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!