What Your Mate Said... (What It Really Meant)
A guide to interpreting the language of love and war in relationships.
One word, two letters. Simple, right?
Not so much.
It can mean “I understand,” “That’s fine,” “so-so.” Don’t forget “Oklahoma.” With some attitude, it’s instead a resignation: “I’d rather not, but I will.” With some more, a hidden challenge: “Go right ahead.”
Was the speaker nodding his head? Crossing his arms? Did you detect an eye roll, or a hint of a sigh?
Put “OK” in a text message, and now we’re really not sure. The Mrs. put a period afterward, and you’re left to wonder: Was it typed in apathetic haste? Excitedly, with a smile? Or—gulp—deliberately and definitively, with punishing keystrokes made by angry thumbs?
“Our language is imprecise,” says David Peer, a psychotherapist with the Doctor Kantor and Associates Marriage Therapy Center in Fort Myers. “A handshake in one cultureis a slap across the face in another. If you meet someone in Australia, don’t give them a thumbs-up.”
If one little word has the potential for so much confusion, how do we navigate an entire relationship of cryptic code?
Whether you are one-half of a well-seasoned couple or in the “honeymoon” phase of young love, it helps to have some feasible translations up your sleeve. (Disclaimer: This is not a one-size-fits-all bible to hand your spouse as evidence of his or her wrongdoings.)
Gentlemen, take notice: This likely means the direct opposite. “If the female says, ‘I’m fine,’ that should be a signal to the guy to think, ‘Maybe I should ask a few more questions,’” says Stacey Brown, a Fort Myers-based licensed mental health counselor and director of the Edison State College human services program. “Guys say, ‘OK, she’s fine,’ and the female thinks, ‘He doesn’t really care’ or ‘He’s not paying attention to my emotions.’ The guys need to learn that that’s not necessarily the final answer, and girls need to learn how to better communicate.”
“The response ‘sure’ is really about ‘putting a pin in it’ and waiting to see if you ask a second or third time,” says April Masini, a Naples-based author and relationship expert. This applies to any item on the “honey-do list”:
Wife asks: Can you unload the dishwasher?
Husband says: Sure.
Husband means: I don’t really want to, so I won’t—unless you ask me at least once more.
“The person who made the request and received an affirmative answer ends up feeling disregarded and disrespected,” Masini says.
“You don’t care about me!”
Many of us have uttered this dagger, even if we didn’t believe it. A wife to her husband, for example, when he didn’t return her phone call soon enough.
“What she really means is, ‘You don’t show me you understand me and care about my feelings,’” Peer says.
But particularly pleasant or unpleasant feelings cause a hyper-arousal of the brain’s primitive limbic system, Peer explains, which developed millions of years ago when survival demanded a “fight-or-flight” response to make split-second decisions.
“The limbic system is not very functional when it comes to intimacy,” says Rose Thorn, a clinical psychologist and colleague to Peer. “When we feel threatened, it will kick in and override our wisdom, our wits, our higher brain.”
“Will you dance with me?”
Peer says: “This always means, ‘I will be hurt if you say, “no.”’ No decoding necessary.”
The silent treatment
Accompanied by slammed doors and heavy stomping, silence can speak louder than words. It also can say nothing at all.
“If the guy is quiet and not talking, it very often means that he’s quiet and not talking,” Brown says. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a problem. But the female brain, the way that it’s wired, starts going all over the place.” Did I do something wrong? Is he having an affair?! “She’ll say, ‘Why are you giving me the silent treatment?’ and he’s like, ‘What?’”
Why the discrepancy? Peer has a theory: Men got used to being alone. Historically, he says, they spent all day hunting and gathering—away from the brood.
“I’m fairly certain they were playing football,” he says. “Women stayed near the cave or the village and took care of the young. They have, I think, a connection to the young and social connections with each other that create anxiety when there’s distance.”
“I love it!”
Masini’s rule of thumb? If the behavior and language don’t match, believe the behavior.
“If one person in the relationship buys the other a piece of clothing and that person never wears it, whatever effusive compliments were given to you when you gifted that person are belied by the behavior of him or her not wearing the gift,” she says. “Frankly, they just don’t like it.”
“You look nice.”
If a man offers this praise all on his own, Peer says, it means just that. “It’s never a criticism,” he says.
So why do we so often think it’s a fib? Counter to the cliché, Peer says, the reality is we see it when we believe it.
“When you try to read someone’s mind, you’re reading your own mind,” he says. “You’re projecting something onto a blank canvas that may not be there.”
Likewise, “Is something wrong?” is an expression of concern, not an attack on one’s masculinity, Peer says. And, unless conveyed with obvious irritation, “How much did that cost?” is just a request for information— not an attempt to control.
The “What are you doing?” text
More often than not, this means “Talk to me!” or “Where are you? I don’t trust you.” The sender may have anxiety when it comes to independence or space, Peer says.
Texting and emailing are one-way only in any given moment, so you lose the benefit of facial expressions, body language and intonation, Masini says. She recommends texting only to confirm plans, not to express feelings.
“Just ask comedians how important verbal delivery is, and they’ll tell you that they live or die based on timing and verbal delivery,” she says.
“Did you call me?”
Chances are your partner knows how to read a missed call—it’s safe to assume this means, “Why are you calling me? Quit bothering me.” (Or, Peer says: “Did you butt-dial me again?!”)
Translation: Steer clear.
“A pacing tiger is ready to pounce,” Masini says, “and so, too, is a partner who’s walking back and forth, going over what just happened in his or her head.
“If your partner has changed his or her activity from what they were doing when the fight broke out, that’s a good sign that the coast is clear for civilized talk. … But if she’s still in that garden, weeding what was once your rose garden and is now unrecognizable, she’s not done being angry.”
“Go have fun.”
Unless stated with crystal-clear enthusiasm, Peer says, you can take this as, “If you make that choice, I’ll be pissed.”
“The person feels abandoned or unimportant,” he explains.
“Are you coming straight home after work?”
Rather than a question, this is a demand: “You better come straight home after work.”
Your timely arrival obviously affects your mate, whatever the reason.
Another statement in disguise: “Do you mind if I stop for a beer on the way home?”
“They’re asking, but they’re not really asking,” Peer says. “They just want you to think they are.”
We can try our best to decipher our partner’s distinctive language of love and war, but our experts agree communication never will be as simple as a universal “this means that.”
“It’s like we’re moving targets—it’s not like someone is a static entity that can be fully grasped,” Thorn says. “There has to be continuous, evolving dialogue based on a foundational sense of the desire to stay connected.”