This piece was originally published on September 15, 2019, on patreon.com/chillpolyamory.
It’s so easy for people to tell fighting couples, “just talk about it.” But if you don’t have the building blocks to construct that communication effectively, it can be really hard.
So, with help from my romantic partners, I’ve compiled 10 phrases that help us communicate our needs without sounding like we’re demanding or attacking the other person.
Hopefully, this will be of service to you:
1. Would you be willing to _____?
e.g. “Hey would you be willing to grab that thing off the counter for me?”
This is a great alternative to “can you” or “will you.” My partners and I adopt this in every area of life. It’s not assuming or demanding, but rather asking their consent. A subtle shift in language can really minimize resentments.
2. How would you feel if I _____?
e.g. “How would you feel if I wore a strap on?”
When proposed with an uncomfortable request, this can really help people feel safe. It implicitly holds the space for any kind of response, so they can feel free to say “I don’t think I want that,” if that’s their true position.
3. Do you have enough energy to _____?
e.g. “I know you had a long day. Do you have enough energy to hear about my day?”
When starting a conversation with an exhausted partner, this can be a lifesaver. Often, such a setting makes us feel reluctant to bring up our needs at all, telling ourselves, “Oh they’re tired, it’s not a big deal, I can bring it up later.”
But we can just ask. The goal is not to guilt them into holding space for us, but rather to sincerely know if they’re able to hear us right now, or if it would be better to wait.
4. I’m noticing I’m feeling _____.
e.g. “I’m noticing I’m feeling really defensive right now. I might need a minute before continuing the conversation.”
This is really helpful during conflicts when emotions run high. If we observe and report what’s happening inside us, we can express our needs without judgement or accusation. We are just giving them relevant information.
If they do hear this as an attack, you can reiterate by saying, “I’m not saying it’s your fault I feel this way. I just want you to know how I feel right now.” Emotions are not right or wrong, bad or good, they just exist. We need to notice them, and say them.
5. When stimulus, I feel reaction.
e.g. “When you tell me I look healthy, I feel self-conscious, because I hear ‘healthy’ as ‘fat.’”
Essentially, this tells our partners where our buttons are. They’re likely triggering us by accident, so we can just teach them how to better take care of us without blaming or shaming them.
6. Can you explain _____?
e.g. “Can you explain why that story made you cry?”
When in doubt, ask more questions. At the very least, this request offers the chance to get on the same page, so no one jumps to the wrong conclusions. At the most, it can be an opportunity to have an intimate discussion that brings everyone closer together.
7. I’m realizing _____ might not be sustainable. Are you willing to talk about it?
e.g. “I’m realizing monogamy might not be sustainable for me. Are you willing to talk about it?”
By asking if they’re willing to have a conversation about a boundary, it gives them space to process any fears or defensiveness they might experience. We need to want the answer to this, and let them say what they need to say without getting defensive. Because if their reaction is, “No, we can’t do that,” then that’s the first conversation to have.
It’s not that the original topic gets shut down forever. We just need to understand where everyone is coming from, and get to a place where everyone feels safe, before discussing radical changes.
8. I think I want to _____. How would that make you feel?
e.g. “I think I want to go back to school. How would that make you feel?”
Instead of presenting a big change as non-negotiable, we can open up the dialogue to include our partners. It doesn’t mean they have final say or veto power. It’s just a respectful way to be sure loved ones take part in a decision that may impact them.
9. I realized I am _____. Can I check in with you about it?
e.g. I realized I am bisexual. Can I check in with you about it?
This is for any form of coming out to someone we love. By asking if it’s ok to talk about it in that moment, you’re empowering them to consent to the conversation only when they’re in the right headspace to be present for you.
10. I realize in my attempt to _____, I made you feel _____. I’m sorry.
e.g. I realize in my attempt to get my business off the ground, I made you feel lonely. I’m sorry.
This is a bit of a switch-around, where instead of expressing our needs, we are showing up for the needs of someone else. Nothing gets resolved if we get defensive and say, “Well I wasn’t trying to do that!” We can still acknowledge our intentions while validating their emotions. Impact is more important than intention, so it’s vital to end with, “I’m sorry.”
The benefit of owning our mistakes, in a sort of selfish way, is that our loved ones will remember it. So when we need them to see how they’ve hurt us, we’ve now equipped them with language to do so. In communicating like this, we teach each other how we want to be treated.
At the end of the day, all of these phrases essentially mean, “We’re on the same team.” There’s a million ways to fight. There’s a million ways to break up. But if the subtext of our conversation remains, “we’re on the same team,” that will lay the groundwork for a productive and healing outcome.
Morgan is a non-monogamous relationship coach, practicing non-hierarchical polyamory since 2012. You can view her work @chillpolyamory, and receive 1-on-1 support at: patreon.com/chillpolyamory.