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Resources on abuse in polyamorous relationships

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.

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

Here are some books:

  • Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft. (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life by Robin Stern. (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems by Alexandra Stein (great for understanding the kind of trauma 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)

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.

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

 

Guest Post: On Consent in Romantic Relationships

June 6, 2019

This is a guest post by my friend Shelly. It was originally published in October 2013 at the More Than Two book blog. It is re-posted here with her permission.

Consent is a radical idea

I would like for this to be the shortest discussion ever. I would like to say that we each have an inalienable right to have domain over our bodies, minds, and choices and end the conversation there. I mean, good people don’t violate consent, and I’m a good person, right?

Well, it’s not really so simple. If there’s one common thread through human history, it’s that we are, collectively, really comfortable violating consent. As children, we are often violated physically, emotionally, legally. As much as we are told that we always have choice, we often find that the choice is between homelessness and an abusive working environment or an abusive living situation. As much as we seem to have finally reached some kind of consensus that rape is wrong, we still seem to be having a cultural dialogue about the kinds of circumstances under which it might actually be deserved.

We may encounter many situations in our lives where we have to put walls up and just absorb the loss of control over our lives, our minds, or our bodies. But the one place where we should never have to do that is in our loving relationships. This may on the surface, seem obvious, but make no mistake–this is a radical idea.

Axiom #1

The people in the relationship are more important than the relationship.

Consent is about me

There’s a lot of fuzzy usage around the word consent. I would like to propose a tightening of the definition, because if we are not clear about what consent is, we cannot possibly succeed in communicating about it.

Consent is about me: my body, my mind, and my choices. My consent is required to access the things that I own. You do not need my consent to act, because I do not own your body, your mind, or your choices. However, if your behavior crosses into my personal space, then you need my consent.

If my romantic partner goes out and sleeps with a dozen random hookups, he may have broken an agreement, but he has not violated my consent. If he then has sex with me without telling me about his actions, he has violated my consent because he has deprived me of the ability to make an informed choice.

You cannot understand consent without understanding boundaries

My boundaries are the edges of me. What is my personal space? What is it that I alone own, and you must always have permission to access?

This is somewhat personal, and we often don’t know where our boundaries are until they have been crossed. But I think you can roughly divide personal boundaries into three categories: My body, my mind, and my choices.

Axiom #2

Poor personal boundaries are damaging to the self.

My body

We all have an intuition about where our physical boundaries are. Our boundaries may start at our skin, or the point where we can feel breath. They may begin on the other side of the room. It is the point where we feel touched and physically affected by another person. When we share physical space with others, which we often do in community spaces, we may need to sometimes choose not to share that space depending on where our boundaries need to be at the time. You have the right to decide if, how, and when you want to be touched. Always.

In romantic relationships we often negotiate shared physical space. If touch begins beyond our skin, we may need to negotiate some space that we can control. For some people, this may be a room of one’s own. For some, it might be as simple as asking for some quiet time on the couch. However, without individual space, or the ability to negotiate for individual space when you need it, the only option for exerting a physical boundary may be to leave the shared space.

My mind

This is your mental and emotional experience of the world, your memories, your reality, and your values. When we engage the world, we let people into this personal space. Finding the edges of your mind is trickier than finding your physical edges. We are social creatures, and even the most superficial interactions engage our mental and emotional boundaries. The boundaries of the mind are, on the one hand, the easiest for others to cross over into, and also the boundaries we have the most control over.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can make me think I deserve it” 

It’s easy to say “don’t give people so much power to hurt you,” but that does not address our need for connection and acceptance. It does not account for the very healthy impulse to seek feedback on our perceptions of the world. I believe that the healthiest person, when persistently rejected, will witness either an erosion of their mental boundaries or an erosion of their ability to engage in intimacy. I also believe that the only way to maintain good mental boundaries, to counteract social rejection, and to assess when to disengage, is to have strong self-knowledge and self-confidence, and to engage in self-compassion and care. In other words, to engage in behaviors that build your self-esteem.

Axiom #3

Solid mental boundaries require self-esteem.

When we engage in intimate relationships, we let people into our minds. We open up our mental boundaries. We let a chosen few affect us, deeply. This is beautiful and amazing, and in my opinion, is one of the things that makes life worth living. But your mind belongs to you and you only. Your intimate partners, your family, your boss and the woman at the grocery store only ever get it on loan, and if that intimacy is damaging you, you have the right to take it back. Always.

Setting mental boundaries is different than setting physical boundaries. When I set a physical boundary, I am exerting some control over what you do with your body as it pertains to my space. Do not touch me there, do not move closer to me, leave my home. But with emotional boundaries, we have to take care to not make others responsible for our mental state. When we tell another person “do not say or do things that upset me,” we are not setting boundaries, we are trying to manage people whom we have let too far into ours. This management, and the high stakes of being responsible for another’s psychological well being, quickly introduce coercion into a relationship, and coercion erodes consent. Should we make requests of others to maximize our emotional health? Yes! Should we try to honor those requests if we can do so in a healthy way? Yes! Are you responsible for my wellbeing and what I feel? No.

My choices

At every fork in the road, each of us will bring our own values and experience to an examination of the information available. How we approach this process, and the conclusions we come to, is a large part of what makes us who we are.

I am a collection of experiences, memories, preferences, and feelings. I am one of billions of unique ways to process reality. But I am also the sum of my choices. My choices are the place where I stop dreaming and start pursuing, where I stop planning and start building. Choice, in my opinion, is where human beings become truly beautiful, and sometimes truly terrible.

