PQ 7.5 — What do I do to check in with my partners?
We’re Bad at Reading People’s Emotions
“What’s wrong?” Skyspook asks me.
I frown at his question, confused. “What?” I’m sitting on the couch, reading articles about the origin of various slang words. I’m not unhappy. More lost in thought.
“You sighed,” Skyspook says. “Something’s wrong.”
Huh, I think. Is there something wrong? I pause, combing my brain for what could possibly be troubling me.
“Fine, don’t tell me,” Skyspook says.
My thoughts become more frantic. He’s upset. Thinks I’m hiding things from him. I need to say something.
“I guess I’m tired?” I spit out. Tired. That’s good. And thinking about it, yeah, I am a little tired. Maybe a little uncomfortable. Our couch is aging. Deformed. It tries to swallow people and things. I’m sitting at an improbable angle.
“Oh,” he says. “I’m tired, too.”
But my initial response eats at me. I’m not in a bad mood. Sighing feels physically good. And I’m pretty sure I sigh all the time without being in a bad mood. Was I dishonest just now? I wonder. Did I imply that I was in a bad mood when I’m not?
But then again, my self-assessments are always suspect. I’ve always been a person with a high pain tolerance, who tends to block out unpleasant stimuli. Who’s to say that I don’t turn the volume down on my own emotions while they blare loudly to everyone else?
And if I were dishonest before — or at least disingenuous — I’m not sure it’s worth bringing up. He’s had a long shift at work. And after one of those, he’s inevitably “talked out.” Noise gets on his nerves this time of day.
Skyspook looks at me and smiles. Gets up to make burgers for dinner.
But later, he misreads my emotional state again. And this time it’s in the opposite direction. I’m tense and bothered by something I’m reading, but he reads happiness on my face and in my words. He thinks I’m in a good mood.
I know I’m irritated over nothing (and it has nothing to do with him), and I don’t want to stay that way, so I distract myself while the feeling dissipates.
“You know, it’s funny,” I say to him once I’m feeling better. More level. Less raw. “But we can’t really ever know what someone else is feeling, can we? We guess.”
“We can look for clues. But yeah, sometimes we’re wrong.”
“Even when we’re convinced we’re right,” I say.
And I catch myself over the next few days doing the same to him. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. And I love you, honey, but you’ve asked me that 3 times now.”
When Checking In, Keep Things Open Ended and Low Pressure
And that’s the most important thing to remember when checking in with your partner: We never really know how another person feels. We can observe body language and listen to tone of voice, but our interpretation of those things will be influenced by our own emotional state. Run through our own filters. And when we observe outward tension, we don’t know why a person is feeling that way. And there’s no guarantee that their internal emotional state isn’t also one of happiness.
Emotions are funny. You can feel multiple things at once but only really notice one of them. And maybe it’s not the same one that someone else sees.
Even when we correctly surmise a person is uncomfortable, we really don’t know why. And we certainly don’t know whether they want us to do something different.
When checking in with a partner, I try to use open-ended questions: “How are you doing?” or “How are feeling?”
And if the emotion I see in their body language doesn’t match their response, I’ll tell them. “Ah okay, for some reason, you seemed tense to me.” Which gives them an opportunity to reflect and examine that, if they want.
If not, no big deal. Maybe I’m wrong. And maybe I’m right and they don’t want to talk about it.
If they change their mind about it later and decide they do want to talk, I’m there.
The key to all of this is to let them know that, in general, you want to know how they feel. What they think. This goes back to the Honesty Exchange. To have people share their feelings with you (and especially their uncomfortable ones), you have to be safe to talk to. And when you’re measured in your response, open but not pushing, it encourages that person to share things with you in the future.
It can take a long time and a lot of practice to assure people, yes, you are safe to talk to.
Especially since so many conversations with others are fraught with difficulty. Games. Stress.
“I’m Uncomfortable” Versus “Don’t Do It”
But for polyamorous people, it’s especially important that we can share those difficult conversations.
When I ask my partners how they feel about my going on a date (or doing XYZ) with someone new, I want them to be able to tell me how they really feel about it. Even if it’s not where they want to be emotionally. And even if they want to push through their discomfort.
That was a difficult distinction for a couple I dated several years ago: The difference between “the thought of you doing that makes me uncomfortable” and “don’t do it.”
Sometimes both things are true. But other times? Something doesn’t make us uncomfortable, but we want someone to not do it for practical reasons.
Or the thought of something makes us uncomfortable, but we want you to do it anyway. Because we want to grow, and growth is challenging and often uncomfortable. Plus, it’s been well documented that a good deal of stress is anticipatory and things are often scarier in theory than they are in practice.
In any event, understanding this difference is key for avoiding two failure states:
- A person feeling like they can’t tell people when something makes them uncomfortable because they’re worried that their partners will mistake their discomfort as “don’t do it,” and they don’t want people to change anything. They just need to process.
- A person saying “that makes me uncomfortable,” expecting their partner to understand that means “don’t do that,” and getting upset when their partner does the thing.
Understandably, the first scenario is problematic in that it forces a person into a kind of “jealous closet.” And jealousy and fear love the shadows. Being able to identify and admit to insecurity and other uncomfortable feelings are key in feeling secure. Denying and hiding uncomfortable feelings only makes them worse.
It helps in the second scenario to follow up and ask if the stated discomfort means that they don’t want you to do it, since it’s a fairly common convention to say this to imply “don’t do it.”
The best way to check in about boundaries, potential partners, and comfort varies from relationship to relationship and ideally is something to be discussed when negotiating a relationship agreement. Or renegotiating one.