Guest Blog: Pitfalls of Passive Communication

Stop me if you’ve heard this before:In a healthy relationship, it’s all about communication, communication, communication!” I really should add a fourth one in there because there are Four Basic Types of Communication: Passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, and assertive.

One of the least understood is passive communication and as such, it can be a sneaky little bastard . . .

Passive Communication is a style of discourse in which individuals avoid expressing their opinions or feelings, protecting their rights, or identifying their needs/wants for fear of rejection by leveraging plausible deniability.

I generally fancy myself an assertive communicator, so imagine my surprise when a partner of mine suggested an issue I was having in another relationship was the direct result of passive communication. On my part! THE HORROR! I abhor passive-aggressive behavior so surely I wouldn’t do anything passive. And yet? There it was. Clear. As. Day.

So how did I, someone who prides themselves on being assertive, become someone who employed passive communication?

In my case, I wanted something and was uncomfortable receiving a ‘no’ (read more on that here). Instead of doing the work to be okay with a ‘no’, I opted to passively communicate what I wanted to avoid feeling rejected. Why? Because it was easier to blame the other person for not giving me what I felt I was so clearly asking for.

For example: Let’s say I want to snuggle with a partner while we watch a movie.  

Passive communication: ”Do you want to snuggle during this movie?”

Assertive communication: “I’d like to snuggle with you during this movie.”

The difference may seem subtle, but its impact is significant; learning this has been a game changer.

When I communicate assertively, I am clearly and respectfully stating my desire and giving the other person an opportunity to answer authentically. The key component missing in the passive example was an expressed desire; it felt implied, but it wasn’t actually stated. Worse yet, it set us both up for failure. My partners aren’t mind readers and I bet yours aren’t either . . .

Assertive communication is the goal, but there can be a learning curve as you get used to it.

  • Use “I” statements to advocate for yourself and express desires
  • Avoid asking leading questions with an outcome in mind
  • Accept “no” for an answer, and work on not taking it personally
  • Demonstrate your ability to take “no” for an answer by allowing it to be the end of the conversation, not a platform for coercive follow ups like “why not?”

Employing these techniques allows for a greater level of control in your life by directly addressing issues, concerns, wants, and needs in a non-violent manner, respecting the autonomy of whomever you’re speaking to by giving them pertinent information as well as a true choice in the matter.

After all, each of us is 100% responsible for our own happiness.

* * *

This post was written by guest blogger, Adam S. He lives in a suburb of Minneapolis with his wife and two cats, and occasionally with his girlfriend, her offspring, and even more cats. Adam identifies as an egalitarian polyamorist with relationship anarchy leanings. He also enjoys tacos.

Continue reading “Guest Blog: Pitfalls of Passive Communication”

Happy Polydays!

Forgive me for the play on words. It couldn’t be helped. ‘Tis the season!

It’s a sentimental time. The observation of traditions, time off work, exchanging of gifts, sharing food and space, and a connection to something larger than ourselves – whether that be God, or family, or love, or stringing more than two days together without having to go to work. All reverence is valid.

Thanksgiving is happening in a few days in the U.S., and a sizeable list of religious holidays fill the calendar between that and New Years. Many of us choose to spend this time with relatives, but a growing number of us prioritize chosen family as well – whether that means including friends who are far from family in our family’s celebrations, or hosting a gathering where all are welcome. But this can pose challenges for those in non-monogamous relationships when it feels desirable to include everyone who’s important to you, but logistics or secrets or judgements mean the holidays fall short of a Polycule Postcard Wonderland.

I’m branching out and attending Thanksgiving at my boyfriend’s home that he shares with his wife (my dear friend) this year. She’s having me over the day prior to help cook and prepare, which goes a long way towards making me feel like I belong. Most of my kids are coming, and I’ll be meeting some of their family members as The Girlfriend for the first time. Needless to say, I have all the feels.

Love may not be finite, but time certainly is – and while concessions and allocations seem to flow pretty smoothly in general when you get the hang of it, premium time like holidays has the potential to stir up some hurt feelings and leave at least a couple people in a less-than-ideal position.

