Thursday, October 26, 2006

Speaking in Code: Marital Secret Language

Citizen of the Month posts about women. He doesn’t understand them. His wife is working in New York, he’s on the west coast, and it seems they are separated, as in separated. I don't delve.

He writes that before their anniversary he had asked her, "Do you want me to come to New York for our anniversary?"

"I have too much work."

He takes her at her word, doesn’t go, and everyone is telling him that he blew it.

I have too much work had actually meant, I'm a little tired and I could really use a little time off, and if you visit me, dear, then I can relax and not feel guilty not working, because, see, playing would be in celebration of our marriage. And everyone can appreciate that.

How was he to know?

If you are married long enough you might get it, but most people don't stay married long enough to get it when their partner is speaking in code. This goes along with figuring out sex, too, not working at it enough to get it right, but let's not digress.

Talking in code defies relationship therapy rules, ironically, yet it builds a relationship. Marital therapists stress the converse—direct, clear, obvious communication. Some of us are quoted as saying,
Err on the side of over-communication. Leave no message to chance.

We emphasize direct communication in all relationships. It is a rule:

Assume others cannot mind-read.

Talk, talk, talk. Use words—especially with intimate partners. Clarify, clarify, clarify – until your lover says, “Oh, shut up already. I get you.”

But marital code is not direct, it is indirect, thus it breaks all the rules. Best to think that the rule is:

Always look for the code. Assume there may be code. There is nothing more romantic than code.

Only the two of you can crack it, should crack it. It is not something you discuss with girlfriends at lunch. That ruins the magic entirely.

When we are speaking about love, CODE is a subset of FOREPLAY TO FOREPLAY. It is one of the many dialects of intimacy, call it Intimacy Speak. Intimacy Speak is the language intimate partners should speak all the time. No, it isn’t possible to speak intimately all of the time, but it is a level certainly worth striving to reach. Get in the habit young, and don’t look back.

Code is fun. It is an inside joke, but it belongs inside. That said, inside jokes often poke fun of others, which takes the intimacy out of them, relegates them to pseudo-intimacy, closeness that depends upon exposing the weakness of others, a lesser level. It isn’t sharing about self at all.

Inside joking, this pseudo-intimacy, can be harmful to a relationship, too. One should be careful about joking about any member’s of an intimate partner’s family. I can say to FD, "My mother is impossible," not that she is. He can't. He can’t say, “Your mother is impossible.” Now he has insulted me. My mother, my insult. I love her.

If she is impossible, and that I know that FD really loves her, only then does he have the right to tell me, Your mother is impossible. Maybe. That’s how far it goes, the language of love. Well, you know your mother, he might start out, noth that he ever has, with a smile. That would mean that we both know she's impossible, and that would be intimate. He's not insulting her, he's agreeing with me. But you have to be careful here.


If a person wants to engage in a certain type of intimacy, perhaps in the evening, or maybe the next day, then suggesting a nap would be code. But code, albeit cute, doesn’t prepare the other partner for the relaxation necessary to take a nap. One should be relaxed before napping, if napping is going to ever happen.

So foreplay to foreplay is the talking on the phone, the hello at the end of the day. It's the conciliatory behavior, the giving in, the letting go of control in the relationship, the

Sure, I'll do that for you, piece. The favor.

It's the

Wow, you look beautiful today, piece. The ego-booster.

It's the, Wear that for me tonight if you don't mind, that looks so good on you, piece. The attention.

It’s the, I'm going to come home, shower, and get to bed early, piece. The sensuous.

The, It's cold in the house and I'm going to need a blanket to watch TV, want to watch with me, piece. The seduction.

Those snippets of interactional sequences are the code in foreplay to foreplay.

Really, all of three of these terms (1) Talking in Code, (2) Foreplay to Foreplay, (3) Intimacy Speak, are interchangeable. In some families, code is essentially about aggressive behavior, not loving behavior. Clean your room, or else. Or else is code for something mean. One “f” on your report card, and you won’t see the sun. Won’t see the sun?

