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Marriage is a Language

As I continue the process of creating my book on applied sociolinguistics (the study of how language shapes culture and can be used to solve the world’s problems), I will be publishing short excerpts from some of the “shitty” first draft. Here is one such excerpt from a much longer piece on relationships. References to ‘Lauren’ found throughout this excerpt refer to a childhood best friend of mine. I hope you enjoy the read and very much look forward to your feedback as I continue this book creation journey. – Marie

Marriage is a Commitment

When my best friend asked me about success in marriage I told her, “marriage is a commitment to learn to speak someone else’s personal language for the rest of your life.” Marriage is a commitment, a dedicated and intentional choice to learn another person’s, intimate and very personal language. To be married is to

  • listen to someone and hear them
  • to be with someone and see them fully
  • a commitment where you allow yourself to stand before another person completely naked in all the ways
  • It’s an extreme exercise in trust
  • a test to vulnerability and patience
  • It is an experience of embodying empathy for and with one person until (at least) one of you no longer exists on this plane

Now that sounds intense, but only because it’s true and it sounds intense because to be invested in a conversation for that long must be intentional. It must be done on purpose. And it’s the reason why marriage is hard. Because, most people think they are signing up for a love pact, and then they find out they are in the longest, hardest conversation of their life. And most folks are not prepared for, nor willing to cultivate the kind of stamina required to stay in a truly confrontational conversation for longer than a moment, if at all.

This is the reason why all relationships are hard. Because the true test is whether or not you can stay long enough to find mutual understanding. Are you prepared to be a polyglot? Because to be in relationship with humans, is to learn hundreds, thousands of languages.

Now, this section is called marriage but please know I am not a marriage counselor. This is not a ‘fix your marriage’ kind of book. But the reason I bring it up is a lot of folks want to be married, without knowing what type of commitment they are signing up for. Most folks want to be married because they are excited for someone else to speak their language, but the rub is that most folks wholly gloss over the work required to become fluent in someone else’s.

How many languages do you speak?

The level of commitment required to really hear and see the people that you’re in relationship with, is immense. People crave being seen and heard fully. They want to have a secret language with someone. We all want someone who says ouch when we bleed. Not just because it would be cool, but because everyone wants someone who can make you feel less alone in the world just because they are in it. That’s true for every human relationship. It’s true in friendships, and it’s especially true in communities. I think so many people see marriage as a milestone fix in their life, because so few of us have found that kind of comforting dialogue in any other relationship.

Not with our friends

And definitely not in our work.

That’s the really disappointing part. Marriage is the last bastion of hope. But what if it wasn’t?

Let’s talk about that

I am a facilitator. When a team reaches out to me I am clear on two things:

  1. They want help and
  2. They don’t yet have the vocabulary to articulate the explicit type of help they need

Teams usually reach out to me and ask for a workshop, but what they actually need is someone to facilitate a conversation. There is something getting lost in translation on their team, and they need an intermediary. They are desperate for a translator. They are hoping I am a cipher. The workshop of course is a medium for this, but the real work is in facilitating the conversation.

Every discovery call I have had with a client is the same. Teams struggle because they are comprised of a whole bunch of people speaking over each other, not feeling seen, and not being heard. Everyone is talking. No one is listening. And that is not a conversation. That is just a lot of noise. Static even. Team dysfunction, at its crux is community static and it takes so many forms. Here are a few:

  • gossip
  • tone policing
  • back channeling
  • passive aggression
  • Microaggressions
  • Mansplaining
  • Lack of acknowledgment
  • Lack of accountability
  • Poor transparency
  • No feedback loop
  • Inability to receive feedback
  • Lack of clarity in vision and values
  • No shared language
  • Lack of respect for boundaries
  • Failure to affirm each others’ ideas

And when static goes for too long, resentment builds until someone is brave enough to either tune the antenna so the real convo can be heard, or just up and changes the channel.

