The grownup test: Clear, frank communication and negotiation


March 29, 2013 by aggiesez

I flunked telepathy. In relationships, I function extremely well with information — and quite poorly without it. Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned from over a decade of being poly (including the last few years as solo poly) is the absolute necessity of clear, frank communication and negotiation. In fact, I’ve come to consider this to be my “grownup test” for lovers and metamours as I form new relationships. It’s a big part of how I stick to my rules for myself.

How my grownup test works

As I start to get to know new lovers and metamours, I pay attention to what they do as well as what they say; how well they know themselves, and how well they walk their talk. People generally show you who they really are (for better and worse) if you give them a chance and pay attention.

Usually before long a question or issue arises which requires that I understand precisely what a lover or metamour wants, means, or is willing/able to do — or where I need them to understand me well. For me this often comes up first in conversations about sexual safety and preferences. I choose not to be fluid bonded with any lover, so I always have at least a basic version of this conversation before we start rubbing naughty bits together.

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It’s wonderful — and very telling — when a new lover is comfortable with having this conversation; even more fabulous when he initiates it before I do! Also, it’s wonderful if he (yes, I’m straight) knows himself well, can easily speak up for himself, and negotiate with me wherever we have differences. These are all very, very good signs that I’m probably dealing with a grownup. It doesn’t mean he must share or agree 100% with my preferences, or that we’ll have smoking hot chemistry off the bat (or at all). But I do need to see that he knows and can discuss where he’s at in terms of safer sex and sexual health, and that he’s willing and able to explore options. Plus I like to see that he’s comfortable receiving information about how I work and what I need.

(Yes, I learned this from my kinky friends — especially one who told me: “The wildest thing kinky people do is that they actually talk about sex before they have it.”)

Pass/fail experiences

Over the last few months as I’ve been dating more, I’ve had some experiences with having the initial safer sex conversation — all different, and all good. Some were pretty brief, some were more involved, depending on the issues we each brought to the table.

Of course, the grownup test isn’t a one-shot deal — people have to keep passing in order for me to continue to want to have them involved in my life and relationships in any significant way. So as any intimate relationship of mine progresses, I keep my radar up for issues that need to be discussed or negotiated. I don’t go out of my way to find touchy, contentious, or awkward topics to raise, but I don’t shy away from them when I see them.

Sometimes these topics involve metamours. Mainly, if a new lover of mine has existing significant partners (a spouse, etc.), I prefer to meet them sooner rather than later, so I can establish a good, friendly baseline of direct communication and start to assess how comfortable we can be with each other. One of my current lovers is married, and so far his wife and I have a pretty good rapport — she even invited me out for coffee the afternoon following my first overnight date with her husband, which I found very forthright and pleasant. We had a great time. I’m enjoying getting to know them both.

Other times, the grownup test happens when I have to clarify a need, preference or boundary.

For instance, my married lover and his wife have young children. I enjoy spending time with kids, and their kids are especially cool. But as a child-free solo person, I’ve learned that when you’re dating a parent it’s easy for most of your dates to end up involving child care. (People often assume that since I can be very flexible, that I’m always willing to accommodate them.)

Now, I don’t mind spending evenings with my lover when he’s minding his kids. But I need one-on-one time with lovers too, and not just squeezed into the exhausted hours after the kids get to bed. He and I discussed this early on, and so far we’ve worked it out so that roughly half of our dates don’t involve childcare. No manipulation, no insinuations that anyone’s being difficult or selfish, no stonewalling or hedging. It was a short conversation, we came to agreement, and it’s working out quite nicely. We enjoy each other’s company in both settings. (Update: Despite the good communication I noted here, I ended up dumping this lover a couple of weeks after this post because he ended up treating me pretty inconsiderately. Which goes to show: keep paying attention to how people act.)

Then sometimes things happen that I don’t understand or that don’t sit well with me, and I need to discuss them.

For instance, a few weeks ago I was dating a lovely man I was strongly attracted to. Initially he was very open and communicative, and seemed very forthright — volunteering a lot of context about himself and his life, and asking me about myself. It was going great, we clicked on many levels.

Then on one date, he behaved in a way that pushed my buttons, triggering some old insecurities that left me feeling out of sorts. It wasn’t a crisis, but it wasn’t pleasant for me. Now, I don’t believe this was at all intentional on his part. But I felt that if we were going to keep dating, he should understand what didn’t work for me that night and why it bothered me, to see if we could find a way to avoid (or at least better navigate) that situation in the future.

I took a day to parse out what I was feeling and what I needed. Then I sent him an e-mail explaining what had bothered me. I asked what had been going on for him, and offered some options for handling that kind of situation differently. (I also made sure to tell him how much I enjoyed everything that was going right between us too, and to emphasize that I wasn’t assuming anything negative. Often, shit just happens while people are just getting to know each other.)

