What Can Couples Do When They Don’t Speak the Same Language?

Couple screaming in each other's facesThis is not a post about people speaking two different languages such as English and Spanish.  This is a story about couples that talk to each other but it feels as if they just don’t speak the same language; they talk but they can’t hear each other, as if both are speaking in a foreign dialect. Couples who fall into this category try to communicate but usually end up giving up because it gets too frustrating. Both people want to get their points across, but because it’s so difficult, many couples just stop trying. This is more common than you might think. I often see couples come in for counseling; they will look at me as if I am a translator and can help them decipher their partner and help them understand each other. They both hope that I can bridge the gap that’s been keeping them separate, sometimes for a long time.

Most couples in this predicament have spent a lot of time trying to fix the problem.  They’ve also probably grown tired of trying because they each feel as if they already know what the other person is going to say and they just don’t want to hear it.  In this case they often just stop talking to them.  These couples are at an impasse, and that’s not uncommon either. Each person had needs that have not been met. They each want to convey something to the other person, only they don’t know how. They have been trying to accomplish this, maybe for years and they are so tired of trying they have just given up and accepted that this is how they are going to feel in the relationship—frustrated, disappointed, discouraged.

When people have been living with this situation for a long period of time it’s not uncommon for one or the other to say, “It’s not working.”  The truth is; it’s not. This relationship is not working in terms of two people feeling good about it and each other. That’s why counseling can be helpful. As a marriage and family therapist I am able to hear what’s missing. I can understand what a conversation would sound like if the couple was having one where each got his and her point across and could be heard.

When I meet with a couple in this kind of situation I start by asking each to tell me about their life.  As a third party I have no trouble hearing each as individuals.  I gather information and then I help them decode what they can’t seem to hear or understand about the other. Since I am not invested in the outcome of what I am hearing I can easily investigate what one person is trying to say to the other.  Sometimes it sounds like, “He never listens to me,” or “She always nags me.” These complaints are loaded with emotions. It’s not just the words I am interested in; it’s what feelings accompany the discomfort. I often can hear what is missing, which usually encompasses longing or attention. When she says, “He never listens,” I hear a longing to feel valued. When he says, “She always nags,” I hear “I feel invisible.” Some of what’s not being said could sound like this, the wife wants to be heard when she tells her husband about something. The husband wants the wife to understand that he doesn’t feel appreciated. It’s very frustrating to live in a relationship where you don’t feel your partner values or appreciates you. These are important aspects of a good partnership.

Couples that find themselves in this sort of struggle are in need of new ways to communicate to get their points across. To achieve this, each person has to do some internal work to learn what they need. When each person knows what he or she needs they can then ask for it from the other person – instead of just being upset because they are not getting it. No more expecting from the partner, no more disappointment and loneliness either. Just two people relating openly and honestly about how they feel and what they would like. When couples do this, then they get true communication, where each person can be heard. And that’s a whole lot easier than speaking a foreign language.

© Copyright 2011 by Linda Nusbaum, MA, MFT. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Mena

    June 6th, 2011 at 4:38 PM

    Not speak the same language? I often have to wonder if my husband and I are even from the same planet! But you know we do what we can do to relate to each other and somehow seem to generally come up with a compromise that works for both of us. Must be love ;)

  • Tristan Woodward

    June 6th, 2011 at 9:32 PM

    @Mena, boy do I know what you’re talking about there. I have such a hard time understanding where my wife’s coming from at times. She drives me crazy with some of her more inane requests. It’s a miracle we’re still together after 15 years.


    June 7th, 2011 at 12:00 AM

    I see this all the time with my friend and her husband. We’re family friends so she comes and speaks to me and her husband’s talking to mine at the same time. Many a times they mean good for each other but due to a communication gap they have a fight!

  • Mena

    June 7th, 2011 at 4:31 AM

    @Tristan: but you have found a way to make it work, right? I mean there is something there when you have given up 15 years of your life to spend with someone. There will be arguments and even miscommunication, and like this article highlights, the language and meaning will not always be the same. But the foundation has to be solid to keep on going.

  • NassauGuidance

    June 7th, 2011 at 9:20 AM

    So true! Many of our clients report feeling like they and their partner are speaking in completely different languages. It’s so astounding to see how drastically a relationship can improve with the help of a good therapist who can get to the heart of the communication issue and help the couple to be on the same page.

  • Carol

    June 7th, 2011 at 11:28 AM

    @ Mena, I see what you mean about wondering if we’re from the same planet. On top of that if we actually do not speak the same language, even worse. @ Tristan I believe my husband feels the same than you.

  • Jacqueline.F

    June 7th, 2011 at 11:48 PM

    It is thugs like these that make me shout out my support for pre-marital counseling. It gives you an insight of what person your fiancé really is.It gves you a chance to peek into their inner self and give them a chance to know you.All in all it is a wonderful technique to see it you are compatible.

  • Dood

    June 8th, 2011 at 1:40 PM

    Before you start the next argument with your spouse,think about this-You expect them to see things your way. Don’t you think even they would think the same?

    Now you know if both the people want that then there is no solution to it. It’s just an endless loop. So talk to your spouse about this and try to have a civilized discussion rather than an argument.Always works for me :D

  • Buddy Jackson

    June 8th, 2011 at 10:21 PM

    It’s funny how you can go through years of dating and such and only realize when you get married that you have communication problems. Why does that always seem to happen?

    Don’t the majority try living together with their boyfriend or girlfriend before marrying them or am I wrong? That’s a sensible choice. Perhaps too many are still referring to it living in sin for them to be comfortable doing so.

    Better to live together and find you’re mismatched than wed and find out I say!

  • Cameron Burrows

    June 11th, 2011 at 8:50 PM

    Success in a relationship is give and take. Too many think that means give them a lot of flak and expect them to take it.

    It doesn’t work that way. Instead of saying YOU YOU YOU YOU YOU all the time, try saying “I” more often.

  • K.F. Olsen

    June 11th, 2011 at 9:51 PM

    Everyone will grow up their whole lives being told what to do. If the rest of the male population is anything like me then they know where I’m coming from when I say that we get sick of it very quickly.

    We don’t want to hear it when we’re out and about on our own, all grown up and having flown the nest. That’s schoolkid stuff.

    You ain’t our mommas.

  • Tricia Hennessey

    June 13th, 2011 at 1:43 AM

    Maybe that’s the root of most relationship problems, not speaking the same language. There are effective ways to communicate that don’t involve barking orders and issuing ultimatums or veiled threats.

    I don’t like any man who isn’t paying me a monthly salary telling me what to do, and I certainly don’t like anybody making demands of me either.

    Ask me nicely and I’ll happily cooperate. Shout at me and I’ll dig in my heels.

  • Thomas D. Grainger

    June 16th, 2011 at 12:56 AM

    I don’t get why nobody uses the “I”. If you’re being nagged at, then it’s either because your wife complains about every little thing (unlikely because you’d never had married her if she had been like that), or you’re simply refusing to listen (very likely).

    Most guys I know, it’s the latter. And when she complains all the time about you not listening, then you’re really in trouble LOL.

    Seriously, guys. I’ve been married a very long time and that didn’t happen because I ignored what my wife was saying when she complained. You’ve got to learn to listen out for the subtext that she’s not coming right out and saying it.

    I know what you’re gonna say too. It would be better if she just told you what it is. Ever see a Few Good Men? “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” In other words, she feels can’t be straight with you. You want her to talk straight? You ask her to.

    But only if you can handle it.

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