A few days after Thanksgiving, I was faceplanted on a cafeteria table, trying to explain to a friend (let’s call her T.) about my relationship with another friend, which had recently taken a turn for the unexpected. Well, I say “explain,” but mostly it was a lot of “I’M SO CONFUSED” and “WHAT DOES THIS MEAN” and “UGH, FEELINGS SUCK, CAN WE JUST NOT.” T. was pretty calm for someone faced with a wildly flailing, faceplanting Queenie and asked, “Well, have you tried asking her?”
“NO! THAT’S SCARY! I don’t want to freak her out by talking about my feelings for her!” I faceplanted on the table again, because I am an adult who deals with feelings in a mature manner.
After some more flailing and extremely mature handling of feelings, T. told me, “JUST USE YOUR WORDS.”
The irony of this whole situation, of course, is that I spend basically every day telling people to use their words. I mean, heck, that’s most of the relationship advice I wind up giving on my blog; someone drops by my ask box and says, “Hey, I don’t know how to deal with this thing in this relationship,” and I say, “Have you tried WORDS? I hear they are very effective.” I am a huge proponent of communication in all forms, and yet when it comes to following my own advice, I am often gripped with blind terror.
It’s not just me either. Most ace advice blogs wind up reminding a ton of people “JUST USE YOUR WORDS” and “Have you tried asking HIM about it? He would probably be better at answering than me.” Are we all just incompetent at communication? Are we all just terrified of expressing feelings? Maybe. But I think it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Sciatrix has recently written about the issues with relationship scripts, but the lack of scripts for many ace relationships can make communication terrifying. I know (from watching far too many romcoms as a teenager) what an invitation inside for coffee really means, but what does a sudden hand-hold mean? What does exchanging emails about really emotionally intimate subjects every day mean? What do unexpected cuddles mean? What does it mean when one of your friends starts calling you “darling”? Maybe it means exactly what it sounds like…but maybe it doesn’t. For all you know, that particular friend calls all his friends darling, and those cuddles were just because you looked like you were having a bad day. Or maybe they weren’t. Maybe you’re reading into things, but also maybe you’re not? Do you really want to be the person who makes everything really awkward by saying, “Hey, so, I’ve noticed that you’re hugging me more recently, and I’m wondering if that just means that you like hugs or if it Means Something”?
Using your words can also be terrifying, because a lot of the time we don’t have the emotional vocabulary to properly express ourselves. Sure, “I have a crush on you” or “I would like to date you” is a pretty easy statement to interpret, but what if your feelings aren’t quite that clear cut? What if they’re more like, “I would like to hang out with you and watch bad kung-fu movies on Netflix and also maybe cuddle a little bit if you’re okay with that”? Or “I don’t want to date you, but I wouldn’t mind doing some things that are usually romantically-coded with you, like, I dunno, holding hands or kissing or sharing a bed”? Or “I’d like to date you, but I’m not really into the physical stuff, so can we just talk excitedly about superheroes over dinner?” (This is, of course, assuming that you can even figure out what you want. Maybe that’s also a work in progress and you just have a whole lot of amorphous FEELINGS that you can’t quite put into words.) Not only do you have to figure out a way to express whatever it is you’re feeling, you also have to do it in a way that the other party understands what the heck you’re talking about. Words like “zucchini” and “squish” are great for people who know what they mean, but if you’re talking to someone who doesn’t have that very specific vocabulary, initiating a Feelings Conversation can be pretty overwhelming and terrifying.
Not that talking about Feelings is particularly easy for most people, even if they do have an easily accessible emotional vocabulary. My emotional vocabulary has all the subtlety and finesse of a baseball bat to the skull, and also tends into the realm of extremely strange metaphors that don’t actually make any sense. To be quite honest, there are probably a number of things I would rather do than talk about my feelings for other people to those people, such as: wrestling a bear, writing a thesis on the history of price tags, and bungee jumping (even though the idea of bungee jumping gives me the heebie jeebies like nothing else). This is especially true when I have feelings for ladies, since I’m always afraid that they’ll react with, “OH GOD, NO, EW, GET AWAY” (even though I know that 99.99% of the time that’s an irrational fear, because I try my darnedest to only hang out with decent human beings). It’s often pretty tempting to skip the whole communication thing (because communication is hard and messy and might end in tears and disaster) and instead attempt to spontaneously develop telepathy. (Note: I’ve been trying to do this for ages, and it has yet to work, so good luck.)
But despite how painful and uncomfortable and downright awkward using your words can be, as T. spent most of that lunchtime meeting reminding me, you really do need to use your words. Communication is hard, but it’s better than staring intensely at the other party, hoping to spontaneously develop telepathy. If you don’t use your words, best case scenario, you wind up confused and don’t get the relationship you want (plus the other party wonders why you keep staring at them intensely), and worst case scenario, it ends in fire and bloodshed and panic in the streets. (Okay, that might be a bit overdramatic, but lack of communication can lead to some pretty dramatic and traumatic issues in relationships.)
I’ve talked about the idea of a relationship contract before, and starting a relationship contract from scratch can be terrifying and overwhelming. Fortunately, the ace community is pretty great at creating tools to help you out! If you haven’t already, check out the QPR checklist (here in chart form) and the physical boundaries checklist. (Note: Both of these can be used for relationships of all types!) At the very least, they can be a starting point for your conversation. Also, I’ve sometimes found radar charts helpful both in figuring out what I want and explaining how my brain works to other people.
It’s also worth noting that different people are comfortable with different forms of communication, so you should use whatever feels right for you. For example, I find it much more comfortable to have Feelings Conversations via email or another text-based medium rather than in person, because it gives me time and space to think about what to say that having another person staring at you, waiting for answers, doesn’t really allow. On the other hand, I know other people who would rather have a face-to-face conversation or a Skype call. Basically, whatever form of communication–telephone, IM, carrier pigeon–works for you is totally legit. Your parents probably told you to never carry out weighty conversations via text message, but your parents also probably never had to worry about navigating relationships from scratch. Do what works for you.
I guess the takeaway point here is USE YOUR WORDS. It’s scary, I know, and it can be awkward and uncomfortable, but communication is a necessary part of any functional relationship. To add an ending (or, really, a middle) to the story I opened this post with, I did wind up using my words (with all my usual elegance and poise, which is to say, extremely awkwardly and with a lot of flailing), and it turned out okay/is turning out okay/will turn out okay. (It’s difficult to pick a single tense in this case, as words-using is ongoing.) Life is an adventure, I guess, and at this point, words are probably my best defense against dragons. (I did warn you that my metaphors stop making any sense.) If I can do it, so can you. So steel yourself, grab your shield or sword or huggable stuffed animal, and USE YOUR WORDS.