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

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”