Communication, Language, Relationships

The Importance of Shared Lexicon

Some communities I support live and die by the tenet that all problems can be resolved if you just, “communicate, communicate, communicate!” But I can tell in no uncertain terms, rooted in both professional and personal experience, that we can talk among ourselves until the cows come home, but it’s less about simply communicating, and entirely about communicating *effectively*, that makes or breaks successful information management within intimate relationships. And the number one culprit I have witnessed time and again is the fact that partners assume they know what each other means when using certain words… and when those assumptions prove faulty and come back to bite our arses, things get messy in a hurry. We all use the same *words*, but what we lack is a shared lexicon of understanding what those words mean to our partners. Trust me when I say that even the most subtle of differences in interpretations can have the biggest of impacts on relationship stability.

When partners in particular come in together, one of the most common things I (and probably other relationship therapists) hear is, “We want to work on/improve our communication”. There are entire cases of relationship and self-help books in any bookstore, pages and pages of recommendations on Amazon, and probably numerous books in every therapist’s office on this subject. I prefer to start with a simple question, though admittedly I’m surprised (even after seven years in private practice) by how often it catches people off-guard:

“What do you mean by, ‘communicate’?”

As soon as I get a blank stare from even one of them, I know we’re in trouble.

Partners often assume in therapy they will work out their problems, but it’s kind of hard to even figure out what the problem might be when we’re not using the same words in the same ways to identify the perceived issues Clients will use words like, “communication”, “trust”, “intimacy”, and even “love” (and when we get into the poly and kink communities, we even have to add “sex” to the list), and assume that as long as they are using the same word, that they must be on the same page meaning-wise. One or two questions further into the conversation, it becomes painfully apparent when they’re not even in the same ballpark. Personally, I like to be subtle and ask sneaky questions like, “So, when YOU use that word, what does it mean to YOU?” of each partner. Once in a while I hit the jackpot and they are in agreement, at least until/unless we encounter incongruencies in actions that suggest there’s a deeper point at which interpretations stray.

You keep using that word.

Words like those listed above, I refer to as “umbrella terms”, words that can encompass a mind-boggling array of definitions. Our default personal interpretations are often based in an intricate combination of early models and personal experiences, so there is absolutely NO WAY to guarantee that your partner’s informing biases are going to be 100% identical to your own, no matter how similarly you view the rest of the world. And yet, we assume, to our detriment, that anyone we’re going to love and connect our lives with, will be Just Like Us… until we learn they are NOT.

In many relationship styles, I have to start with conversations like this:

Client 1: We’re having intimacy issues.
Me: How are you defining intimacy? Are we talking about sex here, or emotional vulnerability, or something else?
Client 2 (awkwardly): Sex.
Me: Okay, so let’s label “sex” as “sex”, just to be very clear from the outset what we’re talking about here.

Client 1: We’re having intimacy issues.
Me: How are you defining intimacy? Are we talking about sex here, or emotional vulnerability, or something else?
Client 2 (angrily): We never talk to each other.
Me: Never at all? Or never about certain topics? Or never in certain desired ways?
Client 1: Oh, we talk all the time, we just never resolve anything, so we’re always angry or silent.
Me: So, what we’re discussing here sounds like an unclear set of expectations and processes around resolutions, that might be getting in the way of feeling emotionally closer to each other?
Client 2: No, it’s not that; I feel emotionally close most of the time; if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be so angry and hurt. But every time I try to get him to tell me how he’s feeling, he just yells about feeling nagged and how he’s doing all of these things I don’t seem to appreciate, then he shuts down.
Me: So you chase him to talk to you about feelings, and it seems like he retreats from you somehow?
Clients: We don’t really know. / I guess so.

Both of these experiences are being filed under “intimacy” in the partners’ starting lexicon, but based on how they are describing “intimacy issues” (and this is in no way an unusual or rare conversation in my office, though the variations are numerous), it’s apparent that they both expect “intimacy” to be part of the relationship equation but don’t have the same definition of what that entails, and the definition is usually more clearly defined in their minds by the problems that occur when “intimacy” isn’t working like they expect it should.

In the poly/swinger and kink communities, it’s surprising (in a no-not-really kind of way) how often we find partners running aground on different definitions of “sex”. In a monogamous culture, intimacy and sex are often inextricably intertwined, usually until someone like a therapist questions whether there’s a difference between physical intimacy (sex) and emotional intimacy, and if sex with other people is strictly forbidden by monogamous relationship boundaries, is *emotional* vulnerability with others likewise verboten? But in communities where sexual interactions with others are permissible, we often find ourselves having to have the discussion around, “How are you defining sex?” For some, that means any kind of genital contact in either direction, for others it’s limited to specific actions (like standard genital intercourse or masturbation). I’ve had clients trying to define sex by the intent to orgasm, which leads to such lexiconically-important questions like, “So, if orgasm doesn’t occur, is it still defined as ‘sex’?”

As you might imagine, getting into word-level definitions can get us all down a rabbit-hole very quickly. So as the therapist in the room, it’s my job to make sure we focus on two things: (a) deterring partner judgment about each other’s default definitions, and (b) only pursuing them to understand where the expectations tied to each respective, differing definition is leading the relationship into tension. For therapists who use narrative approaches to relational challenges (including individual identity within a relational system, be it intimate partnership, family, or collegial systems), language is a KEY factor to understanding the client’s perspective. I also have an added layer of interest in words stemming from being a writer all my life, including professionally in high tech for the better part of twenty-five years. I’m keenly aware that words have power, so terminology we use in our private spheres sheds a great deal of insight on the values that inform the expectations tied to our language use. But when many of us can’t get past, “we’re using the same words, so why are we still arguing about [X]?”, it sometimes requires some outside perspective and guidance to help us peel past the sense that for all the communicating we do in relationship, we sometimes feel like we just don’t get anywhere, or at least nowhere good.

This is why a relationship’s success is often less about, “communicate, communicate, communicate!”, and more about understanding WHAT we’re saying to each other when we do have conversations on important topics. The words we use are important, not just as a marker against which to measure actions for congruent intentions, but in and of themselves when they contain markers to what lies underneath the words. I often tell my clients that words are important, but the real meat of most matters is buried under the words, and that’s what we have to dig for. We can’t simply take for granted that my word means the same as your word, when your experiences are going to shape a different set of values and expectations than mine probably did, and we need to consider and respect those differences… even when we can’t see them initially, just the disturbance caused when we run aground on them.

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