I probably have over twenty drafts of this post half-done. It’s definitely one of the hardest, thorniest, most fraught subjects to discuss. I’ve shied away from it in part because I’m afraid that I’m being judgmental, narrow-minded, and unloving. But I think it’s a concern that a lot of poly people have had over time, and it’s worth trying to bring into the light gently, carefully, respectfully. That subject is what (if anything) you do when you’re worried that your metamour is abusive.
As I’ve said in a number of posts, Lora has a fair amount of mental issues. Her childhood and young adulthood had a lot of extreme stress and hardship. My heart goes out to her when I think about the things that she endured as a child who didn’t have a choice but to be stuck in terrible domestic situation and as a young adult who ended up in a situation that was equally as damaging when she tried to get away from her bad home life.
Because money is very tight, and her health insurance is pretty terrible, Lora has been resistant to looking to to therapy. To a certain extent, she is aware of her mental issues, and she does actively work on improving them. Sometimes. But there are some things that I see (and hear) that I worry…are they products of mental illness or are they things that mean that Lora is abusive? And if Lora is abusive, how much does it matter if it’s because of her mental illness instead of coming from learning bad relationship habits?
This is incredibly difficult to parse in part because there is a huge grey area between what makes someone a good partner, a bad partner, and an abusive partner. There are many things we can all agree on – physical violence, controlling money, destroying belongings – those acts are fairly obvious and easy to spot. But what if someone gets condescending and cruel when fighting some of the time, but is otherwise a great partner? Are they abusive? Is it enough to scrap an otherwise healthy relationship? Can the relationship be called “otherwise healthy”? If someone sometimes seems to manufacture crises to get a partner’s attention when they’re with another partner is that enough of a problem to end the relationship? And how can you tell if someone is manufacturing something vs genuinely having a crises? How much certain kinds of behavior stress a partner is also quite variable – there are a lot of things that one person may see as abuse (or just bad behavior) that another person feels comfortable dealing with and doesn’t consider a deal-breaker.
When Lora and Jon fight, Lora will say things like “Why do you always fuck things up?” or “You’re just doing this to fuck with me. Why do you fuck with me like this?” “You’re just doing this to hurt me. You get off on seeing me miserable; I know you do”. Jon will typically stay calm and rational and counter that he doesn’t always fuck things up, but yes, he made a mistake this time. And no, he’s not trying to fuck with Lora or hurt her, he just screwed up and is trying to make it right. One thing I’ve noticed is that Lora’s verbal attacks tend to end once Jon is angry enough to yell. I don’t know why it seems like she wants him to yell, if that proves something or shows her something. I do know picking at someone with increasingly hurtful remarks until they get angry enough to yell is not a good way to communicate.
Another thing I know (both from my arguments with Jon, as well as hearing Jon and Lora’s arguments) is that Jon is a good arguer. He sticks to the current problem, he makes “I” statements, he stays respectful. These are all extremely important to me; One of my relationship deal-breakers is that I don’t stay in relationships with people who don’t fight fairly 90%+ of the time – and for those times when either of us slip until unfair fighting, sincere apologies must be tendered afterwards, along with a discussion to figure out why and how it slipped into an unfair fight, so that that trigger can be avoided or diffused in later fights. Incidentally, my fair fighting rule is why I know I won’t have more than a moderately good friendship with Lora. Unless her fighting style changes drastically, any deeper relationship we had would end because of the fighting.
How do I know all this about Jon and Lora’s fighting? Walls are thin, Lora’s voice is loud (easily heard through a closed door), and the door to the room they’re arguing in isn’t always closed anyway. Our apartment is pretty small; if I wanted to give them privacy when they fight, I’d need to leave the apartment. I’ve debated putting headphones on – and sometimes I do put the TV or music on – but I’m getting really tired of covering up their fights. I don’t feel comfortable with the concept that I need to change what I’m doing multiple times a week to avoid hearing them argue (this doesn’t even get into moral quandaries like “should I be concerned about their fighting?” “short of physical violence occurring, should I ever get involved?” “when is it OK to express your feelings on another relationship that your partner is in?” which all deserve posts of their own).
So I hear a fair amount of their fighting. To me, the way that Lora fights is very concerning – I’ve brought that up with Jon. He says that he knows that she just gets very upset in the moment, and really doesn’t mean what she’s saying. I’ve pointed out that that’s what abusive people do and that what he says is what a lot of abused people say (“she didn’t really mean it”) – which he acknowledges. And he says that there are more than enough bright spots in the relationship that it’s worth the fighting to him.
If it were the occasional fight, I wouldn’t be nearly as worried. Part of why this is so strongly on my mind now is because with Lora not working, the amount of fighting they’re doing has gone up again. As Jon said before, when Lora is out of work and looking for a job, she’s extra anxious and scared that she won’t find another one, so she lashes out at him. She also feels restless and useless, since she rarely goes out unless Jon is going with her (she’s just started going to the gym regularly without Jon going with her every time), or she’s headed to work. So it’s not personal (so says Jon) – the overall situation just stresses her out and she doesn’t handle stress well.
