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Resources on abuse in polyamorous relationships (pinned)

February 21, 2015
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Abuse is, unfortunately, common in polyamorous relationships, just as in monogamous relationships. Polyamorous abuse can look different from abuse in monogamous relationships because of the characteristics of group dynamics. In addition, most polyamorous relationship advice assumes non-abusive relationships, but may be harmful when applied to abusive situations, and many resources for abuse survivors aren’t necessarily friendly for polyamorous people.

Several of the resources below contain checklists of behaviours common to abusive relationships and to healthy relationships; however, the following are some possible signs of abusive polyamorous situations, specifically*:

  • You feel frequently demeaned or humiliated by a partner or metamour.
  • You feel that acceptance by your polycule depends on your participation in group sex.
  • A partner or metamour reads your messages, emails, journals or other private information without your permission.
  • You find yourself doubting your own grip on reality, especially as it pertains to a relationship or your polycule.
  • You feel like a partner or metamour is “two different people,” or like you never know whether a partner or metamour will hurt you or support you in any given moment.
  • You feel discouraged from communicating with your metamours.
  • You feel you are expected to keep secrets from or about your partners or metamours.
  • You only or primarily hear negative things about your metamours.
  • The things a partner says and the things your metamours say often don’t seem to match up.
  • You’re made to feel that you are “not really polyamorous” if you express a concern, ask for a limit, or communicate your feelings.
  • You feel shamed for seeking out social supports outside your polycule.
  • A partner or metamour invalidates your feelings or internal experience.
  • A partner or metamour claims to be a gatekeeper, or the only or best source of reliable information about polyamory.
  • You feel that no one else will want to be with you or “put up with you” if you leave.
  • You feel like the sole problem in a relationship or polycule.

Resources and reading

The following are some resources that you may find useful to help you decide whether your situation may be abusive, help others, or heal from abuse:

Here are some books:

  • Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft—hands-down the single best resource available for understanding abusive men and patterns of misogynistic abuse. (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life by Robin Stern. This is the book that originally popularized the term “gaslighting.” (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems by Alexandra Stein is great for understanding the kind of abuse that can happen in abusive polyamorous networks. (Powell’s | Indiebound |Amazon)
  • The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence by Gavin de Becker. (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk. (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • The Verbally Abusive Man – Can He Change? A Woman’s Guide to Deciding Whether to Stay or Go by Patricia Evans(Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You by Susan Forward. (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • Controlling People: How to Recognize, Understand, and Deal with People Who Try to Control You by Patricia Evans. (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • Goodbye, Sweet Girl: A Story of Domestic Violence and Survival by Kelly Sundberg is a heart-rending memoir of surviving and leaving an abusive relationship. (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)

First-person accounts

Enough people have come forward describing their own experiences of abuse in polyamorous relationships that there’s now enough for a whole section on first-person accounts.

If you need immediate help, assistance with safety or exit planning, or just need to talk to someone, you can call the Network/La Red hotline at (617) 742-4911, or the National Abuse Hotline at (800) 799-7233.

**Note: There are many people in polyamorous and sex-positive communities offering their (paid) services as consultants or trainers in transformative justice and community accountability. Many of these people are themselves abusive, and I strongly recommend against working with any independent “professional” to support you in an abusive situation. Work only with established, credible organizations with clear structures of accountability. Be wary of processes where survivors are invisible or disappear, or professionals who speak dismissively of survivors from past processes.

*Thanks to Samantha Manewitz, LICSW and creator of Safety Beyond Safewords, for assistance with this list of red flags.

“Controlling People” and the Backwards Connection (guest post)

April 14, 2021

This is a post written by my friend Shea Emma Fett on her personal blog on February 1, 2015. She has given me permission to repost some of her essays here as guest posts.

This past month, I read Controlling People by Patricia Evans. It was an incredibly useful book to me, and I wanted to write a brief summary of the key themes in case it is useful to anyone else.

First, the book does not provide a framework for all controlling behavior. There are people who engage in abuse and manipulation as a pure act of dominance. The book does not talk about this. What the book does cover, very well, are those dynamics that so many of us find ourselves in, where a partner’s abuse lives side by side with a conviction of love. Where a partner’s abusive behavior seems to be prompted by an inner pain that, no matter how much you try to change and adjust, they continually insist is caused by you.

The central theme of the book is that of a backwards connection.

“A backwards connection begins with an assumption or definition of the other that ends all possibility of a relationship, at least in that interaction… A backwards connection is just a small step away from where control of the other is the (often unconscious) objective.”

A backwards connection happens when you decide who someone is and then attempt to connect with that image. The examples she uses are very basic, and it demonstrates how often we are just one step away from a control connection, and the justification of abuse.

For instance, imagine a mother is buying ice cream for her child. “I want vanilla,” the child says. “No you don’t,” the mother says “you like chocolate, you want chocolate.” “No… ,” the child says, “I like vanilla. I want vanilla.” And so on. The truth is, the mother likes chocolate, and she is trying to connect with her daughter, but instead she is connecting with a pretend person. The more pressure she places, the more she corners her daughter, the closer she gets to trying to disintegrate her daughter and replace her with the pretend person.

Evans uses the example of a teddy bear that becomes an imaginary friend. Teddy knows everything you are thinking, gives you everything you need, never complains. But one day Teddy shows a sign of separateness, and you feel attacked, violated, and alone.

