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Assumptions Jenga

In the stereotypical narration laid out by our culture, there are a lot of assumptions. A heterosexual man will meet a heterosexual woman, they will date, fall in love, get married, have children, and you know their relationship is a success because one of them died instead of getting divorced. This is a life that many people want, and that’s great for them, but there are also many people that it just doesn’t seem right to. These are the dangers in assumptions.

On the one hand, if something is so broadly assumed, you will feel like a complete outcast if you don’t fit that assumption. Whether that means you’re gay, or don’t want children, or want a career in juggling, or really anything that doesn’t fit the mold, it’s something you either have to speak out about and risk bad reactions, or stay quiet on, and live a life you don’t want.

Those are all huge assumptions, though, and here I want to talk about the many, many smaller ones we make day to day. Sometimes these smaller ones will pass by unnoticed, but often times they lay the foundation for one of the bigger ones, and the longer the assumption stays in place, the harder it will fall.

In the polyamory community, generally you can tell who has been practicing for longer, because they tend to be more blunt and communicative – probably seeming over-communicative to many people. If you ask these “over-communicative” people why, they will probably have at least one story of an assumption biting them in the ass. More likely, a dozen or more. These assumptions have a way of being highlighted in polyamorous relationships in a way they are not in monogamous ones.

I like to think of assumptions growing on each other as a game of jenga, where each assumption is one of the wooden bricks. Every time you make an assumption, you’re picking out one of those bricks and placing it on top. With each one, the tower gets more and more unstable. There are often more people adding to the pile of assumptions as well, often at odds with yours. Make the wrong assumption – such as being confident that this one brick is completely unnecessary for the stability of the tower – and everything falls apart.

It’s impractical to expect everyone to make no assumptions, or to be offended when someone makes an understandable assumption. If your partner enjoyed hot chocolate the last time you saw her, but you surprise her with it later and she says she doesn’t like it or doesn’t want it, it wasn’t a dangerous or offensive assumption to make, you’re acting on your knowledge of her. Your partner likely won’t be upset at this, and you likely won’t feel anything except maybe mild embarrassment, but nothing is wrong and no damage is done. It’s when you’re making an assumption by piecing things together, especially things that can have an effect on your relationship or their physical or mental state, that it gets tricky.

It’s very easy to, well, assume that an assumption can be made. You can expect that a partner would infer something indirectly by something you said. You could expect one partner to behave like another partner or a friend. You could assume that everything will stay the same between you and a partner. None of these are good assumptions to make, but very easy to do.

Don’t expect minds to be read

The one assumption you can make here is that if you don’t tell your partner something, assume they don’t know. They might still have ways of finding out, but until you tell them, you can’t know if they are aware.

One thing in this category that seems incredibly common to me is not telling an anchor/primary partner that you’re chatting with someone new. This doesn’t have to be a primary partner, mind, but any partner that would like to know who you’re dating. This doesn’t mean they need to have any form of control, just awareness. I myself have felt blindsided when my husband has announced that he was going on a date with someone from OKCupid, when I didn’t even know he was talking to someone. Going on a date wasn’t anything wrong, but I was hurt he didn’t tell me before a date was arranged. There were assumptions at odds there: He assumed he didn’t have to tell me until there were solid plans, while I assumed he’d tell me when he was chatting with someone so I could just be aware. This is an easy one to fix with communication and we’ve both been more aware since then, but it was also something that could have been avoided if either of us had thought to voice our assumptions.

Don’t play telephone

It can be really easy to think that if you tell one partner something, your metamour or a mutual partner will hear about it from them. The problem with this is, even if they do, it won’t be in your exact words. If it’s an important piece of information, this is even worse. If you tell one partner that you feel like you’re very stressed out, don’t expect that another partner will hear this from them, and be frustrated if they aren’t aware.

Alternately, it can also be easy to assume that because a partner told you something, you can then tell a metamour or mutual partner. This can be just as bad and a breach of trust. If the information was just “Bring chips to tomorrow’s party” it’s probably not a big deal for you to ask someone to remind you, but if they tell you something that might be even the slightest bit private, don’t assume. If you aren’t sure, ask the person who told you if you can share what they told you.