Choice can be the most difficult personal boundary to defend. It seems like the predominant belief is that if we are empowered to make our own choices, we will all become monsters, and we must entrust our decisions to external authority. This permeates our society and seems to inform the way we build relationships. Without engaging in a debate about whether people are fundamentally good or bad (or option C), I ask you to look at your partner and ask yourself if you respect their ability to choose, even if it hurts you, and even if it’s not what you would choose.

Axiom #4

You cannot consent if you do not have a choice.

When we enter into a romantic relationship, we make a choice. Over time, we build a life. This may involve legal and financial commitments and responsibilities. When we make those commitments, we should do what we reasonably can to follow through. But there is a difference between life-building and intimacy. Consent is about intimacy, and in every moment of every day, we should feel that we have a choice in the intimacy we participate in.

Consent exists in the moment 

You cannot pre-consent. You can state intentions. You can make commitments that don’t involve your personal boundaries. But consent exists right now, right here in this moment. Let’s say I tell my partner “I want to have sex in five minutes. If you want to, I will definitely 100% want to have sex with you. I guarantee you that it is absolutely 100% ok. I commit to it. Here is a notarized piece of paper with my signature.” And then let’s say in five minutes, I say “no.” If my partner has sex with me anyways, it’s rape. (If you engage in consensual non-consent, you will recognize that you still have to negotiate a safe word or a way to recognize when consent has been revoked. If you don’t, you’ve crossed into abuse.)

Axiom #5

Previous consent for intimacy never, ever overrides withdrawal of consent in the present.

I’ve given a pretty extreme example, but one that hopefully everyone will agree with. However, we often make all kinds of agreements to future intimacy and then proceed like those agreements override our boundaries in the moment.

Coercion erodes choice

Being in a consensual romantic relationship means you are never committed to any future intimacy. In a consensual romantic relationship, you always choose the intimacy you engage in. Intimacy is anything that enters into your personal boundaries. It can be sleeping together, sex, hugging and kissing, emotional sharing, living together, having certain shared experiences, or making shared choices.

Again, you can state intentions, but you cannot pre-consent, and both people must recognize and respect personal boundaries right now, regardless of intentions stated in the past. The reason this is so important is that when there is an implied obligation, the relationship can easily become coercive.

It is actually really difficult to avoid coercion in romantic relationships, because boundaries are most likely to be set during the times when intimacy is already in trouble and there’s a lot to lose. When relationships are good, they make us better, they make our lives bigger, and it’s easy to forget about our boundaries, because there is no reason to enforce them. When communication erodes, when trust comes into question, when we feel out of control or deeply unhappy, and then one or both people try to set a boundary, it can be terrifying.

What does coercion look like?

Coercion is when you make the consequences to saying “no” to intimacy so great that it removes any reasonable choice. There is more obvious coercion, such as threats, either externally or internally directed. But I find that coercion just sort of organically arises when you believe that your partner, in that moment, owes you intimacy. If you think your partner owes you intimacy, and you are just “expressing your feelings,” there’s a good chance you’re being coercive. If your partner says “no,” and you start preparing for a fight instead of accepting their choice, you’re probably going to be coercive.

If your partner is trying to set an intimacy boundary, they probably have a very good reason. It might not even be about you. The chances that your partner has had their consent violated in their life are really high, and it may have been really bad. Show appreciation for your partner’s self-advocacy and self-knowledge, be grateful for the intimacy they have shown you, and make it clear that you respect their autonomy and ability to make choices, even if you don’t understand what’s happening or why.

It’s also possible they are being manipulative and using boundary-setting as a way to coerce you. Withdrawal and silence are classic techniques of emotional blackmail and can be initially difficult to distinguish from healthy boundary-setting. It’s even possible they are setting boundaries just to punish you.

But you know what? It doesn’t matter. The solution is never to try to force someone to do something they don’t want to do. Thank them, and respect their choice. If you can’t respect their choice, it’s time to examine your own boundaries.

Why you shouldn’t lie

I’m going to take a little bit of a detour here to talk about the intersection between mental/emotional privacy, choice, and consent. When you enter a romantic relationship, I believe there is one kind of intimacy that you must participate in, and if you find that you can no longer participate in it, you have a responsibility to end the relationship. I’m referring to honest, open communication.

Being able to share, to the best of your ability, who you are in a relationship, is critical for that relationship to be consensual. You must give your partner the opportunity to make an informed decision to be in that relationship. If you lie to your partner or withhold critical information, you remove their ability to consent to be in the relationship. The important information that needs to be shared should be negotiated early and is unique to each relationship.

Most important is to communicate those things that might be deal-breakers, or might be threatening to your partner’s emotional or physical health. Your partner deserves to have the ability to make a choice about how they want to participate in the relationship given the new information. Examples might be sexual behavior with others, drug use, the acquisition or use of weapons, violent impulses or behavior, or depression or suicide attempts.

You can force someone to make a certain choice, or coerce them into that choice, but if you lie or withhold information from a partner, you deny them even the ability to know there was a choice to be made.

Fear, the telltale sign

Why am I so afraid in this relationship when there’s no imminent physical danger?

If you find yourself asking yourself this question, check your boundaries. Do you know where they are? How much power have you given to others to affect your well-being, your self esteem, even your desire to live? Remember, when you give someone the power to affect you and to come into your mind, you are only loaning what belongs to you. If you are afraid, you have given too much. When you look forward, do you see choices? Is leaving the relationship a viable option? Is changing the relationship a viable option? Is setting boundaries a viable option? What happens when I say “no”?

