Asking for What You Want, Asking for What You Need
Today's guest post comes to us from a friend of mine who goes by the pseudonym Dr_Mr_The_Maestro, who mostly teaches in the kink community, with an emphasis on consent and safety procedures in his classes. It's 2020, the Year Trying To Eat Us All, and that teaching is a side gig for him, hence the fake name, so he doesn't have projects to link at the end, but he does have a preferred charity we'll give a link for before the standard blog list.
The key to communication are the following five principles:
First, Know What You Want
Second, Know What You Need
Third, Ask What the Other Person Wants and Needs
Fourth, Use your Words
Fifth, Have Boundaries
I've told this to my undergraduates when discussing consent on campus, I've told this to my friends when they asked me for advice, and now I'm telling it to you.
First, Know What You Want
It is normal and natural to experience attraction to people outside your relationships. Infidelity is immortalized in literature from ancient Rome to John Irving. Renaissance dance ritualizes it. Even Jimmy Carter sinned in his heart.
So the question is, why do people stray? People stray because they have the opportunity to stray. New partners are intriguing, and we are (if we believe Sex at Dawn) programmed to seek sexual variety. (If you don’t believe Sex at Dawn, it’s in the Bible, too.)
So, given this fact, here is one lesson that the kink community can teach the poly community (and yes, I know that Venn diagram resembles an Ouroboros): Own what you want wholly, fully, and without shame. But, at the same time, recognize the difference between a want and a need.
Here are some of my life wants:
I want to own a horse and a pickup truck and trailer to pull my horse around
I want to be able to afford the rather expensive equipment for my various other hobbies
I want to be able to take one overseas vacation per year
I want to have six-pack abs
Seems petty and privileged, right? Well, none of these are needs. I could, for instance, lease a horse. I could go to Europe every other year. I can (and do) shop at thrift stores. I can use my old gear. All of these are achievable with discipline and planning, but they are not needs.
Here are some of my wants in a relationship:
I want my partner to go to medieval camping events with me
I want my partner to encourage me in a strict diet that will lead to said six-pack
I want my partner to do equestrian events with me
I want my partner to be open to group/public sex and BDSM play
None of these are needs. I can live without any of them. And, since I am poly, if one of my partners say, doesn’t like camping or dressing up in Renaissance faire costumes, then the other might (or at least might tolerate it). And, if neither wants to go to an equestrian event because all I do is pay attention to my horse… well, then I can be OK packing up my truck and trailer and going on my own. In fact, going horse-camping might be a hard limit for them!
Second, Know What You Need
A “need” is different from a “want.” I “want” to have a threesome with Japanese twins. (Twins, Basil! Twins!) I need food and shelter. A need is non-negotiable. Maslow’s hierarchy and all.
Here are some of my life needs:
I need to have a job that will pay my living expenses, with some left over for hobbies and passions like writing and riding horses
I need to be able to afford healthy food
I need to have free time to pursue my passions and self-actualization, plus enough time to exercise
I need to have the freedom in my work to do things as I see best
I need to be respected and valued for my contributions to my workplace and to society
I need to be in one or more loving, stable relationships
I need to go to the dentist
Here are some of my needs within a relationship:
I need my partner to encourage me in healthy eating
I need my partner to be open to a D/S dynamic in the bedroom, with me taking the dominant role
I need to know that, in a poly relationship, my partner will have time dedicated to me
I need to know that I am valued and loved for my own sake, instead of being a Pez-dispenser of dominance
I need to know that my partner will be safe when they have sex with someone else, and will inform me if they fluid-bond with someone else
In order to feel safe, need to maintain my own physical space, even if I never stay there, so if a breakup happens I have somewhere to live
I need to be free of physical and mental abuse in my relationship (and yes, doms get abused, too)
Third, Ask What The Other Person Wants and Needs
I have a friend with whom I used to hook up during medieval horsey trips to the Midwest. Alas, distance precluded a more in-depth relationship, but I still think of her every time I hear Journey’s “Stone in Love.”
On one of our first assignations, we were driving through Columbus, Ohio on a way to a Motel 6 (I know, classy!) and I took the opportunity to ask her what got her off. She was very surprised that anyone would have such a frank conversation about sex before.
“Did you bring your vibrator?” I asked.
