Thursday, May 19, 2011

The language of relationships, 2.0

Adapted from: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Sexual Health
Weston Edwards, PhD, LP

Much of couples therapy focuses on communication skills. Using the helpful metaphor of 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, and the assumption is that we all speak English. Yet, even within the United States, different words are used to describe the same concept. For example, New Yorkers enjoying a cola drink might be drinking soda, but Midwesterners enjoying the same drink would be drinking pop. The same holds true in other English speaking countries, like England. Americans on a road trip store their luggage in the trunk of their car, but the English store it in the boot. And when the Americans arrive at their destination, they might take the elevator up to their desired floor, but the Australians might take the lift. Likewise, there are significant differences between Spanish in Latin America and Spanish in Spain. Even Arabic has multiple dialects, and these differences are barriers to communication. So even though people may speak one common language, it is crucial to be aware of differences present in that one common language. Here, we refer to those differences as “dialects.” It is important to learn how to understand and translate those dialects.

Similarly, in relationships, it is important to remember that we all have different dialects of communication. 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. Most relationship problems stem from 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 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 their respective dialects. The same idea can be applied to mundane things, like the level of cleanliness in the house, or difficult areas, such as sexual expression, needs and values.

The difficulty in this process is that 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 assumption is often the source of the relationship problems. Teaching each other your individual dialects, and learning to translate your partner’s dialect is a necessary skill for building powerful and strong relationships.

Consider the following questions, first for yourself and then your partner. The key is to focus on your language beyond verbal words. What are the non-verbal’s that you use?

• How do you express anger?
• How do you know if your partner is angry?
• How do you express happiness?
• How do you express that you are horny?
• How do you express sadness?
• Identify 5-6 pet-peeves in your relationship. What do they mean to you?
• What are additional feelings, or issues important to you? Why?

• How does your partner express anger?
• How does your partner know if you are angry?
• How does your partner express happiness?
• How does your partner express that he/she is horny?
• How does your partner express sadness?
• Identify 5-6 pet-peeves your partner has in the relationship. What does it mean to him/her?
• What are additional feelings, or issues important to your partner? Why?
1) Review your responses to the lists above.
2) How do you react (healthy or unhealthy) when you see your partner communicating on these levels?
3) What is a positive response I can do to clarify the non-verbal communication?

For example.
A subtle sign that my partner is angry is her jaw locks up. Her tone of voice is “fine” and her body language is “fine,” but I can see a difference in her face/jaw. As a result, I get defensive, thinking I did something wrong. One of my non-verbal behaviors is to leave the room and go watch TV creating distances. This starts the dance of a conflict that culminates in a verbal argument. What can I do differently?

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