Here’s How Emotional Abuse Can Look Different In Non-Monogamy
Journalist, founding editor of Bustle, and author, Rachel Krantz, joined us in April for our educational series #openEd. Below is a transcript of our conversation, edited down for clarity and brevity. The full video is available here on our Youtube channel.
Gabby: Hi, Rachel! Thank you so much for joining us today! Do you want to tell us a little bit about your book and how you got started?
Rachel: Sure! Open: An Uncensored Memoir of Love, Liberation, and Non-Monogamy is a memoir that tells the story of my first open relationship. And that open relationship was also my first dom-sub dynamic –– only, as everything unfolds, you realize we’re not super healthy about it, we’re not really having clear rules or boundaries. So the book is a little bit of a cautionary tale as well. It’s the story of how emotional abuse incrementally unfolds and might manifest differently in a non-monogamous relationship than in a monogamous one.
Maile: What’s really refreshing to me is that it’s so relatable compared to some of the more self-help, educational books. There’s a lot of stuff that people can relate to if they’ve been exploring open relationships.
Gab: Yeah, what is special about the book is that you have, first of all, meticulously documented your experiences in non-monogamy. But also, the footnotes are so researched that you provide great context as you’re storytelling. You were mentioning a white person and you had a footnote explaining that people typically only mention race when speaking about a person who is non-white. So you were very intentional about wanting to say ‘white’ throughout the book and I wondered, in that sense, what your thought process and writing process was like.
Rachel: I got the idea from an excellent book called Craft In The Real World by Matthew Salesses. I really recommend it to any writers who want to make their work more anti-racist and to question tropes of Westernized storytelling. And as I was writing the book, I was doing so much reading, trying to better understand the world and my place in it. And there were a lot of moments where I remember being confused. Like, wait, how do you actually figure out your boundaries? What is the difference between intuition and fear? So I reached out to people who are experts –– teachers, psychologists, sex researchers, whoever was appropriate –– to kind of contextualize those instances.
I’m white and cis, and people assume I’m straight because this book centers primarily on a relationship I had with a man. So I continually remind the reader of that context, and how my story might’ve happened differently if my background or economic situation were different, just to kind of check myself and them. When groups are marginalized, individuals in that group come to represent everyone’s experience, which is ridiculous. This book is just my experience –– at a certain, very specific point in my life, as best as I can approximate it.
Maile: One thing that you did talk about was your privilege of being able to be open, and to share these experiences. You put so much of your personal experience in the book so I’m curious if you’ve gotten any backlash?
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Rachel: So far, while I have gotten some trolling and your standard dirty comments, the love is outweighing the hate. It’s very refreshing and gives me hope, but it also speaks to my degree of privilege. I was most worried about the non-monogamous community feeling betrayed because the relationship at the center of my book is so flawed. There’s not many depictions of polyamory, I didn’t want to confirm all these negative stereotypes, and yet I’m telling the truth of what happened.
Gabby: There is certainly a toxic positivity in online non-monogamous communities, so the book comes at a really ideal time. Everyone’s burnt out from hearing advice that’s just like, ‘If you’re jealous, look inside yourself!’ And I really enjoyed that your book explores how we are brought to believe –– and celebrate the belief –– that we can be rescued, or that we are special for being ‘chosen’ or ‘picked’ or whatever. What do you think it takes to rewrite beliefs like that?
Rachel: I’m thinking about, like, how do we continue to untangle this? Because obviously, the first step is to identify what’s happening. What have you been conditioned to want? And then, you work on giving yourself new pathways forward, on imagining new stories and narratives. That’s part of what I’m doing in the process of living and writing this book. I’m constructing a different happy ending for myself –– one that’s much more open-ended and non-monogamous –– but it’s still very difficult.
