Bliss Counselling | Consent in Relationships: The Unacknowledged Country
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Consent in Relationships: The Unacknowledged Country

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29 Jun Consent in Relationships: The Unacknowledged Country

 

One good thing about being a therapist with one foot in traditional monogamous culture, and one in the poly community (and one in the BDSM community+) is that I have an opportunity to bring some interesting perspectives from one culture to another. Often these are concepts that we’d think *SHOULD* be obvious across the entire relationship spectrum, but you’d be amazed at how often this isn’t the case at all. One of the biggest places where I am persistently surprised by the lack of awareness is understanding the importance of consent within relationships. We are increasing societal awareness around consent and sex as we battle back against rape culture and certain types of gendered entitlement or toxic behaviours, and the poly and BDSM communities claim themselves to be positively steeped in consent awareness. I often discover that even within seemingly healthy relationships, however, the idea of “consent” — what it means, what it looks like, how it functions in monogamous relationships — is something that has eluded a lot of conscious consideration until someone directly brings it into focus (like, say, a therapist).

For example, some couples come into counselling with issues around dealing with a partner’s “negativity”, citing how one partner comes home from work every day and just immediately begins to unload a laundry list of all the unpleasantness of the day on the other partner, who may or may not be in a place themselves to receive that unloaded crap, and who may or may not know how to block or deflect it. My first question to couples outlining that kind of behavioural pattern is almost invariably to the unloading partner: “Do you have your partner’s consent to unload on them like that?”

Almost as invariably, what I get in response is a blank look, and the tentative question, “What do you mean, do I have their *consent*?”

“I mean, do you have their permission to dump all of your bad day on them? Have they consented to receive that load of toxic goo on their heads? Have you checked in to see if they’re ready and willing to receive? Or are you just making an assumption, or worse, just dumping without even considering whether or not they’re ready and willing to receive?”

Unwanted interactions are unwanted interactions, whether we’re talking about sharing negativity or emotional overwhelm, or sexual pressure, or even just assumptions. While some degree of these will always be unavoidable in relationship, there is a point at which we need to step back and check in with our partners about our interactions. Often we build up a tolerance to irritations over time, but sometimes relationships end abruptly (and often as a surprise to at least one partner) because we lose tolerance for the slow “death by a thousand cuts” of our unaddressed frustrations and distresses. A lot of these strains are the result of behaviours that push past our boundaries, behaviours we have not consented to receive, but we don’t know how to stop.

Maybe we don’t know how to stop them because we just don’t know how to say no to intimate partners. Maybe we don’t know how simply because we’ve never had someone model healthy boundary defense to us. Or maybe we just assume that putting up with the annoying shit our partners do (and yes, this really does often go both ways) is simply an implicit expectation of being in relationship; we feel that it’s our job as an intimate partner to tolerate or allow unwelcome behaviours to persist. This is implicit consent, when we don’t explicitly say, “Yes, this I expressly permit”, but rather we simply say nothing against unwanted actions. This is the root of the cliche, “Silence equals consent” – implicit consent and assumptions that silence implies consent are a surprising part of apparently-healthy, “normal” monogamous relationship dynamics. It’s also, perhaps unsurprisingly, still a heavily gender-biased dynamic in which women yield against presumptive behaviour more commonly than men, as least in terms of the perspective gained from couples coming into counselling. Out in the real world, I wouldn’t be surprised to find it’s maybe more balanced than that. But in therapy, we’re still fighting the feminist battle of teaching women how to say “no”, how to stand up for their own limits, and how to feel safe in enacting or withdrawing consent in their relationships as an active process. Boundary violations, and implicit consent violations in specific, are some of the major contributors to sick systems in relationships.

I do believe consent works best as an active process, rather than a one-and-done, binary state where the assumption is either “all consent for everything is granted” or “no consent for anything is granted” (I may have written about trust in that sense; if not, I’ll add it to the floating list of “future blog topics”). But we don’t tend to think consciously of consent at all in the grander workings of a relationship, let’s break down some of the simple places where consent becomes a key factor in our interactions:

Do I have my partner’s consent to engage in affectionate physical contact or sexual interaction whenever *I* want? How do I know that belief/assumption to be true? Have I checked in with that belief/assumption lately?
Do I assume that belief/assumption to be constantly applicable? How will I determine if there are times when perhaps consent has been withdrawn?

Do I have my partner’s consent to engage in verbal offloads about topics that are of intense interest to me but perhaps not to them? How do I know that belief/assumption to be true? Have I checked in with that belief/assumption lately?
Do I assume that belief/assumption to be constantly applicable? How will I determine if there are times when perhaps consent has been withdrawn?

Do I have my partner’s consent to assume a particular distribution of emotional labour (or any kind of labour, really)? How do I know that belief/assumption to be true? Have I checked in with that belief/assumption lately?
Do I assume that belief/assumption to be constantly applicable? How will I determine if there are times when perhaps consent has been withdrawn?

These are just three common areas where consent and assumptions about permission tend to get couples into trouble. We often come into relationship with assumptions about how relationships will work, and when we’re lucky, we find partners who assumptions more or less jive with our own. We don’t always think to check in explicitly bout what’s allowed and under what circumstance, and what is not; or if we do, we might do it conscientiously at the outset of new relationships, when NRE opens all horizons to exploration, but once we settle into relational routine, we frequently forget to go back and actively monitor those initial agreements and the assumptions we build atop them. (Confession time: I’m as guilty of that as the next person; it’s one reason why I keep my own therapist on retainer… and speed dial.)

So when couples come into the office looking at improving their communications, some of the primary foundational pieces we have to look at are the implicit assumptions about consent, and how those boundaries are expressed initially and defended thereafter. Are they even articulated at all? As consent boundaries, are they deliberately presented as permeable or impermeable? Perhaps more importantly, in practice are the consent boundaries viewed and respected by both partners as permeable or impermeable? Trust me when I say, it’s a terribly common issue for one partner to say, “This is a hard limit, NONE SHALL PASS!”, but in practice, under pressure (implicit or explicit) from the other partner allows that boundary to erode, shift, and become permeable to the point of relative non-existence. A lot of resentment that builds between over time partners can often be traced to places where these kinds of consent boundaries have been compromised somehow.

So, how do we learn to recognize consent boundaries in monogamous relationships, and how do we learn to defend them once we recognize they’re even a thing? That’s where a relationship therapist can come in handy, especially one who will blog about these aspects in coming weeks 🙂 Stay tuned!


 

+ — I know, that makes it sound like I’m a three-legged therapist, which I am most decidedly not; I just dance like one.

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Karen Grierson, MTS, RP

Originally posted on Karen’s blog

Photo: Couple by Sole Treadmill