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

Guest Blog: Acting out of Trust vs. Fear

Fear. 

Outside of our basic survival instincts, fear is perhaps the number one motivator for the human race. Maybe for all sentient life. Acting out of fear rarely gives us the opportunity to show up as our best selves, and this can and will often cause harm in our relationships. This has been true for me and has had dire consequences. 

Fear is pervasive in our society. It’s so common we don’t always notice it when it’s being leveraged or applied. When it’s factored into our decision making process, it often feels like a valid consideration vs. a problematic aspect. Or something that flies under the radar. This creates problems in a number of ways: we take away our partner’s agency, infantilize them, and rob ourselves of our autonomy, opting instead for the decision that appears to limit the perceived harm. Self-preservation is a tricky thing. This is born, at least for me, out of the desire to control the outcome and hopefully mitigate my partner’s bad feelings. Not a healthy move, but it happens.

Fear is a powerful thing. As I write this, I’m dealing with the repercussions of decisions I made out of fear. Looking back, I knew what the right choice was, but opted for the one that I felt would “hurt” my partner less. Doing so led to a host of issues; from unethical behavior to resentment. Doing the right thing would have caused less harm. I probably knew this, but I acted out of fear. 

It’s human nature to seek control when we are scared. In the above example, I was afraid of losing someone important to me. I sought to minimize my fear by controlling their reactions. If I can make them feel safe, I thought, I won’t need to face my fear of them having bad feelings and considering me unworthy as a partner. We can never truly control anything but ourselves, so it’s imperative that we learn to control how we act in response to what happens to us. I’m not talking about the feelings we get when things happen, but rather our behavior in response to those feelings.

The way we do this is by acting out of trust instead of fear. Not only trusting others as I should have in the earlier example, but also out of trust of self. And really, the latter is the most important.

When we act out of trust, we grant ourselves permission to act in our own best interests. We also stop trying to control others since we trust them to act in their own best interests. Both can be done in a way that doesn’t negatively impact others. For me? I was afraid of hurting someone by doing something perfectly normal. Instead I hurt them by acting out of fear.

Psychologists have known a rather complex (and yet oddly simple) truth for decades: external events/people can not MAKE us feel a certain way, even though it seems that way.

We enter into situations with our own expectations and even baggage/trauma. Those expectations directly impact the way we feel about the event or person. Here’s an example Dr. Edelstein provides from Chapter 1 of his book Three Minute Therapy:

Suppose a hundred airplane passengers are unexpectedly given parachutes and instructed to jump from the plane. If a physical situation alone could cause emotions, then all the hundred people would feel the same way. But obviously those who regard skydiving positively are going to have a [reaction] very different from the others.

I made my decisions based on expectations I had of my partner’s reactions instead of giving them the opportunity to have their reactions, own them and show up as their best self.

So what does acting out of trust look like? 

  • Trusting your partner to own their insecurities regarding your actions. 
  • Trusting your partner to share their insecurities without expecting you to alter your behavior. 
  • Trust your decisions and actions are perfectly OK, even if it appears to make your partner feel a certain way. 

In my case, my partner’s feelings were valid and I didn’t trust them to show up as their best self because of those fears. Had I? Things would have gone very differently.

Trust yourself to act with integrity and work to show up that way. Trust your partner(s) to own their struggles and not penalize you for them. Trust that everything will be OK . . . even when it may not feel like it. Trust yourself so that fear won’t control your actions.

* * *

Since mid 2016, Adam (he/him) has been an educator and presenter in the ENM community. He realized he was poly in high school and has practiced various forms of non-monogamy ever since. With a primary goal of normalizing a variety of relationship structures, he shows up as his authentic self: an egalitarian polyamorist who practices relationship anarchy.

Image credit: Photo by Scott Web on Unsplash

Oh, The Humanity . . .

I once had an English professor insist that no experience was truly universal. She was right to caution us against alienating readers with hyperbole, but if there were a universal human experience, it would be a perfectly imperfect existence.

