The Honesty Exchange (Revisited)

I wrote a post many moons ago about this concept, but it was through the lens of two back-to-back relationships ending. The concept behind it was sound and something I continue to practice in my daily life, but the examples I used to present it back then were, in my opinion, too personal and not the most effective ones to get the message across. This is my attempt to do it better.


In the world of kink and BDSM, we talk about the “power exchange.” I love to focus on the word “exchange,” not as a “one gives and one takes,” but as a mutual give and take between the people involved. It looks a little bit like the symbol for recycling – not a one-for-one exchange, but symbiotic exchange running on a continuous loop.

This particular post isn’t so much about the exchange of power in BDSM, but about the give and take that happens in relationships (I’m more focused on romantic, but this is really a factor in all relationships) when it comes to honesty.

So many people say they want honesty. I’ve been spending a lot of time reading and responding to people who are sharing some of their difficulties navigating (mostly) polyamorous relationships in advice forums. A common thread I see is that the person posting feels that they have been lied to in some way by their partner, and want to know what to do to recapture the trust in their relationships.

I hit a wall when I see those posts, because for me lies are a hard limit. I don’t make a habit of giving people a second chance to lie to me, so I just back away from responding because my response tends to be “Walk away from this – the trust is broken.”

But, I also realize that it’s easy for me to expect honesty from the people in my life because I make it very easy for people to be honest with me. That’s part of the Honesty Exchange that I’m talking about.

Expecting honesty from your partner isn’t only about wanting them to be truthful at all time, it’s also about learning to accept honesty graciously when you don’t like what you’re hearing, and learning to give honesty tactfully when it’s not what they want to hear.

I’ll start with that first part. Learning to accept honesty graciously is about not flying off the handle, or abandoning rationality in favor of knee-jerk emotional reactions when your partner tells you something you didn’t want to hear.

I have a very simple default response when I’m being told a truth that I don’t enjoy hearing. It’s similar to that commercial for the candy bar (Twix?) where someone is asked a question or put on the spot and they shove the candy in their mouth to give them a few seconds to come up with something to say….

When someone gives you information that you know to be true, but that is causing you some emotional distress – the default response is to say the following:

Thank you for your honesty.

There it is. That’s all you have to do. Breathe deeply, let your lip quiver, feel the feelings that you feel – but do your best to hold it together long enough to remember that you asked them for the truth.

And thank them for it.

Then, assess your feelings and give them some measured honesty back. Feeling like you’re too angry to discuss it? Say “Thank you for your honesty. This news is a bit shocking. I’m feeling a lot of mixed emotions, and I’d like to ask for some time to process before we talk about it further.”

Feeling like your world is falling apart? Say, “Thank you for your honesty. I’m feeling really anxious about this information. What does this mean for us going forward?”

The result of having a measured reaction to bad news is that the next time your partner has something to tell you that you might not want to hear, they’ll feel less hesitant to share it with you than they would if you’d responded to them with white hot anger followed by three to five days of passive aggressive silence or unfiltered snark.

But, just like the recycle symbol, this feeds back into another benefit for you. If you know that your partner is willing to tell you the not-so-great things because they don’t fear you’ll have an extremely negative reaction, that means you can actually believe them when they tell you the super-fantastic things. What reason would they have to lie? The good news gets that much sweeter when you know it’s true.

There is so much relief in just trusting someone. But in order to reach that with someone whose default setting isn’t “be completely open and honest regardless of feelings or consequences” you have to let them know it’s safe for them to give you bad news sometimes.

Otherwise, you’re asking them to tell you the truth only when it’s pleasant, and that just leads to questioning if everything they tell you is 100% honest.

Now to the other part of this equation. The giving of truth when it’s not a pleasant truth to give.

This is sometimes called “diplomacy,” and not everybody is very good at it. Some people are really good at honesty, and go so far as to brag about their ability to be “brutally honest” with people.

I don’t like to be “brutally” honest.

I prefer to be “tactfully” honest, or as some people recently described it, I practice “gentle” honesty.

It’s the type of honesty that is compassionate in nature. It’s a type of honesty I’ve learned is best shared when requested, because not everybody is as good at receiving the bad news – and when they ask for advice, what they really want is pity.