When you try to connect to Teddy, instead of to a real person, you establish a control connection. The control connection substitutes for connection to self.

When someone is connecting backwards, Evans says it is like they are under a spell. They do not understand that what they are doing makes no sense. You cannot know what another person is feeling. You cannot know what is inside of them. And yet someone who is under the spell is so sure, it can be easy to doubt yourself if you are the object of this connection.

“If Pretenders don’t get out from under the influence of the spell, they launch even greater assaults, especially if their definition of the other is not accepted, that is, they can’t make ‘Teddy,’ their pretend person, appear. In this way Pretenders exert increasingly oppressive behavior. In relationships, while they may believe that they are only getting closer (bringing Teddy to life, so to speak), they are, in fact, aligning with the forces of oppression.”

To take a simple example, we often do not know the difference between “I am hurt,” and “you hurt me.” The extent to which you insist that you can know the other person’s experience and the extent to which you feel justified in enforcing that, is the extent to which you have the capacity for abuse.

The truth is, we have to mind read to a certain extent in order to make choices about our lives. If you are intentionally hurting me, you may not be a good person to have around. I think we have to create basic models of the motivations of the people around us to be able to function. The danger is in your attachment to these models. Sometimes we build these models to try to judge our relative safety with a person. And sometimes we build these models to try to connect with them. But at the end of the day, you cannot know someone else’s inner experience. When you think you do, you are under the spell. When you feel victimized by someone’s separateness from what you imagine them to be, you are under the spell, and you are behaving in a way that does not make sense. It is important to be aware of the very real danger of this kind of mind reading.

On a personal level, this book was incredibly helpful to me. Because underlying so much of my self doubt has been this idea that they were so sure. Not just one person, but several. How could so many people be so sure that they understood who I was? Surely I must continue to consider that they may have been right! But I see now that their insistence that they knew my motivations and my feelings didn’t make any sense, and it gives me the space to say “No. I like vanilla. I’ve always liked vanilla.” Evans actually covers this a little bit when she talks about groups. She talks about bonding together against someone.

“Bonding together against others is, like all Control Connections, a backwards connection. The bond is based upon an agreement, sometimes unspoken, to act or to be against an authentic person or persons in order to sustain an illusion.”

I understand now that at times I bonded together against someone in the group, and at times they bonded together against me. But it was never a real connection. And the reality we created together never made sense. And it feels really good to put that burden down.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to better understand control in their lives and in their communities.

“No Strings,” © Carrie Jenkins, all rights reserved, used with permission.

The problem with your request for my compassion (guest post)

April 7, 2021

This is a post written by my friend Shea Emma Fett on her personal blog on January 18, 2015. She has given me permission to repost some of her essays here as guest posts.

The core elements of every manipulative exchange are remarkably simple. There is a carrot and a stick. If you change your behavior in this way, I will reward you, if you do not, I will punish you.

This project is going to take a lot of extra hours. Are you the kind of team player who is willing to make sacrifices?

  • The carrot: you will be seen as a team player which gives you both a social reward, and potentially a career reward
  • The stick: you will not be seen as a team player, leading to disapproval, alienation from your team, and possibly getting fired
  • The behavior: Working unpaid hours

The thing that separates manipulation from enslavement on one end, and influence on the other, is the illusion of choice. It is also why being manipulated will degrade your self esteem so rapidly. You watch yourself make choices against your own self interest, and it chips away at your self respect.

I’m what you might call a “soft target.” I care a lot about my self identity. I care a lot about what people think of me. I’m conflict averse. I was a part of a manipulative dynamic for a long time, and by the end of it, I was incapable of standing my ground.

Do you know what it’s like to know that that’s in you? That you can be so weakened, by someone you love, without them lifting a finger against you? It didn’t start out that way, though. It started out with a carrot and a stick. The carrot was peace. The stick was turmoil. My behavior was quiet. It was a no-brainer at first. And then he found my hook. Compassion.

At first the exchange was simple. Listen to him, so that he will be able to listen to you. Validate his experience, so that he will be able to validate yours. But that’s not really what happened. I would listen, and validate, and then the conversation would end. Because there could not be two stories or two perspectives. And when this upset me, my identity was threatened. Listen, validate, stay in line, and be seen as compassionate (carrot). Choose differently, and be seen as self centered and cruel (stick).

Every time you give into a manipulative bid, you reinforce the behavior. But far more important than that, is that you reinforce the reality in which the manipulation exists. Every time I conceded to keep the peace, every time I listened and validated, and let my experience go unheard, every time I capitulated to preserve my identity, I reinforced a very specific model of reality.

And this is why manipulation and gaslighting make such perfect bedfellows. Because when I tried to stand up for my reality, I couldn’t under the weight of the other reality that I had given so much credence to.

I used to believe, in good faith, that compassion would always build a bridge between two people. But now I also understand that my compassion can be used as a weapon against me. And so I would like to ask you now. What were we doing when you asked me to show you compassion? Was I pointing out a problem? Was I speaking up for myself and my experience?

It’s important that I understand what you hope my compassion will accomplish. Do you want to build a bridge with me? Because I would like that very much.

Or do you want me to change my behavior, and accept your reality instead of my own? Is the carrot your approval of my compassionate nature? Is the stick your judgement that I am really self centered and cruel? Is the behavior you would like my complicit silence?

Because I have been there before, and I will not be a soft target anymore. So don’t threaten me. Showing compassion is my choice, and I do not owe it to you.

