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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Buyer

#99: Intent vs Impact

The most common debate across my relationships is the question of intent vs impact - which matters most? I stand firm that impact outweighs intent, but the goal of this post is to explore the counterargument that intent is most (or equally) important. At its core, this debate is about whether I should react to the underlying intent, or the impact of how a person communicates with words, verbally, in writing or via carrier pigeon. 

For example, when it comes to reassurance of romantic feelings from a partner, to the point that I question the relationship without such affirmation (if applicable given the stage of the romantic connection). My request for the other party to verbalize his emotions towards me on a semi-regular basis is often met with insistence that I interpret intent, as opposed to words, or lack thereof. By interpret intent, the explanations I’ve received sum up to the point that the other person (people) wants me to assume that he cares, and has good intentions, even if he isn’t able to express emotions – Depending on the situation, this may be because he wasn’t comfortable or capable to express emotion this way, which isn’t one of the things I’ve been willing to compromise on. Let’s be real: caring and having good intentions isn’t enough to sustain the kind of partnership I’m after. Recounting these types of interactions re-affirms that I’m grateful to be single, and that there's a good reason those relationships didn’t work. Anyway, my counter-argument is that I don’t want to assume, and shouldn’t assume intent, especially when I’m specifically asked not to assume in other situations. Is there a handbook for this? For example, I appreciate when a guy checks in on me via text to ask how the day is going. However, texting on a regular basis does not signal romantic interest on its own. My friends and I also check in on each other with similar-ish frequency. It’s true that we do this because we care about each other, but that doesn’t mean we have romantic feelings for one another. Same thing goes with family – if I follow this logic, a guy asking his mom how his day was and thinking that’s enough to demonstrate intentions implies that he has romantic interest in his mother… Therefore, It doesn't logically follow to interpret a guy asking me about my day as reassurance of romantic interest in absence of other differentiators that express romantic connection in conjunction. For the record, ‘romantic differentiators’ can be as simple as “I miss you” or “I’m happy that you’re mine.” I’m less concerned about this in the early stages of getting to know someone, because neither party has had a chance to get to know the other enough to genuinely have those feelings. Flirting is fun, but I’m not into love bombing. Nor do I want to be smothered. 

There are two counter-arguments to the point that I should rely on his good intentions alone:

1) If the romantic connection is already established, the counter is that sending a text is an effort to maintain the connection. Therefore, I should interpret this as affirmation that he has continued romantic interest, since there’s no reason to assume that anything has changed since the last conversation that this was affirmed.

2) Similarly to the above, “We’re dating.” Since the relationship is defined, I’m expected to trust the intent of the communication. 

I accept that there is validity to both of these points. I wouldn’t date someone unless I felt that I could trust them and trust their feelings towards me. However, it’s also natural to want this reassurance from the person I’m interested in, as much as I’ll admit that some of this craving is to soothe an anxious nervous system with a reminder that nothing has changed. As much as I work on this in my own time, reassurance will always be important to me, because it’s also part of the fun of being with someone and having a mutual, emotional connection. In a world that changes so rapidly, I seek out healthy and consistent communication patterns in order to validate that the connection is, in fact, mutual. Otherwise, no big deal, but I’d rather move on. 

Furthermore, when the [text] conversation is serious, or a dry exchange of information, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate intent from the impact. For example, I share a lengthy explanation of something I accomplished that day. The person responds “good 2 know” without showing further curiosity or interest. The response doesn’t outwardly show intent, and has little positive impact other than that the information acknowledged. As a person who interprets impact, I feel a lack of care resulting from the lack of effort in the response. The person indexed on intent maintains that it’s my responsibility as the sender to appreciate the intent of the text, which was to acknowledge the information that I shared. The fallback “we’re dating” loses credence in this situation, given that I showed vulnerability and invested effort to share information, and was met with a three-word response in place of “I’m really busy now, can I get back to you later?,” appreciation, or follow-up questions to communicate and ensure understanding. As the sender who took a risk and invested up-front, why is it my responsibility to manage every aspect of this exchange, if the other person claims to be equally invested in the relationship? If I send a friend the same text and she consistently responds similarly, I’ll eventually interpret that she’s not interested in hearing these details of my life – Is that the intent that I can assume? This was actually an example of a situation when I was explicitly told that I shouldn’t have assumed the intent. Unclear if it makes it worse or better that this was a pattern, but also no longer relevant. 

Since the intent vs impact debate also arises professionally, we can extend the discussion broadly. Let’s consider the media that often takes information out of context, regardless of intent of the author of the original information. For example, if the Walmart CEO says “All Walmart stores will close,” the media may pick this up and report that Walmart is in trouble, causing shareholders to panic and sell their shares. It doesn’t matter if the CEO’s next sentence is “Walmart stores will reopen tomorrow morning.” Only the impact is relevant to the outcome of the situation that Walmart's stock value declines. As my mom taught me, It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. In order to increase chances that the media picks up the statement correctly, the success of Walmart's CEOs career is dependent on her ability to adjust the initial statement to “All Walmart stores will be closed 4/7 for annual maintenance, but will re-open as scheduled on 4/8. There’s always a chance that words will be misunderstood, but this greatly reduces the chances. If the CEO is as invested in Walmart success as a CEO should be, the impact of the statement directly affects her, and is therefore responsible for it, even if indirectly. She will do everything in her power to prevent the initial miscommunication. For this reason alone, I maintain that impact is ultimately more important than intent. As much as I value good intentions, that’s a minimum when considering a relationship or people I’d choose to work closely with. There’s many, many things I’m willing to compromise on for the right reasons, but respect for my feelings is not one of them.

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