“All I’m askin’ is a little respect”
(Franklin & Redding, 1967).
Michaela presses her fingertips against her temples as she tells me, “My fiancé was so sweet this weekend. He made reservations at a gorgeous ocean side cafe and had my favorite Bordeaux delivered to our table. I don’t know why I’m so anxious around him lately. He goes above and beyond for me. Can you help me get over this feeling? It’s really starting to affect my sleep and I don’t want him to pick up on it.”
Michaela’s request is a variation on a theme I hear often. “Doc, help me fight my feelings. It’s not working for me to have these feelings. If I acknowledge them I may have to make myself or someone else uncomfortable.” So many of us have learned to ignore our instincts. These messages might even come from those who love us and actually believe they are being helpful.
“The water’s not that cold, just jump in and you’ll be fine”
“There’s nothing to be afraid of!”
“S/he means well, you just have to work on forgiving and forgetting.”
Sounds familiar? At some point in our lives, we may have been told to take our doubts, fears, or gut discomfort and just shove those feelings deep down where no one can see them. That can work for a while. Sometimes that can even become a strategy for living. However, that strategy can leave us vulnerable in ways that we don’t know how to express, even to ourselves.
Michaela feels the anxiety in her stomach, she says, and it started when her fiancé dodged a question she asked about their financial plans. Slowly, she starts to put the pieces together. “Oh!” She says, dumbfounded, “I think I’m anxious because he asked for my social security number last week, but then changed the topic when I wanted to know what it was for.” She looks startled at the truth she has found. Her eyes water as she asks for help in formulating a way to communicate her concerns.
When we give ourselves the space to acknowledge how we feel, we may find some difficult truths. However that can save us from consenting to do things that don’t feel right. In researching this topic, I sat down with NY based sex therapist Rachel Klechevsky, who is an expert on relationships and communication. Klechevsky explained that while most people associate “consent” with checking in about sexual encounters, it actually goes way beyond that. It is just as important, Klechevsky explains, to ask for consent within the context of all relationships.
How do we create communication safety for ourselves and those around us?
1. Know that your feelings are valid whether or not you can explain them. Our bodies will often send us signals before our minds can identify signs of danger. Jay, a busy CEO, sheepishly admitted that he has his receptionist cancel dates for him. “I just don’t know what I would say if they ask me why I don’t want to see them again.” He was relieved to learn how to politely say, “I am so glad to have met you, I just don’t feel like we are a good match.” Jay realized that he was always taught to “be polite,” but never learned that sometimes, being direct is just as important. “This seems so much easier than hiding in my office and hoping the phone doesn’t ring!” He and I were able to smile at the profound simplicity of this new dating approach.
2. Make it safe and easy for people to tell you how they feel about your requests. You can communicate this by phrasing your questions carefully. Instead of “what do you want out of this relationship?” try, “I would like to discuss our relationship. Is there a time you would feel comfortable doing that?” This allows the other person to think about your request and respond in a variety of ways. Klechevsky notes that it is important to be aware of people’s feelings. If you know you are talking to someone who is anxious about confrontation, asking the most innocuously phrased question can still create a sense of panic. In that case, bringing up a difficult topic at a bad time, when you know the person will stress about it until they get to hear you out, is unfair. You can demonstrate true respect by waiting for an opportune moment.
3. Don’t: make assumptions. Do: ask. The wise Macklemore lyricizes in his song Vipassana (2009), “expectations are resentments waiting to happen.” Sometimes, we enter into our relationships with preconceived ideas about the other person’s role and obligations. This can be especially common in intimate relationships, which carry so many societally imposed constructs. We may believe that if we bare our bodies or souls to a partner, they must respond with a specific set of feelings of behavior. When they don’t respond in the way we expect, we may feel hurt, and that is normal. However, when we take our feelings of pain or rejection and throw them at our partners, we place them in the uncomfortable position of needing to defend that to which they never consented. “I thought once we were physically intimate, you would text me every day to see how I’m doing!” This disappointment could be avoided by simply asking, “It is important to me that my partner is in touch with me via text or calling throughout the week. Does that work for you?” That way, we give the other person a chance to decide whether that works for them. Making assumptions is a form of denying the other person’s right to consider and choose whether to consent to a set of values.
4. Remember that we can break negative cycles. Sometimes we have are so used to communicating through demands, threats, and manipulation that we forget it doesn’t have to be that way. “We don’t have to take turns being a—holes,” Klechevsky points out. When we’ve had our feelings stomped on, it is natural to react by building a wall around our hearts. However, there is no need to set kamikaze pilots atop that inner wall. We can set clear boundaries for ourselves while maintaining compassion for those around us.
When we interact with others in any sort of meaningful way, we risk being hurt or inflicting pain. Even if that’s not our intention. However, relationships also provide an opportunity for healing old wounds. In the words of vulnerability researcher Brene Brown (2010), “I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” When we choose curiosity instead of judging, compassion instead of attacking, and asking instead assuming, we allow for real, honest connection.