Chapter 1 - Getting Together
Nikki was someone who responded to my shout-out on social media looking for interviews with anyone who’d been a victim of emotional abuse in polyamory.
Nikki was 29 years old when she had her first experience with an emotionally abusive relationship. Sadly for her, she had two back to back. The first relationship (4 years long) being monogamous and the second being polyamorous (2 years long). She was never previously diagnosed with mental health difficulties, but began taking medication during the first relationship and took time off work for the first time in her life after the second. She first heard the term “abusive relationship” from her GP following her break up from the second relationship and a referral to women’s aid, which proved an extremely supportive and useful service to her recovery. The most poignant thing for me about Nikki’s story is the fact she went through six years of this before finding a label for what was happening to her. Her suffering was evident in her story and even as we sat the face to face interview her ex was sending her messages with name-calling and guilt tripping for their breaking up, despite it being a year after the fact.
A factor that may have been so confusing to her is that in her own evolution from monogamy to polyamory, the abuse tactics also changed, making them feel unfamiliar and more difficult to spot. Or because her self esteem was so low, they were familiar and comforting.
Nikki’s first relationship was monogamous, but he used polyamory as a tool to cheat on her.
“He would tell everyone that we were poly and they shouldn’t talk to me about it because that was our agreement and I would kill myself if I found out it was them.”
Nikki was broken-hearted after breaking up with this ex when she met Ben for the first time. Interestingly, she didn’t have the best first impression of him. “I thought he was a dick. He was topless and kicking this ball around and he kicked it wrong and it ended up hitting someone on the head. Really cocky, I just thought he was a massive asshole.”
They started talking over social media. Ben was already involved in a relationship that was primarily monogamous at the time. “He was telling me that he’d told his partner (Emma) that he had other dynamic needs and at some point he’d like to fulfil those.” Specifically, he had a kink his partner wasn’t into and they’d come to an agreement he could seek out a play partner to fulfil this need.
This type of agreement is very important and central to polyamory. An agreement can be between a couple, or a group of people that provides boundaries and rules on the terms of the type of polyamory or ethical non-monogamy. Agreements include safer sex boundaries, what kind of emotional and physical intimacy with othes is OK, what kind of relationship structures are agreed upon. In this case, Emma has agreed for Ben to have a BDSM dynamic with Nikki that excludes sex.
At first everything seemed very sane and consensual. Full of green flags, Nikki met Ben and Emma. Boundaries and limitations were very clear and Ben’s partner seemed happy with the arrangement.
“We did our first meet at their house with her there. I spent some time with Emma. I knew somethings were off limits like sex - which never happened during that time. I didn’t have anymore dealings with it. I just took his word that that’s how things were between them. Emma would go upstairs and do something or she would be going out when me and Ben were spending time together.”
Within a month or two, Nikki found herself at a mutual friend’s kinky birthday party with Ben and Emma. “I was under the assumption everything was fine but Emma was really off at me. I’d spoken to Ben about doing some cheeky stuff and doing some play there. At one point me and Ben had spoken and agreed about sneaking off to a private room. That did happen and then Emma knocked on the door. It was very much like being told off like school kids.”
“Looking back on it it was obvious Emma wasn’t comfortable with that. But I didn’t know that at the time. But I was kind of like trusting Ben that this is OK and we wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t OK with her, but then it was really obvious she was upset.”
“I think that’s when I ended up just switching my focus to someone else and avoiding Ben a bit more. I tried to avoid Emma. But Ben would find me and things so I assumed it was OK… he was initiating. I didn’t see us as a poly relationship - I saw us as a side-play partner so I didn’t feel responsible…. those two needed to have a conversation and not have me in it. And discuss things between themselves because there was a lot of boundaries and rules I didn’t know about…. they should have had their shit together. You need to trust they have stuff with their other partner sorted”
Nikki found out much later that Emma had in fact asked him not to engage with Nikki as more than a friend at this party as it was the first time all three of them were going to be in public together. If Nikki had known this at the time, Ben’s disregard for Emma’s boundary would have been the first of many red flags. By going against what his partner had asked of him, Ben had therefore broken boundaries of their agreement.
Sadly, despite being so new to non-monogamy, Nikki has already had two experiences of how it can be used for cheating. Like many tools, models and structures, polyamory can be misused by people to justify poor behaviour. The first example is her monogamous boyfriend saying they were polyamorous in order to cheat. The second example involves de-mystifying a common belief in polyamory - it is possible to still cheat. Breaking a specific rule in their agreement (i.e. “don’t sleep with my best friend”) can be and is defined as cheating in polyamorous circles. Traditionally, cheating is defined as:
“Someone who is in a committed relationship and breaks the trust of his or her partner by getting physically or emotionally involved with another person.” - Urban Dictionary.
By going against Emma’s request for him to not engage with Nikki sexually at the party, Ben had broken his agreement with Emma. There is a potential that he brought Nikki to a private room in order to avoid “getting caught.” This could be defined as a red flag for trust issues and manipulation on Ben’s part, but we can only speculate at this point.
In hierarchical polyamory, different labels can be used to describe different relationship structures. This implies and denotes the expectations, boundaries and limitations of a connection. Nikki was in fact practising good boundaries by not getting involved in care-taking or getting involved in Ben and Emma’s agreement. Whilst it can sound unusual and cold-hearted to someone unfamiliar with polyamory, Nikki is in the right here. Under the agreement she has with Ben, it is not her role to be involved in his relationship with his partner in any way. Whilst it can be tempting to swoop in and act as counsellor, or offer to leave to make things comfortable again, that would be emotional labour for Nikki that would likely involve her being scapegoated. We will discuss this theme more in another person’s (Amaranta’s) story - who did get involved and it ended up worse.
“So after a few days Ben said “we (Emma and him) have broken up, I need to get away for a few days, can I come see you?” I had vaginismus, hadn’t had sex for two and a half years, it was a big deal for me and Ben was helping me through that and I remember the first time he put a finger inside me and I cried because it didn’t hurt. So to have sex the next day was a big deal for me.”
This may be a factor that caused an intense bond between Nikki and Ben. The fact that he was part of a healing journey for her may have clouded her ability to see his behaviours objectively, or caused a power imbalance, e.g. “he healed me.” Either way, it’s easy to imagine that this intense healing experience had a significant impact on Nikki and her relationship to Ben and perhaps clouded her ability to notice the red flags in his behaviour.
At this point, Nikki and Ben decided they wanted to be polyamorous and continue doing what they were doing. They were both not seeing other people at this point.
In Chapter 2 we will learn more about Nikki’s journey into polyamory, and sadly, emotional abuse.