A painting of a silhouette of a person walking across a small bridge in winter, composed of greens, browns and whites.
“Winter in the Nitobe Garden,” © Carrie Jenkins all rights reserved, used with permission.

The Big Lie (guest post)

March 31, 2021

This is a post written by my friend Shea Emma Fett on her personal blog on January 16,2015. She has given me permission to repost some of her essays here as guest posts.

Most of us will do the most damage to others when we are in pain. Not when we’re angry or bitter or vengeful. No. I will hurt other people, I will drain other people, I will fail other people and I will fail to consider other people the most when I am hurting the most.

And I truly believe that the only way out of toxic self focus is loving self focus. I believe that the only way you can regain the capacity to see other people and to care for other people is to see and care for yourself.

And the interesting thing to me, is that when faced with that reality, I fought tooth and nail to discard it. It’s a pile of cliched self help bullshit — it’s just a justification for selfishness and self indulgence, I thought.

It was trivial for me to accept the harm that my self hatred did to me, I bore it stoically. And even when faced with the harm it did to people who cared about me, I still wanted to cling to it. Because self hatred felt noble, and self care felt selfish, and I wanted to believe that I was noble, and so my identity became more important than the reality of what was happening.

And I don’t think I’m alone in this. I think there’s an intentional mind-fuck that most of us have been subject to, that keeps us from showing ourselves compassion and acceptance. It keeps us from setting boundaries and asking for what we need and filling our tanks up. It keeps us from getting angry at how we’re treated, and demanding that we be treated better. Ironically, because we’ve been told that our self hatred makes us better than our self love ever could.

But that’s a lie. From every angle. I’m quite certain of it now.

“Whispering Little White Lies,” © Danny O’Connor 2012, used under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence.

The Windows Were Fine to Begin With (guest post)

March 24, 2021

This is a post written by my friend Shea Emma Fett on her personal blog on December 5, 2014. She has given me permission to repost some of her essays here as guest posts.

Imagine someone walked around your house, and busted every window with a sledgehammer. And at first you pretended that they weren’t broken, and you slept with the cold and the rain blowing on you, and somehow people believed you, even though you looked in the mirror every morning and saw twigs and mud in your hair. And imagine one day that you picked up a hammer and wood, and started to repair. Imagine how good it felt, to finally board the windows up and sleep in a dry room. But then it started to snow, and you needed warmth, so you got a book on rebuilding windows, and you began the painstaking process of rebuilding every window. This time they were strong. This time they were beautiful and clear. But the job was never done, and the project became a drain on your energy, eating up everything you had leftover after you took care of your survival. Eating up everything for years.

But you looked at the windows, and you saw that they were beautiful and strong. And you started bringing friends over, to show them how to build their own windows, and how to look for cracks. And you thought to yourself, maybe something good came out of all of this. Look at what we’ve done.

But at night, you remember all the rooms that are still dark. All the rooms where the wind still blows and the floors are wet and dirty. And you cannot escape the reality that you lost all that time, and the original windows were just fine.

Sure, the original windows weren’t perfect. Some were foggy, some were dirty and some had cracks. But they were your windows, and they were just fine. And you think about all the time you used to have. Time when you didn’t have windows to rebuild. Time when you could just be. And you wonder if you’ll ever have time like that again.
I didn’t understand this. I think a lot of people don’t understand this. This is the long term tragedy of abuse, and rape and choicelessness. I wanted to tell myself a story that I was better for the experience. But this is the tragedy that persists long after you’re safe, long after you finally told your story, and long after the point when you are supposed to be better. That all the strength and beauty was always in you. Someone smashed the windows and there’s really nothing you got out of it that you didn’t already have. And you’ll never get back the time that you lost.

The windows were fine to begin with.

A broken stained-glass window set into a brick wall.
Broken stained glass window at Kinnell Church, ©Neil Williamson 2012, used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.

Notes on an Unfinished Goodbye

March 15, 2021

I wish I could tell you

I want you
to find joy

without restraint
or dread
of what comes next
or what you might lose
or what you might owe.

I want you
to learn
what it’s like
to feel everything

without resistance

secure in the knowledge
that you will not 
be drowned.

I want you
(just once)
to feel what it is like
to love
with an open heart
and receive
the same in return.

I want you
to feel
what it is like
to be seen
and known
and truly met

without fear.

I want you
to love someone
who embraces 
and adores
every part of you
without reservation

who celebrates you

who can gently
skillfully
walk with you
through the thickets of your nightmares
until you come out together
clear
on the other side.

I want you
(somehow)
to find your way free
of the clouds of razor wire
and broken glass
that bind your mind
and your heart
coalesced over a lifetime
to keep you safe from others
but also
from yourself.

I want you
to feel
in your bones
that you are worthy
that you are good
that you deserve
this love.

I want you
to be
truly
free.

I want you
to free 
yourself.

“Razor wire at dusk.” Photo © Isabelle Prondzynski 2019, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

Answer: What do you think about the Franklin Veaux survivors?

September 26, 2020

Originally posted in response to a now-deleted question on Quora.

As one of the Franklin Veaux survivors, I won’t talk about myself, but I have a few words to say about the others: the 11 other women and nonbinary folks I have had the honour to share space with, work with, and in a few lucky cases cases come to consider my friends over the last two and a half years.