You see plenty of relationships fall apart in sadness, anger, hurt, and feelings of betrayal. It is unnerving when a relationship becomes permeated by fear, but I believe this is often the trajectory of a relationship that lacks consent. It’s from here that we begin to bend ourselves around our fears instead of embracing our dreams.

Axiom #1

The people in the relationship are more important than the relationship.

If there is one safe place in the world, it should be with the people you love. I’m not talking about the safety of guarantees, but the safety to be everything that you are. It’s the safety to be dynamic, to change, and to dream. But to be safe, we have to be whole.

Disruptive Love.

May 22, 2019

You’re disruptive.

He said it over and over again, with a smile.

You’re disruptive.

When we were speaking on tour, talking about how I’d changed his life. In private, when he remarked on a new experience he’d had with me, or a decision he’d made as a result of our relationship that surprised him. Always with a gleeful smile.

You’re disruptive.

When someone else was hurting from a choice he’d made. When there was conflict.

I told him to stop. I told him I hated it. I told him it hurt.

He didn’t stop. He’d wheedle. Smile. It was just harmless teasing, you know? How could I complain?

Except it hurt, and I asked him to stop, and he didn’t.

It hurt, because it was a constant reminder that other people were hurting because of me.

Other people were hurting because of me.

Because of me.

This was the framing I internalized. That I was responsible. I was the disrupter. And this relationship…was just like, some kind of unstoppable train that we had no choice but to ride. Nor anyone else.

I didn’t understand, then, what he was doing. I didn’t see it as part of the larger pattern of ignoring my boundaries, ignoring what I said was hurting, but more than anything, making me responsible for his choices.

The first time I was ‘with’ Franklin in any capacity, I remember asking him ‘is Celeste OK with this?’ and he said ‘I don’t know,’ and I remember this just inner screaming, but I didn’t have good context at the time to know how incredibly incredibly shitty a thing that was to do to me, like it was the beginning of me internalizing responsibility for shit that wasn’t my responsibility. And then it just became par for the course.

That’s what Amber, his first “game changer,” said to me, months after my own relationship with him was over.

Our relationship was just so special. Sure, I knew what it looked like. It fit the “homewrecker” narrative—the same one Amber had been subjected to. But others just didn’t understand. They didn’t see our bond. How we fit together. The way we could bring amazing things into the world together.

That other woman? It was just so sad, really. They had tried, but they just weren’t that compatible (he said). They didn’t want the same things (he said). Didn’t speak the same language (he said). And you know, she was just kind of unstable. She couldn’t really handle his way of doing poly.

If he tells you what’s wrong with her, how she did not love him the way he needed her to, how she failed to fix that teensy broken part that makes you love him so much, that is not romance. That is planting seeds in a field of horseshit.Mo Daviau

I endured the sidelong glances. The eyerolls. The subtweets and vaguebooking from her friends. They just didn’t get it. It looked like that, but it wasn’t. We were special. I was special. A game changer.

“You are not special,” said the warnings from the women who had lived this same story—and I shook my head. Not me. This is different.

“Was there anything we could have said to you, to warn you?” they asked me later—my friends, my family, the ones who’d read the signs from thousands of miles away or across the room. “Is there anything we could have done to prevent this?”

There wasn’t anything they could have said. They didn’t understand. It wasn’t what it looked like. It was different. Special.

But I wasn’t. No one is.

A well-placed story will save your head.

And I promise I will give my story to you, dear one, when the time comes and you need it like medicine.Mo Daviau

I have said before: It was stories that saved me (if I’ve been saved—sometimes, I’m still not sure). From the first one, the first disrupter, the first “game changer”—and from the others. So many others. And now you can read them too. Please do.

It Was Never About the Nail

February 23, 2019

Originally published anonymously on March 21, 2018, at kellysundberg.com.

Gaslighting isn’t a single incident. It’s a pattern of tiny, often barely perceptible instances of erasure, minimizing, confusion, deflection. Nails, beams, boards, tiles, wire—piece by piece, a house is built. The door is closed, and you’re inside, and you hear the construction around you, but somehow, no one sees.

You try to tell him. You point to the ceiling, the walls, the furniture. “Why are you so upset?” he asks. “That’s just a chair.” You try to show him, how the pieces fit together, how they make a house. “So it’s about the beams?” he says. No, it’s not about the beams. You try again. “Oh, so is this really about the tiles? What’s wrong with the tiles? Explain.” Another nail goes in; your ears are sensitive now, from the months of construction around you, and you wince in pain at the noise. You ask him to stop hammering in nails. “I don’t understand,” he says. “It’s just a nail. It’s not even that loud. I think this is just your anxiety.” You wonder if the house is real.

The house grows. He invites people in, hands them tubes of caulk and paintbrushes. You try to explain, you don’t want this, they’re hurting you, but they’re confused. Why are you upset about a paintbrush? You try to describe the walls, but you open your mouth and incoherent noises come out. You can see the house, feel it, but when you try to describe it, there’s a hole in your brain. Static. I’m crazy, you think. Maybe they’re right.

He’s a Good Man. He’s trying. He listens. He looks where you point, tries to follow. Words tumble out of your mouth, but he can’t see. He doesn’t know how. Sometimes you think you see a glimmer of recognition, and you think, we’re getting there. And then another nail goes in–it’s what he knows, after all–and you slip.