As much as I’ve done to decondition the myth of the ‘ideal other’, or the ‘soulmate’ –– which is this person who’s supposed to come along and ‘complete’ me and signify that I’ve arrived at my own life –– you can be non-monogamous and still be waiting for that. It’s something that women, especially, have been conditioned to be waiting for. We’re socialized to be very passive about our romantic lives, to believe that a prince is going to rescue us. Even if we’re queer or non-monogamous, it can take a different form, but the narrative is the same. It’s this idea that romantic love is the most important part of your life story.
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In The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, which were considered progressive at the time, the heroines started saying, like, I want something different, I want adventure! And they go out seeking that. Which is better than the generations before that had Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, who were literally unconscious for most of the movie. But still, what’s the adventure in the end? They literally transform themselves, or transform their partner, and the adventure is true love. The adventure is a man. Whereas with Aladdin, he finds Jasmine but really, his adventure is him becoming true to himself and owning his identity. That’s a very different way that men are taught to go through life. They are the action heroes, they’re the architects of their story, they go after the girl.
Becoming the architect of my own love story means reimagining life as something that’s not going to just happen to me. Rather, if I like someone, I can ask them out. Gender doesn’t have anything to do with that. And I’m continuing to figure out how to grieve the fact that there is no person who is going to come along and make me feel complete, that that itself is an impossibility. Exactly how to do that is something I’ve been working on and plan to write about in the future.
Gabby: Yeah, I think that was very beautifully put! And I agree that there is a period, that maybe we are all still going through, where we’re grieving the lies that we grew up believing. In many different contexts, not necessarily just non-monogamy.
Maile: Yeah, it’s that normalization of accepting other beliefs and considering that maybe, the way things were before isn’t the way things necessarily have to be. Another thing that comes up in the book, that I think is a really familiar experience for people who are exploring non-monogamy, is this experience where partners can shame or guilt their other partners for doing things with other people while simultaneously giving them permission. Where do you think that comes from?
Rachel: That’s a good question! Projection is always a good concept to grasp, right? In any relationship or any dynamic, it’s the idea that we basically act out on others based on things we’re feeling or have disavowed in ourselves. So if we’re guilt-tripping or shaming someone else for being non-monogamous, likely we have internalized shame about our own non-monogamous desires.
It can also be a symptom of not actually being okay with the dynamic in your relationship or with having that kind of warfare between what you want to feel and what you’re actually feeling. So then it gets acted out in this insecure, passive-aggressive way, but what’s underneath is that you don’t really feel safe. You’re trying to indirectly stop your partner from doing non-monogamy, and for whatever reason, you’re not able to communicate that directly. And with me and Adam, I increasingly felt like talking was not really an option because my not being okay with the situation was being viewed as a weakness or something to be trained out of me, and jealousy was viewed as an insecure emotion that needed to be deconditioned. So I started feeling more and more unsafe, and you can see me doing those passive-aggressive behaviors.
You’ll also see Adam acting out, even though he didn’t struggle with jealousy in the same outward, ‘obvious’ way. He would say that he didn’t feel jealous, or that he just got turned on by jealousy, but every time I got excited about someone new, he would say things to cut them down. Like, oh, that dude’s a loser, or whatever; it’s a shaming of who your partner is liking, rather than shaming the action itself, but it probably has some insecurity underneath it.
“As much as I’ve done to decondition the myth of the ‘ideal other’, or the ‘soulmate’ –– which is this person who’s supposed to come along and ‘complete’ me and signify that I’ve arrived at my own life –– you can be non-monogamous and still be waiting for that.”
Gabby: Oof, that’s so good, and there’s a quote that you had in the book that’s like, jealousy invites exactly what you’re trying to prevent. And I think anyone who has been doing non-monogamy for a little bit knows that that is so true. How does that inform the way that you move through jealousy?