As different as they are from one another, there are a few things they all share. As a group, they are some of the most deeply compassionate, insightful and intelligent people I have ever met. Even when talking about people who have hurt them, people who have done deeply evil things, they still maintain empathy and awareness of the fundamental humanity and dignity of others. They look out for others, care for others, fight for others, and care about fairness and justice. They are strong and courageous, and prepared to make deep personal sacrifices for each other and for the dream of a better world. They show up for each other, and others.

Some of them I have come to know well.

Celeste is warm, grounded, firmly boundaried, and possessed of a profound conviction of her own worth and that of other women. She takes no shit, sees clearly, cares deeply about the people around her and maintains her loyalties through decades. She helped and supported me, a complete stranger, when she had no reason to, even though I had been complicit in harm to her. Many times over the past two years she has had to step in as essentially the designated grownup in the room when I or others have been tempted to engage with Franklin on his terms. She’s held us back and kept us in line, firmly focused on our own path and our own goals. You’ll never find a woman with her feet more firmly planted on the ground.

Rose has—among other things—excellent taste in music, beer and…recreational pursuits, with a great sense of humour. She’s stayed up with me late nights, exchanging songs and playlists or making wisecracks to take my mind off of whatever the latest volley has been. She’s been through far more than her fair share of hardship and trauma in the time she’s been alive, and has emerged from it with an incandescent, righteous sense of rage and commitment to fighting injustice. She’s profoundly compassionate and one of the most courageous people I have ever met. She’s meticulously honest and formidably intelligent, and I have seen her invest in cultivation and care of her communities (including us) over years. I wish she didn’t live so damn far away, and I hope she starts to reap some of the rewards from life that she so thoroughly deserves.

Melanie was the first to help me, holding me steady through the horrific final months of my relationship, and the devastating months that followed. She has an uncanny ability to see straight to the heart of things and find exactly the right words to name them. She was the first to call what had happened to me abuse, long before I was ready to hear or understand the word. Like all the others, she devotes a large part of her life too caring for and speaking out on behalf of others, and has a sharp wit and keen moral sense.

AmberElainePaula and Lauren are thoughtful, insightful, kind and introspective—and it was Amber who first truly opened my eyes to the reality of my situation, was my anchor when my world was falling apart, and in a very literal sense, saved my life. (I’m also discovering I quite appreciate Paula’s musical tastes, too. Unexpected bonus?) Marissa has a unique way of looking at the world, always challenges me, and stood up for me at a crucial time when few others would. Lisa and Joanna were quick to come to the side of other women, and have offered support and insight when it was most needed. And I want to recognize one woman who has not told her story, but who also held my hand through some of the worst parts of Hell.

All of them have had their best qualities—their kindness, compassion, forgiving natures—turned against them by abusive men. All of them have an abundance of that quality that one of those men claims to admire so much: courage, though contrary to what he says, life has not rewarded them for it. Life has taken from them and punished them for their love, care, compassion and refusal to lie down and take what’s dished out to them, and for that they haven’t been rewarded, but punished. But that’s what real courage is. These people have taken risks for each other, stood up for each other, cared for each other, come to one another’s aid and worked together, and all deserve the better world they’ve been fighting for.

Despite what brought us together, I’m fortunate to have met every one of them.

Bees in the Closet: A Polyamorous Parable

February 16, 2020

Adapted from a comment at Polyamorous Black Girl.

There’s this idea that’s been rolling around in my head for awhile. It’s related to what Ginny Brown referred to as “But you never said —!” in her blog post “Abuse in polyamory, 2019 edition.” I call it “bees in the closet.”

You live with a partner. You come home one day and open the door to the closet in your shared bedroom. Hundreds of bees swarm out. You run shrieking to your partner, “Why are there bees in the closet?!”

Turns out he’s decided to try beekeeping, and he’s moved in a hive. Into the closet.

As you gingerly pull stingers out of your arms, your heart still racing, you ask him what the hell he was thinking, and why he didn’t ask you first—or even tell you before you opened the closet door.

“Well, you never said you had a problem with bees. How was I supposed to know? I’m not a mind reader. You have to communicate your needs if you expect to have them met.”

There’s this thing I see happening a lot in polyamorous circles—and it’s happened to me in my own relationships. (If I’m honest, I’m pretty sure I’ve done it, too.)

Polyamorous folks who lean toward a less structured approach focused on “agreements and boundaries” rather than rules will often talk about how each relationship can be negotiated differently, with different commitments and expectations, based on the needs and desires of the people in it. This is the idea of “designer relationships.” And like many good ideas in polyamory, it’s true—to a point.

The problems start cropping up when this idea becomes weaponized to promote a notion that no one can or should have any baseline expectations in a relationship, that everything needs to be negotiated case by case, and that any hurt caused by a violation of baseline expectations is the fault of the person who held the expectation, for not communicating or negotiating it first.

This is tricky, and it’s one of those places where any good advice can be twisted to harm, because it is also true that some people do use unspoken expectations to manipulate others: “If you loved me, you’d just know…” When this is being done in a manipulative way, though, it tends to be about things that are either very specific, personal and obscure, or that shift frequently and without warning—or both.

You tell your partner you need him to move the bees outside. He says “But you didn’t negotiate a boundary about bees before I moved in. Now you’re changing the rules on me after the fact. Also, you’re trying to control my living space, and that violates my consent.”

