For a long time I have looked askance at a lot of information about poly and education about poly because it reminded me terribly of a number of abusive situations I have been in. There are now some wonderful conversations happening about poly and abuse here, here, here, and a compendium here just for starters and they give words to a lot of the things I have been unable to accept about this thing that is important to me: that abuse is possible and even potentially as easy within a poly dynamic as a monogamous dynamic. I too (like one of the thinkers in my linked articles) once thought that poly was the solution to potentially abusive situations. Imagine my surprise. Discovering that education about poly was a main method through which a clever abuser could perpetuate their abuse was extremely disconcerting.

I have been looking for and trying to describe a method through which someone would be able to investigate the power dynamic they were in so that they could discern whether or not they were in an abusive situation; or a poly situation; or an abusive, poly situation; or simply a situation where the power is not balanced in their favor. I believe I have found something effective but it is all wrapped up in heavy language and concepts and takes some explaining.

I am operating (as always) on some assumptions that must be communicated: The first being that I am polyamorous, specifically I identify as a relationship anarchist (If I *must* be defined…. I guess) and this entails that I pursue multiple relationships; ethically, with the consent and foreknowledge of all involved parties, I will discuss more about my personal ethic at the end.

  • Poly has defined a number of new methods of interaction. This is all groundbreaking information.
  • Ground breaking information comes at the price of not fully being able to comprehend how someone could destructively use what you have developed positively for positive use. I believe the ladder is a tool for evaluating positive use.
  • The knowledge base on poly is new. Most information and knowledge formation has happened within the last fifty years, and really mostly within the last ten. This is ridiculously YOUNG information. It is active and engaged and changing and evolving over time. We have the ability to adapt it and see old factors in new lights.
  • Polyamory has a hierarchy of credibility based on knowledge of poly, knowledge of self and that hierarchy can be used to perpetuate a power dynamic that is not favorable to the side with less knowledge of poly or self.

I’m going to use some terminology that may not be accessible to others. So I’m going to try to include a terminology section right now and all of these glossary terms have been taken from other websites such as meriam webster, social and psychological dictionaries and other places that I’m a bad person for not taking the time to link directly.

  • Hierarchy: a system of ranking where one is placed over top of the other. Another term that applies is kyriarchy, which is the intersectionality of different hierarchies upon a person.
  • Intersectionality: using different methods of inquiry to investigate seemingly unconnected topics in a new light. Example: I’m using a concept created to describe community empowerment in a municipal process to describe personal empowerment in a relationship process.
  • Credibility: an evaluating statement on the quality of someone’s information, something is believed more because it is more credible, but there is an inherent power dynamic in the notion of ‘credibility’ that often dismisses or speaks over oppressed peoples or subordinate groups.
  • Subordinate group: the less powerful entity in any given dispute or negotiation. This could be an oppressed minority group or just the less informed party in a discussion or negotiation. In my working definition, the person to whom poly is new is always the subordinate party.
  • Superordinate group: the more powerful entity in any given dispute or negotiation. This could be on the basis of more advanced knowledge on a particular subject or membership of an oppressive majority. In my working definition, the person who has more knowledge in poly is the superordinate party.
  • Manipulation: control or influence (a person or situation) cleverly, unfairly, or unscrupulously. When I use this term, information is conveyed to someone in an attempt to control their behaviour.
  • Disingenuous Therapy: an application of something, eg: education (as treatment) designed or serving to bring about social adjustment in behaviour that favors one party to the detriment of the subject receiving disingenuous therapy.
    •  The original working definition of ‘therapy’ for the purposes of this article discusses therapy in a very negative context. The author (and the person who brought this up to the author) “believe that therapy, sincerely entered in to and facilitated, can be a transformative process capable of opening hearts, eyes, and doors” and the wording prior to changes took part in the stigmatization of therapy.
  • Informing:  to make known, to give information to (someone).  You can inform someone you are doing something without taking their considerations into account.
  • Consultation: a discussion about something that is being decided, if the necessity of a decision at all is in dispute, consultation on how the decision will be implimented.
  • Placation:  to soothe or mollify especially by concessions. To make someone less angry about a decision by modifying that decision to better suit them.
  • Negotiation: the process by which two or more parties discuss what their boundaries are and avoid potential conflicts by arriving at a mutual understanding of expectations and acceptable behaviour.
  • Power: a working definition for the purposes of this text describes power as the ability to influence change over a situation.
  • Power dynamics: refers to the way power works in a setting. The way power works within specific interactions or ways in which power is exercised.
  • Unequal power dynamics: refers to a power dynamic that favors one or more parties to the detriment of another(s).
  • The hierarchy of credibility: is something I have written about before here. In summary, a hierarchy of credibility is a general attitude where the say, input and opinions of people who have the most knowledge or power is directly valued over another person or group of people. Example: the poly investigator that feels they understand a great deal about polyamory engaging with a person ‘new to poly’ is the superordinate party and benefits from the hierarchy of credibility while the new arrival to poly is the subordinate party. Example: the doctors and administrating powers in a mental institution are the superordinate party that benefits from the hierarchy of credibility over the experiences of their patients, the subordinate party.


