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Assertive and Passive Communication

There’s a lot of factors that feed into successful relationship agreements, into feeling free to express yourself, into being comfortable. One is Assertion vs Passivity in communication. Sometimes this gets presented as “Ask” culture vs “guess” culture - asking for the moon but knowing someone will probably say no and being comfortable in that, vs needing to know you’ve probably got a yes and having a strong shock reaction to a no, and therefore asking only for “across town.” If those are in a mismatch, it becomes very hard to communicate effectively unless you’re from a similar enough cultural background that the assertive person almost never asks for something the passive person wouldn’t at least consider giving, and in turn the passive person’s assumptions are right.

I’m a passive person in communication. It’s blown up relationships, made jobs harder, made family life trickier, and made me build a really big polyamory-specific toolbox that I think makes me a better teacher - but that still hasn’t taught me to be the assertive person that lots of folks wish I was. I’d probably have a much easier time if i wasn’t only assertive in situations where I have built a checklist of things to ask people, or if I could afford the sheer amount of therapy it would take to work on all my things at once all the time.

That said, here’s some advice for the care and feeding of your partner who is passive in communication, or ‘a guesser’:

  • Don’t tell them to “Just stop assuming!” It’s an instinct that’s really hard to turn off. Instead say something like “hey, if you have a new theory about how something with me works, especially after we change something at my request, can you run it by me so I can let you know if I can agree?” It makes it not a fight, it lets the assertive person clarify what they were really asking for, and it lets the passive person communicate if they were all the way ok or only sort of but said yes because they were shocked by the question.

  • If they ask for something and seem to overreact when you tell them no, have a conversation about what made them think you were going to say yes. Correcting where assumptions they’re making about your behavior come from or what they are isn’t a perfect solution but it improves their ‘radar’ and causes fewer fights.

  • If you find out there was a long-standing assumption about you or your feelings that was wrong it’s ok to be angry about it, but have a discussion about how that impacted your relationship that doesn’t include a pile of blame because even the most assertive people make assumptions sometimes.

  • Also, even though I’ve jokingly called it care and feeding, please don’t infantilize or treat as inferior your partner who communicates differently than you. Even if a set of assumptions has led to resentment that ends a relationship, they weren’t behaving childishly, they were behaving differently from how you do.

If you’re a passive communicator and want to avoid putting yourself in bad situations, polyamory-wise:

  • Literally go through a list to figure out your boundaries and negotiate with them.

  • If you realize you’re resenting a situation, play it back in your head and see if you ever actually discussed it or just “picked up cues” and if it’s the latter have a very gentle conversation about it and if it’s the former have a much firmer one (but try to do the non violent communication thing either way- it’s just the difference between a first and a repeat conversation, and you’ll find a bunch of them are first conversations).

  • If you’re worried about a breakup “because of all the hints” DO NOT break up with them first, say “hey I’m insecure about our relationship right now because XYZ read like you’d like to not be with me, is that what you mean by them?” and give your partner a chance to explain what other stress is causing actions OR breakup with you if that’s the thing. It’s way more often the former.

  • If you have expectations of relationships with metas express them, don’t sit and watch for signs, you probably aren’t close enough or similar enough to see them anyway.

I realize this only helps the sub-group of us who are trying to combine passive and assertive people in a relationship in a polycule. But it might be you some day, so save it and come back.

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