The Tyranny of Value

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Today’s article is a guest post by frequent Poly.Land contributor, Fluffy (bio and links to their other work below, following this piece). Enjoy!

The Tyranny of Value

Mental Accounting Ain’t so Easy

It can be very easy to start tallying the tasks, the permissions, the debts, the loans, and so on in any relationships. This is truer even of relationships where we rely on each other; whether that reliance is on another’s emotional labor, helping to take care of the house, child rearing, making money, or otherwise.

It’s easy because we’re wired to do that sort of mental accounting. The problem is that we’re exceptionally bad at it.

Even more, it’s a problem because the value of and within relationships transcends the values that we see and create for ourselves. Often it’s difficult to understand the value a given behavior, interaction, or even whole relationship will have on our lives for decades, let alone years.

How Do You Make a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich?

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever had I received in elementary school, and I have a cinematic memory of it. In teaching us about the benefits of specificity, my first grade teacher had all of her students write down instructions for how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. She then proceeded to follow these instructions. Only two students (out of over 20) managed to make a total sandwich.

At the time, I did not realize this was a valuable lesson. It wasn’t until my mid-20s that I recognized the value of this lesson, that I reference it almost daily, that a large portion of both my skill and anxiety around writing come from this experience.

The value was both the lesson itself (that being specific when communicating helps to avoid assumptions and miscommunication that can happen naturally), as well as for the experience of it. The lesson guides how I try to communicate in general, but especially in writing. The experience completely changed how I view the world and how I understand others’ communication.

Both of those valuations of my experience are important, necessary, true, and realistic. But they’re also inherently different, and how I consider them in the context of my life is different too.

What Tyranny?

Like everything, there’s a lot of nuance to unpack when we talk about the concept of value. What is it? Why does it matter? How does it interact with polyamory anyway? (I promise I’m getting there.)

To disambiguate here, when I’m talking about value as a concept, I’m referring to the act of applying worth to something. This means a few things. Typically, when we apply worth someone wants a given thing, and is willing to give something else to have, keep, or participate in it. What they’re willing to give is the worth of the given thing. Sometimes we give material things like money, or bartered items. Sometimes we give conceptual things, like importance, power, or wealth. Sometimes we even provide the absence things in exchange for payment that equals the worth of the service.

Inherently, the process of valuing something creates and calls for a system of bartering. Of assessing and keeping track of “things” (here meaning both physical items as well as less tangible things like experiences, lifestyles, and more) that we have, things we do not have, and things that others have that we want.

If it sounds like I’m subtly making an argument about jealousy, that’s because you didn’t read this sentence calling myself out, yet. This is 100% about jealousy and subverted expectations.

Valuing as Expectation Building (Or Breaking)

The inherent process of “valuing” is one that creates and builds upon a foundation of expectations. We assess value to know how much we can expect to give if we want something, or to receive if someone else wants something, or even how much we’re NOT willing to receive because something is precious to us.

When that process takes place in a mutual situation (such as haggling or setting price), we see it play out in its plainest form. If people haggling value an item similarly, they can come to a price that is mutually agreeable usually fairly quickly even if they both initially in/deflate the value for the negotiation. If people haggling value an item differently… that goes out the window. It can take some time, some softening, some extra compromise on one (or both) sides, and so on. The more variables you add, the more complicated it gets.

But this is boundary setting.

This is setting expectations.

This is communication.

If You Loved Me You’d Do Dishes

I’m not an acts of service person. I will write a partner love sonnets until they go cross-eyed, kiss them until our lips chap and hold them until my arms go numb, stay up until 3 am watching a show from the 90s with them, or pick them up some surprise chicken nuggets on the way home.

I value all of these things, highly.

But something I don’t value is doing chores, gestures, or tasks for partners. Especially if I’m being asked to do them because the other person values them.

I dated someone very briefly who had me to his place a couple of times. I was always amazed at how pristine his entire place was… except for the kitchen. Dishes would pile up, there. Not many, but consistently the three times I came over a couple of days’ worth of dishes (at least) were there. I figured he was someone who did his dishes once a week.

When we broke up one of the reasons was that I would not do his dishes.

To him it was obvious that he valued cleanliness, for things to be in their place and home, and for people to contribute to making the lives of those they loved/interacted with better. (We… probably wouldn’t have gotten along much longer anyway.) He actually said at one point during our break up discussion that he figured I didn’t like him very much.

