Monday, June 1, 2009

Asking for What You Want

I have a problem asking for what I want. In fact, I hate it. Probably the only thing harder is asking for what I need (not that I'm particularly good at discerning the difference).

Requests in the Group Context
I’m much more comfortable offering assistance than requesting it. My basic strategy as a community member—and as a partner—is to maximize what I can offer as support, while at the same time minimizing what I request. In general, giving more than one takes creates a certain amount of social lubricant that eases group dynamics. (As a relatively minor example, I often forego taking portions of popular dishes at common meals unless I'm confident that the quantity available will sate everyone; if I have any sense that there might not be enough to provide everyone all that they want, I'm apt to take none. Instead, I try to make a wholesome meal out of what's plentiful. Luckily, on a farm, that's not difficult to accomplish. What's more there's plenty of hump to this camel, and missing an occasional meal is no big deal for me.)

As someone who has a considerable amount of privilege in my life—I'm a well-educated, able-bodied, articulate, older white man—this is one of the ways I cope with the demonstrably uneven power gradient that exists within my intentional community (just as it does in all intentional communities), where the explicit goal is to create a cooperative culture that attempts to provide equal access to power and influence. Knowing that I have a lot of power, I try to be vigilant about how I exercise it. Where possible (such as the choices I make about what food to eat), I have worked to automatically screen my personal desires against how they may impact the options available to others.

To be sure, this practice does not always lead to happy results. Sometimes people can be irritated (even insulted) by my insistance that others go first [I one time had a friend who was an accomplished baker and would mail me a box of assorted delectable homemade cookies every Christmas, but stopped the practice as soon as she learned that I shared the treats with everyone else in the community, instead of eating them myself.] Trying to focus on the group impact, I sometimes come across as holier than thou, and "too good" to eat what others eat. I cheat people out of the pleasure of pleasing me. It can get tricky.

Sometimes people refrain from making requests because it will be too awkward for them to hear "no"; they'd rather do without than risk a potential embarrassment. Going one level deeper, sometimes people suppress requests for fear that it will be too hard for the person(s) receiving the request to say "no" and will thus be trapped into saying "yes." In this dynamic the would-be requester is silent because they don't care to put others in such an awkward position.

Those who have less trouble hearing "no" find it eaiser to make requests, and thus tend to get more of what they want in the way of support. It is not unusual for this to lead to a certain amount of subterranean resentment from those who are substantially withholding or editing their requests, because of the imbalance of support that results from the imbalance of requests. Note this can be true even when the group explicitly ecourages everyone to put out their requests! Having the stated ideal of equality and fairness is not nearly enough to ensure its manifestation.

Although most group's have a common value about members being supportive of one another (which essentially translates into being available to hear and satisfy a certain amount of requests from fellow members) it's not often made explicit what the limits of that are. Nor is it commonly discussed how far someone can "go in the hole," by which I mean how much they can be perceived to be receiving more than they are giving and have there be no tension around deficit spending.

As a practical matter, most groups would prefer that all members run a positive balance when it comes to how much they give support and how much they receive it. (If you have doubts about whether this is true for your group, think about how badly you don't want to be labeled a "needy" person by others.) Upon reflection, of course, it will be obvious that this is an impossible standard. If one member is running a positive balance, then some other member must be running a negative balance. Uh oh. Worse, people will not always have the same perception about how much someone is running ahead or behind, and there will predictably (as is the sun will rise in the East) be tension around the gap in perception of people's contributions to one another. It can be damn hard to have a constructive conversation around the sense that someone is being selfish and not doing "their share" of supporting others when the group has not established a standard for what's expected and, in fact, is likely to be adamant about not doing so.

This can be a large hair ball.

Requests in the Intimate Context
While the group context is plenty messy, it can get even murkier when you drop down to the intimate level.
For this, I'll retrun to my own journey.

I have trouble asking for what I want with my wife, Ma’ikwe. In reflecting on this extensively the past week, it has dawned on me that I expect her to intuit what I want and offer it without my making a request. That way, I can have my cake (the thing I actually want) and eat it too (not being at risk for appearing selfish, or at risk for being turned down). How messed up is that? Unfortunately, it's plenty messed up, and occasionally (when I'm really into embracing me Inner Asshole) I even have the temerity to be irritated with Ma'ikwe for not guessing right about what I want and haven't articulated. This is really embarrassing.

Ma'ikwe and I live in neighboring intentional communities three miles apart—she at Dancing Rabbit and I at Sandhill Farm. While we'd have this issue (about how to handle requests of one another) regardless of where we lived, we have the chance to test these waters regularly on the question of how much time to spend together. While we're both committed to the partnership and take this seriosuly, we're also busy people with plenty of other commitments in our lives. Lately we've been examining the consequences of how our limited time together is putting a significant strain on our intimacy [see my blog entires for April 19, May 7, and May 21 for more on this]. While this is something we’ve created together (and therefore need a joint response to) I hadn’t realized—until she recently pointed it out—that she was initiating almost all of the contact that happens between us outside of the times that we routinely set aside. More embarrassment.

