Co-authored by Relationship Coach Effy Blue and Clinical Psychologist Emily Polak
A necessary precursor to having a thriving romantic relationship is making sure your relationship structure works for you. Taking the time to intentionally design your relationship is worthwhile, starting with recognizing the abundance of possibilities available in addition to traditional monogamous marriage.
Designing your ideal relationship requires clear communication and mutual agreement among partners. Effective communication is challenging to even the most skilled and experienced among us. In my coaching practice with couples who are actively designing their relationships, there are common yet distinct hurdles I see people face in expressing themselves with their partner(s).
The first is not having shared language. This entails both common vocabulary as well as meaning. For example, there are many terms people use to describe dating. People might say they are seeing someone, going out with someone, hanging out, or even courting. The language we use conveys nuanced details about the nature of the relationship. So when you think you’re in a serious relationship with someone and you hear them tell someone that you’re just hanging out, it can be a cause of hurt and confusion. The same applies if you typically state that you and a partner have been having sex and you hear them tell someone you are fucking. That could feel jarring because fucking is not a word with which you feel comfortable or upsetting because that’s not how you think about what you are doing.
A second type of shared language is when a couple creates or designates a term to signify something specific in their relationship, like a type of shorthand. A great example of this is a married polyamorous couple who came up with the term “the wonkies” to describe the funky feeling that can occur when your partner is dating someone else and you’re having a hard time with it. A personal example of this is when a partner of mine or I say “I’m being a panda.” Pandas only mate under perfect conditions so being a panda is our shorthand for not wanting to have sex at that time. This works well on several levels because it doesn’t place blame, it doesn’t require specific reasons, and it sounds cute.
Many people have not fully taken in that it is okay to make choices for their relationships that are outside of societal norms. In other words, they don’t trust that their own self-made boundaries are truly okay. This results in another common communication challenge, that people don’t ask for what they want. For example, society tells us that it’s not ok to kiss someone outside of our primary relationship so we feel guilty when we find a new person attractive and imagine what it would be like to kiss them. But as adults, we can make our own rules, as long as they are ethical and everyone is in agreement.
It is important for people to check in with themselves about the degree to which this permission has been internalized. This is particularly an issue in non-monogamous relationships in which people often don’t recognize that there is still societal programming to undo.
The first step in establishing this permission in a relationship is creating a space in which all parties feel like they can talk about anything. To create a safe space, certain agreements need to be in place. For example, partners can agree that whatever is brought up won’t be taken personally and won’t be viewed as a reflection on the relationship. They can also decide that no one will assume a conversation topic will be immediately actionable. In other words, just because you are talking about something doesn’t mean you will do it. All partners can agree to try to listen with a generous ear, assuming the best intentions of the partner raising the topic. For instance, a couple may explicitly decide that it is okay to acknowledge their attraction to others.
Finally, avoiding conflict is one of the biggest reasons why issues arise in relationships. People are under the illusion that conflict is unhealthy but this is based on a misunderstanding of what conflict actually is. A conflict is a disagreement, a situation in which people have desires or opinions that go in different directions. A conflict does not necessarily look like an argument or a fight. It can occur any time a decision needs to be made and is often accompanied by feelings of discomfort.
We avoid conflict because we are not comfortable asserting boundaries or asking for things. Sometimes we are reluctant to express a boundary, such as wanting some time alone, or to make a request, like asking a partner to initiate sex. Instead, we avoid the topic, which prevents us from getting what we want or results in us doing things we don’t want to do.
Avoiding conflict is like ignoring a ticking bomb. Negative feelings, particularly resentment, are like the ticking that alerts you that a boundary has been crossed and you feel like you’ve been treated unfairly.
You can either learn to diffuse bombs or manage explosions, which typically destabilizes the relationship for a time. Explosions may entail yelling, crying, door slamming, stonewalling, or something else altogether. They can also bring out emotions like anger, frustration, sadness, resentment, apathy, or guilt.
As scary as diffusing a bomb sounds, managing the aftermath of an explosion is always worse. The likelihood that a bomb will go off is much higher if you don’t at least attempt to diffuse it. Moreover, the fact that explosions are so painful reinforces the avoidance of conflict.
There is a chasm to cross between having a thought or feeling you want to express, finding the words, articulating them, and having the other person both hear and understand you. Some failure is inevitable so it’s best not to be too hard on yourself or your partner(s). Creating a common language, supporting your partner(s) to internalize the idea that they can create their own relationship parameters, and addressing conflicts before they blow up are three proactive ways you can maximize your chances of successfully crossing the divide.