Friday, May 28, 2010

The language of relationships

Much of couples therapy focuses on communication skills. A metaphor I use in working in couples therapy is based on language. Undoing the assumption that we all speak the same language is often the first place of intervention. Consider the following examples. English is the predominant language in the United States. “We all speak English” is the assumption. Yet, within the United States, words are used differently and take on special meaning as a result. Travel across the world, and different English speaking countries have different words for the same concept. For example, in the US, we use the word trunk for where we put luggage in a car on a car-trip, while in England they use the word boot. England uses the term lift to talk about elevators. Another example is the significant difference between Latin America Spanish and Castilian Spanish in Spain. Even Arabic has multiple dialects. While there are major commonalities between the dialects, important differences remain that are barriers to communication. Learning to understand and translate these differences can be helpful but difficult.

Applying the metaphor to relationships, it is important to remember that we all have different dialects of communication in relationships. These dialects are informed and shaped by the multiple cultures we belong to (age, race/ethnicity, religion, gender, etc), our family of origin, and our life history. Often there is enough commonality to be able to communicate with a partner. In my work, the majority of relationship problems are about communication problems that show up in the guise of unmet expectations and assumptions, hidden wants and needs, past hurts and pains, and hoped for joys and goals.

A classic example is around fighting. In some families, conflict is forbidden. A partner learns that anger cannot be expressed. Another partner may come from a family where conflict is resolved quickly and respectfully. When two partners come together, the dialect of conflict is an obstacle to be resolved. The resolution is often as simple as teaching each other the respective dialects. We can apply the metaphor to smaller things. The dialect around the level of cleanliness in the house comes to mind. The application of the dialect can be applied to very difficult areas, such as sexual expression, needs and values.

The difficulty in this process is much of our dialect regarding relationships is automatic and habitual. We assume everyone has the same language, mannerisms, assumptions, and expectations in a relationship that is often the source of the relationships problems. Teaching each other your individual dialects, and learning to translate your partner’s dialect is a necessary skill toward powerful and strong relationships.

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