And yet…certain actions simply are incompatible with being in a loving relationship with someone. And all of us can, should and do have baseline expectations that are, for the most part, universally understood. For example, at an absolute bare minimum, most of us expect our relationships to be free from physical violence. Most of us expect our partners to tell us the truth. If these things are to be negotiated away in a relationship, the onus is on the person who wants to get rid of them to define that as an exception—not on the person who wants them to explain why they should have them. At a higher level, most of us expect some amount of empathy and—if someone cares about us—to be consulted on decisions that directly affect us before they’re made. Like…keeping bees in the closet.

But a skilled manipulator can make any of these requests sound unreasonable, even controlling. And this is especially true in alternative subcommunities where we’ve already rejected some social norms—and aren’t entirely agreed on which ones we do accept.

Your long-distance metamour, who’s never been to your home and hasn’t talked to you in months, starts posting Facebook posts about people with mental illnesses (for example, and as a total hypothetical that’s not at all related to any real-life events, melissophobia, an irrational fear of bees) needing to get help for themselves instead of making their partners responsible for taking care of them.

Oh and also, just as an aside, if your partner wants to control what you keep in your closet, that’s a red flag for abuse.

People who care deeply about their partners’ autonomy and agency, who feel empathy for their partners and want them to be happy, are especially susceptible to this kind of manipulation. We’re the ones most likely to suppress our gut feelings, take on any pain as ours to deal with, resist participating in any behaviours that could remotely be seen as infringing on our partners’ rights, and rationalize and normalize things that most folks would recognize as really not okay.

And if anyone outside the situation says, “Hey, that doesn’t look right,” it’s easy to say, because of how far outside the norm we already are, that they just don’t get how we do relationships.

You start to think that you overreacted about the bees. Maybe your feelings about bees really aren’t his problem. They’re his bees after all—why can’t you just deal with it?

So you shut up about the bees, and you get used to the feeling of them crawling on your skin at night, and to shaking them out of your clothes, and you tolerate all the little stings. You start cleaning up after them, too, to make up for being so unreasonable about the bees to begin with.

And even though you never really feel comfortable in your home again, eventually you can’t remember why—except that somehow it had something to do with how you tried to control your partner.

But you’re not like that anymore.

An 1840 naturalist's colour illustration of three black-and-yellow bees on a black-and-white line drawing of a flower.

Common Humble-bee. (B. terrestris.), by Mr. Westwood in Jardine Naturalist’s library, 1840. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.

What I Got Wrong in More Than Two: The Dark Night of the Soul

November 29, 2019

There are a lot of things I fucked up in More Than Two. I recently wrote about how hard it is for me to even look at the book, and how it’s going to be awhile before I can really dig in to what I think the problems with it are.

I want to start with an apology to Inês Rôlo, and what I know I got wrong—and have known for at least a year.

Inês recently posted an essay on Medium: “I was in a polyamorous and abusive relationship for 7 years… here’s what I learned.” There was a lot in that essay that hit close to home. And while she never calls out More Than Two specifically by name, one passage in particular gets to the heart of what I see as one of its core problems—teaching you to ignore your pain:

Most of the poly literature I read kept telling me I could do it no matter how much pain I felt. It taught me to put bandages on it, to strategize around it, but never to listen to it.

Poly is very critical of feelings as commodities, of love as a scarce resource. It’s supposed to be something that values love and feeling, but instead it tackles feelings as things to be dealt with and over with. It doesn’t recognize that feelings might be there for a reason. Feelings are not meant to be simply overcome. Sometimes, they’re meant to be felt.

She’s right.

There’s a passage in More Than Two that I profoundly regret. I don’t know if it’s the most harmful thing in the book, but I know it underpins a lot of other harm. And unfortunately, I wrote it:

Eve has called this kind of time the “dark night of the soul” moment. Unless you are truly exceptional, you will experience it at some point, usually early on. Maybe your partners are struggling. Maybe you’re tired of fighting your inner demons. And this is when it really matters whether you’ve committed, with all your heart and soul, to being poly. If you don’t commit, if you aren’t ready for that dark night of the soul, and you back away in fear when it comes, then you and people you love are going to get very hurt.

So be ready. Because if you step into it and keep walking, you will get through it. It ends. Know that you’re not alone: thousands of people before you have walked this path—not exactly yours, of course, but just as dark and scary. It ends. And it’s better on the other side. Getting through that dark night removes its power over you, and that’s what it takes to get you (and your partners, and their partners) onto a solid footing that will lead you to happiness, a place where you can make clear-headed decisions focused on the good of everyone.

The longer people avoid confronting that dark night of the soul, the more power it has over them and their relationships. Some people elaborately construct their entire lives to avoid confronting fear. Many people use the hearts of their lovers or their metamours as sacrifices to the unknown beasts they think live within the darkness they’re not willing to explore.

We urge you, if you are going to explore polyamory, don’t just dip a toe in. One, that’s not going to give you the strength and tools to succeed. Two, you’ll be treating people as things.

Of the people who do decide to make that commitment, to live polyamorously and treat their partners ethically even when it means confronting those heart-shaking fears, no one makes quite the same trip. Everyone charts a different path through that dark night. But it begins with commitment: knowing you are going to do this, and that you can.

Oh god. Y’all, please don’t listen to me. Please.

I mean it sounds all inspirational and stuff, doesn’t it? You can do it! DO THE THING! It gets better! Just keep going!

