(My goal for this piece is to summarize a longer article on my website. PF suggested this topic for me to tackle, and I did that, and then some. If you want to read the long version, you can find it here.)
People aren't always taught how to ask for what they want. There is a process when it gets complex, and that process is called “negotiation”. This article is going to tackle some of the pitfalls, and get into techniques for what I call “cooperative negotiation”, as opposed to “adversarial negotiation”.
To start, there are three common barriers to effective negotiation. They are, in fact, one of the great secrets to troubleshooting anything involving human behavior in the universe. Seriously? Yep!
There is a fundamental barrier to negotiation when a person isn't able to accurately identify what it is that they want, or perhaps how badly they want it. There is a lack of self-awareness. Okay, so what do you do about this? Self-knowledge. There are lots of ways to achieve this.
Often the difficulty is based on some damage that exists. The ability can atrophy until you are simply unaware that there are unmet needs inside. They become invisible.
When you start to tackle this, make a list. What do you want? This part of the process could even be a great relationship building activity to do with your partner. They might have insight into things that you want that you aren't able to own or give voice to yet. This would be a great intimacy building exercise, because it would entail making yourself very vulnerable.
Which leads us to the next barrier.
An assumption that I make regarding romantic relationships is that there will be a mutual vulnerability leading to an increase in intimacy. For people who have been ill-treated in the past, this can be problematic. The more threatened you feel, or the more strongly you want something, the more vulnerable you feel, and hence, the less likely you are to risk asking. It is therefore much more difficult to ask for what you need in the very situations where you need it the most.
There can be a self-limiting belief that steps in here. This might be a fear of success. This might be a fear of leaving behind old patterning. It can be terrifying for someone to consider what would happen “after”, if they actually had a success in some emotionally loaded area of their life.
Often, in these cases, to hide this fact, their mind will generate a narrative, and they will ask for something, just not the something that they actually need or want. This is often unconscious. There may not be deception externally, it's occurring internally, as a defense mechanism. In these cases, it combines a “Don't” and a “Won't”.
So, how do we tackle this lack of willingness? Encouragement! Model the behavior yourself.
This one is hard. There are people who are unable to connect with some of these concepts. I know one such couple. It happens. The key is, if a “Won't” stays a “Won't”, then treat it as a “Can't”. This could be a genuine or a malicious misunderstanding. It's time for a “come to Jesus” conversation. Don't use shorthand, don't make assumptions. Draw pictures.
Because this one is hard, it's also probably the simplest. You have a choice. If it's not happening, and you've explored all the other options, then your choice is to fold or go all in. Asking a therapist for an initial consultation on your own, talking about the situation, might be helpful to make the right decision for yourself.
But first, game design theory.
I like making games. There is a theory to games, an underlying architecture and methodology that makes them work. Some of that is math. Some of that is psychology. A part of game design theory is the idea of “Play”. This is larger than just games, and is also addressed in early childhood development, workplace behavior, and, yes, relationships.
“Play”, in the context of games, is the idea that we are suspending the rules of normal society for the purposes of a special “ritual”. This ritual, of “Play”, involves the idea that two or more people are going to engage in an activity (Play) that replaces our normal cultural interactions with an artificial construct (the game) within which other rules will apply for the duration. Further, everyone is agreeing to do this activity of their own free will (“consent”). We also agree that while we are playing, we will be “enemies”. This result, the idea that we might enjoy being “enemies” for this cooperative endeavor is a remarkable aspect of Play from a psychological point of view.
Assumption 1: We like each other.
Assumption 2: We enjoy our partner's enjoyment and having a role in that enjoyment.
Assumption 3: We trust each other and want to share intimacy.
Ground Rule #1: We agree to treat each other and ourselves with kindness.
Ground Rule #2: We are not merely going to respond by rote or habit. We are going to approach this process with as much transparency as possible because we are seeking to deeply understand each other.
Ground Rule #3: We agree that it's okay to asymmetrically want things from one another and to ask for things yet not have them received.
Ground Rule #4: Fundamentally, we are on each other's team. We will work together.
Ground Rule #5: It's okay to be angry, or sad, or to be wrong. This is a safe space where we can share messy feelings, accept them, and we won't punish one another.
Ground Rule #6: My feelings are mine. Your feelings are yours. You are not responsible for mine, even if my feelings are in response to your actions, or vice versa. However, we are always responsible for our actions.
Taken together, this creates an opportunity for something special to happen. We will not mislead or avoid subjects simply because they are uncomfortable. We will find a loving, gentle, honest, and clear way to express ourselves to the best of our ability.
