Obligation is a derail: some thoughts on negotiation in loving relationships

You probably saw that spreadsheet of reasons a wife declined to have sex with her husband, a couple weeks back. As these things do, it’s generated a fresh round in the continued conversation about sex and obligation. The conversation goes like this:

Feminist bloggers and commentators: “Nobody ever owes anybody sex for any reason.”

Less-feminist bloggers and commentators: “What, never?”

“No, never!”

“What, never?”

“Wellll, hardly ev– no, actually never.”

All this is well and good and needs to be said and re-said until everybody gets it. But at the same time something’s been troubling me about posts that talk about how the whole concept of withholding sex is flawed. They’re not wrong; the very idea of “withholding sex” implies that sex is something granted by default, something a person can take back as a hostile act, rather than being always and every time a gift each person freely chooses to give the other. But. I also know people who have suffered in relationships because their partner was never choosing to give them the gift of sex, and in a situation like that, repeating, “Nobody is obligated to give you sex” does not really answer the issue. Nor is it just about sex. The post that I linked argues that it makes just as much sense to talk about withholding baking cookies for your lover, cookies being another way of expressing affection and care that is not in any way owed within a relationship. Nobody is obligated to bake you cookies, have sex with you, kiss you goodbye in the morning, stay in touch during the day, or hug you when you’re sad. And because our cultural dialogue is so warped around sex particularly, and because a lot of people do feel that there’s obligation around it, it’s really good that posts like the above are being written and spread around.

That being said, though, when we’re talking about a loving relationship, I think the whole question of obligation is a derail, if not an outright red flag. True, nobody is obligated to provide their partner with sex or cuddles or kind words or a certain amount of time, but in a loving relationship, obligation is not really the point. If my lover says, “I would like X from you,” where X is any form of attention or affection or caregiving or really anything that would meet their needs or make them feel happier, and my response is, “I don’t think I’m obligated to give you that,” that indicates that there’s a fundamental problem in the way one or both of us thinks about loving behavior.

The problem might be on my lover’s end: they might be in the habit of demanding things from me on the grounds that as their partner I am obligated to give those things. Sex. Cuddles. Making dinner. A ride to the airport. Whether they’re doing it knowingly and intentionally or not, if they tend to make requests with the attitude that it is something that I owe them, that is a problem. This is the side of things that the whole “no such thing as withholding sex” dialogue is coming from, and it’s an important one.

The problem might also be on my end: I may be using “obligation” as a handy way to justify not caring about my partner’s needs and wants. Especially if my lover is a self-effacing type who is easily convinced that they’re not worth effort and care (and so many of us have those voices within us), the exchange of, “Baby, I would love it if you did this,” “Nah, I don’t feel obligated to do that,” can completely shut down the conversation, and make my lover feel guilty for even asking.

Putting obligation behind a request is a means of coercion: it’s a way of attaching moral value to a person’s answer, which is a very coercive thing indeed for those of us who like to think of ourselves as moral. Putting obligation (or lack thereof) behind a denial is a way to make someone feel unvalued, uncared-for, and not worth the effort, while retaining the moral high ground for yourself. Nobody could fault you for saying no to something you were never obligated to do! Case closed, no need to consider further. And that does its own kind of damage.

Obligation is a distraction from the real issue, which is, “Do I feel that making you happy in this way is worth what it will cost me?*” Sometimes the answer is no, and that is an acutely uncomfortable thing to say, which is why we shy away from it and use “obligation” as a screen. We are social beings and most of us are taught that caring for others is a virtue, while refusing care in order to meet our own needs is a suspicious act that must be justified. (Women, in general, receive this message about 2-3 times as strongly as men, but everybody gets it.) Just saying, “No, I’m going to prioritize my own needs here” is incredibly difficult for most of us, and we often feel a strong impulse to justify it, by invoking obligation or another concept that gets away from the central question.

Sidebar, but an important one: some people use the “obligation” screen not because they’re uncomfortable with prioritizing their own needs, but in order to mask how little they actually care about the other’s happiness. “Caring for you isn’t worth it to me” over and over is likely to get the other person questioning why they’re even committed to the relationship, why they’re investing so much in a person who is manifestly uninterested in meeting their needs unless it’s convenient. “I’m not obligated” pushes it back on the person making the request, highlighting how unreasonable they are to keep asking for things, and encouraging them to make themselves and their needs smaller and smaller. It’s a tactic for emotional abuse, and I recommend running very fast in the other direction if you see it in play.