Rachel: Well, in the book, I really start out struggling a lot. And in retrospect, it was not a safe dynamic where my jealousy was allowed to be held as a valid emotion. Because there might’ve been an irrational fear behind it sometimes, my feelings were generally seen as invalid, and I’ve learned that that’s not a good starting place for working on jealousy. Because if your partner can’t hold it with compassion and, even though it might be unattractive or frustrating, ask you like, where do you think this is coming from? Was there a trigger? Is there something I can do to get you back to a place where you feel safe? If they can’t do that, it’s gonna be hard to make non-monogamy feel good.
The other thing is that, in Buddhism, there’s this concept called ‘the second arrow’. And it’s the idea that in life, we’re all hit by fly-by arrows. There’s aging, disease, death, and there’s no avoiding those sort of fundamental truths. But there’s also the second arrows, which are the ones we add on to ourselves. They’re our anger over that impermanence, they’re our fear of change. And that’s the only thing we can control –– that additional suffering we’re kind of stabbing ourselves with.
I found that concept helpful with jealousy in that like, it’s not helpful to be mad at myself for feeling jealous, which is rooted not only in our fears of abandonment or other core things that need to be held gently, but also in a mourning of impermanence and the fact that nothing in life can be held on to. We’re mourning the fact that we will never fully complete someone else and they will never fully complete us. There’s a lot of tough truths we’re grappling with when we’re feeling jealous so if you add a second arrow of like, I’m so stupid for feeling jealous, I’m so unevolved, I’m so bad at non-monogamy, you’re just stabbing yourself further and perpetuating the feeling. We have to hold it with compassion, and try to sit with it, and just investigate and mourn what’s underneath.
Maile: While we’re on the topic of jealousy, do you think your experience would have been different if Adam had been more validating of your experiences with jealousy? Because you were saying that you’re shaming yourself a lot from those feelings, but a lot of that was coming from him, too.
Rachel: Absolutely! I mean, I think it would have been a challenge no matter what, don’t get me wrong. Adapting to non-monogamy can be a struggle, especially in a power dynamic where he was so interested in having multiple partners, and the goal posts were always moving, and I was the sub, but we didn’t really talk about it. I was very much at his mercy. So I think, even if he had held it more with compassion, all the other things would have been the same, and maybe I would have felt too powerless for that to work.
With my current partner who I cohabitate with, I do experience jealousy differently, but I think it’s a much less challenging situation because he’s the one who’s newer to non-monogamy. I seem to have a little bit more interest in pursuing it so when he does, it’s kind of exciting for me! And I feel very secure in the partnership. We can both hold jealousy with compassion, we talk, we negotiate, and there’s just that baseline of safety and mutual respect that wasn’t there before. But I’m always very humble about jealousy because it can come back and surprise you. I’m never just like, oh, I’m over it now!
Gabby: Haha, yes! I was very interested in how you connected Adam’s expectations for you to white supremacy. You were talking about perfectionism and paternalism, and you said that he was white supremacy culture made real. How did you start to connect white supremacy culture to some of the patterns in that relationship?
Rachel: In my mind, Adam sort of represented patriarchy, and the things about it that are so seductive. He saw me under this very traditional structure where the male is dominant and the woman is submissive, and in the beginning, that can be exciting because maybe you’re into power dynamics like that, maybe you’re fulfilling what society has expected of you. But then you see, over the years, sort of the crushing weight of that. I literally started to shrink beneath it. And Adam was not particularly happy upholding these archetypal masculine traits either.
So I started reading more about what characterizes white supremacy culture. I’d had ideas about it before but Rachel Ricketts has an excellent book called Do Better where they really break down what the traits are of white supremacy culture and patriarchy. Which is not to say that paternalism or patriarchy can’t exist in non-white cultures, but it’s a key part of white supremacy culture, right? Part of why white women continue to align themselves with men who make policies that don’t even benefit them, rather than aligning themselves with people of color, is because they’re so identified with white supremacy culture, they would rather participate in their own subjugation than compromise that power structure.