It can feel patently unfair when you know your grandparents would accept your orphan co-worker at the dinner table before they’d accept your second husband. Or you’re torn between attending your girlfriend’s holiday dinner and your in-laws’ as they happen to be at the exact same time. Or none of your partners reached out to include you in their planned gatherings.

I have some suggestions, of course, because what would be the point of a sad blog that ended there? I want us all to look out for each other! So, here is a very short list of things to consider, discuss, and/or implement:

  • Take stock of what’s most important to each individual, and speak your truth to that end: if you have this conversation with each person, you’ll find that what they truly value makes it possible to cover a lot of bases. Perhaps you have a partner who really wants to spend a special evening with just you opening presents, and another who’s got their heart set on a traditional Christmas morning. For some, specific dates might have significance while for others “something in the ballpark” works fine. In most cases, there’s room for everyone to find happiness. Don’t assume; have the conversation. If no one’s initiating it, do it yourself.
  • Let go of what you’ve always done: the idea that you and your longest-term partner need to always spend Christmas eve with one set of parents and Christmas day with the other doesn’t leave a lot of room for the celebrations likely happening on the same days for other partners who are important to you. Be open to doing things differently. If your holidays are non-negotiable, they might not be in the spirit of the holiday itself. Try alternating years, scheduling at different times of day, or hosting everyone yourselves.
  • Advocate for the people you love, including yourself: while many of us have families who are aware of our multiple relationships, they may not value all of them in the same way we do. Just as we’ve had to unlearn some of what society has fed us in terms of mononormativity, we need to share with others who don’t have the same incentives to change. It is important to be active and intentional in reinforcing the value of our bonds with those who might devalue them out of hand. And if your family doesn’t know? Take the time to listen to partners who are affected by that and examine what you’re gaining in exchange for that experience.
  • Build new traditions with supportive people: as simple as a day to make lefse with the whole polycule, or a Hanukkah sledding excursion, or a themed ornament exchange. Some years we gather up friends to see Christmas lights – some years it’s cookie baking and board games. Surround yourself with those who value the way you live and build on that happiness.

To me, the most important thing is sharing the moments I cherish with the people I love the most. I have attachments to specific dates, but I’m starting to discover that’s not always what I value most; I am perfectly okay with actual dates sometimes and “ballpark” for the rest. Realizing that was huge for me! Often times these moments I cherish feel as though they’re supposed to follow a script. When I remember where that script came from, I find it easier to deviate from.

And there is one last thing I learned a long time ago I find to be of particular importance around the holidays: don’t participate in things that don’t make you happy. If your heart hurts when it should be otherwise, do something else. I have never regretted wanting better for myself and acting on it.

Happy Holidays, poly peeps! I hope they are amazing and fun and filled with lots of love.

When to Disclose

When do I tell someone I’m interested in that I’m polyamorous?

I see this question posed a lot in online forums when the topic of dating is up for discussion. My answer is very simple: first thing.

I’m on one or two online dating sites, and my status as a non-monogamous person is very clearly referenced not only in the body of my profile, but also in any filtering criteria I’m allowed. When someone new expresses interest in me and I see potential there, my first message always includes a query regarding their awareness of me being polyamorous and if so, if they know what that means.

From what I’ve observed in the non-monogamous community I have access to, there are a large number of people who defer disclosing this information about themselves until after they’ve met a potential partner in person, claiming that being up front about being non-monogamous scares away too many people.

Well . . . sucks for them, but guess what? That’s not ethical.

As much as I would love to live in a society in which monoamory, polyamory, and the 537 shades of “open” in between were each as normalized as the other, I do not. I don’t owe anyone my measurements or my GPA or my profession or my star sign, but I do owe them the courtesy of not wasting their time and possible emotional investment in something that’s never going to be on the table for them: namely, a relationship with someone who will never be limited by anyone else in the number of romantic partners she has.

