This is Part II in a piece on abuse in non-monogamous relationships.
Calling all poly configurations “toxic” or “abusive” that simply aren’t part of our practice is not only othering, it also serves to water down the meaning of the word “abuse.” As a survivor or intimate partner violence and sexual violence, I don’t like “abuse” or “red flag” being bandied around when the word “mistake” might work just fine. Maybe you fancy someone and want them to enter into your already established relationship, with the understanding that they just can’t hold the place in your heart that your primary does. This might hurt the other person, but I wouldn’t call that abuse. Sometimes people get hurt feelings in relationships. It happens all the time. But there is a sea of difference between “abuse” and a “mistake.” We’re all responsible for doing the least amount of harm to one another that we can, but no relationship is ever 100% safe and no love is ever perfect. Sometimes we have to try a few different relationship configurations to see what works best for us and for the other people in our lives. In my own case, I’ve tried out many relationship structures and am currently intentionally monogamous.
This brings me, finally, to another point… In a Huffington Post article on toxic friendships, the author points out that sometimes labeling a person toxic can have negative ramifications. Instead we might say the situation is toxic. Perhaps the people involved are lovely, but everyone needs different things. We also all make mistakes. It might not feel great to be labeled “toxic” or “abusive” for simply entering into a relationship structure that is in many cases still taboo and frowned-upon, and for which there are very few guidebooks (and fewer still positive media representations) and not knowing how to do the “right” thing. In small communities, a scarlet “A” might even carry very serious ramifications for a person’s future relationship prospects, and this can be damning if it is unwarranted.
My point in all of this is that poly is complicated. I realize this is the understatement of the history of relationship philosophy, but no “one way” exists that it a good fit for everyone. Shaming folks for wanting to have a third who will sleep with both of them, or labeling all hierarchical poly relationships as abusive doesn’t expand relationship possibilities, it only restricts them.
In closing, abuse and toxicity is something we all need to determine for ourselves — for me it’s one of those “I know it when I see it” kind of things. It’s difficult to unilaterally define any polyamory practice as toxic, but we all need to learn to trust when we feel a situation isn’t healthy for us. And if someone is acting in a way that is clearly disrespectful for controlling, by all means get the hell out of it and never look back. If you suspect something is toxic, it probably is. If something feels like abuse, it probably is. Remember that just because someone says they’re poly, it doesn’t mean they’re not abusive. It doesn’t mean they don’t have a LOT of work to do to deal with their own jealousy and possessive tendencies. Many of the same kinds of abuse that show up in monogamous relationships show up in polyamorous ones, as well. Gaslighting still exists, for instance, but with the potential to be carried out by more than one person. Finally, while I do think we all need to tread lightly before we apply a label to anyone, if someone has seriously violated clear boundaries or made you or a loved one feel unsafe, do feel free to tell others about it to prevent them from also possibly falling victim. In BDSM/kink, queer and trans, and poly communities, we tend to find ourselves running in very small circles, and while it’s not fair for anyone to be branded unjustly, I firmly believe in looking out for one another.
Photo credit: This person’s awesome etsy page