06/08/2014 08:44 BST | Updated 05/10/2014 06:59 BST

How Passive Communication Killed My Open Relationship

Those Reddit 'British-problems' inspired articles get me a little bit nostalgic...

'I asked if someone wanted the last biscuit. Someone did.'

This was shocking... for the old me.

For non-Brits out there, asking if anyone wants the last biscuit, means that the person asking, wants it but isn't, according to the terms of social etiquette, allowed to say it. Even more confusing, the 'someone' who took the last biscuit would be considered rude by taking it because the asker has the implicit prior claim (since he asked).

If you ever find yourself in a last biscuit conundrum and want nothing more than to not be invited back, you can commit the cardinal sin in asking the asker if their question implied that they wanted the last biscuit.

Understand this; overtly stating your wants and needs in my version of middle class Britain is considered selfish, uncouth and downright rude. So the person in question would be forced to politely decline (against their will) simply to save face ~

'No, no I couldn't possibly take it.'

You will not be liked (or invited back) if you force their hand in this way.

In most British tea parties therefore, the last biscuit goes unfinished. Sometimes people break off half. Then another quarter. Until there is a mere crumb left on the plate.

Many want it, but no one wants to appear selfish or worse, imply that the host didn't supply enough biscuits (which would question their generosity and/or hosting skills). Implication and inference is rife which make tea parties a very delicate gathering. It's no wonder we talk about the weather and have to get drunk to talk honestly.

What does this tell us? Not (just) that we are polite to a fault with peculiarly restrictive etiquette. It tells us that Britain is a nation of passive communicators.

Passive Communication in Polyamory

I've been reviewing a new book called More Than Two which is widely touted to become the next bible for those of us interested in open relationships. Passive communication is a central theme.

It's 7 years now since our first open relationship with another couple crumbled due to many factors, one of which being that I ~ a quintessentially British woman socialized in middle class etiquette ~ was unable to state my needs. I had a high tolerance for unacceptable behaviour. I was trained in it. So I inadvertently allowed the three members of my quad to cross my boundaries again and again; I didn't assert myself, I couldn't express my feelings and I allowed my grievances to grow and repressed them until they built up to such a fever pitch that no resolution was possible.

They jumped off the sofa and scurried into the bedroom to perform a great Sunday afternoon sexual concerto which we could hear very clearly albeit it behind closed doors. I was not even an afterthought. Two choices presented themselves to me.

  1. Make a fuss, state your needs, be selfish and say you're uncomfortable. Risk ridicule, misunderstanding and destroy three other peoples' perfectly good Sunday. Aren't you worth it?
  2. Keep quiet. Rationalize with yourself about your own issues which are presumably creating this panic inside you, be the bigger person. Live with it.

Live with it. Of course I would live with it. This was my way. In a flash I saw my life ahead. Elena had two primary partners. Her husband and my husband. She monopolized the attention of my husband when she wanted it. I was the doormat waiting to be used when they had had their fill. I was given the leftovers and had to be grateful for it.

The Husband Swap ~ Louisa Leontiades

The alternative at the time was unthinkable. In order to communicate directly, assertively and healthily I would have had to change into someone who would have been considered by my family and society to be selfish, uncouth and rude. I would have had to go against all my upbringing. I was a passive communicator. Conversely my sisterwife was a direct communicator and yes, I considered her selfish, uncouth and rude at the time, just as I had been taught. We were a ticking time bomb.

It's not ~ as the authors of More Than Two point out ~ that passive communication is 'wrong' per se; simply that it is not easy to building one healthy relationship if you are communicating passively, let alone multiple relationships.

Direct [communication] starts from the premise that if your partner wants something, she will ask for it. You need to resist the impulse to infer a judgement, desire or need that's not explicitly stated.

You need to assume that if your partner does not bring up an issue, she has no issue and is not just being polite. Conversely if she brings up an issue she's not doing it to be confrontational or impolite, but to discuss it. [More Than Two]

Of course this is not always the case. Some people do have aggressive communication strategies, which will alienate others, generate fear and tend to blame others rather than taking responsibility for their own issues. But direct does not have to be aggressive. Nor should you assume it since this in itself can create a self fulfilling prophecy. Direct can also be compassionate.

The most distinct advantage of direct communication is that it forces you to practise your 'no'.

When you are accustomed to using passive communication or unable to set boundaries or when you feel you don't have the ability to say no to something, then it's very hard for your partners to have confidence in your yes. [More Than Two]

And the most distinct consequence of not being able to say no means that your relationship and your life becomes coercive. Non-consensual.

Being able to use assertive communication is a skill. It means using declarative statements rather than leading questions, using plain language in the active voice rather than the passive voice and asking for what you need ~ not with respect to what you believe other people want/have but by stating what you need and leaving room for your partner to choose how to meet that need. It also means being ok if the answer to your request is 'no.' (If you're not okay with hearing a no, then you are demanding not asking).

But of course in order to practice these skills in the first place, you will have to become the 'selfish, uncouth and rude' person you were always taught you not to be.

And that's when you'll have to ask yourself. Is my happiness worth more than my constructed image, my status and my social position? Because if you want the damn biscuit, you'll have more chance of getting it, if you just ask.


First published on Postmodern Woman.