I saw how, oh my god, these traits are exactly his –– the worship of the written word, the idea that progress equals bigger, this sense that you have to always keep moving forward. Capitalism really is this mentality of binary thinking. This is not just abstract stuff that only affects people of color in America, they’re oppressive to everyone in different ways so we need to all be invested in dismantling them. How it manifested in Adam and I’s specific dynamic is just a good illustration of that.
Maile: Talking a little bit about subtext, you mentioned that Adam was really focused on specific words rather than the subtext behind them. Why is it so important to consider both?
Rachel: It kind of goes back to what we were just talking about! One of his phrases, and this is pretty common apparently of gaslighting dynamics, is saying, “Repeat back to me what I just said. What did I just say? No, that’s not what I said.” And it might be or might not be, but the way they’re experiencing the words emotionally gets kind of invalidated because all that matters is the exact words that were said.
So for example, Adam had kind of pressured me to get an IUD because he didn’t want to use condoms and I didn’t want to go back on hormonal birth control. And a day after it was implanted, he was pressuring me to have sex and I was like, “I’m not ready,” but he was like, “Other girlfriends didn’t think it was a big deal.” He was kind of shaming me for it and I was like, “That’s coercive!”
He was like, “I was not being coercive! That’s not what I said, repeat back to me what I just said.” He flipped out and it was like, okay, maybe what he had been saying to me wasn’t, “Why are you being such a baby about this? Other girlfriends didn’t think it’s a big deal!” It’s not like he was literally saying, “You have to have sex with me right now,” that’s not what coercion is. So, you know, it’s the context and the implication of people’s words, and also the manner in which they say them, that is so much of what communication is.
“You have certain conversations that are very indicative of how gaslighting works, and how it’s not just this casual term to throw around. It’s a very specific form of emotional abuse that, when prolonged, slowly makes a person lose trust in their own sanity and their own ability to make decisions and discern truth from untruth.”
Someone could be saying something that’s like, very mean on the face of it, but they could be saying it very sweetly, and that’s very confusing. Or it could be the reverse, they could be saying something that is supposed to be a compliment but it feels cruel. You learn you can’t just take things at face value, that that’s a hypermasculine way of thinking. And I think most of us in this culture are overly-aligned with the rational or the literal and tend to discard intuition.
Gabby: Adam’s gaslighting felt so familiar because I know I’ve had partners that did the same thing in other contexts. Like, oh, the last girl didn’t need lube for anal. And it’s very disarming when someone’s like, “I’m not coercive. Repeat back what I said and you’ll see.” What is your advice to others in navigating that problem?
Rachel: One thing I would say is: continue listening to your intuition. If you’re in a situation where you’re increasingly isolated from your friends or family, that’s a big warning sign. If you don’t feel comfortable talking about these things with people besides your partner, that’s a big warning sign. If you have access to therapy or counseling, that’s very important for helping you parse out these things.
Part of what you see in the book is like, it’s confusing! I’m adapting to non-monogamy, I’m coming into my queerness and learning about different kinks. There’s a lot that gets tangled up in that and I’m not being rational in a lot of moments or acting the way I want to be. There are things I can see myself wanting to decondition or work out. Maybe my initial impression is not always true to what’s happening, and that’s okay, but the distinction is: someone else should never be telling you what should and shouldn’t be in your thoughts and feelings. It’s good to examine them on your own, and have other people you can examine them with, but if they can’t acknowledge their own similar fallibility and subjectivity, that’s a really big red flag. If they’re telling you you shouldn’t be feeling something because it’s irrational, or because it’s based in societal constructs, or it’s unevolved, that is a big warning sign.
My book is a good place to start because I really recorded, for years, exactly how this unfolded. And recording became a sort of coping mechanism. So I was literally, with his consent, doing audio recordings and in the book, you have certain conversations that are very indicative of exactly the dynamic we’re talking about here, and how gaslighting works, and how it’s not just this casual term to throw around. It’s a very specific form of emotional abuse that, when prolonged, slowly makes a person lose trust in their own sanity and their own ability to make decisions and discern truth from untruth. Hopefully that gives people some context. I also have lots of resources in the book, like other books about gaslighting, other hotlines, or places to look for a kink-friendly therapist.