I think back to when my boyfriend and I were first chatting. I met him in person without his wife and he was very forthcoming about being married. That evening we struck up a non-stop conversation online that continued for weeks. To be quite honest, I started to fall for him immediately – and if he had been of the mind that disclosing his relationship status or polyamorous nature to me was going to ruin his chances, and I were someone for whom monogamy was the only option, I could have been hurt. Emotional investment happens on a different timeline for everyone, and if we can’t respect that, we have no business being out there accepting these interactions.

But it’s really more awful than just that . . .

If you say you’re inclined to wait until someone is invested in you to disclose what is in most cases a deal breaker in our society, then what you’re really saying is that you see emotional manipulation as a valid tool in your relationships. Newsflash: That makes you a bad person, and a terrible partner.

The moment you know you’re interested in pursuing a connection with someone, you are bound by ethics to disclose your non-monogamy to the object of your affection. I’m not going to get into when you should be telling your other partners about this new person – we all have different agreements there, and they may even vary from one partner to the next – but I am unwavering on this edict: You cannot claim to practice ethical non-monogamy and enter into an exchange with the intent to deceive in order to secure another person’s connection to you. The two are mutually exclusive.

That’s all I have to say about that.

 

The Big Ask

It is really hard to ask for what you want.

This isn’t just a relationship issue – it’s a fear issue. We don’t want to want more of someone than they want to give us.

In polyamory, sometimes the stakes feel even higher because my partners have other partners and do not risk being alone by letting me go. As though my partner might decide it was easier to not be with me than attempt to address my desires. This is not a mindset conducive to healthy relationships. While I do not rely on a sense of obligation to tether my partners to me and I prize autonomy above limitation, the message society gives me counters this. At times, the seemingly tenuous nature of my connections is so evident it takes my breath away and in that mindset, the perceived risk of asking for something I want can feel more weighted – riskier.

To confront the unknown with peace, I have let go of the outcome. In order to get myself to this place, I remind myself that even if my worst fears were realized, (that I am too much for my partner and they end our relationship because of my stated desire), then the relationship was destined to end anyway. Expediting endings as opposed to dragging them out is ultimately preferable; it will hurt regardless. When I find the courage to ask for what I want, I find pleasure in the knowledge that I’m contributing to an information exchange and speaking my truth.

So . . . I feel as though I have a duty to ask for what I want.

To do that, I have to know what I want and be prepared to accept that the other person may not want it, too. Or may want it, and just not have it to give. In a relationship structure that involves more than two individuals, there is simply more to keep track of and less finite resources to go around. Direct communication is the only way anyone can be expected to manage it. It is the way I give my loved ones the opportunity to be what I want; I assure you, they cannot read my mind.

I have asked for more time and been told it wasn’t available to give, but also that my partner wanted more time too. I have stated my desire to be more visible in a relationship that is not entirely “out,” and am satisfied to have been heard even if nothing changes. I have asked for emotional support, a more consistent schedule, specific connections during time apart – and received all and more. Even when the answer has been no, I’ve received reassurance. I have never regretted communicating a want even though I was scared to ask. Every time.

If you have ever found yourself longing for something, convinced you’re destined to go without, but you’ve never actually said the words “I want XYZ,” you might be guilty of relying on passive communication. I cannot expect someone to divine my wants from my pointed complaints about others. There is no mind-reading technique I’m aware of that allows my partners to know what’s missing for me from the tone of my voice. A text without punctuation, or a varied level of affection in a given moment will not convey what’s in my head. If I am not using my words, I am falling short in my partnership.

And if I’m relying on passive communication with others, I am also failing in my relationship with myself.

If there is something I desire and do not have, I am already in a position of want – of not having it. I risk nothing tangible by asking for it, even if I receive a “no.” My perceived risk is the aforementioned fear about being a burden – or wanting too much. In reality, I’m just confirming the position I’m already in, or gaining something. By asking for what I want, I’m at the very least getting more information about my relationship. That is never a loss. I’m also giving my partner a chance to say yes, or to make some other adjustment in our relationship that might result in a compromise.

