Healthy Poly Relationships Part 4: Healthy Compromise
Being a mental health professional, I tend to see clients when they are in conflict. They seek me out when they have tried to solve problems themselves and have reached an impasse. So, of course, my first three articles focused on important concepts for getting out of those stuck places.
In those articles I addressed personal rights and boundaries, people who don’t take enough responsibility for their own emotions and actions, and people who take too much responsibility for the emotions and actions of others. And all of this can leave some readers imagining that in order to be healthy in relationships, we have to be cold and self-serving.
Nothing could be further from the truth!
There are few things more beautiful than the loving, caring and giving that happens in healthy relationships. But, to be healthy, accommodation needs to be fully consensual, recognized, and appreciated.
Let’s address consensual first. Informed consent is central to anything being truly consensual. And in Part 1 of this series, I was clear that complete, honest and timely communication, needed for us to engage in informed consent, is one of the things we have a right to expect from others.
This is “take one” of a hypothetical story involving Will and Justin.
Will and Justin started dating as two solo poly people. Then they fell in love and eventually began to talk about commitment and living together. Will began to suggest that they have a “period of exclusivity” to solidify their relationship. Justin didn’t want to treat his other relationships poorly. He felt he would be treating them like they were unimportant to just stop seeing them. And, truthfully, he didn’t want to stop dating. His other relationships were fulfilling for him.
Will became increasingly upset that Justin couldn’t see how this period of exclusivity would strengthen their relationship, and began to question (out loud) Justin’s commitment to him, and he began to pull away.
Justin felt torn. He loved Will. He didn’t want to hurt Will. He hated that Will was pulling away from him. And he began to wonder if he was being inflexible or selfish. Would it really hurt him to, as Will put it, “just give us a little time to bond.”
Justin began asking questions, in order to understand what Will really wanted. “Haven’t we already bonded? How does being temporarily exclusive help us to bond more? And, what does exclusive mean?” As they talked, Will defined exclusive as not having sexual relationships with emotional ties, outside of their relationship. Casual sex was okay.
To make a long story a bit shorter, it eventually came out that Will had been fine doing poly when he wasn’t in love, but now that he was in love, he was struggling with anxiety. He didn’t want Justin to have feelings for anyone else.
Here’s the point about consent: Will was not being honest about his motives when he told Justin he wanted temporary exclusivity in order to “bond more.” The truth was that he was feeling anxious about Justin having feelings for other lovers. And, he wasn’t taking responsibility for his own emotions.
Had Justin agreed to these accommodations based on incorrect or incomplete information, it would not have been truly consensual because it would not have been informed consent.
Had he agreed, and found out the true motivations later, he would have been right to feel manipulated.
At the beginning of the article, I wrote that healthy compromise needed to be “fully consensual, recognized, and appreciated.” Fully consensual means:
Based on full, complete, honest and timely information
Not as a response to internal negative emotional pressures such as guilt or fear
Not in response to external negative pressures such as displays of anger, manipulation, emotional meltdowns or guilt tripping
Recognized means that:
Each person involved recognizes the “rightness” of each person’s rights and boundaries
And, each person recognizes the responsibilities they have to act ethically and takes responsibility for their own emotions and actions
Let’s replay this whole hypothetical story with Will being honest from the beginning. Let’s say he tells Justin up front that, “Now that I’m in love, I’m really struggling with knowing that you have feelings for some of your other lovers. I want to feel compersion, but instead, I find myself comparing myself to them. I feel really anxious when you’re on a date and I can’t focus on anything else. I feel really emotionally fragile and like I need a lot of reassurance from you that you really love me, want to live with me, and commit to me.”
Will also admits that Justin has a right to date others, have feelings for, and even love others. He admits that he is responsible for dealing with his own anxieties and insecurities, but at present, he is not succeeding at improving how he feels. And he then ASKS Justin to not date others while he works on this.
Justin does not HAVE TO agree. Justin needs to do some “soul searching” to identify what compromises he is willing to make, that he can do willingly and without resentment.
Justin does that inner searching and comes back to Will and says, “I have no problem ending my most casual involvements, but I feel it would be unethical to end my meaningful involvements when those people have done nothing wrong. It would not be fair to them or to me. I am willing to talk to each of them and ask them if we can take time off from seeing each other without doing damage to our relationships. And ask them what accommodations they might need, like continued non-sexual dates, or phone calls, or time limits on the break. In the meantime, if I am going to do this for you, I need to see that you are actively working on this issue and working toward compersion. What are you willing to do?”
Will then expresses gratitude for this gift that Justin doesn’t have to do, but is willing to do, and says, “I am willing to work on this everyday. I will go back to therapy. I’ll also talk with a psychiatrist to see if I can get any help there. I know that anxiety gets worse when there are additional stressors in life, so I will stop working overtime. And I’ll try to reduce stress by taking up meditation and going back to the gym. I saw this Jealousy Workbook. I’ll get that and work on it daily. If I’m feeling insecure, can you give me reassurance?”
“Absolutely.” says Justin. “I’ll talk to the other people I’m seeing and we’ll discuss this more when I know what they have to say.”
Gratitude is the key to appreciating the gift of accommodations. Most of us know what it feels like to be taken for granted. And if you think about it, that’s the feeling of having the things you do for others, not recognized and not appreciated.
When both people acknowledge that one person is giving something, out of love, even though they would be fully within their rights to not give it… that’s a gift. The appropriate response to a gift is gratitude. Expressions of gratitude are important to feeling appreciated.
So here’s the key. If you have determined that you are within your rights, but you are feeling pressured to do something else, giving in to that is not healthy compromise.
If you are willing to do it, and it is being recognized as a gift and the other person is expressing gratitude for the gift. That is healthy compromise.
This kind of communication can be a real challenge. In future articles, I want to address how to do the “soul searching” in order to identify what you really want and what you are willing to compromise without feeling resentment.
I want to address boundaries in more detail, how to know when they are healthy, and how to defend them with kindness and compassion.
I want to discuss manipulative and coercive behaviors in more detail, so that we can all have the knowledge to be able to identify when that is happening.
And, I want to also describe some communication skills that help people in relationships understand what is happening during arguments, and how so shift from arguing to constructive communication.
(c) 2018, Alexandra Tyler, All Rights Reserved