“No, I didn’t,” she replied. “I thought you would be upset.”
“Why would I be upset at you?”
The conversation led to us to visit a sex-toy shop (a female-friendly, female-staffed one, I should add, not one of those creepy ones off the Interstate), and some pretty satisfying hotel sex.
The same thing goes for relationship stuff. Sure, I’m using sex stories to keep you reading, but you can only have sex for maybe three or four hours a day. The rest of the time, you have to deal with the world outside the bedroom. This leads us to...
Fourth, Use Your Words
When I say, “use your words,” I mean have a frank discussion.
Again, I'm not talking just about sex here. You need to see sex not as its own realm or (as a lot of guys do) a resource to be hoarded. Rather, it’s a holistic part of a relationship. Said relationship might be based just on sex (i.e., a one-night stand), but sex always exists in a social context.
Here’s the problem: Asking for what you want is scary. Our biggest fear is rejection. For some of us, this borders on existential fear: Rejection means not just that we are refused by one person. However, the alternative is being trapped in a relationship (or relationships) that are not meeting your needs, let alone your wants.
A negative example of this: I briefly dated a woman who professed to be kinky. She would not, however, tell me how she was kinky, or discuss what she wanted in the bedroom. The few times we had sex, it was pretty vanilla and, at least for me, kind of unsatisfying. We’re still friends, but the romantic relationship did not last long.
A positive example of this: A mutual friend recently approached me and one of my partners about having a threesome or even ongoing triad dynamic. This would be classified, for me, as a “want,” not a “need,” so I was willing to prioritize my existing relationships—though, of course, group sex might be a need for my partner.
No matter what the case, ethically, I needed to clear the group-sex scenario with my other partner. Broaching this with her was scary—in fact, the first time I had group sex with my partner and Mutual Friend, I hadn’t cleared it with Other Partner because it was so scary. “Hey, honey, you mind if me and my other partner go have group sex?” is not something that gets modeled in Health Ed filmstrips in junior high school. (IMHO, it should be.)
This time I learned from my mistakes. I used my words, reassuring my partner that I don’t have room for another relationship that would take me away from either of my existing partners. But I did more than that: I met up with Mutual Friend for lunch and explained exactly what the deal was, that I would love to date her as a couple, and, while I didn’t want to exert “couples privilege” or be a unicorn hunter, I was hard-pressed to be an adequate partner in both of my existing relationships, anything more would be very hard for me. And she was OK with this!
Again, I’m using a sexy example, since it’s more interesting and keeps you reading. However, the same goes for boring stuff like: Do you want to get married? Do you want to have kids? Where do you want to live? Are you willing to date long-distance? (Of course, what you want in a relationship might change, but that's another story…)
Fifth, Have Boundaries
Again, the idea of “boundaries” goes well beyond sex. Both of partners, for instance, told me in no uncertain terms that they really, really hate going horse-camping with me. This is a hard limit for them. This is why I do that particular activity on my own. It’s no different than my love for pickled beets, a foodstuff that one of my partners despises. Why, then, would I make her something to eat with pickled beets in it? My other partner doesn’t really get my love for She-Ra or Avatar: The Last Airbender, so I stream those on my laptop before she gets home from work.
If what the other person wants or needs something different, it's not always a deal-breaker. You can negotiate compromises. Maybe you can get the occasional “hall pass” instead of having fully-committed poly relationships. Maybe you can play with other people (individuals or couples) as a couple, but not alone. Maybe instead of living a five-minute commute from one of your workplaces and two hours from the other, you can both have a one-hour commute (unless, of course, one of you needs to be near an elderly parent or you don’t want to pull your kids out of their school).
That being said, don’t be afraid to walk away from a potential relationship. If I was speaking to a potential partner who insisted that we needed to switch in the bedroom, then that would be a dealbreaker. In the same way, you can’t have half a child or get half-married or commute to Anchorage if you live in Topeka. Maybe the person you're auditioning in the role of a new barycenter for your heart's orbital system would be better as an occasional passing comet.
Many Thanks to Dr_Mr_The_Maestro for helping fill gaps while I'm in the hospital; if you want to show thanks too, he's asked that you give to <charity?>. As always, if you want to help keep the blog and podcast lights on monthly, we have a Patreon here, or a one time coin can go in the hat at Ko-fi here.