STI RISKS: Communicating with Lovers (4/4)


In this last post in the series, I'd like to discuss communicating about STI risks with lovers and potential lovers. That communication has been one of the greatest relationship communications challenges I've faced. Talking to others, experiences are similar: communicating about STI risks tends to be filled with fear and uncertainty; disagreements tend to lead to strong feelings of hurt.

A lot of different goals are mixed together:

In addition, many different feelings may emerge, including:

Choices I've regretted

I've approached the discussion of STI risks a number of ways. I'd like to start out by discussing some of the options that led to the most pain for me.Over time, I've found that boundary negotiations are another area where respecting individual agency and individual needs is important. I may be building a relationship with someone, I may even be building a life together. However, I'm still an individual with my own needs. The struggle to share, to do things together rather than respecting that everyone involved is an individual can lead to a lot of hurt.

Not a Negotiation

That's most obvious when I've tried to approach STI communication as a negotiation. I've come to believe that negotiation serves no place in boundary discussions. By that I mean that boundaries are not something that we agree to in our relationship.

I've found that trying to negotiate and agree to boundaries results in lots of negative feelings. You're seeding part of deciding what makes you safe to someone else. Except you can't really do that: you can seed agreement about whether you'll be safe, but if whatever you agree does not actually match your own needs, you feel trapped.

The situation can get particularly uncomfortable when negotiating how to face a particular new lover. Imagine I've found someone new who I'd like to approach sexually. When my existing lovers have concerns, it is easy to feel that they are focused on their own needs rather than fairly balancing my desires in the new relationship: it is hard for anyone else to appreciate that value. However, my existing lovers can easily feel upset if they think I'm focusing on the new relationship rather than their safety.

Unfortunately, no matter how well you understand boundaries ahead of time, sometimes a new lover brings up issues that have not been considered. There may be a corner case, or there may be a difference in how to interpret information. Regardless of the underlying details, I've found that this is a case where deciding as a group leads to a lot of negative feelings.

I understand this may seem counter-intuitive.

How can you have relationship-level commitments around boundaries without turning boundary discussions into negotiations? For myself, those commitments mostly seem to come down to a commitment on both sides to work through the issues until people's needs are met and the commitment is satisfied.

Avoid Medical focus

In my experience, focusing on medical information or research is another deep pit of frustration, hurt and disappointment. As I discussed in the second post, there's a lot more to safety than medical risk. Even when people agree on the medical facts, they may have different risk tolerances or care about different threats. It's easy to disagree about how much confidence to place in a particular study or how to interpret the results: even the "facts" are not always clear.

Mixing medical discussions with other discussions can be particularly problematic. For example if I say that I disagree with a particular study, it is easy for someone to hear that as disagreeing with conclusions they drew from the story even when that is not the case. They can feel insecure because they need their boundaries respected. However if I am silent, they may be surprised when my reasoning is different later.

Recently I started a new job. I started in the middle of a pay period. With semi-monthly payroll, there are several correct options for how to prorate pay. I was confused by my salary. I asked about it.

I ended up agreeing that the method they chose to prorate the pay was valid, while disagreeing with some of the conclusions they had drawn about it and some of their reasoning about implications. I tried to make it clear that we'd left the conversation about a concerned employee and were geeking about accounting and HR issues. Two days into the discussion, the third time I reiterated that point, it finally made it through. "O, this is no longer an employment issue?" "No, not at all. We've been chatting about accounting for days; you answered my employment question with your first message."

As an employer, there are strong reactions to a question about whether you are treating your employees reasonably. Your reaction to that will be very loud; reassurances and distinctions about scope of discussion can come across very quiet.

Sex is bigger than any pure employment question. I've never managed to successfully communicate a reaction to a medical discussion while giving reassurance that I respect someone's boundaries, no matter how they are chosen.

How I Approach Communication

I'll note up-front that communicating about STI risks is still very much a work in progress. I have had some really promising discussions in 2015, but they have never been put to a true test. I've managed to have very compassionate, connected conversations where I discussed some significant changes in how I was approaching my tolerance of risk, opening up what I'm open to. However, I have not yet made decisions based on those conclusions that would be inconsistent with previous approaches. I have not yet seen whether this works as well as I hope when a new lover comes into my life.

That said, the main thing I've been doing is trying to meet in the strength of love and approach the issue with compassion and respect for everyone's needs. I've had huge success and growth with that type of open communication in other contexts.