I also remind myself that the inherent impermanence of my relationships is no more so because they exist in a polyamorous framework – it is simply the nature of relationships between individual humans. We are all just out here negotiating our paths with others – no one can promise forever. When I remember that, and show up as myself without holding back, I contribute positively to the growth of my relationships, (both in depth and in breadth), and I show my partners they can do the same with me.

 

 

 

 

 

The Metamour Connection

I have two very different romantic relationships: an open relationship with a woman whose other partnerships are pursued without any obligation to me as far as notification and whose love interests I rarely meet until they become more serious, and a more structured relationship with a man whose love interests I am well aware of and discuss with him at length as they develop. The latter relationship is called a V triad wherein my boyfriend is the hinge and his wife is my metamour.

There are as many ways to structure polyamorous relationships as there are people who practice them. For some, knowing their partners’ partners is problematic and undesirable. My style of polyamory is more family-oriented, and I prefer to know and interact with mine.

One of the things that brings me the most happiness in my V, is the relationship I have with my metamour (my boyfriend’s wife). The three of us practice what is referred to by some as “kitchen table polyamory,” and is hilariously enough literally how we do things, (detailed in a previous post about how we communicate as a pod).

One benefit to a close relationship with my meta is being able to share the joy of loving the same person, or, as it happens, the not-so-joyful stuff. I was recently able to lean on my boyfriend’s wife in a way I never expected to be able to, and she was there for me. I cannot tell you how much that meant. And there are certainly times she comes to me in a similar vein. There is not a lot of support in this world for the way we live, but being that for each other means the world to me.

Another important aspect of being close to her is the opportunity we get to see each other as fellow flawed humans. Society conditions us to be competitive, and we might imagine the other as “better” than us, or somehow perfect in a way we are not. I call such thoughts “gazing into my Crystal Ball of Doom” and more information helps me combat that situation.

She and I have poured intention into forging a friendship in what might seem like turbulent waters, but I am really proud of how we’ve done it and continue to do it. We are not perfect by any stretch, but we share a vision of how we want our relationship to look, and therefore put in the necessary work. For us, it’s meant being vulnerable and trusting the other not to leverage it to their advantage. The society we live and love in has some very prescriptive behavior models for how to manipulate perceived threats to our romantic relationships, so being good friends with a metamour is not without challenges. We have to actively work against what we’ve been taught to do, but the rewards are plenty.

So this Friday, I’m looking forward to heading out for burgers, cider, darts, and laughter with my amazing meta before we join my boyfriend/her husband at a game night with mutual friends. I will always be grateful for what we have and how it works, because it makes me feel like family in a world that sees, and often treats me, like “the other woman.”

Scarcity Language

Words matter.

Words matter so, so much.

In general, our most oft used ones are created by and evolve to suit the needs of the dominant group. Those who practice polyamory are at times limited by connotations, hidden meanings, and the implied expectations that exist in the common language we use to talk about our love and relationships in a primarily monogamous society.

We are conditioned by this society to compete for affection. It doesn’t matter what your gender or your relationship status – you have been shown your whole life that the way you know you’re important to someone is that they chose you. And in our society, that they choose only you. This breeds jealousy, resentment, divisive competitions, passive aggressive behaviors, insecurity, and a host of undesirable feelings across the board.

And we reinforce this shit with the language we use every damn day.

So many of the phrases we use to express how we love each other work against the idea of abundance in love while perpetuating scarcity narratives. Words like “most,” “best,” and “favorite” set up a hierarchy of preference. You cannot have a most/best/favorite without something (or someone) else being “less.” And yet, this is how we let our sweeties know they’re important to us. By telling them they are these things. Number one in specific ways. This is ranking.

But is it necessary? I mean, it’s certainly not a thing we do to people in our lives who inhabit similar spaces in our hearts.

You don’t tell one of your children they’re the “best” at math – you tell them they are “so good” at math. Never would you say “you are my favorite child” – you tell them how they are important to you as an individual. We treat our platonic friends with the same grace, but why not our love interests?

