(trigger warnings, some domestic abuse content)
One of the big problems, as I see it, with straight, vanilla type relationships is that people assume a lot. If you think you are normal, and that your partner is normal, it is easy to assume you want the same things. This results in at best a lack of communication, it can lead to frustration, boredom and at the worst end, people doing things to each other that weren’t welcome or wanted. My impression is that people whose sexual education was watching porn can have some odd assumptions about what constitutes ‘normal’ as well.
People who come from a kink and/or polyamoury background tend to know that what they want might well not be what anyone else wants. I think it’s also true for LGBT folk – who don’t start out thinking they are the default setting, or assuming that the people they encounter will want the same things. Straight people can be surprised when other people turn out not to be straight.
We tell ourselves a lot of stories about what straight monogamy looks like. These stories tend to focus on the establishment of the relationship and then it all gets vague about how you keep it going. Negotiation isn’t a feature. Our culture has stories of power over, or commercial bargaining, but not much at all about relationship negotiation.
In my experience, negotiating clearly is a good idea in any relationship – professional, romantic, sexual, platonic… whatever you’ve got, it pays to talk about it and not to assume you know what the other person thinks or feels.
The thing is that in practice, most of the straight and monogamous people I’ve encountered along the way have not all thought, felt and wanted the same things, even while plenty of them seemed very confident that they were just normal and like everyone else.
One of the great relationship myths is that we should magically know what our significant other person thinks and feels. Most of us don’t. If we don’t say to each other what we think and feel and then get cross with each other for not knowing – that way lies only misery.
Most of us do not fit neatly together. What we think and feel, what we want and desire does not always align neatly. If we deal with this through power, the one with most power forcing their choices on the one with least power, that way lies misery and abuse. If we take a commercial approach – I will do this if you will do that – we find ourselves in situations where people repeatedly do something they don’t want to do. There’s usually a power aspect. I will buy you the winter coat you need if you will consent to be tied up and beaten, is not in fact a fair exchange, or a consenting situation, but this kind of thing happens a lot. It is a way of abusing someone while convincing the victim that they have consented and have no recourse.
Negotiation means finding the answers everyone can be okay with, only doing the things everyone wants to do. It means taking the risk of finding that there isn’t room for what you want. It requires the vulnerability of being honest without taking control to push your wants onto others. It means care, respect, an open heart, a willing ear, the desire to understand and co-operate with the other person. It means wanting an outcome that does not hurt or diminish anyone else. Even if you try that and can’t do it very well at first, the outcomes are far better than any other approach.