Except it’s fucked up. Because Inês is right. Pain is a signal. Sometimes—very often, in fact—it’s a signal that you’re being hurt, and need to stop what you’re doing. My advice in More Than Two worked for me once, when I needed it…and then later, it led me to endure years of abuse without ever realizing what was happening to me, because I believed that if my relationship hurt, it was because I was unlearning conditioning, or needed to fix something in myself, or just get through it—until I was past the point of no return, and the damage to my psyche was irreparable.

Inês wrote:

I didn’t know that pain is always a warning. Our bodies and feelings know what the deal is before we do. Even if our brains convince us otherwise. Paying attention to what I feel was one of the biggest lessons I learned.

I said that I’ve known about this problem in More Than Two for over a year. It was in the summer of 2018 that I received an advance manuscript for the book Practice and All Is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, and Healing in Yoga and Beyond by Matthew Remski. The title of the book is a reference to the way in which an abusive yoga guru, Pattabhi Jois, and his many enablers silenced questions and complaints about his behaviour through a relentless focus on the practice—using a method common in cults:

There’s always a bigger story going on, and you’re not enlightened enough to see it. But if you mind your own business, and focus on your own practice, all will become clear. Practice, and all is coming.

After many interviews with Jois’s dedicated students, I began to wonder whether the incredible focus for which they are known, their dedication, their ability to tolerate pain…were tangled up with what they had to do to manage this shame, consciously or not. I wondered whether their ardor held back the dark of a shared secret.

This was one of many points in the book where I felt a chill of recognition—and began to regret the focus in More Than Two on just pushing through your pain.

And then I listened to the Escaping NXIVM podcast, and learned about Keith Raniere and the “fright experiments.”

NXIVM was a self-help multilevel marketing cult. Basically they sold the idea that all the barriers in your life were self-imposed, and all your problems could be overcome through self-improvement—which happened, of course, through the expensive seminars offered by NXIVM. Keith Raniere was its founder and central figure, but his recruiters were primarily intelligent, successful women who were drawn in by his charm and his messianic promises that they would save the world.

Another chill of recognition. That’s what my ex said to me, too—that we were saving the world. It’s a seductive narrative, isn’t it?

The Fright Experiments were conducted with some of those close to the inner circle. They were hooked up to an EEG and made to watch increasingly violent film clips graphically depicting rape and murder. After each clip, a “researcher” would calmly ask them how they felt. If they reported distress, they’d be asked if they thought there was something there they needed to work on.

Kobelt said she was in shock, with tears and snot dripping down her face, when Porter asked her once again: “What’s going on for you?”

He then suggested Kobelt should have an exploration of meaning, or EM, to find out why she had such extreme reactions to some of the clips, she said.

In the world of NXIVM, an EM is a process where a disciple digs deep into their psyche, with the help of a coach, to get at the root of an emotional reaction in an attempt to resolve the underlying issue.

At that moment, it sounded like a ridiculous idea to Kobelt.

She said she remembered thinking: “I don’t know if this is something I want to resolve. I don’t know if I ever want to be OK with gang rape. Or, you know, murder by machete.”

But another voice came into her head, she said, once again reminding her of the NXIVM lessons she’d spent years learning.

Like that she has faulty programming and limiting thoughts that have been building up since childhood and hold her back.

And that she should accept feedback.

“Jenn, you’re fighting. Stop fighting. Just take the feedback,” Kobelt said she told herself. “If you’re fighting it, it’s probably true.”

She went back to the house where she was staying, had a shower and then texted her NXIVM coach: “Hey, I really need an exploration of meaning.”

They were being trained to accept the unacceptable. To respond to real, legitimate distress at things that no one should ever be okay with with a desire to further “improve” themselves.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Now obviously we’re not talking about such extremes. But the processes, I believe, are the same: Someone experiences something distressing. They have a reaction. Someone calmly watches, perhaps even displays some empathy, and then says, “Now…what do you need to work on there?” The words and the context may vary, but the dynamic is the same.

Now here’s where this gets tricky. In polyamory, there is some stuff that we may genuinely want that is, purely because of conditioning that we do want to shed, going to be uncomfortable and that we want to get okay with—and that won’t harm us if we do. I was eventually able to learn not just to accept, but to enjoy seeing my husband holding hands with his partner, or the look of bliss on his face when they kissed. And then there’s other stuff that’s really just not okay—that’s harmful or abusive. Stuff like lying. Keeping secrets. Triangulating your partners. Repeatedly springing decisions on someone that affect them, without their input, and gaslighting them when they complain. These are all things that happened to me—and for a long time, I thought it was my fault that it hurt. That I just needed to try harder.

The problem is that the social and psychological milieu that is reinforced by the popular poly literature, including More Than Two, deadens our ability to tell the difference between these kinds of pain—between the psychic equivalent of a nice, deep stretch, and the pop of a tendon tearing or shoulder dislocating. All pain is the same, all pain must be embraced and worked through. It’s not all that different, really, from the Ashtanga yogis who followed Jois.

Inês again:

When you feel different and experience discomfort, you end up thinking that’s normal. After all, you’re doing something other people don’t. Society does not get you. People discriminate against you and your way of living. So you turn to “your” people. When you’re poly, your social circle becomes the people you’re dating and the people they’re dating. Everyone I met, I met through my partners and my partners’ partners. When I left, I had almost no “outside” friends.