Maile: Yeah, that’s one of the things I found so fascinating, because as somebody who has also experienced relationships with gaslighting and abuse, you are so conditioned to question everything, to question all of your own feelings, and to assume you’re wrong all the time, that being able to look back is a great tool. You can look back and validate the experience for yourself because those abusers are never going to validate your feelings for you.
Rachel: Yeah, it’s so confusing, you don’t feel like you understand what’s happening as it’s happening, and literally the other person is telling you it’s all in your head, right? That’s one of the most common things you’ll be told. Whenever you have a problem with their behavior, or try to address mistreatment, it’s your problem, it’s in your head. So having other people to interface with, and having records, is good. Seeing other people’s experiences, who have gone through and gotten to the other side, was important too because by the end of it, I really had lost an imagination of how I would even function without him.
There was a part of me, floating above, being like, you’re a pretty self-assured person, you’ve always been pretty good at having faith in your abilities. It’s interesting that now, for the first time in your life, someone’s voice is in your head and you truly don’t believe you could survive without them taking care of you –– even though that ‘care’ increasingly feels unmanageable and makes you anxious all the time. I knew it was messed up but I had no idea how I was gonna get out. When he kept saying, “No, you’re remembering it wrong,” I was like, “Okay, can I record us then? Because I can’t remember anything.”
Gabby: I struggle to remember feelings if I’m not currently feeling them, so writing them down because I don’t want to think we’re fine, and that I’m so happy, after one good week when that doesn’t account for the three weeks where I was miserable. This has been such a great conversation, Rachel!
Maile: Yes, thank you so much for putting yourself out there and being vulnerable. You explored the idea of craving safety, because you wanted to give yourself more presence, and I wondered, how can people give themselves presence? How do you do that now?
Rachel: That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? The solution is: accepting impermanence, accepting the fact that you are never going to get to a place where you feel you’ve arrived in your life. Like, that’s actually not going to happen, and beginning the process of learning to let go of that is actually what allows us to appreciate presence more. Because then we’re not in the future plotting how we’re going to get to that place, you know? But rather, by remembering impermanence, by remembering the fact that we ourselves are so finite, that suddenly the present becomes a little more interesting.
On a more practical level, what’s been helpful for me is meditation and knowing when to pause. Throughout the day, I have a tree out my window and when a bird lands on it, I take that as my cue to stop what I’m doing. I just watch the bird till he or she flies away, and that’s usually like 10 seconds, but that interruption –– that pause –– gives me a sense of presence and an appreciation of life. When I go on walks, I like to find faces and/or pussies in trees, they’re everywhere! So like, making games for yourself that just kind of help you to have a more childlike interest in the world again.
I noticed when I would take walks, or just have down time, that I wasn’t doing enough walking without having my ear buds in, or talking to someone, or listening podcasts. And I love all that stuff, that’s important too, but so much of us are living lives where we’re never just thinking or being at rest or doing nothing. And if we can’t do that, how do we expect to be present?
I’ve definitely noticed that engaging more with social media over the last few months for the book’s promotion was not helpful, like I really noticed the contrast. I’m gonna be on there for a while as I’m promoting it, but also it really works against presence, so whatever I can do to set limits on how many times a day I check it, or to set a time limit on the app, I do.
Based on my friend’s recommendation, I also just switched my phone to grayscale so that it looks more boring, it looks less like a toy, and I’ve found that’s been helping me stay off. So yeah, staying off of social media sometimes, giving yourself time to think, and remembering impermanence, those would be my main tips.
Gabby: This is a question from our audience. JR asks, “How did you work through the fear of the potential of experiencing trauma in future polyam relationships? I know I’m solo polyamorous but I’m afraid to date because I know so many of us have so many traumas that we’re navigating and choosing to avoid.”