(If anybody who is reading this is screaming BULLSHIT right now, believe me, I know. Anything that you’re thinking about how wrong that is, how it’s not fair to Jon, how it’s not healthy…I’ve said it. He’s acknowledged it. He’s continued to express that the relationship is worth is, that it’s really not that bad, that he knows how to handle it. I’m increasingly having doubts about all of those statements.)
Writing this all down has shown me another reason why I hesitated to write it down: I’m cringing over how it seems like we’re both making excuses for really unacceptable behavior. It is really bad? Isn’t it? Or am I being too harsh? Until she quit her job, things seemed to be improving. Doesn’t that count for something? How much should it count for? Was she *really* improving or were things just smooth enough that there wasn’t anything to set her off for awhile?
This is exactly the kind of mental muddle I get into every time I think about these things. The only thing that hurts over this more than my head is my heart.
Other than the fighting, is anything else abusive? There is something else that is part of the fighting, though it doesn’t always turn into an actual screaming fight – it is something that also comes up in the sniping and that’s when Lora tells Jon how he feels. She insists that he’s said a certain thing or done a certain thing that he hasn’t done and badgers him to admit that he said/did that thing. In the sniping post, I mentioned her insisting that he was saying she looked beautiful because he thinks that she normally looks awful. Sometimes the badgering turns into something that feels even worse to me. Here’s an example:
Jon and Lora were bantering about something and Lora was jokingly saying something to Jon. I’m not entirely sure what was being said; I was in another room reading – so at first, it was just background noise and I was only vaguely aware of vocal tone, Lora’s sounding teasing and Jon’s being quiet & less teasing (but not upset initially). The first thing I really noticed was when Jon (who sounded hurt) said firmly (not yelling, but speaking a bit louder; I could clearly hear what was said) “Please don’t joke about that. It reminds me of an ex-gf who used to try to put me down to get her way. I know you’re just kidding, but it really hurts my feelings”.
This turned into Lora telling Jon that he had just told her that she was just as bad as his ex who was always abusive to him. Jon kept saying things like “Look, I asked you to stop because it reminded me of that. I never said you were just as bad as her. You’re not. But it upsets me when you joke like that”. Lora got increasingly upset until it escalated into her screaming and crying and telling Jon over and over that he owed her an apology for saying that she was just as bad as his ex, that she heard him say it with her own ears, and it wasn’t OK. It was terrible of him and it made her feel like shit and he had to apologize because she wasn’t going to be treated like garbage by another boyfriend. Her ex treated her like garbage and she wasn’t going to stand for it again.
To Jon’s credit, he said that he didn’t mean to upset Lora, and that he loved her and that she was a far better girlfriend than his ex, but that he wasn’t going to apologize for something that he didn’t say. While this fight(?) situation(?) clusterfuck(?) didn’t end in Jon yelling, it did eventually end in him leaving the room and going into the other bedroom with the door shut.
I have no idea how it was resolved (or even if it was actually resolved, or was just left there). I just know that after he shut the door to the other bedroom, there were no further conversations about it while I was within earshot.
So. I don’t know how to feel about these things or what to do about them. Or if I have the right to do anything about them, when they don’t directly involve me. I hate that Jon is going through this, but I feel like my hands are tied unless Lora acts this way to me directly.
Speaking of that, Jon and I had a conversation about that once after a particularly acrimonious fight that involved a lot of insulting and verbal abuse being hurled a Jon. I let him know (again) that I thought her behavior was not acceptable. I also told him that if she ever spoke to me the way that she spoke to him, I would make it clear to her that I found that behavior to be unacceptable and that is was simply not something I would live with. While I would hate for it to make it impossible for the three of us to continue to live together, if that’s what has to happen, then that’s what will happen. For me, verbal abuse of any kind of a boundary that I’ll tolerate being crossed once or twice, in a moment of extreme stress, but if it becomes something that happens regularly or even semi-regularly, then I’m removing myself from the situation permanently.
As I look over this, the most cohesive and carefully worded attempt to express these feelings, I’ve realized that writing it has given me some amount of clarity. I realized that it doesn’t matter to me if Lora’s shitty fighting technique is because of mental illness or learning bad relationship skills from previous relationships. No matter what the cause, making personal attacks, brings up past fights, and using deliberately hurtful words and phrases are signs of being controlling and abusive. Is this something that I should talk to her about? Is this something that I can live with? Those are things that I need to think about.
In reading back over past posts to find the ones that I wanted to link to this one, I reread the overheard words post, and gleaned a little sign from there that I hadn’t actively noticed before. When I asked Jon about talking to Lora about how he had woken her up to talk to her, he said that she would be more upset to know that I’ve overheard than anything else. She really does not want anybody to acknowledge or challenge the things she says to Jon. I think that’s another sign of a problem.
I need to think these things over more, but with the increase in fighting lately, I have a (bad) feeling that something is going to come to a head sooner rather than later.