People always say that communication is the most important thing in maintaining a healthy, fulfilling relationship, and I totally agree.
But have you ever felt like you’re pouring your heart out to your partner, and they’re just not getting it?
You tell him or her exactly how you feel, you’re honest, and you’re clear, but somehow you feel like your partner isn’t listening. Is being dense. Isn’t picking up what you’re putting down.
Well, recently, after spending several months now working from home with my husband (ha!) that there may be another issue at play.
Are you sure you’re both speaking the same language?
Yes, Delilah, you say. Duh. We’re both literally speaking English. What the hell are you talking about?
Well, I’ll tell you.
Recently, my husband and I discovered that because of two factors in our lives, we actually had different levels of meaning for the SAME goddamn words, which caused a lot of unnecessary bickering.
These factors are:
A. Our upbringings
B. The limited nature of the English language
Let me explain further.
I was raised in a very strict, fundamental Christian family (I can hear you all laughing over there, but it’s true) who talked about things in very black and white terms when using certain words because of the Biblical connotations of those words.
Here are some of my family’s definitions for basic words that come up in a regular marital disagreement:
JUDGEMENT: “When you are JUDGED, you are judged by GOD as in the hammer drops and you are deemed GUILTY of a horrible CRIME.”
WRONG: “You are morally wrong and therefore will be JUDGED by GOD.”
FIGHTING: “If you’re disagreeing loudly, it’s not a fight, because fighting means you’re hating, and hating is a sin. It’s only fighting if you’re absolutely out of your mind, screaming mad. Everything else is just a rational discussion about a passionate topic. Don’t get your panties in a bunch about those kinds of disagreements.”
ANGRY: “If you’re irritated, you’re not angry. Angry is reserved for righteous, godly anger (like Jesus in the temple), and fighting, out-of-your-mind anger. There is no in between.”
My husband, however, was raised by a non-believer and a Buddhist, so his definitions were drastically different to words we both thought were objectively defined.
His family’s definition of the same words:
JUDGEMENT: “If I’m judging you, it means I think what you did is weird or kind of messed up, but it’s cool. It doesn’t change my opinion of you as a person or mean I dislike you because of it.”
WRONG: “I think that’s wrong. We should totally look this up and see who’s right.” Alternative definiton: “Haha, that’s so wrong!” *laughs*
FIGHTING: “We’re disagreeing, therefore we are having a fight. I hate fighting. All disagreements are terrible, and I treat them all equally like we’re having a screaming fit even when we’re just debating an issue.”
ANGRY: “I’m irritated, which is a form of anger. And I’m angry, which is more than irritated. And I’m enraged, which is higher than both, and… I quit.”
As you can see, we had vastly different ideas of what the “real” definitions of simple English words meant, which caused confusion and strife.
|What do you mean you’re JUDGING me??! I told you about my weakness for Cheetos to grow closer to you!|
|Well, I am. Wait… stop crying. Oh, God… WHAT’S HAPPENING?!|
Yeaaaah. As you can see, two different definitions of the same word = unnecessary problems.
The second factor that makes this happen is this: English Sucks.
Now, before you get all defensive about this, hear me out.
Check out these sweet, sweet phrases and words that other languages have to convey meaning that we DON’T have:
Litost (Czech): “A state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.”
(Whoa. That’s… a really specific and deep emotion. Damn, guys.)
Kokoro No Gaze (Japanese): “Literally means ‘my soul has a cold,’ and means mild blues, or a state of day-to-day slight depression.”
(Oh, well, okay. We’ve all felt that way before, and I’m glad to know it’s not that soul-crushing Litost shit from above. You’re just down.)
Greng-Jai (Thai): “That uncomfortable feeling you get when you don’t want someone to do something for you because it would be a pain for them.”
(Oh, you’re offering to go to Starbucks just because I said I wanted some caffeine, Hon? That’s really sweet, but… uh… I feel weird.. but you’re being nice, so… BLARGH.)
Aswium (Korean): “That mingling dissatisfied, wistful, regretful, frustrated, sad feeling you get when you fail a test by 1 point or had a meal you were really looking forward to and it wasn’t as good as you’d hoped.”
(Now I have a word for when I try a new expensive wine on my birthday and it’s not as good as my cheap-o favorite brand. Wha whaaaaaa.)
By now, I’m sure you’ve sensed a pattern. These are all simple words or phrases to communicate different shades of “I feel kinda crappy and stuff.” In English, we’d have to have a whole discussion to explain the severity of our feelings, and if we use words with our partner like “Depressed,” “Bummed,” or “Sad,” they may think we’re Litost when we’re really just Aswium.
And all because of our limited language.
So how do we fix this?
How do we make sure our partners know what the heck we mean when we say we’re angry or sad or frustrated or fighting? How do we know we’re not just having stupid fights over nothing?
(In Yiddish they call such a fight a “Shamozzle.”)
Well, here are my suggestions, from one who’s been there:
- If you’re always fighting about the same topic, ask one another what level of *weight* they give to the emotion words in that topic. Ex: If your partner is always saying they are annoyed when you leave your socks out, figure out if they’re actually annoyed, or if by “annoyed” they mean “disrespected,” “neglected,” “angry,” etc. Drill down to find out if their meaning matches yours.
- Why wait for an argument? Talk about the big ones before you fight:
- What does “frustrated” look like for them? What words do they use to express anger on a scale of 1-10? Dial in what words you use with one another to express how mad, sad, happy you are with things you discuss.
- How do they feel about “fighting” in general? Do they think it’s a debate when you think you’re brawling? Dial that in, too.
- Once you figure out what words mean what level of weight for both of you, WRITE THEM DOWN.
- Keep that little notebook or list of your words handy, so if you do find yourself butting heads later, whip it out and make sure you use the words you agreed upon so you are both on the same page.
- Practice! Even if you follow the steps above, this kind of aligning of definitions won’t happen overnight. Practice together, until your new, improved way of communicating just becomes muscle memory. Don’t get discouraged, and encourage one another. Your goal is to reduce friction, which is win/win for everyone!
- Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. Seriously. I know analyzing stuff like this might make you feel like you have autism or something, but it’s a rational solution for an irrational problem. You’re not exactly understanding one another better by not talking about it, right? A little awkwardness while you sort it out is endlessly better than 50 years of bitching at one another for no reason.