It’s not just about talking – it’s about talking about the right stuff. Harris O’Malley on how to communicate about things that matter.
How well do you know your partner? Oh sure, you’re reasonably sure that she’s not secretly a Deep One or an intelligent tapeworm wearing that body like a flesh-suit… but how well do you sync on the make-or-break issues?
If you’re like most couples, you may not actually know. Many couples are very quick to assume that they’re on the same page regarding major relationship issues without ever actually talking about them. Communication is key to a relationship’s success, but it only helps if you’re communicating about the things that matter. There’s never a worse time to find out that you and your partner don’t feel the same way than when you’re facing major life events without ever having gamed out how you were planning on responding to them. What might be a minor issue to you may well be a relationship extinction-level event to her and vice-versa, and you don’t want to find this just in time to watch your years together go down the drain.
Instead, you want to have these 5 conversations as soon as is reasonably possible when your relationship starts to get serious. You may not be in perfect sync with one another, but by being able to talk about these issues – when they’re still an abstract instead of a very real issue – can make the difference between a relationship for the ages and an ugly break-up.
Conversation #1: What Is Your Fighting Style?
No matter how in love the two of you may be, conflict in relationships is inevitable. Yes, yourpartner is absolutely perfect and the two of you couldn’t be any closer without co-starring inThe Human Centipede 3, but at some point they’re going to say or do something that’s just going to piss you off. And when that happens, you may end up making that inevitable fight worse than it needs to be.
See, everyone has their own way of handling interpersonal conflicts that feels perfectly natural to them. However, what may be incredibly obvious to you may be sending completely different signals to your partner. Let’s say that you’ve taken my advice and you make a point of walking off your anger before addressing the fight; you want a cool and level head so that you don’t say something you accidentally regret later. Your partner, on the other hand, has no idea that you do this and thinks that you’re actively disrespecting them by walking away. As a result, a minor disagreement has suddenly turned into the emotional equivalent of Krakatoa.
Let’s look at a different possibility. Let’s say that you’re someone who tears up easily – your default reaction to high levels of emotion, any emotion, brings tears to your eyes. To you, this is just how you are; you’re not actually crying, it’s just how you’re wired. To your partner however, it may represent something completely different; she may see it as you being much more upset than you actually are. Or she might see it as your way of trying to get out of a fight by getting upset and emotionally blackmailing her because arguing with someone who’s crying kinda makes you an asshole. As a result: she feels like she can’t actually discuss this issue without your trying to (unfairly) shut things down and ends up growing more resentful.
Perhaps you or your partner get loud and excitable when you fight but it’s just part of how you clear the air in your family; the fight burns bright but as soon as it’s over, it’s forgotten. To someone who’s unused to this pattern or fighting style, it may be incredibly intimidating. Or maybe you’re someone who gets quieter and more terse when they get angry and your partner doesn’t realize that this is a danger sign.
What can make things worse is that sometimes the way two people try to resolve a conflict can have the exact opposite effect – your style is to discuss the issue until you’ve covered every angle while your partner would rather just find a solution and let it go. Constantly trying to pick the issue apart just ends up feeling like you’re badgering them to the point of rage when all you’re trying to do is make sure you understand things. You both have the same intent – you just want to settle things and not fight any more – but your styles are so out of sync that you keep poking the emotional bear until it suddenly drops 500 pounds of FUCK THIS SHIT all over the relationship.
This is why when you’re having the defining the relationship talk, you want to explain how you fight, what’s going to calm you down and what’s only going to make you even angrier. Yes, this means having a level of self-awareness that many people don’t have. Fine – develop it. Because if you don’t, every fight is going to go about as well as juggling bottles of nitroglycerine – you may not drop it every time, but it only takes once to destroy everything.
Conversation #2: How Do You Feel About Sex?
Sexual compatibility is one of the most important parts of a relationship – and most people never realize that they’re incompatible until it’s too late. We rarely have any conversation about sex – especially early on – where the answer isn’t “yes, have some”. It’s easy in the beginning of the relationship when the oxytocin is bubbling through your pleasure centers and the novelty is exciting and you can’t keep your hands off each other. Unfortunately, the honeymoon period always ends and now’s a bad time to find out that you have conflicting ideas about what “good sex” means.
Many people have entered into relationships not realizing that they have radically mismatched libidos – or worse, discovering that their partner has single-handedly decided that at some point in the future, they’re done with having sex. Some people may have kinks that they were able to ignore in the early days but they won’t ultimately be satisfied if they can’t indulge them. Other people are incredibly vanilla1 and get squicked out by any sort of non-traditional sex-practices. This doesn’t mean that one side is better or more evolved than the other, simply that they may well be completely incompatible in the long-term. When you’re starting to get serious, it’s important to lay your cards on the table: are there needs that you must have met in order to be satisfied? Are you willing to explore some sexual interests (within reason) you don’t share in the name of being a good, giving and game partner? If your partner has interests or fetishes that you can’t or won’t fulfill, are you ok with them getting those needs met elsewhere?
