I found 4 interviewees through advertising on Facebook and interviewed them at various stages over the summer of 2019.
Four women volunteered to be interviewed. They were aged between mid-twenties and fifties and all living in the UK. Three discussed ex partners and one discussed a current partner but was in the process of ending this relationship. The most recent relationship discussed was one the participant was still in, but making plans to leave. The furthest past relationship was one that ended eight years ago. The variety in longevity of relationships ranged from six months to twenty+ years. Two participants identified the relationship that they described for the purposes of the interview as their second emotionally abusive relationship - both going straight from one into the other or overlapping. The current relationship discussed was the only relationship which was a marriage and the only relationship with children.
In terms of relationship structures there were:
- Two that joined a married partner.
- One that became a triad.
- Two that were primary relationships where the abusive partner had another long-term partner.
- In all of the relationships the women named struggled to be able to have and maintain other relationships due to their partner's behaviour and did not have long-term, regular connections - despite their partner (discussed in the interview) doing so.
All participants sought professional support for their relationships: two during and after, two after. Two participants found Women's Aid extremely useful, and three participants had found individual therapy useful for their healing from these relationships. None of the interviewees had pre-existing mental health diagnoses.
Format of Interviews and Questions Asked:
Prologue - "I'm going to ask you some difficult questions, particularly I'm interested in exact phrasing or examples of situations, back and forth in conversations that were harmful/gaslighting/abusive. I want to preface this with a content warning that it's not that I don't believe you, rather I think having specific examples will be most useful to other people reading this. If you need a break to check in at any time or ask me why I'm asking a particular question you can."
- In the relationship(s) how experienced were you/they at polyamory at the time?
- What were your first impressions of this partner?
- What was your and their relationship status when you met?
- What state of mind were you in when the relationship started?
- What did polyamory mean to you?
- In this relationship(s) what was the original boundary setting/agreement process like? When was it done? What did it entail? What was your input? Was it an unspoken agreement you thought you both understood?
- When did you first begin to have concerns? What did you start noticing?
- Was there a specific incident that resulted in boundaries being changed? E.g. had they met someone new? You expressed something that upset them?
- How was it communicated that the boundaries had changed?
- Was there a clear new agreement from this discussion onwards?
- How was jealousy managed?
- Can you give examples of times you were made feel you were imagining problems or your memory of things your partner said/did were not real?
- What exactly did they say/do to create this?
- Can you give examples of things that were said/done to justify inconsistency in the agreement (e.g. I know we said we'd only connect with X people, but...)
- What happened when you expressed discomfort with or pointed out difficulties with the poly agreement? What did your partner say/do in response?
- Were there other ways you experienced control within this/these relationship(s)?
- Was there ever financial abuse? What were the financial arrangements? Who paid for food etc. Was there work or investments that benefited him in any way? That cost you financially or you would normally charge for? Was there debt/one of you putting in more effort than others/owing money at the end of the relationship. Did they convince you they would take care of you and have only a job.
- How were time commitments managed/juggled?
- How did they treat you/behave in front of your partners? What agreements did you have about that and were they kept to.
- How did they treat you in front of their partners?
- Was heterosexual privilege an issue?
- Did they have an entitlement or fetishisation about your connections esp. Same sex connections?
- What would happen when you would request a change in boundaries to meet your own needs? e.g. "Can we not have connections with others tonight?" or "I would like to expand our boundaries so I can have more freedom."
- Were you isolated from friends or family? What happened to your friends who weren't poly? Did you have anyone to talk to about that? Who did you have to talk to about your problems?
- How was your distress handled? How were their high emotions handled?
- Sex life. How were sexual differences worked out?
In January 2020 I started transcribing. Eventually doing my own thematic analysis in Spring 2020. From there I decided to write Nikki's story in narrative form, weaving information throughout.
Imperfections of the Study:
All participants were acquaintances of mine, which may have impacted how we related to each other. This may have also influenced how I wrote about their experience, despite my best efforts to be as impartial as possible. All participants were white, queer/pansexual and female identifying dating white cis men, which is obviously a limited representation of the different types of people who explore polyamory.
I would love to see this study repeated for more diverse populations, e.g:
- LGBTQ+ relationships.
- Non-cis people.
- Men who have experienced emotional abuse in polyamory.
- Any research on POC experiences of relationships and the sex positive community.
- A specific study on long-term monogamous relationships becoming poly
A special thanks to:
Becky Johansson of Heron Therapy for academic and emotional support.
Elizabeth Sheff and the survivors of Franklin Veaux for the inspiration and guidance for this work.