Rachel: I worked and have continued to work through it by trying to really think deeply about what I’ve learned. It’s helped to take an attitude of gratitude for the experience –– and that doesn’t mean absolving people of harmful behavior or bypassing dealing with your trauma. There’s that expression of, ‘no mud, no lotus’, which means that, out of that struggle, out of the suffering, is where the growth comes from. It’s where the love comes from because without it, we would have nothing to contrast against. So the more we can touch our own vulnerability and suffering, and not run from it, we can also be that much more intimate with the beautiful parts of life.
Actively learning from the situation and trying to make different choices in partners in the future is also helpful. My primary partner now is a very different person than Adam, and I don’t think that’s an accident. But it’s important to recognize that every situation has its own dynamics, everything is its own thing –– and when you’re solo polyam, I think you understand this particularly well. Relationships are always gonna be shifting and changing. So there’s no way that someone’s gonna hurt you in exactly the same way the next time, which is not to say it’s not gonna happen again.
I had someone ask me a version of this question about being bisexual, and their first relationship with a woman was abusive so now, she has fear of dating a woman again. And I felt like, that’s very understandable! So I gave her the same advice. But also, just because it’s another woman and just because it’s another non-monogamous relationship or kinky relationship or whatever else, doesn’t mean it’s going to result in the same thing, each dynamic is going to be completely different, especially the more work you’re doing on yourself to be aware of certain patterns and to be aware of your role in these dynamics –– not to blame yourself, but just to understand.
Gabby: I would also add that like, we heal in relation to other people. I mean, we can always heal ourselves but in general, we’re not supposed to be these isolated people. The people that we have in our lives are who help us to bounce back. And I know I always want to close up when something really really bad happens but that’s not where my healing has ever happened unfortunately. Last question from our audience! They asked, how do we vet potential partners in a fun way?
Rachel: I guess I don’t think of it as vetting? I do notice like, I’m definitely more discerning now than i was in my 20s. You just learn more, you have been around the block a few more times. So for example, I went on a date with someone a few weeks ago and on paper, he was a lot of the things I was looking for but i noticed he wasn’t listening when I talked, he was just waiting for his turn to talk. And it was okay on the date but upon reflection, I was just like, I’ve done that before. That’s one of those red flags that I would just push aside, where you don’t really feel like the person is listening to you and they’re just kind of more interested in themselves and how they’re interfacing off of you.
I have less of a tendency now to be like, “I don’t want to be mean,” or any of these other things women are taught to be afraid of, like, hurting someone’s ego. I’m kind about it but also, more firm about who I want to bring into my life. There’s a finite amount of time on earth, I should be with people who light me up and who I feel like I can light up.
Gabby: I’m reflecting on a partner who was just, not really good for anyone, like I wasn’t happy and I don’t think she was happy. And it was because I had just ignored the red flags and thought, well as long as this person loves me, who cares about anything else? And you can even rationalize it, you’re like, “She’s had such a terrible life!” and it’s like, instead of even thinking about their life and what they’re going through and why they do anything, ask, “Do they light you up?”
Rachel: I mean, you can have compassion for all those factors, and boundaries at the same time, and that’s a distinction I found useful. I have a lot of compassion for Adam, and continue to have a lot of gratitude towards him, but it has to be from afar. It has to be filled with boundaries now. And it’s the same thing with that other person I told you about, who did not get a second date. That boundary wasn’t set with any malice or judgment, because not listening to me is his insecurity, it’s just him needing to be seen, but that’s not what I’m looking for in a relationship. I can have compassion and be kind in the delivery of a boundary. I can understand that someone’s suffering is causing them to create more suffering for other people but the reduction of that suffering has to start with me. When we think about addressing our own suffering first, it sounds very selfish, kind of, but it just practically makes sense.