When I was younger and witnessing the relationships of my parents and their friends, I was sure that I could do the whole relationship thing much better than they were. They didn’t seem to talk to each other.
Sure, they talked, but it was never about anything important. Most of the time, all the stuff that truly mattered to them was being left unsaid. When they did try to talk about anything other than the trivialities of their days, it was if they never hopped on the same frequency. I couldn’t understand it; if they weren’t talking to each other, who were they talking to?
I imagined that my future relationship would be very sophisticated. There’d be no TV in the bedroom, obviously, and our post-work talks wouldn’t be about anything as silly as what we did that day. No, we would talk about our fears, our hopes, and our love. The big stuff.
Well, I grew up, and I realized that relationships are more dependent on domesticity than they are dramatics. There is even romance in the everyday conversations I can have with no one other than my partner, because they’re the only person that knows the intimate and mundane details that shape our shared life.
However, I still don’t want to sacrifice intentional communication because it’s easier to talk about what’s for dinner.
In the long term, it doesn’t make it any easier to not truly talk with your partner, because lack of communication is why so many relationships fail. I’ve witnessed the relationships where partners stop talking to each other, and it’s the worst kind of loneliness.
Communicating never seems like it will be a problem for us though, does it? We talk all the time! All we have to do is keep sharing our thoughts and not ignore our partner, and we should be good to go.
Except the problem is we’re all talking to each other but none of us are speaking the same language.
The meanings and connotations of words are largely influenced by each individual’s experiences, beliefs and perspective. What’s blue to me is not blue to you. So, how can we ever truly know what another person means? We can never completely separate ourselves from our own limited view of the world, but relationships require that we try.
We start by not using the same words we always have without considering what they mean to another person.
Learning a New Language
When I was twenty-two I dated a man a few years older than I was. It was a long distance, so the bulk of our relationship was spent talking. There were no activities to distract us, and we made up for our lack of physical contact with almost constant communication. I soon learned that we might be using the same words but they definitely didn’t have the same meanings.
While his blue did not necessarily have to be my blue, what about the important, even more subjective words: love, loyalty, compassion, and faith? It is so much harder to express these big words, heavy with our experiences, which have more meaning than their dictionary definitions give them. We introduce the word so that we have some common ground, but then we have to go further if we want the other person to understand. We must risk the vulnerability of laying ourselves bare - all the past hurts, and joys, and unmentionables - so that the other person can truly understand what we mean when we use a valid-but-not-all-encompassing word.
Often, we're not willing to expose ourselves – to explain the true meaning of our words with the rawness of our experiences – and we don't recognize how this leads to a breakdown.
We say that they "didn't get us" or there was a "lack of communication.” In reality, maybe we were communicating, just in different languages. We kept using the same words over and over again without realizing that they were completely unintelligible to the other person.
With that specific relationship of mine, the big difference came in our definitions of faith. He was surprised to find himself dating me because he had always imagined dating someone who was Catholic. Which was funny because I never imagined myself dating someone who was Catholic.
Catholicism, although a religion, is a word too. For him, the word had positive connotations; it was tied to a lifetime of attending masses where he found the guiding truth for his life. For him, perhaps Catholic was synonymous with God because it is in Catholicism that he found his God.
For me, “Catholic” represented years of schooling in which I had to rebel against practices that did not resonate with me; I did not find my God in it. It was immediately clear that when we used the word "Catholic," we were talking about two very different things.
Can we still be all the things a word means to someone without exactly fitting their definition of that word? I think so, but we have to build a joint dictionary.
When I started dating him, I imagined myself with somewhat of a meditating guru. Someone who would agree with me on the importance of deep breathing, and we could spend hours talking about non-attachment and the connectedness of all things.
(I was exploring a new-to-me spirituality at the time and a little pretentious about it.)
Those were all just words though; what was important was meaning. When I peeled back the layers of that imaginary person, what I really wanted was someone who: listened when I talked, I connected with, cared about people and the planet, saw the value in being present. Could all of those things exist under the word "Catholic" instead of the words "Meditating Guru"? Sure, if I was willing to, for a moment, speak a language other than my own.
Learning to Listen
Once we get past those labeling words, we can start to examine the ones we use in casual conversation. We learn that when our partner says, “Look at that beautiful bird,” they are really saying, “I want to share this moment of beauty with you.” When we ignore them or respond dismissively, we are losing out on much more than the opportunity to see a bird. We’re not acknowledging the meaning of their words, and that’s when communication starts to breakdown.
It starts with something so simple, and before we know it, we’re not talking at all because every time we tried, we were talking past each other.
I don’t want a meditating guru now, but I do still want someone who embodies all of those qualities. I found them in a person who literally speaks a different language and who has ten more years of life experience than I do. It takes a lot of daily work to unpack the meaning of his words, especially the ones that are a mixture of English and German. But I am glad to do it, because I want to create an entirely new language with him.
In your own relationships, consider if they are saying one thing, shaped by their experiences, and you are hearing something completely different, shaped by yours. You may have to expose all the footprints of your past to teach them your language. You may have to learn a new one, too.