I feel like the best way to go about being gentle with your honesty is to put yourself in the position of the person who has to hear what you have to say. Figure out how you would want to be told and do your best to be direct, but kind in your delivery.

I’ll give a really basic example. You go to your partner’s place for the first time and they want to cook for you. They spend a few hours preparing a meal and they’re very proud of it. You take a bite and…well, it’s not edible.

They ask you “How do you like it? Be honest.”

Do you lie? You don’t want to hurt their feelings. You don’t want to be an ass and just say “Oh, this is disgusting.” That’s honest, but rude.

So put yourself in their position: How would you want someone to tell you your food isn’t great? How would they tell you this so that your reaction wouldn’t be defensive or self-hatred? (And if you think there’s no way somebody could be honest with you without pissing you off or making you hate yourself, work on that whole “Thank you for being honest,” trick).

Personally, I’d find something good to say about it – “The meat is well cooked, but it’s a little salty for my taste.” Or “The flavor is great, but I prefer it a little more rare.” Or “Well, it’s not what I’m used to…I think I might like it better next time if…..”

What do you do if they’re hurt by your honesty? Be compassionate. Show them that it upsets you to hurt them, but it would hurt you more to lie to them. Give them the space to feel how they feel, and let them know that you aren’t going to react negatively to their negative reaction.

Again, earning the reputation from the people in your life as someone who won’t lie to them and won’t fault them for having reactive emotions has really excellent benefits. People tend not to ask me what I think unless they really want to know. Most of the time, I just listen.

And people respect you because they trust you.

Trust and respect are sexy as hell. I think they’re the best aphrodisiac and my top two kinks of all time.

So, well….hopefully this is a more accessible and comprehensive understanding of the Honesty Exchange as I see it. If you want people to be honest with you, you have to be able appreciate their honesty even when it hurts; and if you want people to trust and respect you, you have to be honest with them and give them the space to react however they’re going to react, even when it’s uncomfortable.

Trust and responsibility in BDSM

In one of my early posts on Fetlife long ago, I wrote “It’s not that I’m lying when I tell you I’m okay; it’s that it isn’t until much later that I realize I was mistaken.”

This week, there have been a couple posts out and about that are debating the issue of …I guess it’s personal responsibility in a bottom to communicate truthfully to their top on matters of consent, limits, and negotiation.

On the one hand, you have two posts making the point that many bottoms may be failing in communicating their true limits out of the fear that they will be “disappointing” their tops; and another that argues that if this is too often the case then we are setting up a situation where a bottom can’t be taken at their word.

It made me think of that little thought from such a long time ago. That it’s not about “truth” and “lies” so much as it is about being really self-aware and confident that one’s top is not going to be disappointed when a limit has been reached; and likewise that one’s bottom is not going to put you in a position of harming them irreparably.

There is a difference between pre-scene negotiation and mid-scene check-ins, and I don’t think anybody has a problem understanding how an s-type might agree to or give consent once their mind has been altered and later regret it. If you do have trouble with that let me know and I’ll clarify in a separate post. That’s why collaborative negotiation ahead of time is really important; especially if the relationship is new.

But there’s something else I’ve been exposed to that helped me a LOT in my ability to set my limits and boundaries during the pre-scene negotiation as well as during mid-scene check-ins. I think I’ve written about it before (though I don’t remember when) and I know I’ve talked about it recently as a panelist for an S-type panel discussion as part of the BDSM 101 series.

It was “safeword training.” See, back when I went by the label of “submissive,” I was one of those submissives that would pressure herself – potentially past my personal limit – out of fear of disappointing my partner. There were many times that I’d end up heavily bruised; and, I am on record as not a fan of heavy bruising.

But I didn’t stop them. I didn’t want to disappoint them by not taking what they wanted to give me.

When I explained as much to a partner I’d been spending some time with, he did what he called “safeword training” with me, where he told me he was going to spank me five times and on the fifth, I was to call “yellow.” I did so, and was able to witness what his reaction would be to my calling “yellow” during a real scene.

Then he did it again, this time, ordering me to call “red.”

And so I did. And so I saw what his reaction would be if I were to do that during a scene.

This was critical in my being able to accept the difference between what he wanted to do “to” me and what he wanted to do “with” me.

He wanted to give me a good experience that was not tainted with regret because I was too afraid to speak up for myself, and for what?