Arnstein’s ladder of participation refers to a gauge by which someone may judge what level of participation citizens have had in the planning process. I would like to use this as a tool to investigate, acknowledge and describe the power dynamic created by the hierarchy of credibility as it applies to knowledge of poly and knowledge of self.

“The bottom rungs of the ladder are (1) Manipulation and (2) Therapy. These two rungs describe levels of “non-participation” that have been contrived by some to substitute for genuine participation. Their real objective is not to enable people to participate in planning or conducting programs, but to enable powerholders to “educate” or “cure” the participants. Rungs 3 and 4 progress to levels of “tokenism” that allow the have-nots to hear and to have a voice: (3) Informing and (4) Consultation. When they are proffered by powerholders as the total extent of participation, citizens may indeed hear and be heard. But under these conditions they lack the power to insure that their views will be heeded by the powerful. When participation is restricted to these levels, there is no follow-through, no “muscle,” hence no assurance of changing the status quo. Rung (5) Placation is simply a higher level tokenism because the ground rules allow have-nots to advise, but retain for the powerholders the continued right to decide.

Further up the ladder are levels of citizen power with increasing degrees of decision-making clout. Citizens can enter into a (6) Partnership that enables them to negotiate and engage in trade-offs with traditional power holders. At the topmost rungs, (7) Delegated Power and (8) Citizen Control, have-not citizens obtain the majority of decision-making seats, or full managerial power.”

I believe that it is completely possible to apply the citizen participatory ladder to check and see if our own interaction and action within the sphere of education about poly to someone else is perpetuating an uneven power dynamic. The way that we engage in our education on poly issues and the way that we engage with people is extremely important.

This is a ladder of poly participation and I offer it as a tool of inquiry. I believe that it is a valuable tool for determining empowerment within any relationship that requires any negotiation at all. But this specifically is a method of inquiry into the power dynamics of a more intimate relationship. Be that power dynamic of two or more people entering into a relationship individually that is new to them(s); or of a person entering a relationship where someone already has established partners they aren’t in a relationship with; or of a person entering an established dyad to make a triad of people in a relationship.

The nature of these power dynamics investigated comes into play when conflicts arise. The addition of more people’s needs, desires and requirements simply complicates the situation exponentially when you include their experiences and weight of opinion; as well as their potential power over one or more parties or subject to anothers’.

A person might engage in rungs one and two of the ladder (manipulation and disingenuous therapy) in order to achieve something that they are facing resistance to. The goal is not to come up with a mutual compromise that pleases both parties, “their real objective is not to enable people to participate in planning or conducting changes to the relationship, but to enable powerholders to “educate” or “cure” the participants” (Arnstein) so they may act freely.

I have been guilty of that and had the benefit of a firmly minded partner that knew poly was not for him. What he and I needed was to not be together, or at least to be on the same page that poly represented growth we were both interested in undertaking together. I argue that manipulating the information given about poly and applying information therapeutically to one’s resistant partner is abusive and the first two rungs of this ladder describe two different methods of abuse available to a more powerful party within an unequal power dynamic.

Manipulation: refers to the overarching opinion of one side that their ‘way’ is right for both parties and one side needs to be educated. What makes manipulation different from therapy is the willingness of the participant. In my personal example, I was guilty of trying to manipulate my partner into undertaking huge personal growth in a specific field that was desirable to me and not to my partner. In another example from a different perspective my partner was guilty of trying to manipulate me into agreeing to monogamy against my own personal growth desires. I camp one true way poly advocates into manipulators.

Disingenuous Therapy: is different from manipulation insofar as that the party with less power (within the hierarchy of credibility, see glossary of terms above) is a willing participant in the process but wishes to be heard. Therapy is the process of pretending to listen to someone’s inputs but really using it as a covert method of ‘reeducating’ or ‘curing’ them of the undesired inputs. The key in the first two rungs of my ladder are that the manipulated or therapied party is not a willing participant to a discussion on changes to their relationship and in lieu of ending the relationship, the party desiring changes is attempting to force their partner to accept the changes by ‘educating them’ as if their problem with the changes denotes a problem within themselves.