The Good Man is a teacher. He gives a talk. People like to hear a Good Man speak. He’s a Good Man, and he’s learned that nails hurt, and he wants to own that, to help others. So he describes a nail, talks about what he’s learned about nails. At the end of his speech, he passes out hammers and nails. You ask him why; you’re hurt, you’re angry, you’re afraid. “They wouldn’t understand about the house,” he says. “It’s too hard to explain.” “You didn’t have to give them hammers,” you say. “You don’t need to be so sensitive about nails,” he says. He doesn’t understand. You want to scream. “Why are you so angry?” he asks.

It’s the women who save you. The women who have lived in houses like this. They know the shape of the walls, the corridors, the rooms, the beds, the closets, the basement. They talk with you, help you draw a blueprint. Help you see the outlines. Walk the hallways with you. Locate the doors (did you know there were doors?). Turn on the lights. You see together. “It’s real,” they say. “Yes it’s real. We see it.” They take your hands, place them on the walls so you can feel them. The house is real. You knew the house was real.

It was never about the nail.

#WLAMF 2018 no. 1: My first kiss that wasn’t

January 29, 2018

CN: Sexual exploitation of a minor.

I recently had an epiphany about my first kiss.

The “official” story of my first kiss, the one I’ve told for my entire adult life, goes like this:

I was 14. I was with a friend at the Last Exit Cafe in Seattle—a place where I spent a solid chunk of my free time in my high school years. It was late evening, and we were sitting out on the back patio, when two men in their 20s approached us. My friend started flirting with one of them (or he with her; I can’t remember, but the flirtation was quickly mutual), and soon they were kissing on the bench across from me.

The other man took that as his cue to start kissing me. I was not into this guy at all. He smelled and tasted like cigarettes, and…that’s about all I remember of him. That and the fact that he was kissing me before I’d figured out what I wanted. And oh yeah, then his tongue was in my mouth, which was not in the least enjoyable. I went with it, though, because I didn’t want to distract my friend, who seemed to be having a great time, and because I felt like I was the only girl I knew my age who hadn’t been kissed. So, there I was.

My friend, to her credit, asked me multiple times if I was okay—she probably sensed that I wasn’t, really. But I lied and said I was.

On the bus ride home, I chewed gum to get his taste out of my mouth.

Today, I could list off all the red flags in this situation, from the age gap to the nonconsent. Then, it was just…a thing. A king of yucky thing that I just wanted to move on from.

So that’s the story of my first kiss. Only it’s not.

My first kiss happened when I was 11 years old. I was at the home of a childhood friend, and she had another friend over whom I hadn’t met before. Somehow we decided to play Truth or Dare, and we got very quickly into the dares. We dared each other to kiss each other, and I think to feel each other up? I don’t actually remember. But I do remember kissing.

Except I didn’t remember it until very recently. I had never considered those to be “real” kisses. Maybe it was because we were playing Truth or Dare—but that doesn’t make them not real. Maybe it was because they were girls, or they were my friends—but that doesn’t make them not real, either.

I think, though, it was because they were girls. I think my mind at the time, steeped in heteronormativity, couldn’t categorize kisses with girls as a “first kiss.” So I filed it away somewhere deep in my memory, where it wouldn’t resurface again for nearly three decades.

Honestly, though? I like my real first-kiss story a lot better than the old one.


For the next 11 hours, my partner Franklin and I are writing one blog post for every contribution we get to the crowdfunding campaign for our novel, Black Iron. Want more posts? Send people to the campaign page! You can follow along via the #WLAMF hashtag on Twitter, or in the Facebook event. For the origin of the #WLAMF hashtag, see Franklin’s first post using it, from 2014.

The polyamorous emotional labour daisy chain

June 21, 2016

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Alex is in a relationship with Kris, who’s in a relationship with Kate. Kris is devoted to both Alex and Kate. Alex is considerate of Kris’ feelings, responsive to Kris’ needs, and has worked to build a healthy, reciprocal relationship with Kris. Kate…well, Kate is happy enough to have Kris in her life, so long as Kris is the one to put the effort in. Kate shows up when she feels like it. Kris rarely knows where they stand with Kate.

Alex has spent countless hours processing with Kris about the relationship with Kate. Alex has held Kris while they cried, given advice, helped distract Kris from all the complicated feels about Kate.

In other words, Alex provides most of the emotional support for both Alex’s relationship with Kris and Kate’s relationship with Kris.

But it doesn’t stop there. Alex has another partner, Jordan, whom Alex turns to when they need support for their relationship with Kris. Because Alex is doing work on behalf of the Kris-Kate relationship, and in truth, all the energy Kris puts into the relationship with Kate means that a lot of the time, Kris doesn’t have much left over for Alex. So it’s a good thing for everyone that Alex has Jordan to lean on. (Depending, of course, on how Jordan feels about it.)

Welcome to the polyamorous emotional labour daisy chain.

Emotional labour, if you’re late to the party, refers to all forms of effort involved in caring for another person’s feelings, from remembering birthdays or food allergies to listening to a friend vent to holding someone’s hand while they’re suffering or grieving. There’s a lot of it. And it’s not inherently a problem: it’s the glue that holds society together. The major problems that arise with it—and the reasons so many people are talking about it—are twofold: societally, the expectations for most emotional labour fall on women, and it is chronically undervalued as a form of work.

