attached. Or, as Massey puts it, “chill asks us to remove the language of courtship and desire lest we appear invested somehow in other human beings.” Who exactly is asking us to remove this? The men we’re fucking. Like the hysterical woman, the chill woman is bogged down by men’s expectations on how to act and—more importantly—react.
The pressure to be chill is the reason I pretended to be cool with an open relationship, even though that shit is really not for me. It’s the reason I never confronted men who fucked me, then ghosted me. It’s why I acted like it was fine when someone I was in an exclusive relationship with wouldn’t call or text me for days at a time. It’s why I let so many men lecture me on what it means to be “sex-positive” […]
It’s why women have done the same to me. It’s the explanation for why I’ve agreed, so many times, with so many different men, that my interests were less important and my pursuits more frivolous. It’s the reason I spent my early dating life taking the backseat, letting men drive me on a nonstop ride to Chilltopia, where the girls are never clingy, emotional, jealous, or bossy.
Scott of Sexpressed, a popular poly blog, has regularly written to support the opposite ideal:
There’s no such thing as the “only one” and if you think you are the only one you’re living in a fantasy land. What you really are doing is being afraid that you are not special, that you are not the focus. Monogamy creates this safety net for you where you obviously HAVE to be the only one because you’re only in that relationship with each other. But your partner has had other relationships, and chances are good that eventually you and them will break up and they’ll have another one, and so will you. You are merely temporarily “the one” until life gets in the way and there’s another one. The “I need to be the only one” person is scared shitless of this fact and, rather than attack the fear and overcome it, they just wallow in it.
While there is some truth to the fact that jealousy is rooted in fear of loss and lack of self-worth, the very same arguments have been made to pathologize polyamory. That is, those who do not believe polyamory can be successful say that people only desire to be in multiple relationships at once because they fear intimacy, and may, at core, believe they are unworthy of love. So how can it be that this argument is logically sound when applied to traditional relationship models, but it is offensive and belittling when applied to polyamory?
The desire to be special to someone or to some people is not 100% disordered. It is not necessarily based on latent insecurities, deep-seated self-loathing, and the like. It is not something that people can wish away with radical self-love. Most jealousies undoubtedly stem from what people are afraid they’re not: not thin enough, not nice enough, not athletic enough, etc. Yet, that doesn’t discount the fact that proposing non-monogamy from within the confines of a monogamous relationship is a radical renegotiation of the relationship’s boundaries. Thus, as with sex acts in general, enthusiastic consent should be required of both partners in order to make this transition.
All people should push up against their preconceived notions about sex and carefully examine their own boundaries. Human sexuality is colonized by cultural expectations, so it is important to question what one thinks and feels when it comes to sex. But not everyone needs to push their boundaries in the same way—for reasons of trauma, for reasons of individual variation in emotional and sexual needs, and more.
If one would never push a person who had been raped to have sex when they don’t feel comfortable doing so (to “get over” their trauma), why is it okay to unilaterally request that individuals who have been abandoned by their parents, who have suffered extreme physical abuse, or who have otherwise suffered deep relational traumas to “check their monogamous privilege” and try a non-monogamous relationship before they die? Or to insist that this relationship style is ultimately more natural than monogamy—if only everyone could just learn to love themselves?
Certainly, some people find that open relationships help them cope with their PTSD, and feel safer having relationships with others. By the same token, some people are very triggered by non-monogamous relationships for experiential reasons that extend beyond their privilege or their exposure to popular media representations of relationships. Hilary Nunes wrote:
I come from a background where abuse was operant. I joined a polycule that consisted of my former girlfriend, Gina Martinelli, her husband, Wesley “Wes” Fenza, and Wes’ other wife, Jessica Orsini. I left that polycule under extreme duress in June of 2014. Since that time, Wes has continued to present himself as an authority on predation, abuse, relationship anarchy, and consent in the polyamory community. He raped two of my friends. My relationship with Gina can only be described in terms that reflect unacknowledged exploitation. Jessie has recently publicly admitted that for months after my egress, she failed to comply with requests to remove my image and contact information from public sites relevant to their theater troupe, expressly violating my consent, and also recently named me against my will in a vitriolic post trying to co-opt and malign my experiences.
Nunes’s toxic polycule evoked some patterns from her abusive background. It’d be unsurprising if this experience sullied Nunes’s views of the poly community. Those who have been hurt by unhealthy poly relationships or particularly abusive poly practitioners, no matter their backgrounds, may stop identifying as poly—as Lola Phoenix wrote in her aforementioned article for Medium.
People always carry their past relationship baggage into future relationships in some form. Individuals like Nunes will likely hold onto some of the positive learning from her poly relationships in addition to her trauma. Intimate relationships are a process of trial and error for everyone, and there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution for human sexuality.
If Dan Savage is right about anything, it’s that human needs and motivations are infinitely complex. The conclusion to draw from this isn’t that you must be a “whore” for your partner, or that you must accept any particular sexual circumstance for anyone else, ever. Rather, as committed romantic partners discuss their desires, they should strive to be empathetic while problem-solving as a unit. In practice, the same superficial needs may be addressed in myriad ways.
What if one partner of a straight, monogamous relationship craves a threesome while the other is fundamentally uncomfortable with the idea? Yes, the two should discuss possible circumstances in which both parties may feel more comfortable having a threesome. But they should also discuss alternative ways of potentially meeting the same underlying need(s).
Is the underlying need the excitement of something or someone new? Try role-playing a threesome scenario, or another fresh-and-dirty scenario, without the real-life involvement of another person—another person with his or her own set of needs. Explore porn together. Keep experimenting.
What not to do? Espouse the attitude that anyone who doesn’t want to adopt your relationship style is unethical, stupid, or just plain wrong. If young people today are lacking anything in romantic relationships, it’s not focus but a willingness to navigate difference. To have difficult conversations in which the outcome is uncertain. To listen to themselves first. To truly know their own desires and boundaries, then communicate them without demanding anything in return.