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Advice – My partner is in an abusive relationship [NSFW].

[TW: Abuse, physical violence.]

Context: When I (25NB) first started seeing my primary partner, Morgan (29NB), they were living with Zach (30M) and Morgan’s two children from a previous relationship. Morgan disclosed all of this to me on our first date, I accepted, and we began a casual relationship. Within two weeks of our initial meeting, they confessed to me that Zach had been physically abusing them and that the relationship was officially over. I supported them through this initial break-up, providing a non-judgmental space for them to vent. I recognize that abusive relationships are difficult to leave and that having feelings for your abuser is nothing to be ashamed about.

Zach later resumed living with my partner, during which time they lost primary custody of their children (partially due to Zach) and Morgan has since been grieving this loss. After multiple breakups and physically violent incidents, Morgan asked if they could move in with me. I thought it was a great idea and supported them wholeheartedly.

Morgan continued seeing Zach romantically while living with me and for a while, it seemed to work. Not living together meant my partner could leave unstable situations and they would split their time between Zach’s house and ours. I met Zach as my partner wanted us to get along and I tried to convince myself that he had changed. He seemed genuinely interested in being my friend, so I let my guard down despite knowing this man’s history. I wanted to appease my partner by showing that I was open to second chances, and I knew that his sins weren’t mine to forgive. I was cordial when he came over although Zach and I were never friends.

A couple of weeks ago, Zach became violent in response to my partner taking on another pal. He sent threatening messages to both me and my partner, saying that he was going to commit suicide on our front lawn in front of the kids. We called the police who did little to help. The next day, while dropping off his things, he began kicking my car aggressively and repeatedly. My car is still damaged as we do not have money to fix it. Again, the police were unhelpful in this situation.

After a brief period of silence, my partner started sending Zach messages again. They missed him even though they denied that was the intent of the messages. I could see that they wanted to reconcile. Zach was resistant, and last night replied to my partner’s messages, saying that he was going to go out and “rape a bunch of people”. I woke up this morning to Morgan talking to Zach on the phone and as I write this, they are going to be meeting again. I told them that I disapproved and that he doesn’t deserve any of the kind words they were using on the phone, especially as he hasn’t apologized or taken any accountability for his shit up until this point. He is emotionally manipulative and uses self-loathing as a substitute for apologies to turn sympathy towards himself instead of his victims. If he chokes my partner, it’s because his feelings were hurt and he’s the one who needs to be coddled, and he wouldn’t have hurt anyone if he wasn’t naturally a piece of shit, etc. He is a textbook abuser. My partner acknowledged my feelings but went to see him anyways.

I don’t know what to do. I’ve made my boundaries perfectly clear. I feel unsafe around Zach and my partner’s continued association with Zach keeps me in a constant state of worry and fear. Zach is no longer welcome at our house and I do not approve of my partner going to his house either. I do not want to deal with the police again but it seems inevitable; I am a PoC and Zach is a white man. I don’t trust the cops and I feel like no one is capable of keeping me safe. I also don’t know how to offer support for my partner. They are addicted to Zach and the things I do/don’t do all seem to enable that addiction.

Right now, I’m holding firm my boundaries and the things I can control (e.g. Zach cannot come to the house). I don’t know how to proceed from here; I feel stuck, just waiting for the next calamity to hit. Their off and on relationship affects my partner’s mood from day to day and I am subject to all of it. I want so much to “rescue” my partner from this relationship but those thoughts seem to belong to a toxic, paternalistic mindset. How do I steer myself away from unhealthy thoughts and blame? What can I do to protect myself? What conversations should I be having with my partner and how? I am feeling very alone in this. I have not discussed this with any of my friends as I feel this is personal to Morgan.

Morgan has made strides to ending the cycle of abuse. They know better than me how abusive Zach can be; they are not blind to it. Moving in with me was a huge decision to remove themself from a hostile environment. They are going to school in September and I am sometimes hopeful that their accomplishments and the building up their self-worth will come out on the side of Morgan that knows leaving Zach for good is the best option. Other times, I’m not so optimistic.

