Putting an End to Mixed Messages: The Argument against Politeness in Dating (and in life)

The primary message of my upbringing, as I remember it, was that my role as a woman is to "be ladylike," aka (the non-gendered version) "be polite," and "always make others feel comfortable." I will not bore you with a rant about all the ways this message has negatively impacted my life or the ways in which statements like this reinforce patriarchal oppression, but I will take a few minutes here to discuss how this negatively impacts dating and relationships 

*Let me say briefly here, I personally am passionate about this argument because "politeness" is the insidious, underlying, unexamined cause of so many unintentional games. Often, people think they are being nice, but when they are being dishonest with themselves by being polite, they are sending mixed messages. And I don't have to tell you that mixed messages are probably the number one source of pain, confusion, and hurt in dating.

When being polite is emphasized as a primary value, it implies that "politeness," "manners," and most importantly, the other people to whom we are directing our politeness, are more important than our own values, feelings, intuitions, needs, and wants. 

Healthy relationships are characterized by equal value and consideration of each persons' wants and needs. If one person is subverting their own needs in the name of politeness, there is no fertile ground for mutual respect and consideration to grow. 

What I would advocate for instead is consideration, first of your own reaction, response or need, and then of the other person's need. What does this look like in practice? Well, imagine for a second that someone hurt your feelings. For example, the person you've been dating for three months didn't invite you to something important like their graduation, and posted pictures about it all over social media. The polite thing to do would be to reach out and say "congratulations." If you meant it, this would also be totally appropriate. However, if what you are actually feeling is hurt, angry, unimportant, and like you're not getting your needs met, sending that "congratulations" is effectively telling yourself that those feelings don't matter, and sending a major mixed message to the person you're dating (who will then be totally confused and baffled when you snap at them the next time they reach out to you.)

If you were to instead approach this scenario from a place of "consideration," what would this look like in practice? In my mind, it's a three step process.

Step One. First, consider your own feelings. Take time with them. Accept and validate that they are your reactions, even if you're embarrassed or uncertain about why you have those reactions. Journal about them, talk to your friends about the feelings, don't look for advice, but make sense of them and find a way that you can express them that is non-blaming  (super important key words) but informative to the other person about why you feel that way.  

Step two (which should take place only after step one is totally complete) is to communicate those feelings to the other person with consideration.  This is where non-blaming is important. Consider the other person's perspective and all the possible reasons they may have behaved the way they did, some of which will have nothing to do with you (if you can't think of any reasons that have nothing to do with you, then continue working on this until you come up with some.)  Finally, once you have thought through both your side and the other person's from a place of consideration, you can move to step three.

Step three is where you decide whether to communicate your feelings to the other person. If you've resolved your conflict on your own and now can genuinely say "congratulations" without any residual negative feelings OR you've decided this person has a history of not considering you when they make decisions despite how often you talk to them about it, you might not need to communicate anything to them. However, if you have any residual feelings and it's an important or good relationship, or you would like it to be an important or good relationship, I would advocate for communication here. Again, make sure to communicate in a non-blaming way (check out resources such as Crucial Conversations or Non-Violent Communication for some helpful formulas.) 

Hoping this was helpful in reframing any internalized social pressure to be polite. Feel free to comment below.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. What are the characteristics of a healthy relationship?

A. Healthy relationships are characterized by equal value and consideration of each persons' wants and needs. If one person is subverting their own needs in the name of politeness, there is no fertile ground for mutual respect and consideration to grow. 

Q. What are the benefits of communicating feelings in a relationship?

A. Communication is the most important factor in a relationship. Communication can be difficult and sometimes it’s hard to know how to say what you mean. There are many benefits of communicating feelings in a relationship, but one of the most important ones is that it helps you understand your partner better. 

Q. How can we communicate feelings effectively in a relationship? 

A. The emotional connection between two people is a complex one. It can be hard to understand how the other person is feeling, but there are some ways to do it. We can use non-verbal cues like facial expressions or body language as well as verbal cues like tone of voice or word choice.

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