No top I’ve ever been with has actually wanted to harm me. None have ever truly wanted more from me than I would have been willing to give. That takes our scene into the “not fun” territory. And if it’s not fun for me, it’s sure as hell not gonna be fun for my top. Especially afterwards.

But I have played with inexperienced tops as an inexperienced bottom; and I have had tops who had no prior experience with me who have gone too far, and I didn’t stop them until too far had already been reached.

Did they have my consent to spank me? Yes. They did. But I didn’t specify to one that I required a warm-up before he went to town on my ass. And …well, the other accepted my consent after I was already inebriated, and left me passed out on the floor of the dungeon by myself after our scene. In fact, I remember enough of that night to recall that I approached him for the spanking, and not the other way around. He also never checked in with me again. (P.S. that was the last time I ever mixed drinking and kinking).

In the first example, I was self-aware enough to know I was not having a good time. In the second, the onset of that self awareness was quite delayed. Both times I let it happen for longer than I needed to because I was afraid of disappointing the top in question.

So. What to do? We can all write eighty-billion essays urging bottoms to speak up for themselves and to speak truthfully when they’re negotiating a scene for themselves; but remember – sometimes the opposite of truth isn’t a lie, but a lack of self-awareness.

And when someone who wears the label of “submissive” has agreed to something and then during said thing realizes they’re not really loving it – I guarantee you that MANY said submissives will try to grin and bear it because they don’t want to go back on their word and disappoint their tops.

Does that mean that the bulk of the responsibility falls to the top? You gotta question everything? You gotta take their consent with a grain of salt?

Not necessarily. It’s a power exchange. If you’re negotiating something new, or something edgier – try making sure your bottom understands that you won’t be disappointed if they ask you to slow it down because something doesn’t feel right. If you’re the bottom, make sure your top knows if there’s something on their list of things to do that you’re not entirely sure about.

You know….communicate.

And, before you play – make sure you know how you’ll react to a “red” or a “yellow.” Make sure your bottom knows what to expect from you if those words are called. If necessary, consider foregoing safewords and use ENGLISH (or whatever language you speak) to communicate during the early days of your playlationship.

“Ow ow….slow down, I need a minute” or “Oh holy shit STOP” are REALLY great words to use until you’ve gained a level of comfort with your partner where you are allowing them to push you a little further beyond your established boundaries.

Hell, I’ve been with my partner for over a year now and he LOVES to push me. There have been times when he’s about to do something and I cry out, “NO NO NO!” and he’ll pause, and look at me with a look of pure sadistic pleasure and ask, “No?”

It gives me a moment to pause and consider my answer carefully. It’s like my version of “yellow.”

Because my response is almost always, “Okay, yes,” but even when it’s not, I never feel like he’s disappointed in me.

Ever.

That’s why I am able to be 100% honest. And my honesty is why he’s able to push me further.

That’s the beauty of an exchange.

 


Photo credit: Renata Colette, rope by @MisterBacon, model…me 🙂

Critical Thinking

Yesterday, NPR reposted a story to their facebook page from 2014. The article title was: Why doesn’t America read anymore?

If you clicked through to read the article, it wished you a happy April Fool’s Day and explained that they wanted to see how many people actually read the stories vs how many people just commented based on the title alone.

It asked that the people who clicked through not mention it in the comments. And of course, the post had been filled with comments from people arguing with the title of the post, as if it were true.

The person who reposted it on my feed said something along the lines of “April 1st, the one day of the year that people look at every news article critically before believing it.”

In my third attempt at college, I had to take an English course called “Critical Thinking.” It taught us logical fallacies and explained that you can’t just take everything you read for granted. That’s the class where you have to write a lot of argumentative and persuasive essays

And, despite my never having actually finished my degree in creative writing, I can say that I probably took more away from that class than any other in my very long and unfinished college career.

I think very critically whenever I read or hear anything. I don’t mean “critically” in the sense of “negatively”…I mean it in the sense of wondering what the authors’ bias or purpose is, trying to asses any logical fallacies, and engaging my ability to question things and form my own opinions, rather using “chameleon thinking” and automagically buying everything I read.

We’re taught how to do this from a young age. We’re told not to talk to strangers. We learn about heroes who affected positive social change in the world by questioning authority. Especially here in “America,” where we are spoon fed the ideals of critical thinking as soon as we are taught the words “We, the people.”