Back to the realm of relationships that are sincerely caring, but have some toxic beliefs swimming around (which is most relationships). It is important for everybody in a relationship to really internalize that they get to have needs and wants. That the presence of other people’s conflicting needs and wants does not obliterate their own. That it is okay to prioritize their own needs and wants, even if that means denying the other person something that they want. That my need to not have sex right now, to not make you dinner right now, to not drive out in the cold to pick you up right now, is just as valid and worthy as your desire to have me do those things. This is essential, and it’s hard to grasp.

But the conversation doesn’t end there. It can’t. Because if my needs and your needs are in conflict, at least one of us is not going to get what we want, and the way those conflicts play out makes up a goodly portion of the overall health of the relationship. For some people, bringing in obligation seems like the only way to resolve the standoff. I want X, you want not-X. Let’s ask Obligation to arbitrate and decide which of us gets what we want! But, as I said above, this just brings in an aspect of moral coercion and guilt, which is super not conducive to long-term relational and individual health. (I lived the first 25 years of my life under heavy burdens of moral coercion and guilt. I know whereof I speak.)

To resolve the situation in a way that’s going to strengthen the relationship, you have to look head-on at what’s really going on here: Person A wants something that it will cost Person B to give, and Person B is judging whether the happiness or relief it would bring to Person A is worth the cost. Sometimes the answer will be yes, and sometimes the answer will be no. Sometimes you need to do a lot of talking through the situation in order to reach the answer that will be best for both of you and the relationship. (Because this post started out talking about sex, let me point out that submitting to sex you don’t want to be having is usually very costly; a partner that is comfortable with their partner bearing that cost is likely either uncaring or unaware. On the flip side, for many, going without sex for months or years because they are in a monogamous relationship with someone who isn’t inclined to have sex with them is acutely painful. Again, a partner who is both caring and aware will not be complacent about this situation.)

While both parties may be tempted to control the outcome of this conversation, by bringing in obligation or guilt or consequences (like, “If you don’t do X, I won’t do Y for you in the future), any of these entities are going to do damage. What the conversation needs to center around is both people understanding, as deeply as possible, what the request really entails for the other person. What feelings lie behind the need, and the cost? What fears and insecurities, what unresolved baggage is attached to it? What joys and hopes and satisfactions go along with having the need met? What symbolic meanings does each person attach to this action?

The most productive conflict conversations I’ve had always happen when each of us cares deeply about the other’s happiness, and trusts that the other person cares deeply about ours. When you trust in someone else’s love for you, you don’t have to manipulate and threaten and guilt them into doing what you want. You don’t have to bring in Obligation to arbitrate. You can lay your need or wish before them, and explain to them exactly what it means to you, and you can listen to their explanation of what the cost is for them, and what that means to them. And you can work together to resolve the dilemma in a way that makes both of you feel loved and cared-for.

Another part of this is accepting that sometimes you will do something that causes your partner pain, or decline to do something that would bring them happiness. One of the valuable things about poly is that most of us have to grapple with this pretty regularly. A very few of us are lucky enough to have partners that never feel jealousy, but most of us have to cope from time to time with the fact that our new love is causing another partner some pangs. It is so, so hard to say, “I see that this is hurting you, and I choose to do it anyway,” even when that’s the choice our partner wants us to make. It is much easier to get angry with our partner for feeling hurt (I’ve done that), or to feel guilty for even wanting the other thing (I’ve done that too), or to construct sets of rules that delineate what each person has a Right or No Right to do, thus again bringing in the moral weight of obligation to distract from the reality of feelings (I’ve done that less, because I started my poly life with an experienced partner who stayed away from those pitfalls.) It is easier to do those things, but it is healthier in the long run to be able to say, “I love you, and I see your pain, and it hurts me, and I am choosing to prioritize my need in this case.” (This is made significantly easier when the partner can say, “Yes, it hurts me, but I want you to have this joy and freedom and I am willing to bear that cost.”)