The human condition requires that we make mistakes. Statistics ensure we make them most often with those we spend the majority of our time with. If we are lucky, we are loved through them and trusted to do better next time. But being worthy of that trust requires awareness and a desire to do better. Aye, there’s the rub . . . 

It’s easy to make mistakes when you don’t have a clear path. Walk your living space in broad daylight and your route is simple to discern: your spatial awareness, balance and all your future moves can be processed and mapped out before you take the first step. Walk that same path with no light and it’s another experience entirely: each move you make carries with it the possibility of ruin, or at least a stubbed toe. This is what it can be like to navigate non-traditional relationship structures. Without millennia of approved examples to refer to, we’re left to make it up as we go – or, you know, muck it up as we go.

Mistakes come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes you just don’t know any better. Sometimes you do . . . and you do it anyway, only to wish you hadn’t. Oh, and sometimes you don’t realize you’ve messed up until much, much later.

I’ve been on both sides of Mistake Lake. I’ve been the person rowing us out to the middle, and the person being dragged behind the boat. Neither position is particularly pleasurable; both have roles and responsibilities in relationships focused on continuous improvement.

If there were achievements to unlock in this regard, you could consider me an expert-level mistaker. It’s like I’m on a lifelong quest to locate all the ‘Oh, Shit’ easter eggs on this plane of existence. Sometimes I make the same damn mistakes over and over, even as I watch myself do it. 

OH MY GOD HOW DOES ANYONE LOVE ME?!?!?

My mistakes generally happen in the form of words that come out of my most prominent face-hole. It would stand to reason that a writer would gravitate towards that particular mechanism of dumbassery, yes? Words: they are my blessing and my curse. But words, contextualized with motivation, are behavior indeed. Speech is an act – never doubt it. Whether unkind, unnecessary, untrue, or unhelpful, there are all manner of reasons to need to reconsider one’s words. And I’m aware of all of them.

My weapon of choice? Passive-aggression.

Because of COURSE I choose the sword I hate the most from my own collection. After all, it’s forged in the fires of plausible deniability and is therefore nearly invincible. The only defense against it is a higher moral standard, but one cut alone is often enough to exsanguinate my victims of their moral lifeblood: emotional maturity.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on myself, but folks, there are days when I feel like such an imposter and Bad Poly Person that it’s hard to imagine ever fully coming back from my missteps when they happen.

But I do. We all do, if we want to.

Regardless of your weapon of choice, I carry a nifty tool in my relationship toolbox you might find helpful. It’s called an amends. The way it works is pretty simple: when you realize you’ve done something you wish you hadn’t, you acknowledge the error in an apology, ask if there’s anything you can do to right the wrong, do that thing if it’s in your power to do, and then resolve to do better next time. Also? Forgive yourself. You’re not in control of whether or not anyone else does, but believe in your own desire to be a good person and be gentle with your self-talk. Beating yourself up will accomplish nothing.

And if you’re on the other side of this ritual? Try as best you can to extend the grace you’d hope for if it were you. This is how we love each other through the bullshit when we have to build our support networks from the ground up. Holding onto resentment when someone is making an effort to repair their wrongs is usually an inefficient use of emotional energy and does little to incentivize folks to do better next time.

One caveat though: if these missteps become a pattern of behavior someone always apologizes for but never shows up differently in? You just might be dealing with someone it would be best to distance yourself from. Leveraging false grace to continue to be an asshole is some next-level shit. Recovering from mistakes requires effort, progress, and change – don’t accept less than that.

Once upon a time, I became an ordained minister of an internet church so I could perform services for my eldest child and my now daughter-in-law. In that, I was gifted the opportunity to write their vows. The only one I wrote was a promise that they continue to be sweet one another.

And really, that’s all this boils down to. The human condition guarantees we will grind some undeserved salt on our loved ones from time to time. I implore you to use your grown-up tools to find the sweetness you truly intend, and the vulnerability to give, and accept it, in kind.