For reasons that are probably way above my cursory education in sociolinguistics, we’ve developed hierarchical language for our romantic partners. But even monogamously, you can have more than one love of your life.

When Gene Wilder passed recently, he left behind Karen Boyer, his spouse of a quarter century, but was preceded in death by Gilda Radner. He married twice previously, of course, but most sentimental statements were about how he was finally with Gilda. It took me a while to wrap my brain around why I was so bothered by that. I am certain he never stopped loving Gilda, and I am equally certain he loved Karen with all his heart. That is polyamory, people.

So if you practice polyamory or identify as a polyamorous person, I invite you to examine the language you use to communicate affection to see if you’re incorporating these words into your exchanges. And here’s why . . .

When we use hierarchical language to reinforce the security of our partners, we create a situation in which they feel compelled to compete to maintain their status.  Rather than creating a more secure space for them, we’re perpetuating something tenuous and subject to change.

It took me quite some time to get used to the idea that I was safe and secure as an important person, as opposed to the most important person, in someone’s life. In fact, I don’t want to be the most important anymore. That’s a position prone to fluctuation with time and circumstance; it implies I have something to lose. Likewise, I don’t want to have my partners jockeying for position in my life. That is not how I experience joy. My happiness comes from all my people feeling loved and important and secure.

Like I said in the beginning – we’re at the mercy of the language we hear every day to express affection. That is the effect of a dominant narrative, but with all things, awareness is key. When we alter the subtle messages we put into the world, we change the whole pattern of our life’s fabric, and I do see some room for change here.

Besides . . . I love the whole world, so you’re all my mostest best favorite!

 

 

 

Couragous Conversations

One of the practices I’ve found helpful as a polyamorous person is the having of courageous conversations. I like to call them this as opposed to “difficult discussions” because I want to acknowledge the bravery with which we all approach the table to have them.

It takes a lot of courage to invest in direct, open, and honest conversation. But I assure you, the return on investment is huge.

So what do I mean when I say “courageous conversation,” anyway? Well . . . it’s simply the intentional coming together of more than one person for the purposes of communicating. Exchanging ideas, solutions, perspectives, concerns, joys – about issues, past events, upcoming dates, overall themes, desires, needs, wants, agreements – in a safe, calm space where all parties agree to honor the others.

Doesn’t that sound nice? It fucking is.

So look – I do not come from a wellspring of mature communication practices. There were people I really opened up to through the years however, and I began to understand through those experiences what richness communication could bring to our relationships. What took some time to nail down was how to exchange potentially upsetting information about ourselves while being supportive of the other people involved – and that takes some courage. (And some, ahem, emotional maturity.)

But I swear to cats, it’s not that hard if you’re willing to do the work.

Here are the ingredients I find necessary to set the scene for a safe and productive discussion about any topic:

  • A date on the calendar – in one of my relationships, we’ve found it helpful to have a quarterly “town hall” between the members of the V triad I’m in. This is me, my boyfriend, and his wife (my metamour). This date is on the calendar a couple months in advance because we are crazy busy and it’s important to us, but any date far enough out to give people enough time to anticipate and mentally prepare for a discussion is ideal.
  • An agenda – we exchange emails on an agreed upon date a couple days prior to the meeting listing items we’d like to bring to the table. These are just items to discuss, not a personal essay on feelings. An agenda works two ways – it helps keep the discussion focused, and it allows everyone to process the topics a bit and not have to worry about feeling blindsided once they get to the table. Knee-jerk reaction self is not one’s best self!
  • A neutral location – but really, this could be anywhere that everyone feels safe and comfortable. For us, we usually use my boyfriend and his wife’s house because my apartment has kids in it and they’ve made me feel very welcome in theirs. You just want to be somewhere where everyone has equal rights, particularly if there are elements of hierarchy between members of the discussion – like a primary partner and a secondary partner.
  • Tissues – because feelings happen!
  • Sugar – or foods, or anything to keep energy up. I don’t recommend alcohol. While it may relax people at the outset, it has the potential to go badly. Personally? I like to make a dinner and then start chatting over dessert. Cooking the dinner together as a group is nice, too.