It’s no wonder that I read so many accounts of people here and in “real” life who say they have trouble accepting a compliment. “I don’t know what to say,” say some. “I don’t think of myself that way,” say others.

It’s taking “critical” thinking and turning it into “self-critical” thinking.

I get this. I used to feel like being paid a compliment was like accepting charity. You tell me I look gorgeous and I might tell you that it’s hair dye, makeup, and a little photo editing, or camera angles and great support undergarments.

What I’m doing might seem like I’m trying to deny that I’m anything special because I don’t want you to feel obligated to compliment me.

But, I make my bread and butter asking people to give to charity. I don’t want them to feelobligated to give. I want them to feel like they are privileged to be part of something great.

When I deny a donor the opportunity to fund research that might help cure their husband or wife, what I’m really doing is taking away their option to do something they want to do.

I’ve worked with friends in the past and have heard many more who have been practicing on saying “thank you,” upon receiving a compliment. Just “thank you.” No rationalizations. No excuses. Just gratitude.

I was speaking with a friend about this recently. “What do you say when he tells you you’re gorgeous?” I asked.

“I’ve been working on just saying ‘thank you,'” she answered.

“Are you ready to level up?” I asked.

Because I’ve taken this whole accepting a compliment thing to the next level.

Are you ready for it?

When someone you love, when the person in your life that makes your nether bits react tells you something flattering, try setting that self-critical thinking aside and say this:

I believe you.

I’ve been doing it. He can tell you that I do it. When he tells me he loves me or that I’m beautiful or that he enjoys spending time with me.

I believe you.

It’s only a matter of time before you might start believing it in yourself.


Please note – It’s probably best continue to employ CRITICAL thinking (not self-critical thinking) when you are establishing a relationship with someone new. We all know there are people out there who are not as intimately associated with honesty as others. But, once you have decided to trust someone….

Trust them.

In which I win at life

Today would have been my sixth wedding anniversary.

Those of you who have been following along know the implications of that sentence. Or, rather, you probably think you know.

I barely understand the implications of that sentence.

On the drive home last night, I realized that where will come a time (approximately two years from today) where I will have been widowed for as long as I was married.

And the year after that I’ll have been widowed longer.

Weird. Right? It’s not just me?

It’s weird.

Anyway, here’s the thing. I’d almost forgotten it was coming. And then I saw the date on my phone last night and it clicked. Wedding anniversary.

I prepared myself to be all sad, or emotional, or something.

And instead, I keep thinking about earlier yesterday evening. It was the moment I realized I’d won at life. It was like a Sally Field moment:

He gets me. He really gets me. It’s when I got the text message from my partner that said probably one of the most heartwarming and loving statements I’ve heard in a long time:

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“I trust you more than I trust the SMS timestamp on my phone.”

That’s what he said. The context doesn’t matter, though it’s adorable then there for you to see. He trusts me.

DOES ANYBODY ELSE GET THOSE SUPER AWESOME SHIVERS READING THAT?

Just me?

To be trusted like that means the world to me. Last night I went to sleep truly feeling like I’d won at life.

Which is a really strange way to end a blog post that started as an acknowledgment of something so bittersweet.

I don’t ask for promises anymore

I just realized something kind of mind boggling.

I don’t ask for promises anymore.

Used to be I’d be told “I’ll be there….” or “Wouldn’t miss it….” or the ever-dreaded, “Soon.”

And, well…he’d not be there, or he did miss it, or “soon” never happened.

So, the next time whichever guy I was dating at the time would say “I’ll be there….” or “Wouldn’t miss it…” or motherfucking “Soon,” I’d respond, “Promise?”

I’d have to secure that promise – because then I could be upset or angry when they didn’t come through. It gave me that right to cry, “But you promised!”

All the apologizing in the world couldn’t fix it. Excuses piled on top of excuses wouldn’t change the fact that their base-level word was not enough, and their promises were fragile at best.

But I don’t ask for promises anymore. Not because I don’t believe in them, but because I don’t have to.

If he says “I’ll be there,” he’s there. If he says “wouldn’t miss it,” he doesn’t miss it. And when he says “Soon,” I know exactly how long “soon” will be. Sometimes to the number of hours.

Five months, and not a single time have I had to ask “promise?”

🙂