Initially he responded quickly and positively, thanking me for raising the issue and asking to call to talk it over. That was great — but then he failed to call when he said he would. Not a good sign, but not a dealbreaker; people do get busy or forgetful, and this wasn’t a crisis. A couple of days later I texted him to ask if he still wanted to talk about it, and he quickly apologized and suggested another time to call me. But once again, he didn’t. No explanation, no acknowlegement, nothing.

Well, at that point we had a problem. I contacted him later to note that apparently he didn’t seem willing or able to discuss the matter, despite his stated intent. I didn’t make any assumptions about why he’d behaved that way that night, or why he was dodging conversation now, but I let him know that volunteering to talk and setting a time but then blowing me off — twice — is a bad pattern that doesn’t work for me.

He responded with an odd, vaguely worded e-mail saying that he’d lately been sideswiped by a lot of “unrelated emotion.” That was all: no effort to engage me on the issue, no acknowledgment or apology for blowing me off, no admission that he simply wasn’t up to having a discussion.

At that point he’d flunked the grownup test. I canceled our upcoming date, and let him know I wished him well with whatever he was dealing with. And I told him that since he didn’t seem to be in a place where he could offer me communication, negotiation and consideration, it didn’t make sense for us to continue dating.

I’ve heard nothing more from him, and that’s fine. I do wish him well. But I’m relieved that he flunked the grownup test early. Saved us both a lot of trouble. We had a few good dates, and that’s not a loss.

I believe in giving people chances, but not indefinitely. Sometimes people are really in a bad place, or they’re trying to develop better relationship skills. I’m more willing to give people more chances if they try to communicate but do so poorly, than if they simply hedge or don’t respond. If they aren’t even trying to communicate, I’ve got nothing to work with.

In the past, I’ve been in situations where long-term partners, serious lovers, and metamours have dodged, foot-dragged, tried diversionary tactics, or stonewalled where clear communication and negotiation were warranted. And because I was already invested in those relationships, or because I didn’t want to make my partners or metamours uncomfortable, or because I didn’t want to spoil a date, I’d let things slide. Sometimes ambiguity is fine, but I know in my gut when it’s not. And I’ve learned, through ignoring that gut instinct too many times, how crucial the grownup test is.

Even for my very casual relationships, the grownup test applies. Even if we’re mostly just having fun, building a sexual friendship or having a hot fling rather than connecting emotionally, I still need to communicate and negotiate about what we each need, want, and don’t in that context. Generally, those conversations are pretty brief and stress-free — and the “want” part tends to involve enthusiastic exploration and demonstrations, of which I’m a huge fan.

Tips for running the grownup test:

  1. Don’t keep it a secret. As I start to get involved with a new lover, I mention that clear communication and negotiation are make-or-break relationship factors for me. I invite them to raise any issues or questions they have, and I tell them that I will also speak up as needed. Secret tests aren’t fair.
  2. Don’t expect problems. Most people I get involved with tend to be open to communicating and negotiating — and they generally want to make a good impression. So when I have to do the grownup test, I don’t put my emotional armor on. I just put myself out there and see what happens. Usually it goes very well; and when it doesn’t, it’s not fatal. Either way, it’s extremely useful.
  3. Inquire first about timing and channels. If it’s a small issue that can be handled in a quick, casual conversation, I’ll usually have that conversation in person or by online chat. If I have something more involved to say (which can be the case for the sex talk, depending on the issues I think we might be facing), I prefer to write it out in an e-mail. Hey, I’m a writer, and that’s how I think and communicate most clearly. But before I send an e-mail like that I’ll ask first, to see if they’d be comfortable with that — and I ask how they prefer to communicate. Some people are phone people (even though I’m not, I can adapt as needed). Some people need face-to-face. Some people like chat or e-mail. As long as their preferred channel isn’t telepathy, I can roll with how they prefer to respond. And if someone wants to think awhile before responding, that’s fine — as long as they do respond at some point. (If I feel there’s a time pressure, I’ll say so up front, like “I’d really like to work this out before our next date.”)
  4. Be willing to listen and give. The grownup test works both ways; I need to keep passing, too. I try not to make assumptions or dictate terms. I ask what they perceive, what they think, what they want, and why. I try not to pry beyond the information I really think I need (although I will listen to whatever they volunteer). And where we have differences, I try to find options and compromises. There are almost always options, at least when an issue is small and new.
  5. Did I get an answer? First, if I need or expect a response, if I’m not just putting something out there as information, I make that clear. Also, as we talk, I try to keep in mind what I really need to know, or what issue needs to be resolved, and pay close attention to whether that’s being addressed in the exchange. Journalism training helps a lot with this. I try to think through up front what I’m trying to achieve, and then craft one or a few direct, precise questions that will yield a useful answer. Fishing around in nebulous topics tends to frustrate everyone.
  6. Follow-through. After negotiations, I make every effort to follow through on what I offered to do. I look for evidence of that from my lover or metamour as well. Sometimes this takes a lot of time, because issues that trigger negotiations don’t always recur often, or at all. But the point is, I keep my radar up.
  7. Don’t make it oppressive. Like anyone, I’m in relationships mainly for the good stuff. The grownup test can sometimes be awkward, stressful, or contentious — so I don’t run it all the time. It’s not what I do for fun. But I do find that addressing issues and questions early usually makes these conversations shorter and more casual.
  8. Earned trust. With a lot of time and positive experiences communicating and negotiating, I tend to trust more and question less. But I intend to never let go of it entirely. After going through a three-year relationship where my boyfriend and his wife gradually began treating me very unethically and disrespectfully, while dodging questions about their behavior, I’ve vowed to myself never to totally let anyone off the hook for the grownup test. I can ease up, but slacking off entirely doesn’t do anyone a favor.

