by Melissa, a Hotline Advocate
Abuse can happen in any relationship, whether you have one partner, two partners, or even more. A polyamorous or non-monogamous relationship is not any more likely to be abusive than a monogamous one. Even though poly relationships are not inherently abusive, having multiple partners can create unique situations that abusive people may exploit. As with any relationship, open and honest communication, trust, respect, and equality are what keep these unions healthy. That said, considering these types of relationships exist outside of traditional norms, we may not have as clear of an idea of what a healthy open or poly relationship should look like, making it tougher to identify unhealthy or abusive behaviors.
It’s important to remember that you always have the right to determine if an open or poly relationship is right for you. There are numerous reasons why people may choose to open their relationship, but it’s important that you are able to discuss those reasons/desires in an honest, nonconfrontational way with your partner so you can design the style of non-monogamy that works for both of you. This ensures you’re both on the same page moving forward. Making sure your existing relationship is strong and healthy before bringing other people in is another key component for negotiating non-monogamy. When you’re working from a place of instability or have unresolved issues, adding to that will likely put more pressure on those weak spots; and if the underlying relationship can’t support the weight, the whole thing will crack.
If you’re currently in a monogamous relationship and you and your partner are considering polyamory, here are some warning signs that the relationship may be starting out on an unhealthy note, and opening it up to additional partners may exacerbate an unhealthy dynamic:
- Your partner has cheated and decides they want to open things up as a result. The decision to open up a relationship should never be made solely by one person, and nobody should be forced into opening up a relationship if they’re not comfortable doing so. Coercing you into accepting a relationship model you may not want creates a clear power and control imbalance, which can lead to abuse. This sort of reasoning also ignores the fact that your partner violated a boundary of your relationship. When trust has been broken like that, it’s important to decide if the two of you want to move forward and work on repairing that trust, or if it’s time to end the relationship altogether. Trust is an integral part to any healthy relationship, and even more so as you work toward non-monogamy. Trust takes time to establish, and it is so crucial for partners to feel secure with one another. When people continue a relationship that has no trust, it can often lead to issues like paranoia, jealousy, unhappiness, and even controlling behavior.
- Your partner wants to be non-monogamous but doesn’t want you to have sex with or date anyone else. Establishing expectations and boundaries can be useful as you move toward nonmonogamy. However, the goal of these boundaries should not be to control your behavior or limit you in a way you don’t agree with. Healthy relationships are based in equality and ultimately, each person in the relationship should feel heard and respected. When working out the structure of your non-monogamous relationship, you should feel comfortable taking both of your desires/needs into consideration, finding an option that works for both of you. If your partner is only willing to talk about the possibility of them being open, but you aren’t “allowed to,” that’s a red flag to an unhealthy or abusive relationship. Your partner should not feel like they have the power to dictate those kinds of terms to you or determine what you can/cannot do.
- You feel like you need to open up your relationship in order to keep it going. Choosing to explore an open relationship should be a decision you and your partner come to together after a lot of thought and communication around why it would be beneficial, what your desires are, what you’re hoping to achieve, etc. If your partner brings up the option of non-monogamy as a demand or stipulation for the relationship to continue, then that’s cause for concern. Your partner should never make you feel like you must bend over backwards to fulfill their desires, especially if it is something you aren’t comfortable with. The notion that we should set aside what we want and what makes us happy to solely focus on the other person’s needs is not healthy; all that does is create inequality in the relationship and shifts the balance of power to one person when it should be equal.
If those situations above do not apply to you, then it is very possible to move forward on this healthy poly relationship path! As you and your partner are considering and exploring opening up your relationship, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Boundaries are helpful and healthy! Remember that everyone has a right to set their own personal boundaries and you should feel comfortable being able to discuss those with your partner without them getting upset. Establishing healthy boundaries recognizes that you are an individual with your own wants, needs, and values that should be respected by your partner and vice versa. It’s important to understand that your boundaries can be fluid as the relationship evolves, so being able to actively communicate with your partner about that is key. There is no One Right Way to be non-monogamous; this is about what works for you and your partner. Once you and your partner have talked honestly about what you want and what your concerns are, it can be helpful to write down your boundaries or and expectations to ensure you’re both on the same page. This gives you something to reference later if/when things change or need to be adjusted.
- Expect that things will be different. Choosing to open your relationship will most likely change it in some ways and that’s okay. You’re moving from a relationship that only involves two people to one that has three, or four, or more. This shift will impact how you and your initial partner relate to one another. Chances are you’ll talk more, find ways to be more open, and develop a deeper level of trust. Also, expect to be flexible. No matter how much we plan ahead, things won’t always work out the way we want them to and it’s important to be able to adapt as things come up.
