Mx Ruby-Rouge

"Our integrity sells for so little, but it is all we really have. It is the very last inch of us, but within that inch, we are free." – Valerie

Month: June, 2012

Dealing with conflict and constructive communication

In our everyday lives, we have to deal with conflict; whether it is a simple misunderstanding to a full scale argument between two or more people. We’ve all yelled at someone for doing something we’ve repeatedly asked them not to, and we’ve all been yelled at for doing something we thought we had done right. Some people are great at dealing with conflict; others not so great. We all have formed our own ways of dealing with conflict in our everyday lives, from our parents, from society, from our friendship groups. Sometimes we are just very good at dealing with conflict, and are able to rationally and fairly tackle problems and negotiate solutions. Sometimes we act irrationally, emotionally and aggressively, bull-dozing people whom we consider have caused us a great injustice, and are single-minded in our own rightousness. We’ve all done it, and we all fall foul of it from time to time. The important thing is to recognise if you are likely to act unreasonably, and to take steps to try and avoid that if you can.

For the polyamorous person, the quality of being able to deal effectively with conflict is highly useful and somewhat undervalued. When conflict arises between two people who care about each other, tensions can become high very quickly, when conflict arises between two or more people who care about each other, things can get out of hand very quickly. The key to dealing effectively and constructively with conflict is to know how you deal with conflict, and how the other person deals with it, and working with that knowledge. Knowing how to approach the problem is half the issue; approach someone in the right way, and the problem can sometimes be dealt with very easily. Approach someone the wrong way and a small problem can quickly become huge and turn things very sour indeed. By identifying how you deal with conflict, and taking steps to try and deal with it as constructively and rationally as you can will stand you in good stead for sustaining long, loving relationships where conflict can arise and be dealt with, without lasting resentment or anger between the people involved.

So what kind of things can cause conflict? The simple answer to this is that everything and anything can become a cause of conflict. Repeatedly doing (or not doing) something that your partner has asked you to not do (or do), a miscommunication of needs or wants, a misunderstanding of an agreement, intentional deceit, or breaching a serious relationship rule or agreement. Some of those causes can be fairly minor, such as repeatedly forgetting to put wet towels in the linen basket to be washed, or can be serious such as a breach of safer sex rules. In either event, the way the issue is dealt with can mean the difference between an open, honest, constructive discussion with a good ending, and a heated, vindictive argument where everyone is left unhappy, and the situation is much worse than it was before.

We all deal with issues within our relationships (loving and otherwise) in very specific ways. Some of us act like the proverbial Ostrich, choosing to bury our heads in the sand, and pretend the problem doesn’t exist. We don’t want to speak about it, discuss it, even admit the problem is a problem. Others do the opposite, and act like the Bull in the china shop, going in headfirst, all guns blazing and demand the problem is solved, now and how they want it to be solved, and are quite intimidating to deal with. Then there are those of us who are a bit like the wise old Yoda, who try our hardest to be rational and calm, step back from the situation, and form a clear understanding of what we feel the problem is. We take our time to talk properly to the people involved with the problem, hearing all sides, understanding why people feel the way they do, and try to find a compromise for making things better for the future.

If you nodded to one of those descriptions that fitted you (or one of your partners) the most, you know what I mean. Identifying your own and your partners’ conflict type is a useful way of understanding how arguments can arise, and how you can introduce strategies into your communication to reduce or avoid negative, destructive communication in the future. For example, if you are the Bull and your partner is the Ostrich, you are typically going to find dealing with conflict hard, as the Ostrich will become non-communicative at the aggressive tactics of the Bull. Likewise if you identify more as a Yoda you will be challenged to deal with the non-communication of the Ostrich, or the aggression of the Bull.

There are a few possible options we can try and adopt. The first is to try and identify why you act like your typical conflict type.  If you identify as someone like the Ostrich, who is so afraid of conflict they hide, pretend and avoid it altogether, you need to identify why you are afraid of dealing with conflict. Are you afraid conflict means someone doesn’t love you anymore? Do you have self esteem issues, and think that criticism can’t be constructive? Have you previously had conflict with a Bull, whose aggressive and cutting words hurt you, and made you too scared to try and negotiate through conflict? Identifying the cause of the need to hide from conflict may be the key to getting the Ostrich to remove its head from the sand, and actually deal with the problem. Similarly, the Bull can try and identify why they are so quick to lose their temper, and why their intinct is to be angry. Were they ignored in previous conflicts, and so found the loudest voice gets heard? Identifying the cause behind the short fuse may help the Bull avoid repeatedly locking horns with people.

