This is the second blog in a series of two on abuse in polyamorous relationships. In the first blog, I explored the ways in which poly relationships could limit or help to avoid abuse. In this blog, I explain some of the ways that poly families might encourage or contribute to abuse. Although I have not seen this in the families I have studied, there is a potential for group situations to become significantly dysfunctional. While abuse does not appear in my data, some community members have reported it in their blogs, and common sense says others have experienced it and not blogged about it. In addition to the manipulation and financial control that are common to many abusive settings, there are a few factors that can increase the potential for poly relationships to become abusive.
Abusers routinely isolate their prey from support systems so that the abused person has no outside perspectives or options to leave their abuser. People who have come out as polyamorous and been rejected by family and friends are at greater risk of abuse because they have fewer resources outside of the abusive relationship. If the people the abused person otherwise would have turned to for assistance have either turned their backs on their poly loved one or berated them for being poly, then that abused poly person does not have those other social contacts to fall back on for practical and emotional support.
This potential is much increased if a charismatic leader founds a group or community and misuses power – something that has happened time and again in religious and cultural groups from Jim Jones’s The People’s Temple who started out trying to help people in poverty and ended up murdering almost a thousand people with poisoned punch in Guyana, to the many contemporary (and past) yoga glitterati accused of improprieties with their students.
On a smaller scale, a charismatic figure could build a poly family and misuse power, creating an abusive situation. These families do not appear in my study, probably because they would not want to volunteer for research. Keeping tight control of a closed system is one of the ways in which abusers control their victims, and inviting a researcher in to ask questions and hang around could bring in outside influences the abuser would prefer to avoid. Finally, as a Court Appointed Special Advocate/Guardian Ad Litem, I am a mandated reporter and am legally bound to immediately report any child abuse I know about or suspect to authorities – another possible deterrent to abusers inviting me to study them.
One of the ways in which a leader, charismatic or not, can exert control is by fostering a unified story that may or may not correspond with reality as others perceive it. People who think in some other way are often bullied and ganged up on until they begin to question their own point of view. In a process called gaslighting, members of a group can exert groupthink on a group member who is not fully believing or espousing – and possibly even openly challenging – the approved group perspective, and then try to bully, subvert, and convince the errant member that their own view of reality is wrong and that the group’s view is correct.
Child Abuse in Poly Families
Some studies from the 1980s indicated that children from divorced homes were at higher risk for abuse, although even then it was clear that the evidence was inconclusive. Current research provides a more complex image, indicating that other risk factors like being male, moving residences repeatedly, and parental alcoholism are far more influential and family type exerts very little influence. Abuse also appears to be mediated by the presence of multiple loving adults to provide care for the children, and some research shows that cohabitational male partners can provide positive impact on their female partners' children.
Children in poly families may be at greater risk for abuse because of their exposure to additional people, or that may provide them with benefits. Only more research on all sorts of families will help explain abuse and indicate ways to address it. Even being monogamously married and excluding non-family adult men from children’s lives is not sufficient to eliminate childhood abuse, because family members in those kinds of homes abuse children as well. A larger social shift emphasizing children’s personal autonomy and affirmative consent from everyone prior to sexual engagement would be far more effective in protecting children from abuse than would demonizing diverse families.