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Protective Features Curb Abuse in Polyamorous Relationships

Part one of a two-part series on abuse in polyamorous relationships

As in all relationship styles, polyamorous relationships have the potential for abuse. Depending on how people handle it, the multiple partners in polyamorous relationships could be either helpful in preventing or stopping abuse, or could contribute to creating and perpetuating the abuse.

The data from my 20-year study of polyamorous families with children emphasize the protective features of poly relationships, and several of my respondents reported that their poly relationships interrupted previously abusive dynamics and helped to de-escalate situations. That may be, in part, because the people who usually volunteer for to participate in studies tend to view their families as healthy, positive, and functional. When I am researching a family, I often go and spend hours or even days in the home, observing how the family gets home from school or work, moves through meal time, kids' bedtime routines, and family leisure time. Someone who was verbally, emotionally, or physically abusing their family would most likely avoid exposure to the potentially critical eye of a researcher.

The first in a two part series on abuse in poly families, this blog explores some of the protective features that could make abuse less common in some poly relationships. The second part explores some of the adverse features that could make some poly groups prone to abuse.

Protective Features

Safety Bouy 6127, Pexels
Source: Safety Bouy 6127, Pexels

Some of my respondents in my 20-year study of polyamorous families with children reported that having multiple partners interrupted a cycle of abuse they had been experiencing prior to forming a poly relationship. Others had never experienced abuse in their poly families. Still others felt that the presence of multiple partners stopped some situations from becoming abusive. This protective function relies upon:


Abusers often know that their actions or words are unacceptable and (generally) can control themselves when they choose to. The presence of an outside observer can keep abusers from acting out because they know they are out of line and would be too embarrassed to show the depth of their brutality to someone else.

Outside Perspective

Having someone else around to provide an alternative view can help to destabilize an abusive situation. Abuse flourishes in power imbalances, and when someone provides a different viewpoint it can reconfigure power structures within relationships.


Sometimes providing an alternate outlook can morph in to becoming an active ally. Allies can help the victim of abuse recognize it as unacceptable, and stand up against the abuser to interrupt cycles of domination and control.

More Resources

In addition to an external perspective and help defending against abuse, multiple partners can provide extensive emotional, practical, and financial support for people seeking to alter or leave abusive situations. Having multiple partners increases the likelihood of having some other place to go when escaping an abusive situation. Pooled resources can help with transportation, clothes, child-care, and spread out the pep-talks so no one person gets burned out.


Aiden-Seth-Hailey-Singleton, Wikimedia Commons
Source: Aiden-Seth-Hailey-Singleton, Wikimedia Commons

Polyamorous families might help to inhibit child abuse by spreading parenting among multiple adults. This has a number of benefits, primary of which is allowing a frustrated parent who is about to make poor disciplinary choices to hand off a child to a different caretaker who has not (yet) been pushed to the limits of their patience. Allowing parents time to sleep, exercise, relax, work, and attend to life's needs in addition to parenting can help to make them healthier and happier people -- and better parents. Having multiple role models to demonstrate redirection, negotiation, or verbal discipline can help potentially or formerly abusive parents learn other ways to interact with their children.

These same protective factors can be advantageous for children as well. In families with multiple adults, children who are being abused have access to people in whom they can confide. Additional adults can provide new perspectives on children's behaviors, suggest alternatives to abusive tactics, and serve as allies for children who need help.

In part two of this series, I examine some of the adverse features that could make some poly families prone to abuse.

More from Elisabeth A. Sheff Ph.D., CSE
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