Some families even teach expletives to children, and insult them, teaching aggressive language by example. When it is out of control it is called verbal violence, emotional child abuse. It makes so much intuitive sense, speaking in ways that are loving, as a rule.

Bill Clinton used to say, It’s the economy, stupid, when referring to the greatest problem Americans faced today. When SPEAKING IN CODE first published on the Internet, I wrote that communication in anything other than AFFECTION SPEAK, especially employing expletives, implied aggression, verbal violence the opposite of esteeming communication. Speaking with affection speaks to the relationship, stupid, I wrote. If you want the relationship, then you learn the language. It’s that simple. I told readers that sometimes, immigrants who used Yiddish, a course language, at times, which is why it is funny, could be verbally violent and not even know it. Thus speaking foreign languages to be aggressive isn’t fooling anyone.

THE RELATIONSHIP, STUPID albeit a violent way to say it, assumes that if a couple is having intimacy issues, or if one person merely wants to connect in a physical fashion, then affection speak or code are essential ingredients.
This begins in the morning with Good morning, you stole the covers, but I took them back and it's okay, I love you anyway, (acknowledging you slept together and it was thoroughly enjoyable, or at least, enjoyable, sleeping) and continues with calls, if at all possible, or emails, texts during the day, perhaps a gift.

Or comments like, Let's not eat dinner just yet.

Right now,eyebrows raised, is definitely code.

So, Tuesday morning I start late.
What a coincidence, I do too,he says with a smile.

End of conversation.


First, as a couple you need to have an interest in creating code.

One of you may be daunted by the quixotic nature of this pursuit. It's not a test, though. It's a game, and you want to play. Someone has to start, and communicate that his words are riddles for the other to solve. Yet there can't be too much mystery or frustration, and explanations should be ready explanations, loaded with affection.

The process of code has to be affectionate, playful.

This means you have to look soft, not hard and angry, must smile often at one another. Email should have smiley emoticons and make references to love.

Clarity is code means agreement that when one partner says X, the other will know it means Y.

For example,
X: My tennis elbow hurts, I'm going to go lie down. is code for
Y: I'd love some horizontal company right now.

Tennis elbow never goes away, so this will work for years. No one has to lie down for tennis elbow. Horizontal, by the way, is code.

Sometimes it's not what's said, it's what is not said. The raising of the eyebrow is the not said and is extremely key.

And when it is said, it's how it is said, with emphasis on syllables, smiles, and good eye contact. Eye contact that searches is so intimate. A little invasive, thus it is reserved for mutually exclusive intimacy.

Finally, a very easy way to speak in code is to speak in first letters only. When I teach this in therapy I just start people off by using the first letters only to refer to something.

Therapist: Now that’s GC!
Couple (as one): Huh?
Me: GC. You tell me, based upon your last interchange. What's GC?

He looks at her, she looks at him; they feel silly. Someone rolls eyes.
One partner, speaking for the team: We give up.
Therapist: Good communication. GC.
Other partner: Sure. We knew that (sideways glance to the other). Right, Doc.

It is a joke, but we will use GC in the future, and therapy, is a little less stressful for the inside joke.

They are taught to use GC outside of therapy, and to embellish it, as in:

Partner One: Last night was CGS.
Partner Two: Huh?
Partner One: Crazy Good, uh, Spaghetti.

Secret language is thinking outside the box, but if it is too abstract thinker, if it is misunderstood, it can undermine the cause. Too little communication, like too much, is distracting.

A run-on post (like this one) loses readers who want to say, "I don't know what the blank you're talking about, TD,” and some do. A good blogger makes changes or cuts because criticism sets some of us free.

Developmental theorists love to talk about a leap in childhood when a child begins to think beyond what is said. A young child hears, "Your dad has rocks in his head," and the child will look for rocks, wonder where they are. This is concrete thinking.

