Words and Actions

Recently I encountered a meme urging folks to fall in love with a person’s actions instead of their words. One’s actions, of course, speaking louder or being more indicative of a person’s character and intent. The person sharing the quip remarked that they loved words, and that words are often themselves an action. 

In my opinion, words can be precarious… in the study of sociolinguistics there are speech acts, intent, and impact. The ways in which these play against each other in discourse are what give words their power. In guess-culture environments where plausible deniability is wielded to defend passive aggressive statements against confrontation, many of us grow distrustful of words at face value

When the negative impact of someone’s words doesn’t match their stated, positive intent, it can be tempting to wonder if they actually meant to hurt you. As you can imagine, asking for confirmation of that generally doesn’t lead anywhere good.

The individual experience of processing the meaning of words yields another opportunity for things to go badly. I can say “I will always love you” but someone might hear “I will never leave you” because to them, that’s what loving someone forever means. When I leave I am a liar, even if I still love them. 

Words not matching actions are often this misalignment of understanding. In relationships of all kinds, bringing clarity to a situation with language is beneficial, but when someone’s understanding of your agreements is at stake, it’s critical.

One time on an anniversary trip, a partner asked if I minded them making a quick call at some point to a recent romantic interest. I said I did not, but in my mind, “quick” meant 5-10 minutes, and “at some point” meant while I was otherwise occupied. Unfortunately, “quick” meant a half hour and “at some point” meant right before bed our first night in a new city. I did not handle it well. When they returned to the room, I lost my shit and it all but ruined the rest of our time together. To be honest, I still have feelings of anger about it – but those are with myself for not ensuring I understood what they meant. 

To me, their actions did not match their words, nor did they fit into my unspoken expectations for their behavior. However, my partner did exactly what they said they were going to do, and I had said it wasn’t a problem. 

I learned a very valuable lesson: make sure the definitions of the words being used are understood by both parties to be the same. Failing to do this has caused friction numerous times in my relationships, and I’m really only beginning to do a consistent job of asking for clarification when I know a misunderstanding could lead to a negative outcome.

There are plenty of times when it doesn’t matter, right? If someone says they’ll check out a book I’ve recommended to them, I don’t need to know when they plan to do that or if they ever did. But recently, due to my current standards of risk exposure during quarantine, a partner I still have contact with asked me if I was comfortable with someone stopping by briefly to say hi if they met outside at a distance and wore masks. I responded that I didn’t think that was a problem, no – then I remembered the phone call. I returned to the conversation to ask what they meant by “briefly” and was told anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour. Briefly to me had meant around 5 minutes, but again, I was projecting. Had I not gotten that clarification, our ability to spend time together during quarantine would have been compromised. 

The truth is that as a writer, I do love words. Comforting, incendiary, inspiring, and sharp; the power they have is a wonder. I’m not always in love with their complexity, or the labor involved in second guessing them. I have learned not to imbue them with power that is not inherent, and I try not to fall in love with them until I know what they mean.

Photo by Raphael Schaller on Unsplash

Mismatched Desire

Most non-monogamous people hail from amatonormative upbringings reinforced by pop culture, media, families of origin, etc. We work to unlearn that while trying to navigate a course that isn’t supported by a lot of widely available maps. Along the way communication becomes our primary religion, because without it we’re condemning ourselves to actual hell.

Talk, talk, talk – listen, listen, listen – and then talk some more, while listening, and on and on forever until death brings its sweet release.

I’m kidding of course – even if I never had another partner again besides the one I have now, I’d still insist on that much communication because I am a better partner for it. And what requires the most communication, is the stuff that isn’t all matchy-matchy in our hearts and minds.

For example: I have three kids. Well, actually I have four because one kiddo is married and his wife is for sure one of my darlings. So I have four kids, and there’s a good chance someone, someday, is gonna add a twig to the family tree. After holding a new niece last year, I began to wax pre-sentimental about the prospect of being a grandparent. My partner informed me in no uncertain terms that I should NOT become attached to the idea that we grandparent together . . . and, that’s fair. When I was much younger, I took for granted I’d be growing old with someone who would share my affinity for children, but rarely does reality look like a romanticized fantasy. I won’t give up the dream of being the coolest grandma in the whole wide world, but my current partner has clearly communicated that he does not see himself by my side in that endeavor and I am genuinely grateful to know that up front.