The polyamorous emotional labour daisy chain occurs any time there’s a problem in one relationship that spills over into the other relationships in a network. The emotional labour pours inward, from person to person, toward the source of the problem—as each person in turn leans outward, toward a partner who has emotional labour to give. (This happens in friend groups, too. But often the expectations are higher in romantic relationships—and boundaries can be harder to set.)

I have been part of polyamorous emotional labour daisy chains more times than I can count. I have lost friends and nearly lost partners by leaning out too hard and taking the availability of emotional labour for granted. I have also been the one to process with my partners, over and over, about their hurtful relationships; I’ve been the shoulder they cry on.

Sometimes the problem is an abusive relationship. Sometimes it’s a dysfunctional pairing of an anxious-attached partner with an avoidant-attached one. Sometimes it’s a chronic or acute illness, addiction, financial stress, a new baby, grief, or some other crisis or major life event. Sometimes someone is just being a jerk.

Not all instances of the polyamorous emotional labour daisy chain are actually dysfunctional. At its best, it’s really just a special case of the ring theory of caring for people in a crisis. This is how families, communities, and societies work—when they are working well. People take care of each other. People give when they have it in them to give, and they receive when they are in need. When that happens in a poly network and it works well, for everyone involved that’s awesome.

And so I don’t want you to read this piece and think there’s anything wrong with seeking support from your partners. I don’t want you to feel embarrassed or ashamed if you find yourself the focal point of the chain because something stressful or awful is going on in your life. You deserve love and support. And I definitely don’t want you to use this piece as a weapon for shaming partners for having needs.

However, if you do recognize an emotional labour daisy chain that you’re a part of, it never hurts to check in with everyone else to make sure everything that’s going on is consensual and is working for everyone involved. A lot of times, these things work right up until they don’t—and people need to know it’s okay to express when it stops working for them, before resentment starts to build.

And.

Sometimes things get set up in such a way that certain people are expected—or even required—to consistently provide emotional labour, while others are consistently exempted from it. Case in point: As mentioned above, the first major discussions of emotional labour centred on the ways in which women are socialized (and expected) to provide emotional labour to men. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that often you see similar patterns play out in poly relationships. But that’s not always the case: I’ve seen—and been in—plenty of situations where one or several men form crucial links in the daisy chain.

One specific example of a structural imbalance in emotional labour is the unicorn-hunting couple. If you look closely at what they say they’re looking for, often it becomes clear that what they want is a woman to provide emotional labour for the two of them, while expecting little to none in return. What makes this particular situation especially messed up, though, is that often they’ll say that they don’t want her to have other partners—in essence, denying her the ability to seek out emotional care from others.

And you know what? Taking care of each other, supporting each other and helping each other out is cool. But setting up structures whereby certain people are consistently excused from performing emotional labour and certain people are expected to always provide it is not cool. It’s not cool in society, and it’s not cool in a polyamorous network.

And those structures are really just a special case of the general case of entitlement to emotional labour. Like all forms of entitlement in relationships, the moment you start feeling like someone owes you emotional labour, things will get fucked up.

Another place the polyamorous emotional labour daisy chain causes problems is when there’s someone who has a hard time setting boundaries and consistently accepts poor treatment from partners. Often it’s these kinds of people who have a chronic tendency to be at the centre of the circle. They may consistently give more to certain relationships than they get back, and they may feel like hey, it’s okay, they have that to give.

Except that sometimes the reason they have so much to give is that there’s another partner in the background (or more than one)—people like Alex in our story—performing the emotional labour for both their own relationship and the other, lousy one(s). I think sometimes such a setup can even provide a kind of backup energy source for shitty relationships that really ought to end. I think sometimes they can make it so that even though they hurt, it never hurts quite enough to leave. So if you’re that person who can’t leave the bad relationships, think on that—because often what it means is that there’s another person absorbing your pain.

I don’t know what the solution to this is. But I know one thing: Taking care of your partners means taking care of yourself, too. And that means setting boundaries with people who treat you badly—no matter how much you love them. And it means limiting what you give to relationships that don’t give back. You may think that love conquers all; you may think that you can endlessly pour your love into someone in the hope that they’ll return it someday; you may think these are your decisions. And they are. But understand these decisions are not just about you. People you love will feel it. They will pick up the pieces.

 

For those of you waiting for Part 3 in my hierarchy series…I’m still working on it. I’ve hit an unexpected logical puzzle that I need to work through, and that’s taking some time. I hope to have it up in the next couple of days. This post was the one I needed to write today.

Can polyamorous hierarchies be ethical? Part 2: Influence and control

June 11, 2016

This is part two of a three-part series inspired by the question Can a hierarchy ever be ethical in polyamory? As I said in Part 1, I have come to the conclusion that this is the wrong question to ask. To get to the right questions, we need to drill down deeper. Part 1 talked about how we define hierarchy, how hierarchies reflect power dynamics within relationships, and why they’re so hard to talk about. In this instalment, we’re going to look closer at some of those power dynamics.

Influence and Control

Any healthy relationship involves a certain amount of influence. While it’s not a good idea to rest your hopes for a relationship on your partner changing, or to make your partner into a project, good partnerships do change the people in them. You may learn new habits, new skills, new hobbies, new ways of communicating. But you also have to learn to prioritize another person’s happiness as well as your own. That means allowing your partner to influence you: it means paying attention to what your partner’s experience is, what their needs are, and working with them to help them get their needs met, along with yours. It means sometimes not doing something you want to do, and sometimes doing something you don’t really want to do, in order to make the relationship work for both of you. It means give and take.

