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Resources on Abuse in Polyamorous Relationships

February 21, 2015

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.

*Thanks to Samantha Manewitz, LICSW, for assistance with this list of red flags.

  1. February 24, 2015 1:05 pm

    These look like valuable resources, but looking through your slides a bit, I’d like to make a recommendation – would it be possible to find some sources where men talk about being abused? One of the harder things about my (male) partner being abused by my (female) metamour is that the stigma against abused men is still large and prevalent. When sending him resources about abuse, I think it does cause an added level of shame, distress and discomfort when the vast majority of examples are of men abusing women.

    In the research I’ve done the past few weeks about abuse (in order to help my partner and my metamour), I’ve seen that the evidence is mixed about which gender is the aggressor more often and if one gender abuses more often than the other. I tentatively posit that it seems that men and women abuse in roughly equal amounts, but it appears that violence perpetuated by men is usually greater and more severe, as men are stronger and more willing and able to choke or hit a partner (it appears that women are more likely to slap or scratch).

    However, emotional abuse seems to go both ways more easily (and in this case, all the abuse so far with my partner and metamour is emotional), and also (as has been mentioned on this site before), a lot of abusive/coercive behaviors still aren’t acknowledged as such (like a woman telling her male partner that he isn’t allowed to communicate with ex-girlfriends anymore).

    Everybody should be able to get support for abuse, regardless of gender. I know that it would be wrong (on many levels) to change the names and genders of people who are sharing stories of their abuse, but I think it would be hugely helpful to see if there are men out there who are willing to talk about abuse, and to also use more gender-neutral pronouns when talking about abuse (for instance, slide #8 entirely uses female pronouns and doesn’t get into any of the male-oriented forms of abuse, like taunting an abused man as being “unmanly” if he spoke up about his abuse). This would be helpful not just to men, but also to all the other genders that don’t fall into the male/female binary on the gender spectrum – especially given that people who don’t fall into the gender binary are more likely to have been abused.

    Thank you, as always, for starting such excellent conversations.

    • Anon permalink
      April 11, 2015 11:09 pm

      I’m going through nearly the same exact thing.

      Gender neutral wording is incredibly important in education on abuse.

      Thank you for all you do and for this resource, it’s been incredibly helpful and reassuring and gives me hope. Not necessarily for an outcome that’s what we want but an outcome that is positive.

  2. eben permalink
    March 8, 2015 2:52 pm

    I just wanted to recommend The Network/La Red as another resource.

    “The Network/La Red is a survivor-led, social justice organization that works to end partner abuse in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, BDSM, polyamorous, and queer communities. Rooted in anti-oppression principles, our work aims to create a world where all people are free from oppression. We strengthen our communities through organizing, education, and the provision of support services.”

  3. kay permalink
    October 21, 2015 10:22 am

    I have just broken up with a polyamorous male. I did not know there was a name for men like this. I was in a polyamorous relationship for almost two years. I knew he had other women he saw. I did not understand the depth of this type of relationship, although I feel being abusive to another partner is not acceptable. You do not compare your other relationships with others. I was told I was stupid, not pretty, my text were not answered, I was not included in his other partners, he did not take me to places that he took other women and for a weekend I would be wonderful in bed, that was the way he thought of me. I was very kind to him but hrere were times when he would compare me with his other relationships. I remember he met this one woman and he was bragging about her to me saying she was a scientist and so smart and that she left her sick husband because she wanted to live her life. I voiced my opinion to him about a relationship like this “how could a woman leave her sick husband after forty years of marriage”? He seemed ok with it but I think there should be limitations in Polyamorous relationships. Leave another mans woman alone especially when illness is involved. I am going through the breakup as best as I can, it hurts really bad. I believe hurt sometimes helps you to continue my road to getting over this guy. In these kinds of relationships people do get hurt by ones who are only in it for their own gain, and do not care about the feelings of others they bring into their lifestyle. Emotional abuse is not forgiven it leaves you feeling so unworthy.

    • Hacienda permalink
      November 16, 2016 4:29 pm

      I’m so sorry. I feel you. I just found out my partner of nine years has been cheating on me with a swinger from his workplace. Even worse, I see he is online and on every dating website. WHO IS THIS GUY? David P would never do that to me! I guess he did. I thought he had helped renew my faith in men in general when he was clearly not doing that. I feel destroyed. I don’t know if I will be okay. He refuses to admit what is clear and apparent… Everyday that cuts like a knife. We have a house together but I’m nit independent enough to move on and find a real man who will just love me, not lie and focus on family not vagina … 😦 😦 help 😦

  4. April 2, 2018 1:32 am

    Thank you for addressing this. I’ve been trying to figure out how to give my partner the polyamory he says he needs, while trying to reconcile it with his emotionally abusive behaviors. The most difficult for poly is that he verbally threatens the security of our relationship whenever he cannot manage his anger. It’s one of those cases where I almost have no choice but to feel jealous and threatened, because he can’t stop himself from lashing out and making threats.

    I hope I can find more help in the links here. I’m just really grateful this is a topic.

    • Eve Rickert permalink
      June 7, 2018 3:20 pm

      I’m sorry to hear that. If you’re committed to staying in your relationship, you might try this book:

      The author proposes a solution she calls “the Agreement,” which refers to things each partner agrees not to say and not to do, and conversely, what they agree *to* do. It also covers how to handle breaches of the Agreement. Because the Agreement is mutual and covers both partners’ behaviour, it doesn’t vilify either partner or place blame—but your partner’s reaction to the Agreement provides extremely important information to help you discern whether he is able to change and willing to do so.

      She also puts forward a much, much more nuanced definition of verbal abuse than I have ever seen before.

      I really wish I had found this book years ago.

      Good luck. I hope you figure things out.

  5. January 14, 2019 4:44 pm

    I wish I’d seen this when you first published it, as many of the line items on this list were par for the course with my own abuser. I really appreciate you writing this and starting this conversation- abusers can hide in any kind of relationship structure, and in the poly community they’re quick to appropriate and couch their abuse in poly advice blog lingo.

    My attempts to ask my former primary partner to slow down his new dates 3x/week (while making no time for me) was met with, “you are attempting to exert control over my body without my consent.” I had the option to opt out of group dates, except they’d be happening in my house, and me being home but not involved “made a weird vibe” so I would need to leave my own house for the evening if I wanted to opt out of group sex. If I joined the group, my partner would often ignore me, then later yell at me for making him feel “pressured” and then patiently explain that because of that, he wouldn’t want to touch me for weeks- but would happily bring home other women most nights and kick me out of our bedroom while enjoying their company. I wasn’t allowed to talk to his dates for fear I’d “poison” the relationship somehow… It was a mess.

    I stayed trapped in that thing for years, self-gaslighting that I just wasn’t good enough at poly when no, abuse, even if dressed up in poly terms, is still abuse. Thank you so much for talking about it!

    • January 14, 2019 9:58 pm

      I am so sorry to hear you went through all that—and it is so familiar. I’m really glad you’re out. I hope you’re healing.

      You might find the rest of Mo Daviau’s work to be really helpful. I know I did.

      The list of warning signs is new, so unfortunately it wouldn’t have mattered if you’d seen this earlier! I wish I’d known them sooner, too. But here’s a question: Even if we’d had this list, do you think we’d have seen? Before we were ready? Sometimes I wonder if there was anything anyone could have said to me at the beginning to steer me away—or even as things got bad, to make me leave sooner.

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