Okay, let's play!
Step 1: Self-knowledge.
This isn't simply about knowledge. This is about having a concept, finding words for that concept, and one more thing. You have to accept that you want it. You need to really be willing to own that. Do not underestimate how difficult that can be.
Step 2: Schedule.
Agree to set aside time to talk (consent). Let them know that you want to bring something up, and you want to have focused, loving attention for the conversation (play the game).
Step 3: Begin.
Tell them what it is that you want. Elucidate. Also, let them know how much you want this. Be clear whether their participation is mandatory or simply preferred. Here are a couple of examples:
“I really need for you to follow through with our agreement about fluid exchange with other partners. I know that there was that one time when it was an accident, but after that it seems like 'accidents' are happening more often. This isn't something that I can get past or compromise on, this is a deal breaker if behavior doesn't change.”
“I would like you to go to that BDSM event, the “leather tastings” with me. There is something big here, I think this might be a huge win for me, but I don't want you to just do it for me. I know you've avoided that ballpark before, so I could go on my own, or with someone else.”
Step 4: Initial response.
Now it's your turn to sit and listen. Allow your partner to give you their honest reactions. Don't address their points until clearly invited to do so. This patience is critical, and here's why. Often people have an initial reaction that is NOT how they will end up feeling/thinking on a given topic, especially when it is emotionally charged. Give your partner time to explore their own feelings.
Step 5: Discussion.
Okay, you've had your say, and they've responded. Now we can ease up on the flow of conversation a bit. As long as emotions are not flaring, allow for a more flexible exchange.
If they say something that seems confusing, remember, ask for clarification. Do not let things pass under the bridge. If you do, you will find that your “agreement” today will turn into huge drama later.
Step 6: Break it down.
This is an entire article in it's own right. On a piece of paper, make two columns. Left side, benefits, right side, detriments. Be thorough. Be accepting. Just because you don't understand how something would feed your relationship doesn't mean it won't to them. There's no telling what feeds people's idea of closeness and intimacy. I love going grocery shopping with my partners.
Indicate how strongly you feel about each. “ABC” works. If you can, further break down each item on your list to the “why”. Here's an example, using the “leather tastings” situation from above.
Learn about BDSM. (B)
- The idea is exciting.
- It feels important.
Try something new/different in the sexual ballpark. (A)
- Feeling a little stagnant.
- Get to see people in hot outfits?
What this allows for is the opportunity to find underlying motivations, bring them to the table, discuss them and possibly find other ways to meet those needs. During this process, you might find that your priorities weren't accurate at first. Perhaps at first you wrote an (A) next to the first item and a (B) next to the second.
Step 7: Put it together.
This can be the most complex step of anything we've talked about in this entire process or you may have a “Why didn't we think of that before” moment.
Get creative. Mix and match ideas. Take a break and do some research. Internet, books, friends.
One solution might be:
- Schedule more “us” time to be sexual. Stop allowing life to interrupt that. Stop putting it off just because “our relationship is solid”. It won't stay solid if we aren't feeding it.
- I get to explore kink, even though you aren't interested. You are allowed to control the amount of information you want to hear, but will always be kept abreast of situations around safety. We will work out expectations about safety as I explore together. You won't be dictated to, you get input.
- I don't schedule time exploring kink at the cost of our shared time. It has to be done outside of that. You don't “lose out” just because I'm exploring that world. You don't get ignored or “left behind”.
You can see how one person's need to explore something new was agreed to and some information was added addressing concerns that had come up in the conversation, specifically fears around safety and missing out on time and availability.
Sometimes you have to go several steps deep to get to the source. Gently tease out the answers, pursuing a deeper understanding. Don't hound them. Don't demand. Be kind. Be curious.
Don't be surprised if sometime, later, you happen to get a swat on the butt. Don't attach hope and then punish them when it doesn't manifest, but stranger things have happened.
Step 8: Make a plan and take action.
If you've decided to do something, do it. Schedule it. There is a reason why the current situation was the way it was. Point out causes and contributing factors as you become aware of them. I know of couples who have an active saboteur present. It's been a child (jealous of time and attention), it's been another partner (creating a crisis to interrupt date time), it's even been one of the partners themselves (heretofore undisclosed issues).
If your plan is thwarted, both of you need to acknowledge that it has been thwarted, identify and agree upon the cause, and make a new plan that takes that cause into account. If different problems continue to arise, get help. This is most often the case when one of you (yes, you!) are the problem. You may very well need a neutral third party to help unpack what's going on.
That's it. I hope that helps.