And that’s the thing about communicating freely and welcoming it from your partners: you never have to be blindsided by mismatched desires. He and I can move forward with the awareness that I have positive feelings about the prospect of someday being a grandmother (maybe – no pressure, kids) and I know he’s less-than-thrilled and even a little worried I might be disappointed in his non-involvement there. It doesn’t mean we have perfect feelings, but it means we are well informed, and therefore we can negotiate with reasonable expectations if the issue ever arises.

Wait – isn’t negotiation something you do with a hostile force?

I mean, yeah, sometimes. But I prefer negotiating with nice folks like my partners. And I like to keep the focus on self-advocacy vs. compromise as it’s a really big component of autonomy. Self-advocacy focuses on individual priorities, while compromise is more about meeting in the middle.

So, if my priority as a grandparent is maximizing my time with my grand-kids, and my partner’s priorities do not match mine, it is not a given that we should meet each other in the middle where he’ll be partially miserable and I’ll be getting less than I want. Self-advocacy and a willingness to honor individual desires instead of subscribing to the dominant narrative that states couples have to basically be a hive mind or they’re not truly connected allows each individual to come out on top.

I feel truly connected when I am free to do as I please and my partners love me exactly as I am without making themselves miserable on my behalf or expecting me to do the same for them.

Misery is not a metaphorical bouquet of long-stemmed roses.

If my partner chose to grandparent with me out of a false sense of obligation to my desire and not because he wanted to, it would ruin it for me. If he does opt to join? Cool beans – I’ll be able to trust he is doing exactly what he wants to be doing. Cuz you know what? I’m gonna be one stupidly happy old lady spending time with my grand-kids (that may or may not manifest, and honestly it’s super okay if they don’t – I mean it, no pressure kids) and he can go be stupidly happy doing something else, and then we can reconnect as stupidly happy people living our best lives instead of partially miserable ones, wishing we were elsewhere.

Which would you rather be?

Compersion

There are a lot of words we use in the practice of ethical non-monogamy (and that I use here on my blog) that may not translate well in most circles. Language evolves to suit the society it’s used by, and that is as it should be, but I’m not a fan of how some folks weaponize ideas that could be useful tools in articulate conversation, but instead become laden with negative connotations.

Case in point!

  • Compersion: The positive feeling you get from your partner’s enjoyment of the relationships and associated activities they share with their other partner(s). Kinda like being happy for your BFF when they win the lottery. Except your BFF is your partner and the lottery is totally having sex* with them . . .

Often times, this concept is held up as the holy grail of polyamory. Pure Compersion is marketed to non-monogamists as the “opposite of jealousy” or some evolved emotion we should all aspire to – the alternative is, of course, some shameful state of being in which you . . . I don’t know . . . have a range of human emotions.

Fuck that nonsense.

Look: human beings are not on/off switches. We’re more like faucets with varying degrees of water pressure and unreliable temperature controls. Sometimes we run out of hot water and sometimes the water main breaks. I myself am generally feeling 17 emotions at any given time. Compersion is often one of them, and a lot of times it likes to drag envy and loneliness along for the ride.

I mean, OMG I would be so happy if my best friend won the lottery. SO HAPPY FOR HER. And also, jealous. Of course I’d be jealous. I wouldn’t act out of jealousy and attempt to manipulate or cause her harm. I wouldn’t insist that in order to remain my friend she should cut me a check so that I wouldn’t have to feel jealous anymore. No. That is not how we show up for each other.

Compersion is similar. Of COURSE I’m so happy for my partners when they get to do fun things, feel good feelings, fall in love, have healthy relationships with a variety of people, and generally enjoy their lives. And sometimes I wish I was the one they were doing those things with. It doesn’t erase the fact that I’m happy for them. Both things can be true at once.

Emotional maturity informs compersion, but a lack of compersion does not translate to emotional immaturity. I think the polyamorous community could do themselves a favor here and acknowledge that ALL feelings are valid. Perhaps then we could all feel ownership over a term that simply acknowledges our happiness for our partners’ happiness, regardless of the multifaceted, layered, and complex emotions that come with it.

*yes, I am aware polyamory is not about sex and also that not all relationships include sex – this was a hyperbolic statement intended to incite feelings of mirth in the reader and if you needed this footnote to get past it, well then you’re welcome!

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. 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.