In my previous article in this series, i concluded by saying:
[S]ustaining poly dynamics does often require acceptance of the fact that, when it comes to communication, there’s always more to learn: about listening, about assumptions, about diversity of meanings, about when and how to prioritise form versus content, about communicating in order to be understood rather than to ‘win’. i’ll discuss the topic of interpersonal communication in my next article.
Communicating. It’s easier said than done.
If good interpersonal communication skills are important for sustaining a healthy, ongoing, intimate relationship with one person, how much more important they are when trying to sustain healthy, ongoing, intimate relationships with multiple people, some of whom may themselves be in intimate relationships with each other! Errors of communication can get magnified each time they pass between a new pair of people. And of course, more generally, there can be more people directly affected by such errors.
For example, say someone fails to communicate whether or not they’re available to be at a certain place at a certain time. This can leave the timetables of multiple partners hanging; it can leave the timetables of their partners hanging; and so on. One person’s failure to communicate has ended up creating instability and uncertainty for many others.
With that in mind, i’d like to make some general points about interpersonal communication – points that don’t necessarily apply to poly contexts only, but that nevertheless provide the framework in which i intend to cover certain poly-specific issues in later articles.
An oft-overlooked part of communication is listening – really listening, not simply keeping one’s mouth shut until the other person stops speaking. And it also involves confirming one’s understanding of what one has heard, by saying things like “Okay, let me check if I’m understanding you correctly. It sounds to me that you’re saying A, B and C. Is that correct?” Assumptions are the things we don’t know we’re making, and it can be rather difficult to reach agreements on various topics if we’re making incorrect assumptions about what the other person is trying to say. One person might have interpreted statement A as having meaning X, whereas the other might have interpreted it as having meaning Y; both meanings might make sense in the context.
This is particularly important when one or more parties are using terminology which everyone is assumed to understand the same way: terms like ‘primary [relationship]‘ and ‘secondary [relationship]‘, for example. It might not be necessary to agree to use the same terms the same way; only to recognise that different interpretations of those terms are in play, and to keep that in mind during discussions.
Unfortunately, communication can be ‘weaponised’. Under the guise of ‘communicating’, one person can overwhelm another with words, bombard them until they withdraw, and seemingly acquiesce, just to make it stop. In such cases, the metamessage being communicated – regardless of the words actually spoken – is not one of genuine two-way communication, but of intimidation and silencing.
This leads me to the issue of ‘winning’ a discussion. Many of us have been raised in sociocultural environments in which not being ‘right’ means a significant “loss of face”. In such contexts, we can develop approaches to interpersonal communication which prioritise ‘winning’ at all costs, so as to not have to face humiliation / loss of status; and this goal is ranked above goals such as gaining more comprehensive knowledge of life’s complexities, or maintaining relationships which are generally of net benefit to all parties. So it can be important to be conscious of which things one feels are principles / values one is not willing to move on, which things one is only willing to change one’s mind on if there appears to be no other choice, and which things are, in the larger scheme of things, not as important to be ‘right’ about. That is: is your communication rooted in your fundamental values, or mainly in a need to be ‘right’, whatever the cost?
A related issue is willingness to genuinely apologise, to actually say “I’m sorry”. i write “genuinely”, because faux apologies, involving words that superficially seem to indicate remorse and/or regret, but which at core don’t really accept that any wrong has been done, are all too common. Such ‘fauxpologies’ come not only from representatives of the state, but also from those with a certain type of privilege who aren’t willing to check that privilege. It takes the form of statements like, “I’m sorry people chose to take offence at my words”, or “I’m sorry if my words caused offence”. The first invalidates the feelings of the upset person, the second refuses to acknowledge that the upset person /is/ upset; neither is conducive to moving the discussion forward.
One final point is the issue of communication media. Many people interact with others not only face-to-face, but also via telephone, email, instant messaging, blogging, Twitter, internet telephony and so on. However, some people prefer some of those media to others – indeed, some might not want to use some forms of communication media at all. Twitter, for example, does not lend itself to easy expression of complicated situations; and the written word in general usually strips aspects of in-person communication such as body language, tone etc. Even voice/video-based communication can fail to adequately convey such things, particularly over (relatively) high-latency connections; crucial moments of body language and tone can end up being dropped. All these factors need to be kept in mind when communicating – and particularly when trying to communicate in the sort of highly-emotional situations intimate partners often have to deal with.
In my own experience, monogamy can often allow people to avoid dealing with certain issues, and avoid having to develop good communication skills; whereas polyamory can force things out into the open, and make good communication skills essential. As Annie S. Murray wrote:
To choose nonmonogamy is to decline a particular protection, and involves some risks. It demands the self-awareness to know what you want, the strength to ask for it, the sensitivity to hear a refusal, and the power to refuse what you don’t want and have that refusal be respected. Maintaining successful nonmonogamous relationships requires these abilities. Oddly enough, many view nonmonogamy as an inability rather than an ability.
In my next article, i’ll discuss a couple of emotions commonly encountered in poly relationships: jealousy and envy.