You also want to establish how you feel about sex in the long-term. One depressingly common problem in relationships is the tendency for society to treat commitment or marriage as the death of sexual adventure. For many people, wild, crazy, swinging-from-the-chandelier sex is for when you’re young and fancy-free; once you’ve settled down, it’s time to put the spreader-bar and hand-cuffs away and quit finding people for threesomes, foursomes and moresomes. In fact, committed relationships are perhaps the best time to explore sex more – after all, part of the point of a commitment is increasing levels of trust and openness with your partner. However, many people, even in long-term relationships often have a hard time opening up to their partners about their fantasies; they fear – sometimes correctly – that their partners would react badly to their real fantasies. I’ve known many people of all genders who answered “What’s your fantasy” honestly, only to have their partners freak out. As a result, they’re punished twice: first for having the fantasy and again for being honest about it.
Small wonder they may get increasingly gun-shy about talking about their real desires the longer the relationship goes on.
What makes it even sadder is that sometimes they become convinced that their fantasy is so dark or taboo that they can’t possibly explore it with their partner… because how could anyone respect someone who wanted to get spanked?
It’s important to establish those open lines of communication early and build the trust and open-mindedness necessary for an honest discussion about your feelings about sex. It can be difficult – we worry about what our partners will think if our interests are at all unconventional. However as awkward as it might be at first, it gets easier. The more you get in the habit of communicating with your partner, the more it becomes a natural part of your relationship.
Plus, if your partner is going to react badly when your deepest fantasy involves cuckolding or being tied to a Saint Andrew’s Cross and have hot wax poured on your dangly bits, it’s better to find this out early on rather than years down the line.
Conversation #3: Are You On The Same Page About Monogamy?
Some conversations are important to have because it’s entirely too easy to assume they’re not necessary. In western culture, monogamy is considered the default – it’s just assumed that if you’re entering into a committed relationship, you’re signing on for sexual and romantic exclusivity. However, the fact that it’s the cultural default doesn’t automatically mean that this is what everybody actually wants. And in fact, many cultural assumptions about monogamy actually can make maintaining a monogamous commitment harder.
The narrative of monogamy is that it’s effortless and natural, that once you’re in love with someone, you’ll never want anyone else. And while that may be true for some people, it’s not true for everyone. I’ve lost track of how many letters I’ve received from people in otherwise happy relationships who are terrified because they suddenly find themselves twitterpated over someone else. To them, this sudden, harmless infatuation is a sign that there’s something wrong with their relationship and that it’s all about to end in tears, screaming and fire.
Monogamy simply means making the conscious choice not to have sex with someone else. It doesn’t say anything about not wanting to. Some people are very good at monogamy. Many people aren’t. And then there are the people for whom monogamy simply doesn’t work; they may be polyamorous, they may want or need many partners across the gender spectrum or they simply be unable to restrict themselves to having sex with only one person for extended periods of time. This doesn’t make them bad people, just people who don’t fit into a very narrow cultural construct.
Despite the assumption that monogamy comes standard, it’s important to talk honestly about monogamy and sexual fidelity, especially if you have cheated on past partners. It’s a very difficult conversation to have – there’s a lot of social pressure to just say that you’re monogamous. People who aren’t are frequently labeled as sluts, dogs, selfish or weak-willed. They’re told that there’s something wrong with them and that their desires are wrong. And there’s the very legitimate worry that if you’re honest, your partner may reject you because he or she doesn’t feel the same way.
But as with conversations about sexual preferences, it’s a conversation that’s important to have early on. If you know that you can’t do traditional monogamy, then it’s important to let your partner know early on so that they can make an informed decision about the future of your relationship. Even if you’re both on the same page, being able to talk openly and sincerely about your expectations and needs with regards to sexual fidelity is important because of how it makes future conversations easier. People can and do change their minds over time – what might be unthinkable at one stage in your relationship may be possible, even exciting, once you’ve built up greater levels of trust and emotional commitment to one another. But even if you or your partner aren’t likely to change your minds on the matter, being able to actually talk about the issue without fear of rejection or judgement is a cornerstone of a successful relationship.
Conversation #4: What If We Get Pregnant?
Sex always carries a measure of risk. Unless you’re sterilized, committed to exclusively non-procreative sex acts – anal sex, oral sex, mutual masturbation, frottage, etc. – or are in a same-sex relationship, there is always the risk of pregnancy. No form of contraception is 100% under typical use; condoms break or slip off, IUDs shift out of place, hormonal birth control’s effectiveness can vary depending on a multitude of factors including body weight and theMorning After pill is frequently less effective than other forms of contraception. Even layering contraceptive methods isn’t proof against an unintended pregnancy; the odds are drastically lowered, but they still are not zero. The likelihood that you and your partner will get pregnant may be incredibly remote, but it can still happen. And that’s why it’s important that you be able to talk about what you are willing to do in the event that it does.