In a healthy relationship, this give and take is negotiated and consensual. Boundaries are respected, bottom lines are recognized and not pushed. You may have to give up pizza on Friday because you’ve had it three date nights in a row and your partner’s craving Thai, you may have to move to a city that’s not your first choice (or even on your list), you might have to take a lower-paying job to make more time with the kids—you may have to make big sacrifices or small ones. But you won’t have to give up friends, family, economic or emotional security, self-worth, self-expression, or any of the things that are important to making you you. And this influence is reciprocal: your partner listens to you and seeks compromise just as much as you do. You both prioritize each other’s happiness and well-being.

The other side of this coin is control. Control is what happens when the give and take stops being consensual and reciprocal, when you stop respecting a partner’s boundaries, when you make your own happiness and meeting your own needs more important than valuing your partner’s agency. It may involve emotional blackmail tactics like threats, shame, gaslighting, withdrawal of affection or resources, or, in extreme cases, physical or sexual abuse. It’s important to recognize that an ongoing pattern of coercive control is the definition of intimate partner abuse—and those tactics I’m talking about are part the power and control wheel that’s used to pinpoint abusive behaviours. However, these coercive tactics are used all the time in both monogamous and polyamorous relationships without rising to the level of abuse.

In poly relationships, control can also manifest through hierarchical agreements where partners give each other the power to make unilateral decisions over other relationships.

You might ask how such agreements might qualify as control if they’re negotiated. That’s because of who’s missing from the negotiating process: the other affected partners. Usually, in hierarchical agreements, the rules are presented to secondary partners as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, without an opportunity to shape their creation—either in the beginning, or in the future. (This discussion makes up the bulk of chapter 10 in More Than Two.)

In a poly relationship, intimate influence may affect the choices you make about how you interact with other people. It may mean that you don’t date someone you want to date, or you limit the amount of time you can commit, or you put the brakes on a relationship that’s growing too fast and big…because of the way it might affect your other partners, or because of concerns they have. It might even affect your decision whether to be poly at all.

Or, you might make all those same choices because you have a partner who’s exerting control over your other relationships—whether as part of a negotiated power hierarchy, or as part of a pattern of coercive control.

It can often be difficult to tell the difference between the two from outside a relationship—especially if you’re affected by the choices being made.

Let’s give an example. In her memoir The Husband Swap, Louisa Leontiades describes her metamour, Elena, giving an ultimatum to Louisa’s husband, Gilles, who was also Elena’s boyfriend: It’s her or me. Elena made it clear that she could no longer remain in a relationship with Gilles as long as he was in a relationship with Louisa. I won’t spoil the book by telling you what he chose…or how Elena responded. But while I was working with Louisa on the companion guide to the memoir, Lessons in Love and Life to My Younger Self, the two of us had a discussion about whether Elena’s actions constituted a veto of Louisa.

An outside observer who did not know Elena would in fact not be in a position to say whether her actions were a veto or not. Why? Because the difference comes down to expectation and intent. Elena had every right to set boundaries concerning what kind of a relationship she was willing to be involved in—up to and including who she was willing to be metamours with. But in giving Gilles an ultimatum, was she prepared for the possibility that he might say no—thus leaving her in the position of having to make good on her promise to end her relationship with him? Or was she working from an expectation that he would say yes—thus making the ultimatum dangerous for only Louisa, and not for Elena? What would her response be if Gilles said no? Would she be angry? Consider his choice a betrayal? Use shame and guilt to try to get him to do what she wanted? Or would she accept his decision—and leave the relationship?

An underlying element of all these questions is this: Did Elena feel entitled to have Gilles choose her? Healthy relationships are ones in which we can express our needs and desires, but it’s when we feel entitled to have our partners do what we want that things go off the rails. Entitlement makes us feel like it’s okay to overrule our partners’ agency (and that of their partners). If we’re part of a socially sanctioned couple, this is especially dangerous, because we’ve got lots of societal messages feeding that sense of entitlement. And the most damaging parts of hierarchical setups tend to come about when we enshrine entitlement into our relationship agreements.

Back to the Tower

At this point, I really hope you’ve read Part 1, because we’re going back now to our tower and village.

If you can manage to get away from the tower argument of “hierarchy means unequal distribution of resources” and start discussing the real issues (usually this happens when you stop trying to discuss “hierarchies” and instead get into specific kinds of rules, or arrangements such as vetoes), the new tower argument becomes the question of influence. I want to be able to ask for what I want, express my concerns about my metamours to my partners, tell my partners how their other relationships are affecting me, and so on. This is a relatively easy position to defend, because in healthy relationships, partners can influence each other.

Once the tower of intimate influence is defended, however, we see the village once again reoccupied. The village is things that a person feels entitled to control in their partner’s relationship, or rules and structures that are put in place to ensure that one person’s needs are always favoured in the case of resource conflict.

Tower: I want to be able to tell my partner how I feel about a potential new partner and have them consider my feelings in their decision.
Village: I expect my partner not to get involved with a person I’m not comfortable with them being with.

Tower: I want my partner to be available to me during emergencies or when I am struggling emotionally.
Village: I expect my partner to be willing to cancel plans with other partners in order to be with me whenever I’m having a hard time.

Tower: I have a lifetime commitment with my partner, and I want to feel like they will make choices that honour that commitment.
Village: I don’t want other partners to express desires for commitment from my partner, because I fear it will undermine their commitment to me.