Having good judgment doesn’t make you judgmental

Yes, I know calling this “the grownup test” sounds judgmental. But really, it’s about exercising personal judgment. In relationships, I need to make judgment calls about who I really want involved in my life as a partner, lover or metamour. I need to have standards for how I’m treated. Without that self respect, I can’t really be there for others — and everyone gets miserable in the process.

The grownup test is not about judging the character of other people. Life and people are complicated, and people can flunk the grownup test from time to time for all sorts of reasons. If someone flunks, owns up to it, and tries to make amends or try again, I’ll probably give them another chance. (Unless that turns into a bad pattern too.)

So I’m not saying that people who flunk my grownup test are bad people or even bad lovers or metamours; just that they aren’t demonstrating sufficient skills to be in a relationship with me. In short, they’re not playing at the level I’d need to feel good about continuing or deepening that relationship. That doesn’t mean I’d necessarily have to end the relationship, but I’d at least scale it back or hold it at a casual level.

OK, honestly, a few people have flunked my grownup test in such a spectacularly irresponsible and hurtful way (particularly my two ex-boyfriends and a metamour from last year) that I think it does indicate deep character flaws and ethical lapses. It’s the real world out here folks, and some people really are assholes or cowards — or at least they choose to act like assholes or cowards and apparently feel OK about it. That’s life. But still, flunking the grownup test is a separate issue from whether someone is being an asshole or coward, even though these problems obviously can correlate.

What does having the grownup test say about me? I realize that some people are quite skilled at indirect communication; I’m not. Some people have a high tolerance for ambiguity; I don’t — even though I am very flexible and good at adapting in relationships. Perhaps my need for clarity is a personality flaw. However, the more I’ve learned to respect this need, to speak up and ask questions, it’s yielded many benefits.

For me, getting clarity in relationships doesn’t mean pushing to “define” a relationship structure or role. (“Are you my boyfriend now?” Yuck.) Rather, it’s about access to information I need to assess situations and decide whether I’m being treated respectfully and considerately, or facing any risks. It’s about building trust. Running the grownup test means my healthy relationships get stronger, and poor matches weed themselves out. Everybody wins that way.

So why call it the grownup test? In my view (and I’m speaking only for myself here), being able to communicate and negotiate — or at least to try to do it, and not chicken out on it, even if you’re not great at it — is a foundational relationship skill. Absent some significant cognitive impairment, this is just part of Being a Grownup 101, a key demonstration of personal responsibility, awareness and respect. Expecting people to read your mind or automatically accommodate you, that you don’t have to pay attention to others, or that it’s OK to manipulate people, all reflect child-like thinking.

Personally, I prefer to have intimate relationships with adults. And I’ve learned the hard way: you can’t round up to grownup.

3 thoughts on “The grownup test: Clear, frank communication and negotiation

  1. Koffeeklatch says:

    Great article, and speaks to some issues I’ve been having with a metamour. So what happens if it’s a metamour who fails the grownup test? You don’t have a lot of say about that person’s presence in your life.

    • aggiesez says:

      Well, that could be the issue with someone’s family, close friends, etc. — anyone who has an influence on how the two of you interact. Generally you can’t get people to change. They will do what they will do. What you can do is make decisions for yourself to minimize the metamour’s impact on you and your relationship — which might include asking your partner to stand up for your relationship more. And your partner may or not do that; either way, that’s important information.

      Remember: You matter just as much as anyone in the relationship. You get to set your own boundaries. You don’t ever have to just put up with anyone’s behavior.

      In my experience when metamours are flunking the grownup test (especially if they are my partner’s primary life partner), and the way they’re behaving hurts me or my relationship, and that’s unlikely to change, I need to scale back or end that relationship. But that’s just me.

      This week’s Poly Weekly podcast might be useful to you: Metamour Cock Block

  2. Lucy says:

    i think this is actually pretty great relationship advice, whether you are monogamous, poly or whatever. thanks.

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