The risk and reward of difficult conversations with friends

tl;dr at the end.

Sometimes, when I express a mindset that I’ve adopted, people are intrigued by it and find it a useful way of framing certain thoughts. When that happens enough times, I figure it’s time to document the mindset for wider dissemination; this is one of those.

A while ago, I was considering my relationship with a close friend. I realised I was interested in exploring a non-platonic (romantic, intimate, or sexual) relationship with them. I wasn’t hung up on this idea; I basically wanted to float it and see what they thought, and I was happy to leave things as they were if the other person wasn’t interested.

I hear stories sometimes of people who have tried to suggest changes (some may call them “escalations”, though I don’t like that mindset) like this to a relationship, and are concerned that just the mere suggestion of these changes could destroy the relationship. What if the friend doesn’t think of you the same after you suggest, say, that you’re interested in them romantically? What if this knowledge means they’re not comfortable continuing your existing platonic relationship, because they might think they’re teasing teasing you by staying around but denying you the relationship change you suggested, because your feelings are unrequited? What if they are offended or insulted by your suggestion, for some reason? Perhaps you suggest a sexual relationship and they think you’re just desperate for sex and trying to use them to get it?

Here’s the big question: do you really want to continue a relationship (be it friendship or otherwise) with somebody who would react like this to a calmly raised suggestion, when you have stated that it is a suggestion and nothing more, and that you’re happy with things as they are? If you can’t be completely honest with this person and have them be anything other than grateful for your honesty and vulnerability, what’s the point? Wouldn’t you rather know that’s the case than brush it under the carpet and never find out because you didn’t make the suggestion?

So here I am, a while ago, wrestling with these thoughts about a friend: I am interested in exploring romance, intimacy, or sex with them, but I don’t want this admission to be reacted to negatively and damage our existing friendship. I thought it through, and I came out with three distinct possible outcomes:

  1. My friend will be keen to explore these other things with me and we see where it goes.
  2. My friend will respectfully tell me that they’re happy with our relationship as it is, and be grateful for my vulnerability in making this suggestion.
  3. My friend will not be able to cope with this new information, no matter how calmly I try to discuss it with them and how hard I try to explain that it’s no big deal if they want to keep things as they are. As a result, they cut off contact. In this case, they are not the friend I thought they were, and this is a really unfortunate discovery, but it’s best discovered now than left hidden.

I realised that all three of these outcomes are acceptable to me. If (3) occurs, that’s a shame, but that’s life, and the fact is that I’ve known this person for years, so the likelihood of this outcome is very small. If we hadn’t been friends for long, and I made this suggestion, then (a) there’s less at stake; I have invested less in the relationship, and (b), I still would be grateful to learn that the friend would react this way sooner rather than later, and we can either work through that now, or go our separate ways.

I set out and wrote a big lengthy message, discussing my thought process and dancing around the message’s point. I wanted to do this in text because I can better and more articulately express my thoughts without feeling rushed, and once the message is sent, I can convince myself that there is nothing I can do until they respond, so there’s no point in dwelling on it or fretting. Hope for the best, express for the worst, but don’t waste your energy stressing about it. The message exceeded 400 words, but, halfway down, I asked, basically, if this person was interested in going on a date with me.

Then I waited patiently for a response. I’ll do you the courtesy that my friend did for me, which was to get unambiguously to the point early in the message so as not to keep me in suspense: they were happy with our relationship as it was, and weren’t interested in anything romantic. They also expressed that they appreciated my honesty.

And that was that. We’re still great friends; perhaps better, because I know I can feel safe having these hard conversations, and assume they’ll react empathetically and within my best interests.

So seriously, if you have you have high stakes conversation you want to have with a friend, just do it! The worst that can happen is they’ll show their true colours and not react well to the conversation, in which case that is valuable information that you have learned about each other; perhaps they could do with some research on communications, or, depending on the severity of their response, some therapy; there’s no shame in that.

Take the plunge!

tl;dr: If you’re worried about having a hard but respectful conversation with a friend because you’re concerned it’ll jeopardise/end the friendship, ask yourself if you really want to be friends with somebody who won’t give you the benefit of the doubt and respond compassionately and empathetically regardless of the outcome? What have you got to lose?

“Do you have a partner?”

NB: This post and Communicating and Living Authentically were my attempts to sort out some thoughts. I don’t think I quite finished sorting them, let alone express them clearly here, but this may still be useful information. It took me 2 days to decide this wasn’t too private to publish.