Here is the final piece, and for some of us it’s the hardest: the decision has to be made together, and sincerely together, with both people’s full input. I have been in conversations that look a lot like the one I recommend two paragraphs up, where both people are talking about what they need and want and the feelings that lie behind those and seeking a mutually agreeable solution, and it seems at first glance to be a healthy discussion, but in reality one person is controlling the conversation. They may be telling the other person what they’re “really” feeling, or they may be casting the other person’s feelings as wrong or invalid or harmful, while their own are rational and correct and embody what’s best for everybody. Nae good. That’s another “run very fast in the other direction” situation.

But another, more common dynamic is that one person will look at the dilemma and decide for themselves that their need is not worth what it would cost the other person, without even expressing the need to the other person. I do this all the time, and so do most of my intimates, because we tend to be giving and self-effacing to a fault. “I want to go out tonight with Lover, but that means Spouse will be alone and sad, so I can’t.” And Spouse never even realizes that you’ve given up something you wanted for their sake. Over time, if you’re me at least, this leads to a feeling of resentment and entitlement: “I’ve made so many sacrifices for your emotional comfort!…” And you will at some point become upset when they ask you to absorb some emotional discomfort for their own enjoyment: “…how can you not be willing to make the same sacrifices for mine?” (Because they never even realized you were making the sacrifice, dumbass. Meaning me, on many past occasions.) Or you might decide abruptly that you’ve earned some guilt-free enjoyment, and get frustrated when they still express pain over your choice because OMG, can’t you ever do anything for yourself? (When, again, they didn’t even know you were choosing not to do things for yourself on other occasions, and are likely to feel some nasty whiplash at your sudden, unprecedented, and highly defensive selfishness. And yes, I’ve done that too, and it sucks.) Or, in a specifically poly context when making a sacrifice for Spouse’s sake often involves some sacrifice on Lover’s part as well, your bond with Lover may dwindle because they are never being prioritized.

Asking another person to bear some discomfort or pain or inconvenience for our sake is hard. So, so hard. I can barely bring myself to do it unless I feel completely justified (see again: Obligation and its dysfunctional uses.) But I know my loves love me, and desire my happiness, and that there will be times when they’re more than willing to absorb a little cost to see me happier. After all, I do the same for them all the time, and it’s insulting to behave as if their love is weaker than mine or their ability to handle some discomfort is lower. (Sometimes it is… but not usually as much lower as my private decisions would imply.) And I need to give them the opportunity to do that, by asking for what I want. And I need to do it in good faith, without invoking rules and justifications and obligations. If I am truly loved, the fact of my feelings, my needs, my wishes and hopes and desires, is enough to make them at least consider giving me what I want. And if they decide the cost is too high for them, it’s not because I don’t deserve happiness or because it was wrong of me to even ask: it’s because sometimes, the cost is too high. That’s okay. By talking out our different needs and feelings, we both understand each other better, and can continue to love each other well.

*This sentence is adjusted slightly from the originally-published version, which read, “Do I care enough about making you happy in this way to accept what it will cost me?” Midnight Insomnia Brain threw out the revised sentence, which is a better expression of what I mean.

Your partners’ needs

I have been thinking in the last couple of weeks about needs.  We all have needs, desires, and an urge to fulfill them.  Part of the reason we get into relationships with people, whether they are friends, professional partners, or lovers (or some combination thereof), is to satisfy the needs we have.  There are things that we want, and we try to fulfill them with the help of other people when they can help do so, or by ourselves when we can.

And if our partners are not fulfilling our needs, we may have to talk with them about that in order to solve this problem.  Or, maybe, we will need to find another person to help fulfill those needs.  Either there is some level of neglect or incompatibility going on when such a  need or desire is left unfulfilled, and we will not be as content as we could be if we were to fulfill those needs.


Not putting all of your eggs in one basket

One of the mistakes of the normal, monogamous, pair-bonded world is that it often relies on the notion that we are looking for a person to fulfill all or at least the majority of our needs.  Sure, a relatively healthy monogamous couple will have their needs for companionship fulfilled with drinks with their friends, visiting family, or a hobby which they do not share with their romantic partner, but certainly all of their sexual and romantic needs are to be fulfilled by that romantic partner, right?

Well, perhaps, but this expectation seems to be unreasonable in the vast majority of cases to have.  Sometimes the partner we find ourselves with is just incapable of fulfilling some need you have.  Whether that need pertains to a kink you are into which they are not interested in, a role-playing role they don’t want to fulfill, or they are simply the wrong gender (this, I imagine, occurs often for bisexual people).

