This blog was originally posted in Life on the Swingset on June 19, 2012.
I live by two non-negotiable rules in my relationships, which are the foundation for my sense of security and trust with any other human being and the starting point from which all other relationship boundaries are built. The rules are, “Talk about everything, all the time,” and “No surprises.” The first rule is the most important, as the second is something of an offshoot from it, but these are the standards to which I hold myself and the people with whom I surround myself.
Talk about everything, all the time. This sounds like the simple answer that is always given when someone is offering relationship advice. “Talk to your partner!” “Communicate!” In a way, yes, that is what it is. But this rule is a lot more than that. I apply my rules not only to my romantic partners, but to anyone in my life whose opinion and trust are valuable to me. When I say, “talk about everything, all the time,” I really mean that I want to know everything. Not all news is good news, and not all bad news has a solution, but allowing anything to go unsaid leads to secrets and, potentially, lies.
Rather than vague admonitions, I’ll offer you an example. In my previous post regarding grey areas of affection, I referenced a person in my life who falls into a nebulous category. He is in a monogamous marriage, but he and I share an acknowledged chemistry which we play upon to our mutual advantage. From a certain perspective, a person might argue that it would have been wiser for us to leave any attraction or interest unspoken, because to mention it is acknowledging its existence and asking for trouble for the person in the monogamous situation. My counter-argument is that to leave the attraction unspoken and “understood” is first off assuming that both people understand what’s going on, which is not necessarily true. Second, to avoid that conversation prevents an honest and useful discourse regarding the emotional and physical boundaries of the relationship. Relationship boundaries are tailored to the people involved, and if two people aren’t fully honest with each other, they can’t set boundaries that will keep them both emotionally satisfied and secure.
I once heard a person in a monogamous relationship say that she felt betrayed by a partner’s interest in someone new not when that emotional attachment occurred, but when it was acknowledged. Her partner told his outside interest that he had feelings for her, they discussed it, and accepted that it was mutual but couldn’t lead anywhere. His partner felt that if he had said nothing to this girl, she would not have felt betrayed by him, because to express the emotion makes it somehow more real. I can understand the visceral, emotional urges that make this sound like a really good idea. If he hadn’t told her, then they could just keep being friends and pretend like nothing was between them. The trouble with pretending, though, is that it’s a whole lot like lying. While this guy’s girlfriend might have felt more secure if he kept his outside feelings a secret, he would have been betraying his friend by concealing his true feelings for her. How we treat our friends is based on how we feel about them. That sounds incredibly obvious and inane, but if we aren’t honest about how we feel about one another, we can’t develop legitimate relationships. Imagine the opposite – if a friend secretly despised me, that would have to come to light or our relationship would be poisonous.
Another issue that I find disconcerting is the idea of leaving something unspoken and understood. This idea is that you and another person both know something about your feelings toward one another, but you intentionally don’t address it directly. I refuse to leave anything “understood” between myself an a person that I care about. I am easily confused and misled by subtlety, and I would rather be utterly gauche with my bluntness than misunderstand someone’s intentions. I have often said that I would be much happier if a person who is interested in me would simply state it point-blank to my face than try to hit on me, gauge my reactions, and move slowly. This is because I will assume that everyone falls slightly on the positive side of neutral in their feelings toward me unless I am explicitly told otherwise. This means hitting on me is a generally ineffective strategy. The end result on more than one occasion has been that a person assumed I had no interest and moved on, when in fact I had no idea what was really going on. This is a frustrating problem that is, I think, incredibly easy to alleviate.
Talking about everything all the time is also the best way to implement the “no surprises” rule. I have shared quite a few details with my partners that have, in retrospect, turned out to be trivial, because I am trying to stave off the possibility of a surprise in the future. For example, if I’ve been flirting with someone but I’m not sure if real mutual interest will develop, I still tell my partners about it. Because I think they would rather know about flirting that doesn’t lead anywhere than have the reverse happen: Surprise! So-and-so asked me out, or so-and-so and I made out at the bar last night. When I used to maintain an online dating profile, I would tell my husband about anyone who I exchanged more than two or three messages with. The vast majority of them came to nothing, but I would rather be overly cautious. Unexpected changes seriously mess with my comfort level, so I do my best to avoid pushing them onto anyone else, and I expect the people around me to do the same. While my partners have the right to seek both physical and emotional relationships with anyone they deem worthy, if I were to find out after the fact that one of them had a sexual encounter that I had no forewarning of, I would be devastated. If a person I considered a close friend revealed that they had an emotional or sexual attraction to me that I was not made aware of, I would be offended. Surprises are never good for me.
With the exception of presents, presents are good.