When somebody asks about “relationship status”, the default interpretation in monogamous, heteronormative society is “do you have a partner?” As someone who practices polyamory, my answer to this question is usually “it’s complicated.” The reality for me is that I perceive lots of different kinds of relationships that are difficult to label. Some approximate labels or descriptions are, in no particular order:

  • Acquaintances (People who I know but don’t really interact with outside the space in which we met, such as those from meetups)
  • Friends (Best described, I think, as people whose personal lives I actively take an interest in outside the context in which we met. I try to make an effort to check in on these people occasionally to see how they’re doing.)
  • Close friends (People who I might chat with weekly or more regularly, and who I can usually enjoy simply spending time with, with no expectations of conversation or other forms of entertaining each other.)
  • Friends with benefits (Friends with whom I have an occasional sexual relationship.)
  • Casual sexual partner (This is a difficult term to find a synonym for, but Wikisaurus suggests “lover”, among others. I rarely consider this relationship type applicable to me, because in order to be intimately comfortable with someone, I tend to need to build some sort of friendly rapport first, hence “friend with benefits”.)
  • Romantic relationships (People with whom I feel I have a deep emotional connection and non-platonic relationship. This is probably the label that most closely approximates the “partner” definition in the original question. “Girlfriend” or “boyfriend” may also be used by the more heteronormative-minded.)

And then there are others, like live-in- and/or life-partners (people with whom one shares things such as a house or other possessions, finances, or children), and play partners (people with whom one has a BDSM-style relationship).

Now here’s the kicker: it’s possible that multiple labels may be applied to the same person. Additionally, some people may not quite fit into any of the above definitions exactly. So, returning to the question “do you have a partner?”… it’s complicated.

Often, the complication is due to the fact that, as a bit of a relationship anarchist, I’ve not necessarily had explicit conversations with people as to how they view our relationship; I just go with the flow, and take things as they come. Many of the above labels come with attached expectations (such as a certain level of time availability or other commitment), and as somebody who has lots of commitments already (e.g. to the multiple volunteer roles I’ve put myself in), and is, quite frankly, not sure of their ability to make too many further commitments, I feel guilty asking the same of others. This basically comes back to communication of wants and needs, like those addressed in Communicating and Living Authentically.

It’s complicated. Words are tricky. Brains are weird. Feels are hard.

Communicating and living authentically

NB: This post is dealing primarily with communicating feelings and emotions with partners/friends etc., rather than communicating/teaching  objective information.

I have difficulties with communication. It’s true of all of us, I think. We sometimes can’t adequately find the language to articulate our thoughts, or, worse, we’re afraid to do so, because we don’t want to admit how we feel (either to ourselves, because it’s too painful to think about, or to others, because we’re not sure how they’ll react or respond).

Communication tends to be most difficult precisely when it’s most important. […]
“If you’re afraid to say it, that means you need to say it.”

–Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert, More Than Two, quoting Marcia Baczynksi

The above is a mantra that I attempt to adhere to, but it’s hard. I think it gets less hard, slowly, with practice, but I am not sure if it ever becomes easy. There is, however, often an amazing sense of relief, a weight lifted from your shoulders, after saying something you’ve been afraid to say, regardless of the outcome. Yet, despite knowing, objectively, that it’s better for somebody to accept or reject you for being authentic, than for them to accept an inauthentic representation of yourself, fear of rejection is still a hard hurdle to overcome.

mcfly-rejection.jpg
Pictured: George McFly (Back to the Future) looking horrified. Text: “I just can’t take that kind of rejection”

A big part of my struggle is communicating my wants and needs, and acknowledging that I am entitled to have wants and needs, and that I have a right to ask others for these, just as they have a right to set boundaries around what they are and aren’t prepared to offer. These wants and needs could be from anything as simple as “I need hugs”, to slightly more complicated requests like “I want to see you more often”, or “I would like you to occasionally be available to listen to me vent/rant/mope.”

These may seem straightforward, but I really hate the thought that I’m a burden on others, even though if I received such a request myself, I’d usually be happy to oblige, or respectfully say that I didn’t feel capable of meeting that need right now, and maybe negotiate something else, all despite the fact that I tend to keep pretty busy. I make time for those I care about, and it shouldn’t feel greedy or selfish to expect others to do the same for me, but it sometimes does.

This post, and indeed, this blog, is an attempt on my part to live more authentically, by sharing my thoughts, explaining who I am, and how I feel, without necessarily expecting anybody to read or do anything about it. So if you’re reading this, thanks for taking the time. I welcome constructive feedback, but reserve the right to ignore it.

Anyway, basically, brains are weird, and feels are hard.