Ask for What You Want

Something I’ve been thinking about, recently; presented in three parts, for clarity:

Part One – Polyamory and Negotiations

There’s a widely-understood guideline in nonmonogamous relationships that you should always be willing to ask for what you want, not what you think you can get away with. To me, it feels to be a particularly valuable maxim. Like the majority of suggestions touted by the polyamorous community, it’s a tip that holds value for both monogamous and nonmonogamous relationships… but is naturally of more importance to those which are nonmonogamous because these have a tendency to depend more-heavily on honest and open negotiation.

I’m sure I don’t have to spell out to you why asking for what you want (rather than what you think you can get away with) is important. But just in case I do, here’s the three top reasons, as far as I see it:

  1. When you ask for what you want, there’s a chance that you’ll get it. When you ask for anything else, getting what you want is a lucky coincidence. Don’t you want the chance of getting what you want?
  2. Being honest about what you want and how important it is to you – and listening to what’s your partners want and how important those things are to them – you’re in the best possible position to come to the fairest possible compromise, if the things that you want are not completely compatible. Don’t you want the best for you, your partner(s), and your relationship(s)?
  3. Being open about what you’re looking for is an important part of being honest. Don’t you want to be honest with your lover?
Polyamory networks can grow quite large, and the management of this requires honest, open communication even more than a monogamous relationship does.

There are times that it’s okay not to ask for what you want, too, though. Sometimes it’s hard to be sure what you want; and it’s fine to say you need time to think about it. Sometimes we change our minds (shocking, I know!), and it’s more-admirable to be honest than consistent. Sometimes there are more important things to deal with. There’s no rush.
But it works. The more specific you can be – even to the point of “too much information” – the better this kind of communication can work, because the better your partner understands you, the better you both can negotiate. As ‘dirty surface’ writes“I’d like to get my butt caned by a professional Dom while you watch once every six months or so” represents a very different commitment of time, money and emotional energy than what someone might picture when you say “Let’s hire and share a sex worker regularly.”

Part Two – The Anchoring Effect

There’s a known psychological phenomenon called the anchoring effect. In order to demonstrate it, I’m going to plagiarise an example used in this article – if you want to see the effect in action; don’t click that link yet! Just follow the instructions below:

  • Now: without checking – do you think that Venezuela has a higher or a lower population than that country?
  • Finally, in millions, what do you estimate that the population of Venezuela is?

You’ll get the answer a little further down the page. But first, it’s time to come clean about something: when you clicked that link to WolframAlpha, you’ll have gone to one of two different pages. There’s a 50% chance that you’ll have found yourself looking at the population data of the United Kingdom (about 62 million), and a 50% chance that you’ll have found yourself looking at the population data of Switzerland (about 7½ million).

If you originally saw the United Kingdom and you guessed lower, or you originally saw Switzerland and guessed higher, you were right: the population of Venezuela is somewhere between the two. But if we took all of the guesses by all of the people who correctly guessed lower than the United Kingdom, and all the people who correctly guessed higher than Switzerland, then – statistically speaking – we’d probably see that the people who looked at the United Kingdom first would make higher guesses as to the population of Venezuela than those people who looked at Switzerland first.

The population of Venezuela’s about 29 million people. What did you guess? And what country were you shown first, when you clicked the link? Leave me a comment and let me know…

The anchoring effect is explored in detail by Ariely, Loewenstein, and Prelec 2004, in which studies are performed on groups of people who are told a (randomly-determined) price for some goods, and then asked to state how much they’d be willing to pay for them: those people who are given higher random values will consistently offer more money for the goods than those who were told a lower value.

It’s not a new idea. For hundreds of years, at least, salespeople have practiced the not-dissimilar door-in-the-face technique (sort-of the opposite of the more well-known foot-in-the-door technique), in which an unsatisfactory offer is made first in order to make the second offer – which is actually what the salesperson wants to sell – seem more desirable than it actually is.

Part Three – Hey, But That Means…

Taking the two previous parts of this article at face value can quickly lead to an unwelcome conclusion: we’re more likely to get what we want when we ask for more than what we want – and then back down to a false compromise position. A greedy but carefully-deployed “salesman” approach has been shown to work wonders when you’re negotiating for a pay rise, selling a product, motivating volunteers, or getting people to under- or over-estimate the value of goods and services. Surely it’d work when negotiating in a relationship, too?

“Hey, honey: it’d really mean a lot to me if I could could have a threesome with you and your mother…”

“What? No way! That’s disgusting.”

“Okay, okay, then… I suppose I could make do with having sex with your sister.”

Despite the extremity of the example above, the answer is that for the individual, this strategy can work: I’ve known people who’ve fallen victim to exactly this kind of con. Worse yet, I suspect that there are perpetrators of this kind of strategy who don’t even realise that they’re doing it: they’re just responding in the Pavlovian style to the “rewards” that they’re getting by continuing to act in what it – let’s face it – an unscrupulous and unethical manner.

Does it work, then? Yes, more’s the pity. But everything it gets for you is something that it’s taking away from your partner, or from your relationship. And maybe that’s the kind of strain that the relationship can take, but there are always limits.