Now the crazy thing is in a marriage we’re bound by law to stick it out and even that isn’t enough to keep people in a conversation they no longer want to have. So how do we expect it to be any easier in our other relationships? In friendships where there’s no blood and no law involved? In workplace scenarios if we turn off the computer and leave the office we can pretend it doesn’t exist, right? or even still if the conversation becomes too unbearable we can take our ball and literally go home. Quit the job, dump the lover. Swipe left. Start again. New job, who dis? Como te llamas?

When I first met my husband

I was not quite 24, and still very much living my best introvert life. And when he asked me what movie we should see for our first date I had no suggestions, and so he took me to see 300, a movie about Roman gladiators. An action movie filled with blood and gore. And he thought I would protest, but I went right along and enjoyed it, and then we sat together at a noodle shop called Republic across Union Square and I was quiet. I was taking my time observing him, sorting out my own thoughts, trying to figure out what I even thought of this stranger who had asked me out to dinner. And his reflection from most of our first year of dating is that I didn’t speak. Our courtship was one of two introverted people, waiting for the other to say something affirming. It was a one handed clap for a while, til we figured out a rhythm. And yet 6 years of dating later we got married and even by the time we got married we still hadn’t figured out how to communicate with each other. Not really. But we loved each other, and felt safe enough to try.

And then . ..

We had kids and life kept lifeing. Challenges came. Mental health crises came. Heartache came.

A therapist, of course, is nothing but a mediator; a facilitator to help you communicate with yourself, and then hopefully, communicate with others. If you are unfamiliar, couples therapy is a whole lot of partner A speaking, and then therapist asking partner B, “what did you hear?” And I can proudly say multiple therapists (personal and marriage) later, I’m beginning to understand who my husband actually is, what the heck he is talking about, and what he needs from me so that he can feel seen, and know that he is heard. I can proudly say that my husband knows me, and that in a conversation with him, sometimes, we don’t even need words for me to feel at home, and know that my presence is significant. And we have been together now for 17 years and counting. And I think, if I am honest, we traded in arguments for longer conversations right around year 12. That’s already 4 years longer than the average marriage in the US.

What would it take for you to be committed to learning someone else’s language for at least 8 committed years? To continue speaking that language for the rest of your life? Would you do it for a friend? For a coworker? Because I think that level of safety that I have with my husband is possible everywhere. That feeling of twinning that I have with Lauren is accessible all the time. And not just for a select few relationships, but for every human relationship. And if more of us were willing to invest that energy in true dialectical study, then life, work, and love would all be spaces in which we could look forward to feeling at home.

I think part of the challenge in learning to hear others is so many of us do a terrible job of communicating with ourselves. I’ve seen a meme about ” I go to therapy to help me deal with the people in my life that refuse to go to therapy,” FACTS. Because at the very least, if you fully understand who you are, and how you need to be seen, and what you want to say, and how you want to be heard, that makes navigating someone else’s language barrier less . . . .personally offensive. You don’t have to take it personally that they don’t speak French, or Swahili, or Marie, or Lauren, or whatever your native tongue happens to be. There doesn’t have to be any offense taken when you are misunderstood, or when you misunderstand. And when you get clear that it isn’t a you thing, it’s a lost in translation thing, you can learn to use simpler vocabulary, and start conversations in a different place. Slower this time. Not because you need to change for other people, but because their eyes and ears are not yet trained to hear, and see you fully. Or vice versa. That’s not a bad thing. Just good data.

The Perfect Poem

He talks in half starts and eyebrows

His meaning shrouds dedication in expectation and ellipses

. . .

He frustrates me with his silence

and yet

that’s when he’s telling me the most,

giving me the most,

laying his soul bare

And I keep asking what he means

and he tells me he’s already said it

so many times

My husband is the kind of man who thinks long and cooks with his soul

He’s the type who will taste food and tell you it needs more flavor

will have an idea and then take it back

change the emotion and ask you to taste it

“how does it make you feel?”

He never wrote me poetry

Well except for the one time under the trees in Central Park when I egged him on to freestyle and he did, abruptly and with halting lyrics in the lazy sun of a Manhattan afternoon

He doesn’t write for me like he did those college girls, beckoning to them about heat and loins and sweat and intention.

He doesn’t write for me

and I like to think that instead he lives for me.

My husband.

The perfect poem.

(November 28 2017)

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