Whenever possible, always communicate directly with someone. If this is not possible, directly communicate what you want someone to say to a third person, even if it’s just “Can you tell Jane to bring chips to tomorrow’s party?” or “I need you to tell Chris that he should get in touch with me when he gets a chance.” You must also specify whenever possible that if a piece of information is private, that they cannot pass it on. This could range from “Don’t tell Eric about his surprise birthday party” to “I haven’t told anyone else that I’m gay, please let me tell people myself.”

Don’t assume the status or path of a relationship

Even in monogamous relationships this is a problematic one. There are many stories of women who begin to worry because their partner hasn’t proposed yet. That could be because of many things; maybe he doesn’t even know that she wants to get married, or he might not want to ever get married but he hasn’t told her that. There are assumptions on both sides of this, and each causes stress.

In polyamory it can sometimes be clearer, but to some people it is not. Unfortunately, many people assume that polyamorous relationships should still follow the relationship escalator of dating > falling in love > cohabiting. Again, while this may be the goal for many people, it is an incredibly dangerous assumption to make, because if it is incorrect it will hurt everyone involved. If one person expects to live in a dream house with one, two, three, or more partners, but one of those partners feels they are more suited to living alone, if neither states this then it will go along fine until suddenly someone’s assumption is shattered.

NEVER assume consent

There are entire articles and books out there about enthusiastic consent so I won’t write a full one here, but it is extremely important. Even if your partner has done something before with someone else, even if you’ve done something similar with this partner, even if it’s exactly the same as something you’ve done before with this partner, never ever assume that it’s something you can do with them right now.

Experiences are never exactly the same. Something your partner loved last time might be a huge turn off this time. You don’t need to start every encounter rehashing what may be okay this time (unless you’re practicing consensual non-consent, you need to figure ALL that out ahead of time), you should still be okay with your partner stopping things in the middle, or redirecting. You should also be comfortable with stopping things or going in a different direction. Don’t worry about disappointing your partners, worry about it being a fun and safe experience for everyone involved.

Find out what your partner’s triggers are

This may not be something that applies to everyone, but for many people there is at least one thing that, while not being a PTSD trigger, will still automatically send their thoughts or their mood into a bad place. Some people do have legitimate PTSD triggers that you should be absolutely respectful of. If you know something about your partner’s history that may be traumatic, ask them if they know of any triggers from it. They may be specific or broad – some people get flashbacks from any kind of shouting, others can be triggered by being hit by a specific type of object even though other forms of spanking/whipping/caning are totally fine for them.

Even if you are on the “normal” side of an assumption, bring it up

The onus is not on any one person or any one opinion to bring something up. If you want the white-picket-fence life, bring it up to your partner. If you refuse to live that life, bring it up to your partner. Anywhere in between, you guessed it, bring it up to your partner. There are many life-altering assumptions out there and the sooner you know this about your partner, the better. Wouldn’t it be better to have a silly-seeming conversation where you both agree that you want something, rather than you both assume something radically different without the other knowing?

Don’t assume that talking once is enough

There are many topics that are good to bring up regularly to make sure you’re still on the same page. Similarly, if you start to feel differently any time after having a discussion, bring it up so your partner knows you have changed, even slightly. This is especially important with the lifechanging decisions, such as marriage, having children, moving, relationship status, or feelings changing about someone. It can also be important to note in smaller ways as well – maybe you’re tired of a certain sexual act, or even if you want to tell your partner that you now hate your favorite song. Something like that may seem silly, but it’s pretty much impossible to over-communicate with established partners.

One thing that can be especially important here is after you have said “I love you” with a partner – that can be a scary or exhilarating road to go down, but you absolutely have to be clear what it means to each of you, and reaffirm that every so often. For one person it might mean “I want to live with you and have children with you” but for another it may mean “I care about you strongly” – neither of these are wrong definitions, but it’s important to figure out where you stand on those things.

In the end, this is all a repetition of the fact that if there is any doubt, at any time, you should discuss things with your partners. There is no better way to communicate things and avoid pain or drama. You won’t be perfect at it, but the more you do this, the easier your relationships will be.

And if you play jenga, don’t make it assumptions jenga. Make it sexy jenga.

Featured image source: “Jenga” by Chris on Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Chelsey Dagger

Chelsey is married and poly, with multiple wonderful partners across the United States. They are in IT during the day, and at night they are currently in school for psychology, and on their way to being a therapist, with focus on polyamorous individuals, couples, and families.