“You can have it.”
“No, it’s yours.”
“Just take it already.”
It’s a dance that Justin and I do. Each one deferring in turn, the politeness spinning into frustration spinning into rudeness. Our civil selves unravel.
“Alright. Fine,” one of us finally says. The concession to self-serving smooths everything over. It’s its own kind of apology.
Snatching the last pretzel bite with a quick hand.
Give People an Out
One thing I’ve learned about consent is that to really have it, you need to give a person a way out of the request. I learned this the hard way, from all the times I was subtly pressured to do things I didn’t want to do. And felt icky about it after the fact. Whether it was watching a movie I wasn’t down for (helllloooo Spy Kids 3D) or going to third base.
Giving a person an out is pretty simple. “It’s okay to say no, but…” is really all you need to do before you make a request of someone. Or after the request tack on, “I completely understand if you don’t want to do this.” Bonus points if you do both.
And make sure you mean it. Give them emotional permission to say no to you.
The big upside is that if and when the person says yes when you give them an out? They’ll feel better about granting your request, whatever it is. They’ll be engaged. People generally feel better about things they’ve chosen for themselves (cognitive dissonance, postdecision justification, etc) than things that are forced on them or involve excessive pressuring (which risks rebelliousness and dissatisfaction, called reactance/boomerang effect).
But What if They Say No?
But what if they say no? Then they say no. You don’t get what you want. You deal. You’re a grown up. You should be able to handle someone saying no to you. Even if it’s disappointing or it puts you into a bit of a bind. Or the rejection hurts your ego. You’re just feeling things. You’ve felt things before. You lived then, you’ll live now.
And let’s face it. Manipulating people to do things they don’t want to do might work short-term but comes with some nasty side effects.
Pressuring People Erodes Trust and Causes Bad Long-Term Consequences
When you pressure people to do things, even if you get your way, it can leave you feeling ill at ease. Like people aren’t being authentic with you. That you can’t trust what they do or say. There’s a reason fished-for compliments often don’t achieve their intended purpose. It means less to both giver and receiver when they’re doled out under duress.
Secondly, this kind of strong arming can completely undermine a relationship long term. It’s a recipe for resentment. Without a fair chance to choose freely upfront, long-term compliance goes down. I see this all the time in polyamorous relationships in which one partner is very eager to open up and the other partner quite reluctant. I’m often asked by eager partners, “How do I convince them?”
The answer is always “you don’t.”
If you want to open up, your goal is to let your desires be known. Without pressuring them. You put it out there and see how they feel. And they get to feel however they want about it.
It’s the only way it works.
Trust me. You don’t want to pressure someone into polyamory. It leads to shitty behavior later on. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the partner who was reluctant to open up in the first place become a profoundly destructive person and undermine relationship harmony at every turn.
I was a reluctant partner. For 8 years, I knew that my partner wanted to open up. I always said no, since my previous experiences with nonmonogamy had been so chaotic and full of disrespect (from partners, friends, etc). But I met healthy poly friends, and they changed my mind by example. They were folks with their shit together. So functional and stable that they were my friends for a couple of years before I found out they were open — and only because I tried to warn her that I thought her husband was having an affair.
Even choosing to open up, I had some harrowing times. I can’t imagine how emotionally difficult it would have been if I’d been coerced.
I wouldn’t still be polyamorous, that’s for damn sure.
And I don’t regret poly. It’s taught me a lot of things. About other people, sure. The relationships between them. And even more about myself.
Lifting Others Up Instead of Tearing Them Down
Okay. If you’re asking for something from someone else, you should give them an out. And they should do the same for you. Got it. Pretty straightforward? Good.
What happens if the situation is more ambiguous?
Take the example at the beginning. The lone pretzel bite. It’s a resource that we both want. And no one has clear claim to.
I’m a big opponent of competitiveness in relationships (e.g., here and here). People tout the merits of “healthy competition,” but what they’re talking about when they talk about “healthy competition” is linked to a phenomenon called social facilitation, the fact that being around others who are high performers and/or in front of an audience makes you do better.
I experienced it a lot as a musician. The better the players I jammed with, the better my own solos became — and not because I was trying to beat them or take away from them. But because skill is contagious, and I rose to their level. I was inspired by them. They made me a better musician.
Compare this to zero sum thinking, the belief that when one person wins, another one loses. While it’s true that this can also motivate you and drive performance, the emotional picture is bleaker. It’s a miserable way to live. It can literally drive you crazy.
And I can’t tell you how many times I have seen resources go to waste or much larger problems created because people were fighting over something they could both probably just as well do without. The fight become larger than the outcome.
If you have to get in a competition with your partner, maybe you should try to out-nice each other.
Outs are Great, but Give People Ins, Too
Don’t just give people an out. Give them ins. This is especially true for recovering people pleasers. Make space for them to get what they want. Model the behavior you want to see back. Defer when it isn’t a big deal to you. Make small tweaks that make it easier, especially when it benefits both of you.
Just don’t take it too far. At a certain point? Someone needs to eat the damn pretzel already.