I accepted the unease and emotional distress because I thought they were normal. I talked publicly about those feelings and got an immense validation from my community. I thought being in pain was the deal. Suffering was part of it. Like all the books said.

And then when someone is abusive? When someone genuinely wants to undermine your ability to trust yourself, to believe in yourself, to say “ouch!” and “stop!”? When someone is genuinely more invested in getting what they want from you and others than they are in mutual co-creation of well-being? Then we’ve handed them just the weapons they need.

I’m sorry. I was wrong. It shouldn’t hurt—not like that. You know what’s best for you. Listen to yourself. Trust yourself.

Let’s do better.

Total solar eclipse

Total Solar Eclipse, Arco, ID. 2017. U.S. National Park Service/Jacob W. Frank Public domain.

 

On grief after abuse

September 7, 2019

Originally written July 29, 2018. I found this draft in some old notes and decided it was time to publish it.

I don’t know if I’m allowed to use the word abuse, because I don’t feel like a survivor. I read the work of people who call themselves survivors, and it sounds like what I went through. I write about my experiences, and others tell me, “Me too. It was like that.”

But if the survivors I know are grieving, they don’t write about it. They write about anger, and PTSD, and finding each other, and surviving. But they don’t write about the grief.

And I wonder, is it because they don’t feel it? Have they moved on past it? Is their anger stronger than their grief?

Or are they, like me, ashamed to grieve? Do they feel that if they grieve, or grieve openly, they won’t be believed?

How can I  miss someone so much who did what he did to me?

I am grieving. Sometimes I cry for days on end. There is a deep well of sadness inside me that feels like it will never, ever run dry.

We were together for six years. His cycles are slow. It was the last three years that broke me down, bit by bit, until I was a shell, filled with self-loathing, convinced I was worthless, dissociated and broken, my body covered in scars from self-harming, wanting to die.

My friends tell me now they were worrying about me then, three years ago. 

His cycles are slow, and so there is time to bond deeply. To plan, hope, dream, and build on those dreams. To share rich experiences together, share so many things, go so many places—so now, there are few places, few things, not coloured by the memory of him.

It was worst at the end. When his narrative turned on a dime. When he decided I deserved anything he wanted to do to me, because I was a monster.

This is what I grieve. My mind and heart cannot hold this. It cannot hold these two realities together, of what he told me we were then, and what he says now that we were. What he told me I was, and what he says now that I am.

I let him define me. I trusted him to tell me who I was, what I wanted, what I felt—and what we were. Who wouldn’t want to live within that image that he’d created of me? Who wouldn’t want to live within the fairy-tale romance he said we were in?

I let him define me, and then in an instant his image of me fractured into something horrible and evil. I still remember the moment it happened. The moment he cast his new narrative. He had a tiny smile on his face. I still feel that smile in my skin, in my blood.

I am ashamed for grieving. I am ashamed of crying. I am ashamed of missing him. I am ashamed that I still pity him, still see and feel his pain and want to stop it. I am ashamed for still carrying a tiny glimmer of hope, of faith in him, that someday he can see, that he can stop.

I read other women’s work and I know that part of the recovery process is giving up hope of change, of accountability. That I still have this hope tells me I still have so far to go. And yet…and yet…I do not want to live in a world where I cannot have that hope.

The thing that happened to me fits a pattern that others call abuse. But this phrase feels alien to me. I do not like this word. I cannot hold that word together with the knowledge of what is inside the man I loved. Is he damaged? Yes. Has he damaged others? Absolutely. Is that excusable? No.

A dark-coloured tree sits by a red-coloured pond and drops red heart-shaped leaves into the water.

Broken heart © 2017 by Adam Santana, used with permission

Thoughts on the Fifth Anniversary of More Than Two

September 2, 2019

Please also see this post about More Than Two.

The book More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Polyamory was published five years ago today. I co-wrote it with my now ex-partner, Franklin Veaux. Completely unexpectedly (for us), it became a massive success, and is now one of the most-recommended books on polyamory out there.

Unfortunately, I don’t feel very enthusiastic about celebrating its birthday.

Image of a black leather-bound book with a red heart on the front. The heart has a diagonal line of black stitching across it. Image courtesy of kreativlink on DeviantArt.

Image courtesy kreativelink on DeviantArt, © 2010

It’s been a long time since I really looked at it, except for the excerpts I would read at events, which were mostly the same passages over and over. I have a strange relationship to my own creative outputs: generally, while I love them while I am making them, once they’re out in the world, I develop an aversion to them. And the more effort went into creation, the stronger the aversion is. Truth is, I loathe More Than Two. I even hate the sight of the cover—I keep it turned spine-in on my bookshelf. There was a time, during the book tour, when it felt physically painful to have to pick up the book yet again and read from it. (I got over it, sort of—I think I finally just became numb.)

 But of course, I wanted to believe in the book. I wanted to believe it was helping people, making lives better. So many people told me it was—I couldn’t look at the content again myself, but I believed them. I certainly never wanted to believe it might hurt people. I never imagined it might, for some, become a tool of abuse. 

If you’re reading this, then you probably know by now that I have been speaking out, along with many of Franklin’s other past partners, about the harm we experienced in relationship with him. For me and at least two other women I know of—not coincidentally, the three who previously lived with him—that harm resulted in deep trauma that has left lasting scars. And so of course, people are asking questions about More Than Two.

And I don’t know what to tell them.

