How Polyamory Can Be Like Being Stabbed In The Leg With A Pencil

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 7.236% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Stan’s best friend stabbed him in the leg with a pencil.

That, right there, is a perfect sentence: each phrase tells you more about what happened, escalating into violence.

But it doesn’t tell you what happened next.

Because yes, my friend Stan’s buddy did stab him in the leg with a pencil. It was an attack that came out of nowhere; they were in study hall, silently sitting next to each other, and WHAM, the guy jabbed him in the thigh with a freshly-sharpened yellow No. 2 weapon. And Stan yelled and went to the bathroom and washed the pencil lead out of his bleeding knee, and returned to the classroom….

…which is when the weird thing happened.

WHAT YOU’D EXPECT: The friend would look concerned, or guilty, or defensive, or at least aware in any way that he’d just done something violent and inappropriate.

WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED: The friend was just doodling on a piece of paper, presumably with another pencil.

And what happened next was not actually that uncommon: Stan looked at his friend, seeking confirmation that something totally extraordinary had just taken place, and the friend refused to provide it. And, I mean, when someone had done something so crazy, shouldn’t they know it? Shouldn’t they have some shame?

At which point Stan had to risk a confrontation with his buddy to decide on the nature of reality, and things were already awkward, and what if Stan was wrong and he’d just misinterpreted something?

So Stan sat down as if nothing had happened.

His friend’s confidence had literally rewritten reality.

Now, this happens a lot in terrible relationships, too. I’m thinking of a relationship I’d heard of where a woman in a formerly monogamous relationship came home to find her also-monogamous husband dick-deep in another woman. And she reacted in a traditional, predictable, fashion: “WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?”

To which he, completely at ease – and, according to legend, not even breaking his stroke – said, “Don’t you know? We’re polyamorous now.”

And it happened again. That reality-rewriting.

The wife stood there, stunned, looking for some kind of sign that her husband realized this was shitty behavior, certain he’d at least demonstrate some shame for breaking all the agreements they’d made going into the marriage.

Yet as he displayed precisely zero regret, she began to self-question: had she misunderstood how their relationship worked? Was she forgetting some crucial conversation they’d had? And every time she looked over at him, her gaze slipping off his complete lack of remorse, and concluded that okay, sure, maybe they were polyamorous now. She wasn’t 100% sold, but enough to go upstairs and let them finish.

Confidence: it’s a helluva drug.

And that pencil-stabbing surety is something you should be aware of – because it’s not quite gaslighting in the sense that your partner is lying to you. But it is gaslighting-esque because you’ll stumble upon your partner doing something that is absolutely, unexpectedly bizarre, and then when they display no sense of shame, you’ll start to take your cues from their social reactions. Maybe this is all right. Maybe I’m making too big a fuss.

Spoiler: You are probably not making too big a fuss.

And as always with these things, there swells a huge debate about whether these sorts of people are conscious manipulators who know what they’re doing or are reachable people who’ve just genuinely become convinced that their weird-ass behavior is acceptable. But you know what?

That doesn’t matter.

What matters is that you need to have a good internal sense of when something’s gone off the rails, because in this case their motivations don’t matter – what matters is whether you’re able to call out harmful behaviors in the moment. And if you don’t have a good internal sense, then you need to make sure you have a good, honest, and reliable social network at hand, because sometimes calling up your friends and saying, “So she says we’re polyamorous now” and hearing them go “Oh, honey, no” is all that’ll save you.

People carry their own realities with them, and as humans we tend to read the room to see how we should react. And in the case of people who have a lot of confidence, whether that’s a front to deceive you or a genuinely held belief, you can search them for social cues and come away with the wrong reactions.

But if they stab you in the leg, you gotta call ’em out for it. Even if they’re so placid that you feel weird bringing it up. Because otherwise all you got is lead in your thigh, and nobody wants that.


  1. Yet Another Laura H.
    Jun 20, 2019

    Don’t… don’t you get your Polyamory Bloggers’ Union card taken away for expressing sympathy to a monogamous person? Aren’t you supposed to be writing smug essays about what a terrible person the wife is for not immediately rejoicing in her newfound freedom as a poly person and being a bad camper or mountain-climbing partner or whatever and “folding her arms and scowling” instead of dashing downstairs to bake a cake for them?

    I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s refreshing. It’s just odd to me to see someone walk the #notallpolyamorists walk.

  2. Anonymous Alex
    Jun 20, 2019

    I recently saw an article about false criminal confessions, and the underlying psychology is eerily similar. We’re more social animals than we often care to think/admit, and it’s surprisingly easy to get people to actually believe they did something (even something they know is wrong/criminal) that they did not do. Authority (even the presumed authority of confidence) is powerful; just ask Dr. Milgram.


  3. Dawn
    Jun 23, 2019

    While you’re framing this around polyamory, I’m with @Anonymous Alex; this behaviour interaction you’re describing goes well beyond “introducing” a partner to poly. I’ve been on the receiving end of that “confidence” you describe from both narcissists and someone I believe to rank fairly highly on the non-violent sociopathic spectrum; in only one case was the situation a romantic relationship.

    And you’re so right — that internal sense that the rails were left behind long ago, or a trusted social network that’s grounded in reality and dedicated to one’s well being, is a lifesaver.

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