“I just always know if a guy might fall for me. If he sees my place then sees the dishes I know. If you loved me you’d do the dishes. If you don’t, then you can’t love me. You never fell for me.”

It was a good ultimatum for me. It took payment by a restaurant (along with an industrial dishwasher and the ability to sing at the top of my voice) to get me to value a clean sink and dishes enough to wash someone else’s dishes and if I couldn’t value them inherently he wouldn’t ever feel loved. He didn’t mean it as an ultimatum. Ah well.

Receiving Things of Little Value

On the flip side, it can hurt to receive things that you don’t value. Be those acts, physical items, experiences with your partner, or elsewise. E traffics in dad jokes almost exclusively, and one of his favorite things is to joke around with partners and make them groan. Most of the time, I liked this. But sometimes the jokes felt mean-spirited (even though they aren’t) and I was very hurt.

This was because I was expecting words that have value; since that’s one of my top love languages, that makes sense. On his end, it wasn’t the words that had value, but the joke. So while the words themselves were questionable, the value was in the humor and juxtaposition of something that didn’t belong.

See, he subverted my expectations (that words have inherent value to others that equally matches the value I place on them being truthful). I subverted his expectations (that jokes are inherently meaningless beyond the point of humor). We hurt each other.

Avoiding the Tyranny

Valuing things isn’t inherently bad. In fact, it’s actually really, really good for us.

But what’s bad about valuing (and especially assessing value for behaviors in a relationship) is the same thing that’s bad about all expectation setting: if it happens alone, we’re simply reinforcing unexpressed expectations while preparing ourselves for subverted expectations.

If I value my partner’s performative coupling (what we call it) on social media and I don’t communicate that to my partner, what happens if it suddenly stops? It never crosses my mind that they couldn’t or didn’t value it the same way, so therefor I go straight to reasons I would deprive myself of something that I value highly. This thought process is automatic, mostly below active thought, and is incredibly difficult to recognize, let alone act upon.

So while they don’t see the point of a tweet that says “I love Fluffy!” because they had the same tweet the other day and don’t want to be repetitive, I’m sitting there thinking that they no longer love me because last time they tweeted it two days in a row and it’s been three days since the last time they did it (aka I’m doing an accounting of how much value I’ve lost).

All because of a potential mismatch in how we value those activities.

This plays out in couples especially across all sorts of scenarios, even more if they live together.

But it’s not a death sentence.

You don’t have to be stuck in that cycle.

Talk about the things you value. Talk about the concepts you value. Talk about the tasks you value. Talk about how you value time.

If you talk about your values they can move from unexpressed expectations to shared.

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About the Author

Thanks, Fluffy!

Fluffy, an academic in-training, who is studying organizational behavior in hopes of making the world a better place.

Fluffy is a frequent contributor to Poly Land. Their regular blog is Eclectic Discourse (where pith goes to die; in-depth looks at awkward topics).

Readers, if you liked this piece, feel free to check out the other articles Fluffy has written for us:

    1. Open Communication Doesn’t Magically Erase the Impact of Major Change
    2. Sometimes Polyamory Means Sweet Goodbyes and Hurrying Back 
    3. Love is a Fire, Baby; Six Metaphors for Relationships
    4. Sometimes Challenging the Relationship Escalator Means Starting at the Tenth Floor
    5. Love Is Basically Bias, So What Can You Do?
    6. I’m Too Anxious to Be Jealous
    7. Everything I’ve Ever Learned About Non-Monogamy My Puppy Taught Me All Over Again 
    8. Is There a Right Time or Way to Break Up a Relationship?
    9. When “Problematic” Becomes Problematic
    10. I Was Treated as a Disease Vector: Why There Are So Few Gay Men in Pansexual Polyamory
    11. Being Single Sucks, But We Don’t Want to Hear About It
    12. Consent Culture Is Hard, Yo. 
    13. When Sex Positivity Is Rape Culture With a Bow On It.

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Poly Land is always on the lookout for different perspectives on relationships in general.

If you have an idea for a guest blog post that you’d like to run by us, here’s a link to a post with examples of work that we’ve published in the past as well as our Submission Guidelines.

Featured Image: CC BY – James White