Why was I doing so little to cultivate the relationship? I suspect the answer (or at least a good part of it) is as simple as my being uncomfortable making requests. So what’s going on?

It’s easy to understand that Ma’ikwe wants to hear my requests—after all, I want to hear hers. Why do I balk at reciprocating? There are some things that aren’t so hard for me to ask for. One of those is honesty with one another. I also have no trouble asking her opinion about something I've written or the way I've handled a complicated situation. I enjoy asking her to help me prepare a celebratory meal.

These bright spots notwithstanding, I have great resistance to asking for time alone with me, or for her to come over to Sandhill for the evening. I struggle to tell her when I’m in struggle. It’s hard just asking her to hold me. While I easily offer her massage, I never request it. When we make love, I keep score, making sure that she climaxes more often than I do. None of this is helpful.

Why do I do this? I think that my fundamental fear is that I may need her more than she needs me, and I operate under the ridiculous idea that if I ask for less then I’ll need less. Being afraid of losing intimacy, I sabotage what we have. Now there’s a plan.

Ma’ikwe has made it clear to me that she wants to be partnered with me and is fully present when we’re together (she's doing a stellar job of allaying my fears in this regard). Yet lately I’ve been in distress over not being sure what I want, or being OK with asking for anything. I’ve been in a kind of paralysis about this the last couple weeks, and now I’m second guessing the time we spend together. Instead of simply enjoying those precious hours, I’m distracted by attempts to step back and see what I’m doing. In short, I’m lost, and often appear to be doing no better than chasing my tail.

I'm now admitting my utter confusion at the deepest levels of intimacy. (And for someone who works hard to understand what's happening in the moment, and has built a national reputation as a fearless takes-on-all-comers facilitator who never loses his cool in th heat of the dynamic moment, this is a tender admission.) Ma’ikwe has characterized this as being “cracked open” (subtly distinguished from being “cracked up” I suppose) and I think this is apt. My hull has been holed and I’m leaking clarity. I’m also closer to my emotional core and the terrain is unfamiliar. I trip a lot—both in the stumbling sense and in the hallucinogenic sense—and there are moments lately where reality seems pretty elusive.

Looking over at Ma'ikwe's part of the intimacy equation, my wife is riding a rogue wave right now (though it’s a rare and mighty thing, and perhaps dangerous, it's also exhilarating). She’s integrating into a new community (she’s been at DR less than a year), she’s developing a new locus of work (applying life skills where they're wanted and appreciated), she’s building a house for the first time in her life, and she has a new lover. Life is pretty damn exciting for her right now, and I totally support her joy. I have fears that this wave may carry her away from me, yet she’s doing a terrific job of contradicting that by being consistently attentive to both herself and to our Relation Ship, determined to keep it afloat in the high seas she's navigating.

While neither of us is at all sure where this wave will land us, we’re agreed that it’s a potent protean force that is likely to be highly growthful. Best of all, we have a similar intuitive sense that we should trust the journey, and that’s huge. (We both picked the category marked “great” rather than “safe” on our relationship menu, so here we are.) Of course, it’s all very exciting to have Scottie beam you up and get all your molecules scrambled. However, this is more than a carnival ride and the stakes are as high as the seas. Though I know I won't get it, I ache for assurance that I’ll rematerialize afterwards on the same planet as my wife.

When I went to college in the ‘60s the political street phrase was, “Seize the Time!” My latter-day equivalent is “Ride the Wave!”

Battle of the Bands
In some ways, it comes down to whether you believe more in the philosophy of Mick Jagger or Jimmy Cliff. Mick, the realist, warned in song, “You can’t always get what you want,” while Jimmy, the optimist, countered with, “You can get it if you really want.”

While I’ve learned that expectations profoundly influence outcomes, I notice that I tend to approach requests from Ma’ikwe much as a trail lawyer might—rarely asking a question I'm not sure of the answer to. If I suspect the request might place Ma’ikwe in an awkward spot, I’ll tend to not make it. Though she doesn't want me to edit, I do anyway. Where do I find the courage to turn that around?

So here I am, getting the goddamned growth opportunity I said I wanted, and I'm squirming. I hate this. I suppose the good news is that, in the end, Both Mick and Jimmy offer hope. For Mick it's about surrender. A little later in the same song he offers:

But if you try sometimes you just might find that you get what you need.

For Jimmy, it's about perseverence, even (especially?) in heavy seas:

But you must try, try and try, try and try, you'll succeed at last.

So here I am, 59 years old and still a work in progress. The only thing I know for certain is that Ma'ikwe, bless her, won't let me off the hook (which, of course, is why a I married her). I'll keep you posted on how it goes.

1 comment:

joe cole said...

Thanks for another rich post. I also have this challenge with asking for what I need, and it was a big issue for my ex-wife, who ended up feeling like I didn't need her and was surprised at my devastation when she walked away from the marriage. So thanks for sharing your struggles and insights.

And the "cracked open" reference reminded me of a line from Leonard Cohen's song "Anthem":

Ring the bell that still can ring.
There is no perfect offering.
There is a crack
A crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in
That's how the light gets in