Further, not only are our needs complicated and diverse, but they will often change as we age.  And they will not necessarily change along the same vectors as our partners’ needs, even if their ability to fulfill our needs complemented us well in the beginning.  We have to keep an eye out for what our partners want now, while keeping in mind that what they want may change over time.

But what is key here is that this incompatibility does not have to be a death-knell of a happy, rewarding, and fulfilling relationship; perhaps that partner fulfills most of your needs, just missing a few small ones.  Perhaps they fulfill a few very important ones.  But even so you may be happier with the ability to seek out fulfillment with other people.  This is one of the great strengths of non-monogamy; the ability to seek out variety without giving up on meaningful relationships nor what those relationships do give you.


Over-turning the coin

Now, of course it is important to remember that all these observations, while true for your needs and desires, are also true for the needs of your partners.  You may not be able to satisfy the desires of your partners either, even if you genuinely want to.  That is, perhaps, the hardest part of this on an emotional level; you want to fulfill your partners’ needs because you love them and want the to be happy.  But the simple fact is that your willingness to tie them up is insufficient because you are not getting off on it to, and that’s a part of their need.  Again, you may not be able to be all the things that your partner wants, regardless of your desire to please.  No matter how hard you try, for example, you may not be able to be a sexy woman who your partner wants, even if you can be a sexy man that they may want at other times.

Sometimes you simply need to allow your partner to fulfill their needs elsewhere, which is often hard because you cannot be a direct part of it (and sometimes you can).  And it is hard to do this sometimes, especially if you are prone to insecurities, fears, or anxieties about abandonment, some of which I have struggled with myself.

You should remember that in the same way that you may be able to fulfill a need with one person without thinking or feeling any less about another partner, your partners may be able to do the same and still love you and miss you when they are away.  The fact that you cannot fulfill a specific need (or set of needs) for you partner does not imply that you do not fulfill needs for them as well (or perhaps more so).  They are choosing to be with you for some reason, so do your best to fulfill that need and they will love you for it.


Selfishness in polyamory? Say it ain’t so!

Yes, it happens.  I have seen circumstances in which a relationship is not negotiated or practiced with full fair and equal compromises or rules.   It can occur in a number of ways, but perhaps more often it is where a partner has more than one relationship, but makes it difficult, if not forbidden, for their partner to have another relationship.  In many cases it takes the form of saying that they want to give permission to allow their partner to have other relationships, but only giving it in extreme, unwanted, or nonexistent cases.

Permission is not valid if it is not given in a way that fulfills a partner’s needs or desires.

In one circumstance I experienced a few years ago while in a triad (3 people all dating each other), one of my girlfriends went back to her ex (of 8 years) who had a rule that she not sleep with other men, but allowed her to be with women.  Thus we had to part ways romantically, which upset me greatly at the time.  Now, she agreed to this rule, but it bothers me that she had to agree to it (for selfish reasons of my own, but also for reasons of fairness).  Circumstances like this seem blatantly selfish to me, especially since he did continue to sleep with other women still (probably the ones she would bring home, which makes me wonder if that was the reason he allowed her to remain with women).

Personal experience aside (and I could cite more examples), this is an issue that irks me, and it is certainly one that has analogs in the monogamous world as well.  Fundamentally, this is an issue of demanding a double-standard; you allow yourself to fulfill needs but restrict others from fulfilling theirs.  It is a compromise of others’ needs but not of yours.

If you love someone, part of that is wanting to see them happy.  We all have a moral and philosophical obligation to take a hard look at how we are treating the people we care about and determine if there is not improvement we could make.  By submitting to our fears, insecurities, and anxieties we may find that we are holding people close to us in a desire for them to fulfill our emotional and/or physical needs while we are pulling them away from their needs, and we may be doing this without really being aware of it.  And because they love us and care for our needs, they tolerate this behavior for our sake.

But they will not do so for too long, nor should they.  Allow them to fulfill their needs and in the long-term, if they care for you genuinely, they will return that favor and your relationship will be strengthened.  Trust is difficult to give in situations like this, but to not trust is not a sign of healthy relationships.

I’ll leave you with a little Sting, who makes a fair point.

Set your loved ones free and if they stay, then you don’t have to hold them too close or lock the door.  They will be there for you when you need them, and you will be there when they need you.