Handling an unintended pregnancy is an incredibly stressful, potentially life-altering event and it’s vitally important to be on the same page. It’s frequently a difficult conversation to have when it’s a thought-exercise; it’s even harder to have when it’s gone from “theoretical” to “actually happening oh god oh god oh god.” Calling abortion a divisive issue is rather like describing Fat Man and Little Boy as overpowered firecrackers and finding out that your partner’s views are diametrically opposed to yours in the middle of a pregnancy scare is a great way to turn a stressful situation into a goddamned nightmare.
Talking about handling a potential pregnancy goes beyond just whether you’re both in favor of abortion or not or whether you’ll put the child up for adoption. You should discuss in advancewhat sorts of contraception you want to use and when, instead of just assuming that one partner or the other will be responsible for it. You should also discuss whether you’re willing (or able) to have children now or further down the line or if you want to have children at all. If you are both sure that you don’t want children, then you need to discuss whether you’ll employ a more permanent form of contraception such as a vasectomy, a tubal ligation or a tubal occlusion.
The cold hard truth is that handling an unintended pregnancy has potential consequences – life-long consequences – for both of you; if you aren’t on the same page, you need to not be fucking.
Conversation #5: What Happens To The Relationship If Someone Cheats?
Speaking of tough conversations… this is going to be a controversial one
Infidelity happens. It’s difficult to say how frequently because, frankly, people are motivated to lie about cheating when self-reporting in studies – even under terms of strict anonymity. However, the most reliable studies suggest that up to 20% of men and 15% of women under 35 have been unfaithful in their relationship, while others suggest that nearly a quarter of men and a fifth of women are likely to stray.
There’s no question that cheating on your partner is a shitty thing to do2. However, for many people, cheating is automatically an relationship extinction-level event… and this can potentially make things worse.
Deciding that cheating automatically means ending the relationship may well mean throwing away a relationship that is potentially salvageable. As tempting as it is to portray a cheater as selfish and evil and out to destroy the relationship, we tend to get caught up in a number of myths surrounding infidelity that color our response to a partner stepping out on us. It feels like a black-or-white issue, but the fact of the matter is that people cheat for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes cheating is a way of slamming one’s hand down on the Relationship Self-Destruct button. Sometimes it’s a one-time event in a moment of weakness. Sometimes it’s a response to circumstances within the relationship. And yes, sometimes they’re just an asshole Treating infidelity as a one-size-fits-all crime ignores the realities and difficulties of a monogamous commitment. Very, very few people are able to exercise monogamy perfectly and mistakes willhappen. A singular slip-up under unusual circumstances isn’t the same as someone maliciously abusing another person’s trust; treating them as equal is needlessly draconian. Relationships can be repaired – even made stronger than before if both parties are willing to work on the issues that lead up to the infidelity.
However one frequent side-effect of treating infidelity as an automatic relationship ender is that it actually can endanger the other partner’s health. As I mentioned earlier, sex carries risks and one of those risks is for sexually transmitted infections. While condoms do provide protection against STIs, they aren’t 100% even in perfect use… and many people – up to 50% – don’t use them consistently or correctly. Moreover, the vast majority of the population don’t use condoms or dental dams for oral sex, which can also spread STI’s. By treating infidelity as an automatic relationship-ender, the cheating partner is incentivized to not disclose his straying and any potential consequences… which leaves the other partner ignorant of the possibility that they may well have been infected themselves.
In a perfect world, people in monogamous relationships wouldn’t cheat, and the ones who dowould own up to it, giving their partner a chance to get tested and treated if need be. But we don’t live in a perfect world, nor are we perfect people. Not every cheater is a mustache twirling villain or a self-involved prick; more often than not, they’re just all-too human.
Having this conversation – a willingness to discuss potential problems in the relationship and agreeing on how to handle them in advance won’t make your relationship immune to potential infidelities. However, it will make it possible to handle them in a positive manner. It may well still end with kicking your partner’s ass to the curb. Or it may give you both the tools to overcome what – in the long run – will be a rough patch in an otherwise glorious relationship.
Oh, and one more thing:
While it’s important to have these conversations early, it should be noted that they should be ongoing conversations. Circumstances change with time, and so do opinions. What may be unthinkable at one point in your life may be desirable at another, while what may seem obvious when it’s theoretical may be much murkier when you’re actually dealing with it. By keeping those lines of communication open, you empower yourselves to change and grow together and adapt as need be.
And that, ultimately, will save your relationship.
Originally appeared at Paging Dr. NerdLove
Photo: FLickr/Dan Queiroz