What if you are the Bull and know you tend to see red quite quickly, shout or otherwise loose your cool, become irrational and emotional, especially at times of stress, and find it difficult to refrain from using personal attacks when dealing with conflict? If your partner is also a Bull, you may find a lot of your discussions quickly turn into heated arguments, raised voices, personal attacks, aggression and even violence. On the other hand, the Bull may get similarly vexed when faced with the apparent cowardice of the Ostrich, or the seemingly indifferent calm of Yoda. The second option available to all conflict types is to know thyself and to be aware of the way you are likely to act in a conflict situation. For example the Bull may know they are likely to become angry, irrational and unreasonable within a few minutes of a discussion. A very good solution here is to take a time out, for all parties to go away and write down the main points they want to discuss and suggestions on how they want to resolve it. Agree to come back when you know you will all be in a calmer, more rational and prepared frame of mind, whether that is thirty minutes, a day or a week. Given some time to prepare their answers, the Ostrich may feel braver about popping their head above the parapet of sand; the Bull may be more able to communicate how they feel and why in a constructive way, and Yoda will be able to deal with all sides on a rational and fair basis. By knowing thyself, and aiming to moderate the extremes of your conflict type, all parties have a much better chance of open, constructive and positive conflict resolution.

The final suggestion is to utilise someone who identifies as a Yoda as an adjudicator. If this is someone all parties trust and respect as a person who is calm, rational, fair and unbiased, this can work wonders for conflict types who can generally bang heads and get no-where. The Yoda can chair the discussion, ensure all sides are heard fairly, suggest time outs if the Bull gets too heated, and encourage the Ostrich to have a louder voice in the proceedings. Whilst involving someone else in a conflict is a heavy thing to ask of someone, it can bring very positive results if they are listened to in the role they have been asked to do.

Dealing with conflict is never easy, even for someone as wise and old as Master Yoda. Yet whatever our conflict type, we can seek to better ourselves as people and partners by aspiring to moderate our excesses, play fair to our loved ones and to communicate openly, honest and rationally. If you can get to the point of admitting you are afraid of being deserted by your lover, or that you can accept you are generally very hot-tempered and need a time out, or that you can sometimes be a little too detached from things, you have taken the first huge step into becoming a better communicator. Being good at communication isn’t just about the hot and heavy discussions at the outset of a relationship of needs, wants, desires and fantasies. It is also about how you deal with the problems, the changes throughout the relationship, the re-negotiations and how to sustain enduring, equal, loving friendships and relationships. We all have a natural communication type, but we also all have the ability to emulate the best of communicators, to strive to do better, and be better.

New and shiny syndrome

We’ve all been there, feeling the thrill of the chase of someone we desire, the tummy flip we get when we receive a text or tweet from them, the constant thought of them, fantasies, desires, scenarios playing out in your mind. All else fades into comparison as you become single-minded, and when you finally get what you want, the rest of the world ceases to exist. You’ve fallen prey to new and shiny syndrome. It’s perfectly normal, and understandable. But it’s something us polyamorous people, unlike our monogamous counterparts, have to control and manage, in order to keep the other, existing people in our lives happy. For a monogamous person, you may get complaints from your friends that you aren’t coming out as much since you’ve met your new love interest, but generally, your NRE will fade, and your friends will forgive you. For a polyamorous person, you have existing loves to which you have obligations, and who want to still be important to you, even as you persue a new connection. Ignore the negative impact that new and shiny can have on your existing relationships, and once you emerge from that rose-tinted world, you may find you have lost or seriously damaged some valuable relationships.

Dealing with a partner who has a case of new and shiny syndrome can be hard work, as you have to deal with feelings of jealousy, envy, hate, loss, grief and insecurity. Those things us poly folk rarely admit to, but often feel, even in small doses. There are few things harder than the feeling that your lover is slipping away, losing interest in you, chasing after the next new and shiny. Your time as the new and shiny has now expired, and someone else is taking that all consuming place in your honey’s life. You start to understand what your metamours have gone through, time and time again, and how your own entry in their lives was just as hard for them as you are experiencing now.