Zach has a restraining order against Morgan from a previous fight. This means that he can have Morgan arrested anytime for meeting him. The law protects abusers, we know this. If Zach visits at our house, we have a better case for removing him. If Morgan visits at his house, he can have Morgan arrested. While banning Zach from our house is a hard boundary for me, I worry that this will push my partner into dangerous situations at Zach’s house.

I love my partner. I do not want to leave my partner. Morgan is financially dependent on me and does not have a vehicle of their own. If I leave them, they will lose their children for good and will quite literally be homeless. They do not have other supports or options.

Any advice is greatly appreciated.

Anonymous, /r/polyadvice
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Dear Anonymous,

I am really sorry to hear that you and your loved one is going through this. Your situation is incredibly complex.

We as polyfolks are often put into completely new situations that which do not necessarily have exact comparison to draw experiences from. Many of the problems we face are unique to our circumstances, which vary greatly depending on the relationship style preference. There hasn’t ever been a manual written about what to do if your partner’s other partner is being abusive. Your situation too is a one very unique to your happenstance, but I believe we can infer from what we’ve already learned about abuse in relationships to apply to what is happening here.

I am first going to go into what appears to be happening with your metamour Zach, beyond what you’ve already acknowledged. Then we’ll talk about your partner Morgan’s headspace. Lastly, we’ll answer your questions about what you can do to protect yourself and your partner.

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Relationship Trauma and Trauma Bonding

As you recognized, it appears that Zach is a textbook abuser. Based on what you have shared through first- and second-hand witnesses, Zach displays characteristics of the Rambo and the Victim from Lundy Bancroft’s Why Does He Do That, a phenomenal book that dives into the inside of abusive men.

In short, Rambo utilizes extreme aggression (i.e. choking his partner, kicking and damaging your car) in order to intimidate others through subvert or overt fear. Rambo often “enjoys the role of protector, feeling like a gallant knight.” Lundy even goes further to claim that most Rambos recognize that while violence is not always the answer, “exceptions to this rule can be made for [their] own partner[s] if [their] behavior is bad enough.” In comparison, the Victim appeals compassion through his traumatic past in order to manipulate and control their partners. In addition, Victims justify their behaviors through the language of the abuse victims, which further deviates the actual abuse victims from being able to acknowledge themselves as victims. This can often show up in the form of self-loathing, as you noticed.

I am going to introduce you to a word you might already be familiar with: trauma bonding.

Trauma bonding is defined as a cyclical nature of abuse where the intermittent reinforcement of reward and retribution enforces a powerful emotional bond between the abuser and the abused. That emotional bond can sometimes be very similar to substance addiction in how it is perpetuated and reinforced.

Tanya Evans goes into detail about the cycle of an abuse from a parent-to-child context here, but the model is also applicable in romantic relationships. Tension builds after the initial period of calm. Then it culminates in a moment of abuse, quickly followed by a burst of affection and care. The cycle continues when the honeymoon phase stems off, again into a period of calm. The abuse cycle interval gradually shortens and the intensity of the abuse usually escalates over time as the abuser gets more and more empowered through the cyclical abuse.

Based on what you’ve shared, it sounds like there has been numerous instances of abusive incidents – both that you’ve witnessed first-hand and heard about through second-hand – that indicate that Morgan is bonded to Zach through repeated trauma. The constant threat of restraining order that Zach has is another way to actively manipulate Morgan and passively manipulate you.

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Codependency and Abuse

So let’s talk about Morgan.

It is a very common pattern among codependent folks that they partake in and/or enable their partner’s destructive behaviors. Sometimes, even when they can recognize that their partner is abusive, the codependents often feel it impossible to break the cycle and eventually relapse back into abuse. Many abusers condition their abuse victims through trauma bonding in order to make them believe that it is only through their abuse and subsequent affection that they can feel happiness.