At the same time, I think a lot of people, when they say “I need hierarchy” (or “I need veto”), are really saying “I’m afraid I won’t be able to influence my partner.” It’s not that they specifically want control: it’s that they want influence, and they either haven’t been taught healthy ways to have or use it (especially in poly situations), or they have only been in crappy relationships in the past where they didn’t have influence—so they don’t know what it feels like.

Now, it is a fact that for most people most of the time (but with many exceptions), longer-established, more committed or more entwined partners are likely to have more influence on a pivot partner than newer, less committed or less entwined partners. And that influence is going to affect what happens in other relationships. Sometimes, it may mean not starting a new relationship, or even ending an existing one—even when no pre-established structures are in place to ensure that certain partners are always favoured, even when there’s no control.

Going back to the diagram from More Than Two that I shared in Part 1:

More Than Two p. 182, illustration © Tatiana Gill 2014. All rights reserved.

More Than Two p. 182, illustration © Tatiana Gill 2014. All rights reserved.

As explained in the book, the arrow coming from the left and making the circles on the right is power from within the relationship on the left, affecting the level of intensity and commitment in the relationship on the right. But what we don’t really talk about in More Than Two is the fact that the power arrow can come from influence or it can come from control. And if you are the person on the right, your experience of the pivot’s decision may be very much the same regardless.

As a result, as I mentioned in Part 1, in any situation in which there is an unequal distribution of resources—or influence—the person with less may be inclined to look at the situation and say “This is a hierarchy.” And this is where I think the questions of What is a hierarchy? and Are hierarchies ethical? are not the right questions. Because what the person on the right is saying is really “I feel disempowered.” And that matters—and is what we really need to pay attention to.

That will be the subject of Part 3.

Can polyamorous hierarchies be ethical? Part 1: The tower and the village

June 10, 2016

Awhile back, Tikva Wolf, creator of the excellent webcomic Kimchi Cuddles, posted a query on her Facebook page: Can hierarchical relationships ever be ethical? I’ve been chewing on a response to that question for some time, because the answer is not simple. I mean, we spend probably a solid 50 pages in More Than Two trying to tease apart how to make relationship agreements ethical—and we still don’t really answer that question. I finally realized, that’s because it’s the wrong question. If we’re concerned about treating our partners ethically, then the right questions are not Can a hierarchy be ethical? or Is this a hierarchy?

But in order to define the right questions, we need to talk about hierarchy. And that’s a long enough discussion that I am going to break it into three parts. When we get to part three, I’ll talk about the questions we really need to be asking.

Defining Hierarchy

It seems to me that basically every discussion of hierarchy in polyamorous relationships eventually circles back to a discussion of what people mean by the word “hierarchy”—and then stays there, unable to reach escape velocity from the gravity of that never-ending semantic debate. I do not want to continue that debate here. Rather, I want to try to shed some light on why we keep having it. I don’t actually think it’s because people have different definitions and we can’t all agree. I think something a little more subtle is afoot.

I originally penned the definition of hierarchy that would eventually become Chapter 11 of More Than Two in a post here back in early 2013. In that post—and later in More Than Two—I focused on the power structures that you often see in poly relationships that are defined as hierarchical, especially those where the terms “primary” and “secondary” are preferred. Specifically, I said there:

A poly hierarchy exists when at least one person holds more power over a partner’s other relationships than is held by the people within those relationships.

Essential elements of a poly hierarchy defined this way are authority, where a person (the “primary”) has the ability to make rules about a relationship that they’re not in, and asymmetry, meaning that others don’t have the same authority over the primary relationship.

In More Than Two, cartoonist Tatiana Gill helped us portray this visually, where power from within one “primary” relationship was used to restrict the levels of connection and commitment permissible within another, relationship:

6-restrict

Such hierarchies are typically expressed through rules that may be more or less complex: things like limits on money or time spent together, sex acts that can be engaged in, and even feelings that can be expressed may all be included. Vetoes—which we define as one partner being able to unilaterally end another relationship without discussion—are common in such hierarchies, but are neither universal nor their defining feature.

Now, we know this isn’t how everyone uses the word. We acknowledged as much in More Than Two. It is, however, one of two prominent definitions used among poly people. So let’s talk about the other definition.

Many people claim that a hierarchy is any poly situation in which one relationship gets more time, energy, priority, commitment, sex, or other resources than another relationship.

So what’s wrong with that definition?

Well nothing, specifically. Except that it’s useless. For starters, that’s basically all relationships. This is the position advanced by people (including us) who argue against use of the word hierarchy in this sense.

Did I say it’s useless? I didn’t mean completely useless. It has a use, but it’s not the one you think. To the people who promote this definition, the usefulness doesn’t have to do with communicating an idea. It has to do with obscuring another one.

Things are about to get a little abstract here, but bear with me, because I’m about to talk about something that happens all. the. fucking. time. in poly communities—and it has a name.

The Tower and the Village

About a decade ago, neuroethicist Nicholas Shackel coined what he called the motte and bailey doctrine. The name refers to a kind of castle that was popular in Western Europe in the early medieval period. The motte is a hill topped by a fortified keep and often surrounded by a ditch or moat. The bailey is basically the rest of the castle: a bit of land containing the rest of the buildings and surrounded by a fence or wall (and possibly another moat). To make this a bit easier to follow, I’m going to refer to the motte as the “tower” and the bailey as the “village,” as shown in the following image:

motte-and-bailey

Now the tower, being on a hill and fortified as it is, is much easier to defend than the village. So when the village is attacked and the walls are about to be breached, everyone can run to the tower, bar the doors, and dump boilng oil on top of the attackers (or whatever other horrific defence strategies were employed in the 12th century). But no one really wants to live in the tower very long—ultimately, they need the village. So the tower is only defended until the attackers have been beaten back or have moved on, at which point everyone reoccupies the village.

