Examining our language to identify potentially unhealthy or unnecessary assumptions

Hey there! I just wanted to say I really liked your answer about how we use language and our assumptions about the world. I think it's super great! I was wondering if you could consider a broader post on the subject, for example the way a lot of people frame polyamory, open relationships, etc? I notice a lot of talk about "allowing" for example. 

The letter-writer is referring to this post and this follow-up.

I sat on this letter for a bit so I could do some brainstorming about some of the language I see in the letters to this column and elsewhere in the polyamorous community. Here are a handful of categories and examples; this is by no means exhaustive! So perhaps consider this a part one of many in a series on language and assumptions in polyamory.

Adding/Bringing In

This is perhaps the one I most frequently find myself pushing back against. I see this most often with people in established, previously-monogamous couples. People will say they have decided they want to "add a new partner to their relationship," or "bring someone in." 

I find this language weirdly objectifying and dehumanizing. You go looking for a new lamp to bring into your living room to brighten it up. You find a new spice to add to a dish you're cooking. In these cases, you have an existing situation that needs something, and you just go find something that meets your needs and toss it in.

People don't work like that, and neither do relationships. Imagine that you start a new job, and a new coworker goes up to you, acts really friendly and excited about you, then tells you that they've really been looking for a new friend to add to their social group! That's...weird. Or imagine if you're a straight monogamous woman and a man tells you he wants to bring a girlfriend into his life. Again...weird.

People are complete, complex, dynamic beings with needs, desires, and lives. Relationships should be a give-and-take, not a "I picked you up, examined you to see if you're what I wanted, then stuck you where you fit into my living room - I mean life." 

Allowing/Opening To New People

When you audition for a role in a play, there's a power imbalance - you want the role, and the people judging your audition are there to decide whether they want you for the role. That's not how relationships work, though. Unless you've got the looks of Natalie Dormer and the emotional generosity of Mister Rogers, don't act, or think, like what you're offering relationship-wise is something people are lining up to apply for, and you can just take your pick of the qualified auditioners. (If you do look like Natalie Dormer and have leveled up to max on emotional maturity, please call me.)

There's a difference between "deciding we are open to dating other people" and "opening our relationship to allow other people in." You have to be giving as much as you're asking for; dating you is not a privilege that the polyamorous people of the world have been waiting for you to make available.

If you find yourself using language that speaks to a sense that you've done all the work you need to by putting yourself/yourselves on the market, and you just need to sit back and assess those who come to you, that needs a reframing. 

Cope With/Come To Terms With 

I hear from a lot of people asking for help "coping with" or "coming to terms with" their partner's polyamory or monogamy or something else in their relationship. Here's the thing, though - things you "cope with" are painful circumstances outside of your control. Learning a loved one has a terminal illness or losing your dream job due to a budget shortage is something you "cope with." 

If you're at the point of experiencing your partner's behavior or choices as something you need to figure out how to tolerate the pain of, the issue is probably not "learn how to be okay with something that makes you miserable." It may be "how to ask for a change to the relationship to help you get what you need to be okay" or how to leave the relationship with grace and safety.

Emotions/Preferences As Inherent Personal Qualities

"My partner is possessive, so..."
"I can't do XYZ because my girlfriend is a jealous person."
"Open conversation is not an option because I am shy and non-confrontational."

Some things, we just can't help: The core of our temperaments and personalities. The presence of a mental illness. Our pasts. But be careful of language that lets you, or your partner, abdicate all responsibility. Do not trap yourself in the framing of "well I'm just like this, I can't help it."

So maybe you feel more jealous than the average person. That doesn't mean you get to just throw your hands up and say, well, I'm a jealous person, take me or leave me. It just means you have your work cut out for you to manage those feelings, behave in a healthy way, and have the conversations you and your partner need to make things work for both of you.

Armchair Psychiatry

Be really, really careful with psychological or semi-psychological terms like "narcissistic," "toxic," "co-dependent," "addict," "borderline," "trauma," etc. It's rarely helpful to a situation for someone to make sweeping generalizations (she is toxic) or amateur diagnoses (I'm pretty sure he has a personality disorder). 

Instead, focus on specific behaviors: what has this person done or said that hurt or concerned you? This is easier to address and prevents the mess of issues that comes with attempting to label or diagnose someone else's personality.

Also, remember that not all jerks are mentally ill. Not all unpleasant, cruel, manipulative, or even abusive behavior is diagnosable or symptomatic. Just being an awful person is not a DSM category. Someone can make bad choices without it needing to be traceable to a specific psychological disorder.

If you suspect that you or someone in your life is struggling with mental illness, trauma, or addiction, the next thing to do is get the professionals involved. A diagnosis is not the end goal - it is the beginning; it is a tool to help people find treatment that works and communicate about their needs. Simply having a word for something, or thinking you have a good descriptor, is not useful on its own.

Mind-Reading Language

Spot the difference between: "He doesn't care about me" vs. "He doesn't answer my texts." 
Or: "I'm not enough for her" vs. "She wants to date other people."

Check your language to see whether you're framing things in a way that makes major assumptions about someone else's feelings or motives. Remember that you are not psychic, and even if you experience something a certain way, that doesn't mean that was your partner's intention. Not all "messages received" are "messages sent."