A person might engage in rungs three, four and five (informing, consultation and placation) when they are attempting to negotiate something, but have an inflexible outcome in mind. These processes are considered tokenism; whereby the informed, consulted, or placated individual has very little real power to assert any real power over the outcome intended. While tokenism may not necessarily be partaken with abusive intent, the resulting situation from an informing, ‘consulting’, or placating partnership can exacerbate unequal power dynamics at play. A lot of very healthy relationships might include dynamics that seem like informing, consulting, and placation but the key is that when these rungs of the ladder are engaged, the more powerful party has their own interests in mind and will not be happy to truly consider their partner’s or partners’ opinions, desires and needs.

Informing: What makes this non-participatory poly is the potential for a one way flow of information to a party that would like to be heard. The poly educator educates the subject out of a very real desire to create positive change, but the positive change they are seeking is a specific outcome that might not be in line with the direction of growth or desires of the person being informed. The informed has no valid input into the discussion because they are not ‘informed’ yet and if they were informed they wouldn’t be asking what they are asking or desiring what they desire. I would argue that a relationship dynamic that routinely comes back to reeducation as a method to avoid fulfilling desires or requirements of one partner is manipulation. A negotiation where one partner is informed of a change to their relationship without the power to affect that change is the classic example of informing.

Consultation: Consultation involves more of a dialogue but falls back on informing when the input from the less informed party is not to the informer’s liking and the process of consultation returns to ‘education’ as a way of stemming the lesser party’s input rather than addressing the input. If consultation does not fully include respecting and acknowledging the lesser party’s input then the process is entirely disingenuous and tantamount to therapy.

Placation: I would put boundary negotiations in a place of perpetual danger of placation because the process of negotiating boundaries can be done in good faith or bad and it isn’t easily clear when someone is acting in either fashion. Placation could be a negotiation of boundaries where a boundary is agreed to be respected NOT out of respect of the boundary but out of desire to achieve an agreement to do something else. And the key here is doing things without communicating to establish if those things are needed or desired and then expecting benefits or conscessions for the trouble one party has gone to in order to meet the uncommunicated needs of one party.

Placation is a wide topic. Compromising your own needs and desires because you have an idea of what your partner wants and have decided to give it to them without establishing that the actions you will take are desired also falls into placating. In this case, the placating party will often be very angry to find out that their compromises were not necessary.

If done in good faith negotiation of boundaries avoids with proper communication for both parties a negotiation will avoid placation and moves up the ladder into partnership, delegated power, and citizen control.

Rungs six, seven and eight were a little harder to link to poly. I saw the general application of power dynamics here the day I heard about Arnstein’s ladder but I haven’t been able to put it effectively into words until this year.

Partnership, delegated power and citizen control in Arnstein’s ladder define varying levels of empowerment among groups that have a distinct unbalanced power dynamic. Instead of doing that, I’m going to try and link in the very positive ways people can engage in seemingly unbalanced power dynamics. I am going to liken the three top rungs to popular methods of poly; a hierarchical (or unhierarchical) partnership, BDSM and solo poly/relationship anarchy. These last rungs are NOT meant to be taken in a hierarchical manner where any one is better than the other two. They are all unique and equally the result of communication and input of all parties to a mutual agreement. They are all evaluations based on the empowerment of all parties to effect change if they need to the relationship. While informing, true consultation and communicated placation might take place in all three of these rungs of the ladder, the key here is that both parties are communicating effectively and the power dynamic is equal or at least established and understood by both parties.

Partnership: This is hierarchical relationships (be it a polyamorous or monogamous partnership). Two or more people have a relationship that they have defined and they have agreed what that means to them and what actions would constitute acting in bad faith. All parties have access to education and information on the matter equally and no one has been coerced. This is a mutual understanding.

Delegated power: There are other relationship styles that can be classified here than an equal partnership. How about BDSM relationships where one party has delegated power over the other? In this rung, a submissive party has found a dominant party and engaged in a discussion and communication about what the delegation of their power means and both parties are acting in a healthy relationship that defies traditional power dynamics. If either party is being coerced in any way the relationship is subject to rungs one, two, three, four, five and six of the participation ladder.

Citizen control: There are still more relationship styles and I would compare this to relationship anarchy or solo polyamory where a party has their own code in mind and effectively communicates and tailors that code to all other potential participants in a relationship with that singular person. Specifically relationship anarchy refers to a removal of or abstinence from formal distinction between sexual, romantic or platonic relationships. I identify as a relationship anarchist and I would prefer to negotiate each separately (or together) and individually and update those relationships continuously.

I believe that the ladder of citizen participation and the ladder of relationship participation can be synthesized further and applied to investigating power dynamics within advocacy groups, politics and other multidisciplinary practices. But that’s another post for another day.