Me? I’ll stick to what I believe in: so far as I can, putting my hand on the table and saying, “Here’s what I’m playing with: what’ve you got?” It’s a trusting and diplomatic strategy, but it’s the best solution to finding the best middle-ground for everyone. There are those who find that it makes them feel too vulnerable – at too much risk of their openness being used against them – to try to say what they want so openly. And to them, I say: if you don’t trust your lover with the way that you feel, then working on that trust that should be your first priority.

Now get on with loving one another, y’all!

8 replies to Ask for What You Want

  1. Switzerland, Higher. 15-20m. Because it’s, like, third world-y. Actually, I was pretty surprised Switzerland was so full.

    Also, that is an awesome post, and it has given me my latest Worst Idea In The World Ever: Diplomacy. Played face-to-face, against the clock by seven people all linked through poly relationships. For a cash prize of £5,000 and a luxury three month round-the-world cruise for three, and with a provision that in the event of a tie, the ultimate winner is chosen by Germany.

  2. For your stats: I got Switzerland and I guessed 6 million. I didn’t really think about it at all, but my geography’s terrible so I doubt that would have made a difference!

    On the communication end of things, I always find it difficult to ask for what I want, and often in the past haven’t known what it is! My advice would be to know yourself first, because you can’t get what you want if you don’t know what you want.

    Also, no amount of open negotiation can make incompatible situations magically resolve themselves. But as you say, you don’t know until you ask.

    Another thing I want to point out is that sometimes you want something until it happens, and then you realise that’s not what you wanted. It’s very difficult to backtrack, yet some things have to be experienced before you can know how you feel about them. Can’t think of a solution to that one.

    Lastly, beware the dangers of making lots of little concessions to the other person(s). It can snowball to the point where you lose yourself.

    That’s about boundaries, and like the majority of suggestions touted by the monogamous community, it’s a tip that holds value for both monogamous and nonmonogamous relationships… but is naturally of more importance to those which are monogamous because they are more likely to depend upon one person.

    Polyamorists do not have a monopoly(!) on thinking about relationships! I’m so tired of seeing poly pieces where the person says, effectively: “In poly, we do things this way, but you can use our great techniques in your monogamy too, though it’s inferior.” It’s incredibly patronising. Having lots of lovers makes you an expert at relationships in the same way than owning 6 guitars makes you Brian May, i.e., it doesn’t.

    Sorry, that’s more at others than at you, Dan.

    • Erm… Polyamorists tend to talk about how relationships work for them, often including the observation that that advice also works for monogamous folks.

      If you choose to read things which polyamorous people write about relationships, you can’t really get in a huff because we write about the techniques that work for us. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Dan (or anyone else who’s opinion I value worth a damn) try and state that polyamoury is inherently better than monogamy in the general case.

      Poly people sometimes write more about relationships, and muse more about the techniques that work for them. But that’s because people tend to ask us more questions about how our relationships work, so we assume there’s at least some interest in what we’re doing.

      Also, I don’t think your guitar analogy is very apt. I would say that having lots of lovers makes you think more about relationships, how they work, what they require, what you could and should be doing to keep others and yourself happy. In that respect, it would be more apt to say that having lots of lovers is to relationship expertise as performing in lots of different plays is to acting skill. It’s not the same as innate skill, but it can help.

      • Not everyone with lots of lovers thinks more about those relationships, but I do appreciate that Dan does so. I stick by my guitar analogy. It is patronising to suggest that you are more thoughtful about relationships *because* you are poly. I don’t think that’s true at all. It’s just as easy to be thoughtless about many people as it is about one. A monogamous person could easily have more relationship experience than a poly person, too, only in series rather than parallel.

        If your advice works for everyone, just package it as “relationship advice”. When I write about relationships, that’s what I do. There’s no special extra insight from being poly — what you learn comes from being open-minded and thinking about relationships, which anyone, no matter their relationship status, can do.

        • No, it’s not patronising, you’ve just got a chip on your shoulder and are sensitive about it.

          Look, I’m not trying to portry polyamorous folks as relationship gurus, or anything like that. And I’m not trying to suggest that we know more about *monogamous* relationships. But monogamy and polyamory are different beasts, and I would suggests that they’re both subsets of the big wide world of relationships. Surely experiencing more than one subset gives you more experience in general?

          No matter how many monogamous relationships you have one after another, it’s not going to be the same as polyamory. And frankly, I find your preachy tone a bit annoying considering that none of us (you included) used to write in any great detail about relationships before we all started being poly.

          I don’t want to have a big row about this. But I also dispute this line:

          If your advice works for everyone, just package it as “relationship advice”

          No relationship advice works for everyone. But as a polyamorous person, your odds of encountering people with different emotional needs and having to accomodate them increase. When you first have to deal with the needs of people with very different outlooks at the same time, it’s almost impossible not to grow as a person. Of course, there are those in polyamorous relationships who completely fail to learn anything from the experience, but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to be learned.

          I think there is a special insight to be learned from being poly. But not everyone learns it, and I guess you can’t really pass it on.

          • Ok. I pointed out at the start this wasn’t about Dan’s post, but a more general feel from other poly posts. I’ll have to find an example before I can explain clearly the kind of patronising I mean. Sure, we can stop debating.

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