What does it mean when we say we want something? My goal in relationships is generally to empower everyone involved to do whatever they want as much of the time as possible. But what do they “want?” What counts as a genuine desire vs. something we do to avoid the consequences? If a person buys me a gift to make me happy, does that count? If a person agrees to monogamy in order to keep a relationship, can that person be said to have “wanted” that? What if different parts of ourselves have incompatible desires? Where is the line drawn?
I don’t really have a clear answer to that. As I’ve noted a couple of times before, human motivation is complicated and context-dependent. It’s often not as simple as saying “I want X” or “I don’t want Y.” It’s usually something like “I want X, Y, and Z, but not if it means I can’t get A or B, though I’d give up B if I could get Z and X, but I need A unless I can get C, and…” you get the idea.
In relationships, when I say that people should do what they want, what it really comes down to is that our relationships should be free of coercion. Shelly, a guest poster on More Than Two, has a good explanation for what coercion looks like:
Coercion is when you make the consequences to saying “no” to intimacy so great that it removes any reasonable choice. There is more obvious coercion, such as threats, either externally or internally directed. But I find that coercion just sort of organically arises when you believe that your partner, in that moment, owes you intimacy. If you think your partner owes you intimacy, and you are just “expressing your feelings,” there’s a good chance you’re being coercive. If your partner says “no,” and you start preparing for a fight instead of accepting their choice, you’re probably going to be coercive.
I would simply expand this definition to include the consequences of saying “no” to anything aside from recognizing boundaries. Intimacy isn’t the only thing that partners should be able to refuse. People should always be free to make the decisions that will make themselves happiest. But conversely, healthy relationships have healthy boundaries, and partners should be expected to respect each other’s boundaries and to suffer extreme consequences if they do not. Enforcing boundaries, though, is the only area where it is ethical to attempt to control a partner’s behavior without their consent, and the need to create consequences to enforce boundaries is often a sign of an unhealthy relationship.
In a sense, capitulating to coercion is “doing what we want.” Avoiding the negative consequences of a decision is often a legitimate motivating factor. But when coercion is at play, the consequences of the decision have been unnecessarily increased such that the subject no longer has a meaningful choice. It is the unnecessarily element that separates coercion from mere knowledge of consequences. All actions have consequences, and some will have dire consequences for a relationship. This is unavoidable. Avoiding coercion simply means that a partner is not imposing unnecessary or artificial consequences.
Often, a consequence of certain behaviors will be that the relationship ends. This is not coercion. In fact, it is the opposite. A relationship ending, while it may be very painful, is not an example of the consequences being so great that meaningful choice is removed. It is often reasonable and necessary for a relationship to end. I cannot stress this enough. However, certain similar actions are coercive. A partner threatening to leave when they don’t mean it is coercive. When leaving the relationship means destitution, social isolation, estrangement from family, or other avoidable and destructive consequences, it is coercive. When a partner attempts to make a breakup unnecessarily difficult or painful, it is coercive.
There are also plenty of things short of ending the relationship that can be coercive. Punishing a partner (or threatening to punish a partner) for the purpose of changing their behavior is coercive. Causing a scene when you don’t get what you want is coercive. Passive-aggressive remarks are coercive. Asking for things multiple times after you’ve received a “no” can be coercive. Continually bringing up the fact that you didn’t get what you want can be coercive. Any action that doesn’t respect and support a partner’s right and ability to make their own choices can be coercive.
When we are free from coercion, we are able to make our own choices according to our own priorities. When our will is not overridden by outside pressure, we are free to engage in our own internal debate to decide what it is we want. This is no simple task. As I pointed out above, our minds are not unified. Our hedonistic desires, instrumental goals, ethics, empathy, and identity will often be competing within our own heads. Some people find it useful to think of themselves as having multiple selves which are in constant competition to get what they want. Sometimes it makes sense to use coercive tactics on ourselves, when we don’t trust our future selves to make smart decisions in the moment. What we want is not often clear, and even when it is, it can change at any time.
The important thing in relationships is that we allow our partners room to have that internal struggle, and to decide what to do free of coercion. Sometimes, we can help, and we shouldn’t be afraid to do so, but we should be careful that we’re not substituting our own will for that of our partners’ or engaging in coercive tactics without realizing it. When I say “everyone should do what they want,” what I mean is that everyone should do whatever their internal processes tell them is best, free from coercive pressure from outside sources.
So going back to my original questions – any of those examples could be the result of an internal process of deliberation OR the result of coercion. It would depend on the context and the individuals involved. The important thing, in our relationships, is that we recognize the inviolable right of people to decide for themselves what will make them happy, and to do what they think as best so long as it isn’t crossing any of our boundaries.