The motte and bailey doctrine describes how this same tactic can be used in an argument. You have two positions: one (the tower) is easy to defend, but ultimately not the one you really care about. The other (the village) is a lot harder to defend, but it’s also the thing that matters to you. So in an argument, you defend the village—until you can’t, at which point you retreat to the tower, and defend that. Once the pressure has lifted, you can relax and head back out to your village.

A good example comes up sometimes when trying to converse with people who believe strongly in astrology. If you don’t, and say as much, there’s a response that some people will bring out: “Well, you can’t deny that the moon and the sun have some influence in our lives! Just look at the tides and the seasons.” And, well, sure. No one can deny that. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a thing, circadian rhythms are a thing. As for the moon…that’s out of my wheelhouse, so I won’t comment, but I wouldn’t find it all that surprising to learn that there’s empirical data supporting some effects of the moon on our mood, emotions or hormonal cycles. So that’s the tower: some celestial bodies affect our lives in some ways. That’s relatively easy to defend.

The village, of course, is the idea that there’s some complex system through which dozens of celestial bodies affect our lives in intricate ways that can be predicted by mathematical formulas—right down to who’s the best partner for us or what day is a good day to sign a contract. If you want to convince me of that, well…you need to have more evidence than pointing out the tides and seasons.

The motte and bailey doctrine is an indispensable part of the way poly communities talk about hierarchy and whether it’s an ethical way to structure your relationships.

In this version of the argument, the hierarchy-means-everyone’s-a-special-snowflake argument is the tower. It’s easy to defend, because this is true of, well basically every relationship on the planet. No two relationships—even those prescribed by rigid gender and social roles—are or can ever be exactly the same, and no sane person would argue that they should be. The counterpart to this argument is the notion that “egalitarian” polyamory entails an expectation that all the relationships be the same. As we say in More Than Two, “Expecting the same level of commitment and entwinement from each [of your relationships] would be high-order foolishness.”

The fact that this form of hierarchy exists in every human being’s relationship life does not, as one might expect, make it a useless concept, though. In fact it’s a very useful concept indeed—because it doesn’t actually exist to communicate an idea. It exists to protect the village.

The village is the definition of hierarchy I gave at the beginning: where certain partners expect to be able to control other relationships that their partners are in. It’s usually clear that this is what’s really going on because people don’t tend to stay in the tower very long. Once someone has defended their tower—getting everyone to agree to the obvious statement that yes, all relationships need and consume different resources and have different priorities—you can often see them creeping back out onto the village.

An example of this is when people start talking about the idea of “respecting” the primary (or marital, or nesting, or parental, or whatever you call it) relationship. With the possible exception of some relationship anarchists, most people will accept at face value the idea that you should respect a partner’s other relationships, in that it’s a good idea to support your partner in keeping their commitments and doing things that support the health of their relationship life, and also in that most people understand that long-established, entwined relationships (particularly with children) tend to involve more time, energy and priority than newer or less entwined relationships (tower).

But are members of a couple saying that “respect” means not voicing criticism of abusive or manipulative behaviour? Not advocating for your own needs in a relationship? Not expressing your own feelings of love or attachment? Never asking for your relationship to take some priority some of the time? Then that’s a power hierarchy: the village. Watch what happens when you challenge this. Does the couple retreat to the tower? Do they say things like “Well you wouldn’t give someone the keys to your house on the first date!” “We’ve been together 10 years, we just have more sweat equity!” “You can’t expect everyone to be equal.” And the classic “We have to put our children first.”

The thing is that none of these statements are wrong. That’s why someone is saying them—because they’re the tower, easy to defend. But it’s not about these things, not really. It’s about the village: how much control someone has over what happens a relationship they’re not in.

Defining egalitarian polyamory as “everyone gets the same” and hierarchical polyamory as “every relationship is different” makes non-hierarchical poly seem easy to dismiss, and people who try to practise it, impractical ideologues. This conversational trick is devastatingly effective at shutting down discussions about the ethical implications of power dynamics in poly networks.

Lest I be accused of being too hard on primary partners, let me point out that secondary (or satellite, or peripheral, or whatever you like to call them) partners can also employ rhetorical tricks to confuse discussions of the power dynamics in poly networks.

A common one is to look at any unequal distribution of resources and call it a hierarchy. Since the idea of hierarchical relationship networks has, over the last few years, become increasingly frowned on in at least some poly subcultures, an accusation of having a hierarchical relationship is often a criticism—and can really sting if it comes from someone you love, especially if you’re actively working to avoid the power imbalances that we describe in More Than Two as hierarchies. Sometimes the accusations are true, but sometimes they point to other kinds of problems, which I’ll discuss later in this series.

Unfortunately, I do think that in many instances where I’ve seen these tactics used, the driving force behind them is just straight up intellectual dishonesty. But very often, I think it’s more innocent than that, and comes from a genuine confusion over what power within healthy relationships looks like—and from the fact that very often it can be hard to tell, from outside a relationship, exactly what the power dynamic is within it.

That’s what Part 2 is about.