It could be very possible that Morgan is codependently attached to Zach’s abuse in the same way a substance abuser is addicted to their object of addiction. And even if Morgan themself recognizes that Zach is abusive and manipulative, they might not feel in control of their relationship with Zach. Through their attachment, Morgan enables, facilitates, and perpetuates Zach’s abusive behavior in their relationship with him as well as their relationship with you.

There are also some codependent behaviors reflected in your relationship with Morgan as well. It is natural to want to alleviate your partner’s suffering. But in your efforts to alleviate their suffering, Morgan is not actively learning to manage their own suffering that is inflicted upon them. Each time you step in to rescue them, more it reinforces in their brain that they need to be rescued, further entrenching the level of dependence they heap onto you as well as you onto them. While it could be true that Morgan might know the scope of abuse better than you do, there just seems to be a terrible cognitive dissonance to acknowledge and act upon that abuse assessment. And in the same way that while you recognize that the scope of abuse is enough for you to set some hard boundaries against, the frustration boils over when you see their actions not matching their intentions.

As a result, you are frozen, trapped, and stuck until the next instance of abuse, further perpetuating the cycle of abuse.

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When Boundaries are Not Enough

Your situation is so uniquely complex because while you are not the primary recipient of abuse, you are still experiencing emotional trauma through second-hand emotional abuse that Zach inflicts onto Morgan.

First step is to acknowledge and take ownership of each person’s actions. You are not responsible for Morgan’s behavior; only Morgan can claim responsibility over their actions. In the same way, neither you nor Morgan are responsible for Zach’s behavior; only Zach can claim responsibility over his. In addition, you are not responsible for Morgan’s feelings in the same way that Morgan is not responsible for Zach’s feelings.

I know how difficult and painful it is to watch someone you love in distress. But it is not your responsibility to manage and oversee their abusive relationship. The most caring thing you can do is to treat Morgan as their own, let them manage their own relationship, and maintain your space as safe space while holding firm to your own boundaries. That could mean rewording your boundary such that it states “I will not be in a relationship with someone who constantly brings negative baggage from other relationships into our relationship.”

As it stands, this abuse will continue until you or Morgan can take a stand. I would argue that a breakup is always an option, for both you and Morgan. But if you really do not consider breaking up as an option, you can de-escalate your relationship while continuing to allow Morgan to live with you until they start attending their school in September. That will help you better shield your emotional well-being from the current intensive, abusive experience.

Keep in mind that it isn’t your place to tell Morgan when/if they should terminate their relationship with Zach. Even clinical therapists cannot tell their patients to terminate their relationships, and they’re trained specifically to address these situations. That is Morgan’s responsibility to own, and no one else’s.

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Responsibility to Self

You didn’t say how long you’ve been dating Morgan. But based on what you’ve shared, that is a lot of heavy stuff that Morgan threw on your plate just two weeks into dating you. A lot of heavy stuff that most folks would keep to and work through by themselves before miring anyone else for support. This tells me that Morgan has been severed from any of their support network to reach out to and lack the ability for mindfully forge new support networks.

Short of other human resources, there are a lot of support they’ll be about to find through books. Lundy’s first book Why Does He Do That? would be good for both you and your partner. Lundy’s second book Should I Stay or Should I Go would be a great next read for your partner if they need help on deciding whether they should stay in this abusive relationship with Zach or not. If Zach is open to also reading, Lundy also has material available for abusive men that might also benefit Zach.

The best thing that you can do is to point them in the right direction by providing resources, and let them know that you’re here for to support their journey back to well-being. But it doesn’t sound like stating your distaste and maintaining your boundaries are cutting it anymore. You owe it to yourself to be in and seek happy relationships with people that can maturely and properly manage their own well-being.

Good luck.

Tea Time with Tomato is an informative relationship and sex advice column for both monogamous and polyamorous folks. By submitting your post, you agree to let me use your story in part or in full. You also agree to let me edit or elaborate for clarity.

I want to hear your thoughts and feedback! Please feel free to send me your questions and comments at teatimetomato@gmail.com. If you liked my advice for this post, please subscribe below to get alerted when my next advice column is published!

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