But you also have to manage your communication techniques in a way that is non-violent and conducive to an exchange.

This is what you need to show up with in your head and your heart:

  • An open mind – because of course you do.
  • A detachment from the outcome – this is a team effort and you don’t get to decide how things shake down. You may be asking for something that another person cannot provide. They may address an issue you feel defensive about. You only need to share your part and let them share theirs. The outcome is a natural occurrence, not a stated goal to steer towards.
  • An understanding of your motivation – and this might be the most important part. We are all capable of using words in ways that influence. I would go so far as to call myself a master manipulator! But that’s not how this works. If I know I’m going to say something just to make someone else retreat, I will not say that thing. This is especially critical when you’re communicating an injury or hurt feeling. I’ll come back to this with an example in just a bit.
  • Compassion – an acknowledgement that everyone is coming to the table with a sense of vulnerability, and that generally what you need to feel safe is also what they need to feel safe.

So I want to break down how a courageous conversation might go about a sensitive topic. Let’s use a hypothetical from last week’s blog about my plan to negotiate up front about times when I have to refrain from revealing the extent of my relationship with my boyfriend in public. Part of that plan is to revisit what worked and what didn’t after the fact if necessary.

In this hypothetical, let’s pretend I have had a bad reaction to seeing my boyfriend be affectionate to his wife while seemingly ignoring me – this will have been understood up front, but I would like to ask for some changes during future times when we need to act in a similar fashion.

  • Agenda item – when we exchange lists prior to our discussion, I will say that one of the things I’d like to talk about is how our outing went for me as a “friend” – I will avoid writing a big long list of feelings, because dumping via email is unfair and it doesn’t give the other people involved a chance to process in the same space.
  • The presentation – I will admit to having an unexpected reaction to a negotiated scenario and ask for us to do things differently in the future. I will also acknowledge that no one did anything wrong to prevent anyone feeling defensive. My feelings are mine and no one makes me have them. I get to talk about why I have them and what I think might be helpful. Remember where I mentioned understanding my motivation? That’s where this comes in. There’s a big difference between “I had an unexpected reaction to your totally normal behavior” and “You made me feel like I wasn’t even there” . . . yeah?
  • The proposal – I can ask for some changes to the arrangement that will make me feel more reassured in the moment. Perhaps it’s a discreet text exchange while we’re out and about. Maybe it means a different seating arrangement. And for the purposes of this exercise, let’s pretend I ask for something a little extreme: I will ask that my partner not show his wife affection when we’re all out together because that will eliminate what’s giving me the negative feelios.
  • The discussion – questions may be asked here for clarity, or discovery of other possible solutions. This is also a place where epiphanies often occur! Face to face discussions often bring about what’s best for the group as opposed to what’s best for the individual.
  • The response – my boyfriend and my metamour would likely be totes amenable to discreet texting and me sitting next to my boyfriend, and they would likely not be okay with modifying their public presentation as a couple to appease my insecurity. Because this is an issue that would affect both of them, I would expect both of them to give me feedback on my proposal – this would include their feelings about the changes, and likely an acknowledgement of how I felt. (We work well like that!)
  • Resolution – small changes agreed to moving forward, but I did not get everything I asked for.

So as we move through our agenda, each issue is addressed and talked through to resolution to the best of our ability until we make it through the list. Sometimes we’re just trying to understand each other. At the end, I like to point out that we all do an incredible job of putting the necessary effort into making our relationships healthy. It’s important to acknowledge what you’re grateful for, and this process is something that enhances what I have with them.

And there are times when an issue cannot be deferred to a quarterly discussion. Sometimes, we need to call an impromptu meeting on a single issue so that it doesn’t fester and become divisive in the meantime – regardless of timing, we still follow these basic steps to facilitate discussion.

This little branch of my polycule has a discussion coming up next week. It will be our fourth! And as always, I am grateful for and looking forward to it.

I’m a lucky girl.