Every Monday morning, the staff of the Imago Center gathers to share our professional successes, concerns, and questions. Yesterday, I brought a question to the group: I’m currently working with a couple who do not share the same language of origin. They sometimes struggle to communicate because they ascribe a different meaning to different words. When I shared this, the response from my colleagues was overwhelming: this couple that I’m working with is not unique. We are imperfect beings, and we each have very specific and unique ways of seeing the world – and the way that we try to get our very subjective and, sometimes, irrational views across to other people is through language, which also happens to be an incredibly subjective and, sometimes, irrational way to communicate.
“I can’t do this anymore.”
Each of these phrases can mean completely different things to different people. For example, when my partner says, “calm down,” I become enraged – what kind of patriarchal relationship does he think he’s in? How dare he tell me to calm down! But, for him, ‘calm down,’ is a reminder for both of us – it means that he’s feeling overwhelmed and that what he needs at that moment is for both of us to take a deep breath, pause, and re-regulate before we continue our discussion.
Similarly, during an argument, one partner might say, “I can’t do this anymore,” and be referring to the argument – they can’t keep arguing anymore. The other partner might interpret this as their partner saying that they can’t be in the relationship anymore, which, of course, escalates the conflict even further.
The same goes for “I’m leaving” – we know that, in a conflict, some people tend to need space, and some people tend to need comfort. One partner may say “I’m leaving” to indicate that they need a few minutes of alone time, while the other partner hears it as abandonment.
So where do we go from here? Knowing how imperfect language can be, how do we continue to muddle through expressing ourselves in our relationships?
This was the topic of conversation during our meeting yesterday, and we came up with a few ideas:
- Focus on non-verbal cues. We communicate over half of our what we’re trying to say using non-verbal cues: volume, tone, gestures, facial expresses, and body language all play a role in how your partner will interpret your message. As we are all aware, sometimes it’s not about what you say – it’s how you say it!
- Bring in physicality. If language is making things more complicated, find other, more creative ways to communicate. For example, at the start of every session, I use coherent breathing with couples as a way for them to regulate their breath with one another. Physical touch, eye contact, and dancing are other great ways to increase connection without language!
- Assume best intent. If you do find that your partner’s words have triggered an emotional response, take a moment to ask for clarification. It may save some heartache in the long run.
- Know you’re not alone! As I discovered yesterday, miscommunication seems to be an inevitable part of all relationships – giving yourself, your partner, and your friends and families grace as we attempt to use language to enhance connection will go a long way in strengthening your relationships.