New and shiny syndrome is simply a case of inbalance. An improper focus on one, new person, a case of “the grass is always greener on the other side”. As we all know, it isn’t, and once the NRE wears off, the rose-tinted glasses come off, we are all the same. We have our good points and our bad. We have our confident parts and our insecurities. We have our neuroses and our obsessions. We are just people, and it’s difficult to see that in those heady, early days. Whilst it is perfectly acceptable, and normal, to be excited about a new connection, neglecting your existing relationships is not.

For those suffering from new and shiny syndrome, there are a number of things you can do to minimise the negative impact your new love interest can have on your life and loves. First is to ensure you maintain your existing levels of attention, time, affection and obligations to your existing connections. Be considerate of how much attention you pay to the new and shiny; don’t excessively display your obsession online or where it can be seen by a lover, and don’t let it intrude on your special date time with your partners. Sticking to your obligations is a vital thing to do: if you generally text your loves once a day, continue to do so. If you generally see them once a week, stick to it, even if it means you can’t see the new and shiny person that day. That hardest impact of a new and shiny on existing partners is that their partner reduces their involvement with them, in favour of the new and shiny, and it hurts. Don’t fall prey to that mistake.

Second is to take your time. Don’t rush headlong into something and expect the new and shiny to be fast-tracked into your accepted circle of loves. Enjoy the process of dating and getting to know you, talk to your existing partners, see how they are feeling about the new person, and ensure that existing agreements are discussed with the new and shiny before things get too involved. An easy mistake to make when involved with a new and shiny is forgetting your existing rules and agreements in the heat of the moment, or getting involved with someone unsuitable long term just because the chemistry is overwhelming. It’s hard for other partners to see this cycle repeated time and time again, so take your time with who you consider entering your life, consider their compatibility in your lifestyle and circle, and don’t just think with your genitals.

Finally, try and get things onto a real-life level. Let your existing partners get to know the new and shiny, so they know them as a person, and not just “the one I feel I’ve lost my partner to”. Let everyone hang out, chat, get a feel for each other as people, and not competition. It’s amazing how someone who is feeling insecure about someone can feel less so when they’ve met this person and talked to them, and realised they are just a person, and they get spots/fat days/holes in their socks too. Similarly, talk to your partners about how they feel about the new connection, any worries they may have, any negative feelings they may be experiencing. Deal with their answers tactfully, giving reassurance to worries, perhaps figuring out solutions to things missing between you, renewing your promises and obligations to them and assuring them they are loved and important to you.

For the partner who is on the shitty end of the new and shiny stick, there are things you can do too. First, be open and honest about how you are feeling with your partner, and seek reassurance and affirmation of your place in their heart and life. If you partner has reduced time or attention to you or bailed on some agreements, talk about that stuff, and come to a solution. Second, don’t see the new and shiny as “the enemy”, even if your partner is treating you badly in favour of them. It’s generally not their fault, and you need to take up that issue with the person responsible: your partner. Don’t write the person off as a bad metamour at the first sign of trouble, remember it takes time to negotiate into an existing structure and to find your place within it. Finally, accept that you were once the new and shiny too, and that NRE is ok, in moderation. Allow your love the space and freedom to make new connections, be happy for them, and remember that new and shiny is generally shortlived.

It is important to remember that as polyamorous people, we are all going to seek to form new connections and new relationships from time to time. The way we conduct those new connections, and the way we manage our existing obligations and maintain our relationships considerably affects the goodwill our partners have to our starting new relationships. A cornerstone for good polyamory is fairness: if you don’t have time for new connections: don’t seek to make them.  Similarly, be honest and realistic about what you want; don’t promise what you can’t consistently give, don’t agree to things that breach your existing agreements with other loves. Remember that we’ve all been the new and shiny, and we will all at some point have to deal with a new and shiny. Either by experience or imagination, we can put ourselves in our metamours’ shoes, and feel the likely impact of our actions and behaviours. Bear that in mind, and it will make you more considerate when making new connections generally, whether as the new partner, or the partner seeking to add someone.   Treat others as you would wish to be treated, and you won’t go far wrong.

Ruby