When you want to do something and you have a feeling your partner isn’t going to be too thrilled about it, how do you act?
My two default modes are shut it down immediately and don’t even give myself the opportunity to pursue it or do it anyway, worrying the whole time if he’ll find out or how he’ll react when I eventually tell him.
On my “better” days, I ask him first.
But none of those three ways of communicating—or not communicating—about something you want is particularly helpful.
Shutting down robs you of an opportunity to pursue or experience something that is, presumably, meaningful or at least interesting to you.
Avoiding the subject dishonors your partner by lying through omission and leaves you stuck with some not-so-great-feeling juju. You won’t be able to enjoy yourself as fully if you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop the whole time.
And asking permission, while it might seem like the “responsible thing to do” is incomplete also. It robs you of your agency and hands decision-making over to your partner. That’s a problem for three reasons—which I’ll get into in a moment—but for now, I want to offer an alternative. A fourth option that is just five words:
“How would you feel if?”
How would you feel if I got dinner with my college roommate who is in town?
How would you feel if I went on a vacation with my best friend?
How would you feel if I went on a date with the cute guy we met in line Trader Joe’s?
When you ask “How would you feel if,” you’re not giving veto power to your partner but you are inviting him into the process. And you’re signaling that you haven’t necessarily made up your mind.
When you ask “How would you feel if,” you give your partner an opportunity to share his feelings and explore together how to meet his needs. That might include opting out of or delaying whatever it was you were considering. Or it might be continuing but helping your partner feel better through other means. You might even find that they are excited about this thing you thought they would dread. Now you can enjoy yourself that much more.
(This is a tactic I use too. As I was nearing the decision to begin writing about sex and relationships, I opened the discussion with Peter about it by asking “How would you feel if…”)
Asking for permission might seem helpful but it’s not for three reasons.
You pass decision-making off to your partner. That’s not fair to him. You are potentially putting him in the bind of signing off on something he is uncomfortable with or upsetting you.
You abdicate your own responsibility. This is something that you are interested in. And you’re a grown ass man. You should take responsibility and make the decision yourself. Making complex decisions can be uncomfortable; that’s ok. Lean into that discomfort and grow from it.
You set yourself up for conflict. If your partner says “No” but you decide to go ahead anyway, you’ve now walked into a trap that you set for yourself. You asked for permission for something that you weren’t really willing to hear “no” to. Now, not only are you fighting over the initial issue, you’ve added an additional insult by asking for permission and then disregarding the response.
Instead, by asking “How would you feel if,” you open up communication while maintaining your autonomy. You demonstrate respect for your partner and respect for yourself. And you begin to find ways in which you both can get exactly what you want.
Why not give it a shot? The next time you’re faced with a tough conversation, start it by asking “How would you feel if…”
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