I opened More Than Two a few days ago for the first time in a long time and actually started to read. And my stomach clenched. My heart started pounding in my chest, like it still does most nights when I startle awake at 3 a.m., my lizard brain still fearful that he’s in the bed with me. It kept doing it as I sat down to write the first draft of this post. I see it—I see the harm. As Kali Tal wrote in her piece “My Life Belongs to Me,”  which analyzes More Than Two and The Game Changer in light of my and Amber’s own correspondence about our experiences with Franklin: “the abuse that Franklin’s ex-partners describe surfaces like invisible writing in these texts when the flame of testimony is held beneath their pages.” It hurts to read. The abuse that I experienced is literally, as Tal wrote, “coded into the text, like DNA.” 

And no, I’m not going to talk about how. I can’t yet put it into words. But you can read about other women’s experiences—including how some of the ideas that made their way into More Than Two were weaponized against them—at polyamory-metoo.com.

The writings of Matthew Remski, author of the book Practice and All Is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics and Healing in Yoga and Beyond, have helped me a great deal in my exit and recovery. He wrote something once that has stuck with me. One of the things that can be so devastating to survivors of cult-like groups is not the harm they experienced, but the harm they committed while in the group. Victims will themselves often enact abusive behaviours reactively, and people who would not otherwise be abusive will often abuse both group members and outsiders when under the influence of a high-control group. The shame from this can make healing much harder. Reflecting on the experience of being in a cult, Remski said, “How shameful is that? To realize that simply by loving something, you harmed people.”

More Than Two came out of love. It was written by two people who, at the time, loved each other deeply, in the ways that each of them knew how, and wanted to help other people. (At least I did. And I actually do believe that Franklin did, too.) And yet what came out of that love…has caused harm. 

And yet…and yet…it’s also helped people. I know it has; I believe it has—people have told me so. I hope it’s helped more people than it’s harmed. I don’t think it’s a bad book. But it was bad for me. 

So I really, really don’t know what to tell you.

Maybe I’m rationalizing, maybe I’ll feel differently in a few more years, but right now where I’m landing is this: More Than Two contains tools, and every tool can become a weapon in the right (wrong?) hands. And more than that, our toolkit was incomplete, and very heavily skewed toward a certain dynamic—our dynamic. Which became abusive.

I’m glad that people are thinking critically about More Than Two. I’m glad people are pointing out its flaws. This consensual nonmonogamy thing we’re all working on is not static, and no one has all the answers figured out for everyone. More Than Two represents, at best, a snapshot of what was important and how certain communities were thinking at a certain point in time, just like The Ethical Slut was two decades prior. Ideas and practices will continue to evolve, and that’s a good thing. Some or all of what’s in More Than Two may eventually be thrown out—and I think that’s okay, too. 

So I guess all I can say is: It’s flawed. Maybe it’ll help you. I hope it will. But be careful. Read other things. Take what works for you from each. Trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right to you, listen to that feeling. 

Your relationships should feel good. They should take care of you. They should be the safe, stable places where you gain the strength to deal with whatever battles you need to fight out in the world. They shouldn’t be the battles you’re fighting. If that’s what’s happening, and the tools you’re using aren’t helping, find other tools. You deserve to be happy.

Edit 9/6/2019: The survivor pod has also just published its own post on the book, including a request. Please read it.


I do have some thoughts on what I would do differently now—of course I do. But I’m going to save those for later, when I’ve had more time to process. For now, I just want to address one key thing, which is the confusion I’ve seen over who owns the various More Than Two properties, and who profits from them. 

Ownership and revenue

More Than Two, the book, is a joint work by me and Franklin. We were equal co-authors and, while I haven’t done a forensic analysis of the text, I believe we both made more-or-less equal contributions to the book. Legally, we share copyright 50/50, and neither of us can modify the text without the other’s permission (which gives you an idea of the likelihood of a new edition).

Franklin and I also share royalties from the book equally (we each get about $1 in royalties per book sold). The rest of the book’s proceeds go to Thorntree Press, the company we co-founded. I own 75% of Thorntree, and Franklin owns 25%, but the company has never made enough of a profit to pay a dividend. As of February 15, 2021, I owe 100% or Thorntree Press, and Franklin will earn no profit from Thorntree books (except his royalties on his own titles, including More Than Two) and is not involved in the company in any way. We made a conscious choice with Thorntree to support emerging authors and new ideas, and so most of Thorntree’s revenues have (so far) gone back into publishing new books, most of which don’t break even.

MoreThanTwo dot com, the website, is solely Franklin’s work (except, as far as I know, for the Relationship Bill of Rights and the Secondary’s Bill of Rights, and the PolyCat archives). I didn’t contribute to it, can’t change it and don’t benefit from it. All my blog content from there has been ported to this site. Numerous past partners of Franklin, including me, have requested that people not promote MoreThanTwo dot com.

So while I completely understand if folks don’t want to buy the book for any number of reasons, an organized boycott purely for financial reasons (no matter which of us you’re boycotting) would be…complicated, because it would create collateral damage. But, you do you.

I will suggest, though, that if you do want to buy the book (or any of our books), rather than using the referral links on Franklin’s website (the proceeds from which go entirely to him), you use the ones on Thorntree Press’s page (which support the company). There’s also a standalone ebook on jealousy that (I hope) fixed some of the problems in the jealousy chapter in More Than Two.

And I think at this point it’s pretty safe to say that you can stay away from The Game Changer.