I think a lot about poly and abuse.
The backstory to this is that I will never ever ever EVER be able to forget the way that my very abusive father’s eyes lit up when I tried to explain to him what polyamory was. Even then I realized there was something wrong with the way he was thinking about poly having just heard about it… I was coming from an authentic place… and none of the things that happened in the past few years that displayed how much of his abuse over the years seemed VERY intentional… and really. It wasn’t necessarily intentional always… I don’t think he’s that smart. I just know that as an adult when faced with problems and things to overcome… I always have a choice. He always had a choice and the pattern of his unintentional behaviour both harmed others and garnered him rewards which he to this day complains bitterly about losing.
I spent my twenties looking for abusers and looking for safe people; and sadly, I spent my twenties PROFOUNDLY UNAWARE of what actually makes someone harmful to me. Turns out all my conceptualizations of what ‘safe’ were are wrong and that’s because I still don’t exactly have a concrete understanding of what ‘safety’ is. How do we achieve it? I will forever be the student in this I suspect because the more I learn, the more I find safety is a complicated equation that never really results in one hundred percent safety. But it’s the act of computing it that makes you safe.
So then what’s the answer? If we are worried about being victimized or seeing our friends victimized it can make us look for the polypaths that could be around us.
Polypathy isn’t behaviour… it’s a pattern of behaviours that is hard to diagnose from the outside. The real polypaths in your life are going to do everything NOT to look like a traditional polypath and if you aren’t closely involved with them for a long period of time you may never know. Indeed. You might think they are not polypaths because they don’t treat you that way but because they only treat people they know they can ‘win’ against that way.
The fun thing is that no mater their subterfuge and hidden nature, they can’t help themselves. Their behaviour will come to light in one way or another. The patterns will add up through observation and you can make them known… Or you can try to help them not to be polypaths. I do believe that because this is rarely intentional behaviour, that looking for polypaths specifically will lead you to feel that you are surrounded by them.
More than that… if you’re always looking for the polypath outside… you may forget the polypath INSIDE.
Let’s have a talk about how easy it is to hurt someone. I really like this Peter Levine quote because it exemplifies how easy it can be to traumatize someone.
Let’s talk about how hard it is to be an empathetic witness in EVERY situation at a moment’s notice and how people can drop the ball for a variety of reasons… usually many at once. ALMOST like it is difficult to be an empathetic witness all the time and might require a tool box of skills that our society doesn’t teach or foster no matter how much it values them. And so we have a lot of people running around trying to do poly and all the while poly thinkers are still learning themselves and poly is still a new method of inquiry.
Poly requires a toolbox of skills that I knew I needed. I kind of wanted to be poly but more I wanted to see the world through their eyes. I knew I needed to work on things but until I tried poly I didn’t realize how much work I had to do… I’m now a few years into the serious work and piggybacking on the good work I’d been doing in the almost seven years of adulthood prior to exploring poly.
I came from an intimidating, belittling, and profoundly violent-for-the-fact-dad-wasn’t-beating-us-with-2x4s-like-he-always-said-he-could home. I grew up with a conceptualization of boundaries that involved not talking about them or knowing that if I laid them out for people that they would EVER be respected. I think this is more common than people realize or I’m just projecting my reality onto everyone. People tell me it’s not common. I just think everyone’s family goes to the extremes my family went to but WAY more people experience the things I have than anyone realizes.
I could have ended up as a polypath. I worry still sometimes about the abusive FLEAS. I say this because abused people who grow up in abusive environments often either grow up to be abused or become abusers. … we know nothing else unless we work for it and the work is SO SO SO HARD. So I have a lot of empathy for the polypath.
But let’s come back to the polypath inside all of us.
The polypath inside us is sort of like the id. The polypath inside us knows we’re right and that what we want is right. It wants us to feel good and not bad and it is indiscriminate about making us feel good and not bad. It will defend us DEFENSIVELY against bad feels like shame, embarrassment and sadness. It will make us feel good by going about getting us what we want regardless of cost.
There’s a polypath inside you. And our poly rhetoric actually only gives it a lot of tools to do what it does more effectively. The polypath whispers on your shoulder the same way that the perfect poly person does.
Both of these shoulder entities are pretty harmful.
How do we combat this? What does our toolbox look like?
- Communication: Not just the act of communication. But all the checkmarked ticky boxes that have to be fulfilled for us to communicate authentically need to be on our mind when we think about communication. These ticky boxes I’ll try to summarize and I won’t get all of them.
- You need to be able to express your feelings.
- You need to know what your feelings are. (This one’s such a big point it really needs its own post)
- You need to be able to catch yourself when you’re lying to yourself.
- You need to be able to admit when you’ve been wrong.
- You need to be able to use words your partner will understand.
- You need to be able to understand the things your partner says to you.
- There are more.
- Boundaries: Which we can communicate. It’s a big deal. Needs it’s own point even if it’s a subsection of communication.
- Knowing what you like.
- Knowing what you DON’T like.
- Knowing how to ask for what you want to happen and how to ask for what you don’t want to not happen.
- Authenticity: This is the follow-through portion of being able to communicate what your boundaries are at any given time. Because where you’re at changes. Being able to navigate how you are feeling and being authentic will help**
- Knowledge: Your knowledge of polyamory and what it means to you (this is part of the boundaries section sort of) will help you protect yourself from being abused. If someone is all about trying to use their knowledge of poly to make you behave certain ways then your own knowledge is your combative defense against those people. Being able to discuss why you think they’re wrong is important. This takes work and time. I discuss the power dynamics knowledge can leave us with in The ladder of citizen participation: The threat of non-participatory poly and the ladder of relationship participation.
- Pattern recognition: Are you able to tell when you find yourself in a pattern of behaviour? Can you see them in others? Do you have the words and tools to accurately describe the patterns you’re seeing to someone else? If someone tells you about a pattern they see in you… how do you respond?
- Introspection: Are you able to use these tools on yourself? Or only on other people? In my opinion, we should first be using all of the concepts we learn as part of our journey in polyamory on ourselves. That we will be able to teach best by example and that understanding the concepts comes first from understanding how they affect our lives and how we are affected as a result of them.
- Understanding your reactions and where they are coming from. Are you hurt, embarrassed, infuriated or all three? Why for each of the three? Do they affect each other? Does one feeling blend into another?
- Understanding why you want something and what you’re willing to do (and not willing to do) to get it lets you be intentional about your desires.
You must know yourself to know all the other things. All of these skills build on each other, require each other for advancement and cannot be achieved in solitude without each other part… AND OTHER TOOLS I DON’T YET UNDERSTAND. This is not an exhaustive toolbox list.
Some things to think about.
** Authenticity alone doesn’t ensure a person isn’t behaving abusively. Abusers authentically believe they NEED to be abusing you.