When some of us hear code, we first go to the concrete meaning of what is said. I’m going to take a little nap is read as wanting to sleep, not wanting to make love. The developmental leap in adulthood is to read more into communication, not less.
Thus eye contact, a raised eyebrow, a pregnant pause—all necessary in good code.
FD likes puns. He'll leave a pause between a pun to see if I can catch it before he asks, Get it? Decoding puns is not fun for me and it has taken many years to even try, but it is something he likes to do, so being a good sport, I’ll play with him like that.

Did you see what I did there?

But back to our blogger, the one who didn't know he was supposed to go to New York, who didn’t know what to give her for a present, or even if she wanted a present.

You’re supposed to speak in code, dear. You’re supposed to say, “Do you want anything special for your anniversary?”

Oh yeah, Pig Latin REALLY IS code. Whatever works, okay?

Copyright 2006, TherapyDoc


Anonymous said...

Speaking in code can be sexy between a couple, or the complete opposite. I think my wife and I frequently use "code" as a test to see how much the other person knows the other. For instance, I will say "no" to something, hoping she will care enough to do "yes" without me asking for it. That's when the trouble begins.

Anonymous said...

Speaking in code can be sexy between a couple, or the complete opposite. I think my wife and I frequently use "code" as a test to see how much the other person knows the other. For instance, I will say "no" to something, hoping she will care enough to do "yes" without me asking for it. That's when the trouble begins.

therapydoc said...

I don't know how you got in there twice, Neil.

That's why the default rule is to Over-Communicate and to create code together, preferably horizontal, but you could do this over coffee, too.

So if you mean yes, but you say no, then you have to have a signal, maybe some kind of body language or gesture like mouthing "yes" as a back up.

Else yes, yer in trouble.

Anonymous said...


Very insightful and so true! I've seen so many clients and friends I know (women especially) suffer from the negative consequences of "code speaking" in their relationships.

I found your site through eMOMS BlogJolt blogroll. I love your articles.


Intensive Care for the Nurturer's Soul

therapydoc said...

Great, Hueina, We'll talk.

Anonymous said...

love this...made me laugh- very true

Familydoc said...

"'No' means 'Yes'" is not a code, it's a challenge, a defiance, and really an invitation to disaster. Although we say in some business transactions that "no" is the beginning of the negotiation, in private communication one cannot have such extreme opposites being re-interpreted, unless accompanied by a significant amount of body language (as the essay suggests).

Code means making references to other private information, intimacies, and shared histories that define the relationship, not actively trying to be obtuse.

therapydoc said...

Thanks Family Doc. I like your blog, btw.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading this, even if you did call me stupid.

:O) Just kidding, I know what you meant. I loved this, and will be sending the link to my husband of 17 years. We do talk in code sometimes, but I think we could use a refresher course.

therapydoc said...

In my world, even saying "shut up" is considered not using "lashon naki" or "clean language."

Didn't mean to offend, of course. It's hard to convey expression sometimes without a little color.

Thanks for reading and I hope the boy likes it.


Anonymous said...

Great post-thank you!

Here from the Carnival of Family Life.

Anonymous said...

I talk in code all the time and get upset when he just doesn't get it. I really should make more of an effort to just say what I'm trying to say. Thanks for the reminder.

Here via Carnival of Family Life.

therapydoc said...

It's easy to talk the talk, right? Best, Linda

April said...

Ah, well that makes me feel better about my communication with my husband, which is fairly code-heavy---it works for us! Here I just thought we were being autistic. :) See:

Anna said...

This is an older article, I see, but a good one. :)
What would you think of someone who didn't make the leap from concrete to abstract communication? There's no developmental issues, here, for what it's worth. The person is otherwise generally of normal behavior and high intelligence.
I have two ideas: One, code was never used or demonstrated between the parents.
Two, Code was abusive, or as FamilyDoc says above, just Not Code. What if there was some major event that the patient tried to develop code, and failed miserably? Punishment?

And, I know- you don't diagnose. Maybe you'll humor me a little?

therapydoc said...

Nah, can't diagnose, but teaching people to think beyond concrete can be successful sometimes, sometimes not. When it isn't, no point in code, is there? Direct can be perfectly wonderful, and in most communication, exactly what is called for.

Anna said...

Thanks, TD. Just right.

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