- Jealousy and insecurity may arise. These are tricky feelings, and they often have a very negative impact on a relationship. If these feelings do come up, what matters is each person is able to address those feelings in an honest and respectful way. If the issues can’t be worked through or have become overwhelming, it’s okay to take a step back and re-evaluate whether this is the right arrangement for you. In any relationship, jealousy should never be used as an excuse for control. A common reaction to those kinds of feelings can be to put new “rules” into place, but this isn’t very helpful as it doesn’t address those emotions or get to the root of what may be causing them. If you’re noticing that your partner never “likes” any of your other partner(s), or that fights with this partner tend to force you to cancel dates with another partner, that’s a big red flag. Trying to control access to your other partner(s) can breed isolation, and when this type of behavior becomes a pattern, its considered abuse. As with any kind of relationship, abusive behaviors can be subtle so knowing what kinds of red flags to look out for can be helpful when making the transition to non-monogamy. Ultimately, it’s never ok for your partner to control your life in any way especially under the guise of an open relationship.
- Mistakes will happen. Navigating a new type of relationship can be a learning experience, and it’s likely that mistakes will occur. How you choose to react to and recover from those mistakes is important. If you’re finding that every time a mistake is made, it’s used as an excuse for your partner to impose control over you, that’s concerning. It’s important to be aware of ‘shifting goalposts’, where there are any number of perceived mistakes that your partner attempts to punish you for in some way. When the rules seem to be different on any given day and you don’t always know what they are, it can be difficult to navigate non-monogamy successfully. This is where having something written down can be helpful as it gives you both something to refer back to and change as needed. That being said, having a document or certain rules in place shouldn’t be something your partner holds over your head or uses as an excuse to shame you for making a mistake. Messing up doesn’t inherently make you a ‘bad’ person or completely untrustworthy moving forward, and it’s never ok for your partner to make you feel that way. On the other side of that, be wary if you’re finding that your partner makes the same ‘mistake’ over and over again. When something happens that goes against what you’d agreed on together or crosses established boundaries, you’ve been able to talk openly about ways to move forward, and yet it keeps happening- that’s a sign that your partner isn’t respecting you or the relationship. Intentionally doing what they want, regardless of the boundaries established, and constantly apologizing after the fact, shifts the balance of power to their favor since they know they are making their feelings the priority in the moment and asking for forgiveness later.
- Self-care is still important and necessary! In a non-monogamous relationship, engaging in more intimate relationships might leave less time to spend with friends or engaging in hobbies. It is still important to make time for yourself, and to have friends and interests outside of your relationships in order to stay healthy. It can be especially valuable to create a self-care routine for nights when your partners have dates but you do not, to help combat any feelings of jealousy or loneliness. Try to plan ahead and spend the evening with friends or snuggle up at home with a favorite movie or a beloved pet. Journaling during this down-time can be a wonderful form of self-care. Keeping a journal to track your thoughts and feelings about your intimate relationships can help you communicate your needs more clearly and will also help you to be aware of any unhealthy or abusive patterns that might be showing up.
If you’re currently in a poly relationship and, as you read this, you’re realizing the relationship may be unhealthy or abusive, here are some things to consider:
- A support network is valuable. Engaging in non-monogamous relationships can sometimes create a built-in support network of intimate partners and metamours (the partner of your partner, with whom one does not share a romantic relationship, but may have a friendship). If you are concerned that one of your partners is abusive and have good relationships with other intimate partners and metamours, that may be a good source of emotional support. Consider asking the people in your support network to help you make a plan to safely leave, if you’re ready to take that step.
- Isolation is a common tactic of abuse. In a non-monogamous relationship, an abusive partner may try to turn the victim against metamours or prevent them from having relationships with metamours in the first place. Additionally, an abusive person may try to convince the victim to leave other existing intimate relationships or to cut off unsupportive family members. A manipulative partner may have already told everyone in their intimate circle that the victim is the abusive one, in order to cut of support. Some might believe that the poly relationship style is to blame for the abuse, but that is not the case. Abuse is never excusable in any circumstances, and it is absolutely possible to have a healthy non-monogamous relationship.
- There is often overlap between the poly community and the LGBTQ community. With this overlap, we may see similar abusive tactics. An abusive partner may threaten to “out” you as non-monogamous to family members or colleagues, or they might say that if you were really polyamorous you wouldn’t feel jealous, have boundaries, feel hurt by cheating or other broken relationship agreements, etc. Someone who is abusive may also manipulate members of the larger polyamory community by generating sympathy and trust or blame the victim for the abuse in order to cut off these resources to the victim.
- A safety plan can be beneficial, and our advocates can help! Safety planning can look different depending on the situation and the people involved. In a poly relationship, a safety plan might mean reaching out to friends or family members outside the polyamory community, if the abusive partner has turned the community against you; or, if it feels safe to do so, reaching out to leaders in the larger community to let them know what is happening could be an option. If you don’t feel safe reaching out to people within your social circle, our hotline advocates are here to help. We’re a free, confidential, anonymous service that offers phone and online chat options, 24/7. Our advocates can assist you with creating a safety plan.