Standard Poly Advice: Use Direct Communication
“Direct communication” is the term used by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert in their book More Than Two. But the same idea, unnamed, is extremely common in the poly community. “Did you state your needs?” “You need to clearly state your boundaries.” “You can’t expect them to guess you are upset, you need to tell them.”
Let me be clear: direct communication is powerful. It is an awesome tool that can and should be used as often as possible. Because it is the only method of communication that you can be reasonably sure people will hear what you mean to say. Note, NOT 100% sure, because I can say “I need more intimacy” but because you and I and have different ideas of what intimacy means we can still have a misunderstanding. But direct communication is a lot LESS likely to have these kinds of problems than indirect and passive communication or reading tone and body language.
The problem is, not everyone is able to use direct communication. And even those of us who can use direct communication may only be able to use it part of the time. For instance:
1) A victim of emotional abuse and/or gaslighting may not be able to recognize their needs or know how to express a boundary.
2) Someone in the middle of an anxiety or panic attack may not be able to think clearly enough to tell people what they need, or even what is going on.
3) There’s over 6000 languages in this world. I can muddle through the basics with a Spanish speaker, but we’re going to need to talk around a lot of things.
4) Many people who were raised as boys have been conditioned to not recognize their own emotions and need for emotional connection.
There’s lots more reasons direct communication may not always work (or even be an option). And mental illness, which can cause situations from disorganized speech to not being able to speak at all, makes up a lot of those reasons.
Poly Advice for the Mentally Ill: Be Patient, Learn Eachother’s Cues, Use Inquiring Communication
Patience is the most important part here because misunderstandings, missed signals and general miscommunication are going to happen. Needs will not get met, boundaries will be broken. Not because anyone is doing so intentionally, but because when you can’t say shit clearly, these things happen.
So, be patient. Try not to throw around blame when an inability to communicate leads to problems. Don’t be afraid to take time working through things.
Learn about eachother’s cues. Body language is a thing and an important thing. Body language isn’t universal, though there are some things that are extreme similar from person to person. If you understand your own body language tell your partner “When I do this, it means I’m feeling this way.” If you notice something about your partner’s body language, ask them. “What does it mean when you start picking at your fingers?”
Finally, sometimes instead of direct communication you need inquiring communication.
Inquiring communication is about asking questions and inviting answers. It can be very helpful when you can’t find words for what you are feeling, are having a mental health crisis, or otherwise can’t put things into words.
You can let your partner know you need to tell them something, “I’m upset right now and I don’t know why. Help me figure it out?”
And they can ask questions to help identify what is going on.
“When di dyou notice you were upset?”
“Is it related to John coming over today?”
“Do you need something you aren’t getting?”
Alternatively, your partner may notice something in your body language or behavior and ask, “Hey, you’re really tense, are you okay?”
If your mental health is interfering with your ability to speak entirely, your partner can even use yes/no questions to help you tell them what is going on and what you need.
“Are you having a panic attack?”
You shake your head.
“Okay, maybe it’s sensory overload. Do you think leaving will help?”
You nod, and your partner helps extract you from where you are and get to a safe place.
For more on the problems with direct communication and why asking questions can be important, check out Ms Syren’s Communication Doesn’t Happen in a Vacuum
This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.