Start with Compassion

I think it is important to start with compassion on both sides. If someone has expressed discomfort with something I'm considering, I can let them know they are valued and that I care about our relationship and understanding them.

It really helps to hear support as I approach new lovers from my existing lovers. It helps to give my existing lovers support and to let them know they will be heard.

When difficult decisions are made, receiving understanding from all sides (and offering that understanding) helps a lot.

If I'd find reassurances or understanding comforting, I can ask for them. I don't need to wait until those important in my life magically realize I'm vulnerable and reach out to me.. I keep forgetting this last point.

Clear Goals

I have found having a clear scope of the conversation and clear goals for what I'm hoping to accomplish is valuable. Am I stressed about some question seeking emotional reassurance? Am I considering a behavior change and seeking input on how that will impact someone? Am I communicating with a new lover to understand their practices and see what our needs are? Making that clear up front has been helpful. I've also found that if the goals or scope changes, taking a break (even if just to get up, go to the bathroom, and resettle) really helps.

I do have medical discussions, but I try to keep those separate from discussions about behavior or specific lovers.

Accept Needs Might not Match

I start by accepting that my needs might not align with those of my lovers. I'm not a bad person if I'm not able to give my lover something they want (either a sexual experience or a reassurance of safety). My lover is not a bad person if they cannot give me something I want. We are not bad people if we find ourselves facing hard trade offs.

This is in part easier, because there's no sexual activity that I have to be able to do with any person. Sexual connection is important, but between masturbation and touching someone else, I can reach any level of sexual connection i might wish to approach. I'd rather not be limited to that: I value all sorts of sexual expression. However I know that if the only way for my lovers and I to meet everyone's needs is to limit what we do sexually, I have not limited the depth of sexual connection possible.

My value in a relationship is not defined by how I fuck. If I decide that in order to be safer, I'm going to stop a particular activity with someone, the value of our relationship is not diminished; the value of our love is not diminished.

Even if you do value some particular sexual activity, I'd urge great caution in associating that activity (or performing that activity without protection) with a greater level of intimacy and love. Where will you stand if disease, age, or injury takes that away from you?

Instead, I have my boundaries, and as part of respecting me, you respect them. You have your boundaries, and as part of respecting you, I respect them. Because we value each other, we work to find ways we can connect within those boundaries. That respect, that working together, and finding the most connection we can with activities permitted by our boundaries is the intimacy I most value.

How this works in Relationship

What I'd really like to capture here is how through compassion and meeting in strength, we can meet the needs both of everyone involved and our relationships.

Imagine I'm in a relationship; sexual connection is an important part of that committed relationship. I'm considering approaching a new lover and I'd like to talk about it.

I might first start by reaffirming the value I place in the existing relationship and in our commitment to sexual openness. I'd seek reassurances from my existing lover that they value me reaching out and connecting with others. We start from a position where we individually feel valued and we feel the value of the relationship.

Then I'd listen to my lover's needs and share my own needs.

I'm in a position of strength. I could sit there and say "If you don't like what I'm doing, that's your problem." I won't do that. It's not because we've negotiated something else; it's not because there isn't a level at which I have given up that option. It's because the relationship is dynamic; the relationship is successful when each member works to maintain it. I will do my part to figure out how my needs can be met while meeting their needs, just as I trust them to do their part.

I am prepared to accept them taking distance, and may reassure them of this. Part of respecting their needs in this situation is respecting their choice if they choose to cut off some form of contact. I expect the same sort of respect in whatever needs I have that lead to them feeling a need to take that distance.

It's been my experience that because we have these options, because we have that respect, we are less likely to make those painful decisions. It's easier to give up the opportunity for some form of connection with a new lover when it is a choice freely offered me, chosen to preserve the relationship I value, than when that choice is forced or demanded.

My conversation with the new lover is likely to be similar although perhaps less complex. I'll reassure them that I am interested, that I hope for connection. I'll ask for reassurance they value my existing relationships. I'll reassure them that I will not judge them based on their practices. This isn't about them being a bad or a good person. It's not even about them being safe or unsafe. It is about what we're comfortable doing given our respective practices, history and testing. I'll ask for the same lack of judgment in return.

Then we'll discuss the details, and approach each other in ways that are consistent with both of our needs.