The Crumple Zone: Partners Who Bear the Impact

The front end of a black car, driver's side. It has clearly been involved in an accident. The crumple zone (the nose of the car) is all banged up.
Image by Rick Marshall / CC BY

crumple zone: noun

a section of an automobile body designed to absorb the force of an impact in order to protect the passengers (Merriam-Webster)

a part of a motor vehicle, especially the extreme front end and rear, designed to crumple easily in a crash and absorb the main force of an impact (Google)

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I’ve written a few times about polyamory and emotional labor:

I’m yet to find a polyamorous relationship system that extends beyond a few folks that hasn’t occasionally run into these patterns of uneven one-sided emotional labor. At their most mild, it happens only occasionally, during periods of events that cause large life stress (death, job loss, illness, etc).

At their most pervasive, it’s an ongoing, known and acknowledged quality of that polyamorous web. And the difference between polyamory and monogamy? The emotional labor isn’t just paid by the people in the original relationship. It’s often passed on and paid by metamours and those further away from the source. Jumping like a nervous impulse, synapse to synapse.

And if a person within the web is particularly skilled at doing emotional labor? They’ll often end up as a lightning rod for it.

I’ve also seen this uneven bearing of stress play out in regards to self-control (aka the Curse of Poly Competence)

If left unchecked, those most skilled in providing emotional labor and exercising self-control end up picking up the slack and making sacrifices for less reasonable partners. Sadly, this means some of the people who are best at managing poly relationships end up care-taking the folks with the short fuses rather than getting to actually enjoy the fruits of their labor.

And at their worst? These kinds of patterns can morph into something altogether even worse. The Crumple Zone.

The Crumple Zone

The earliest automobiles? Basically death traps. Over the years, car manufacturers came up with a number of safety improvements. And one of those was something called the crumple zone.

Essentially, engineers made cars that crumpled up like tin cans on purpose. So the car would take absorb of the impact and not the passengers. And this meant that your car might be totaled a helluva lot more easily. But you? Were more likely to walk away from the accident in one piece.

This makes a lot of sense when you’re talking about automobiles. You can buy another car (hopefully, with the insurance money or something). But people? They’re irreplaceable.

Unfortunately, I’ve run into situations where actual people were treated as emotional crumple zones. As replaceable things. And as Terri Pratchett wrote in I Shall Wear Midnight, “Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things.”

And he’s got a point. Unless people really, really want you to (e.g., some forms of negotiated and consensual BDSM objectification play), don’t treat them like things.

And especially don’t treat them like they’re expendable.

Folks who are in emotional crumple zones are the ones others worry the least about upsetting or hurting. Not because they don’t have feelings. And not because they don’t get hurt easily.

Indeed, many folks in the crumple zone are actually quite sensitive — to their own emotions and to the ones of those around them. But the reality is that their own hurt feelings don’t cause inconvenience to others.

Sometimes, folks in the crumple zone have trouble asserting these negative feelings to people in their lives because of their own hang-ups.

But many other times, their partners are simply lacking in empathy and not receptive to those messages.

And still other times, it can be a combination of the two.

I definitely have seen individuals at risk for ending up like this in my travels. Again, it tends to be the same folks who are at risk for doing uneven emotional labor or having to exercise the hog’s share of self-control.

Are You in the Crumple Zone?

Here are some questions to ask yourself to see if you might be at risk of being in the crumple zone:

  • Are you consistently not getting your needs met?
  • Are you feeling resentful whenever you do nice things?
  • Do you feel emotionally exhausted?
  • Are you too scared to ask for what you need from partners, for fear that you might lose them?
  • Did any of these questions really make you stop and think?

Further Reading

For more information on people pleasing, boundaries, and working towards more direct communication, please see these posts:

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My new book is out!

Dealing with Difficult Metamours, the first book devoted solely to metamour relationships, full of strategies to help you get along better with your partners’ other partner(s).

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2 Comments

  1. Loving that you made a Tiffany Aching reference here. Also with you on the dangers of being a crumple zone friend and/or part of a polycule. I just stumbled onto your blog and I’ve been readin like crazy, please keep up the great work.

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