The Implicit Meaning of How We Navigate the World

Are we saying a lot through explicit verbal and behavioral communication?

Posted Dec 03, 2019

We learn to socialize in accordance with the tone and context that our culture and society impose on us. As a result, we learn to maneuver the intricate web of our interactions in the world with a specific set of cultural codings. In a cross-cultural relationship, there might be a space where partners interpret the same event very differently, depending on what coding they are adhering to.

In this blog post, I examine one experience that partners in love relationships encountered that led them into a significant conflict. By identifying each of their cultural perspectives, I help to:

1. Disentangle the misunderstandings that they experienced during the conflict.

2. Identify culturally-rooted meaning that each partner was contributing to the experience.

3. Appreciate that their difference is not a deficiency; rather, it is a gift.

Liam and Junya

“I am learning that we express what we need and want differently,” says Junya. “My husband might say, ‘This is what I want to do, so will you do this with me?’ Liam has a direct, straightforward way of expressing his wishes. While I noticed myself expressing my needs and wants in a very different manner. When I think of us as a couple, Liam is more like a sayer, a person who says things to convey his love and care. I am more like doer; I feel more comfortable doing things to convey love and care for him. I often feel very ambivalent about verbalizing exactly what I want.”

Liam is in his early 30s and identifies himself as Irish-American. He grew up in Massachusetts. He works in the film industry. Junya is in his early 30s and identifies himself as a Japanese immigrant. He grew up in multiple countries: Hong Kong, Japan, and the United States. He works as a copyrights lawyer. They have been married for two years.

“We have been grappling with the issue of distance in our relationship,” says Liam. They both nod and agree that there has been an emotional and physical distance between them. “I want us to work on this gap, but we both feel very defeated by it. We have had multiple conversations about the distance, but every time we talk about it, we end up feeling unheard by the other.”

Being quiet is not an act of being passive in some cultures

“I am fine with how he interacts with me,” says Junya. “However, Liam wants me to verbalize more of what I feel, think, and want in our marriage, whether that is something logistically, emotionally, or sexually. And when I don’t say it, he interprets this as I am not interested in him. This is so not true. I have tried to express myself more in addition to other forms of care—sharing financial responsibility with him, planning meals for us, and taking care of the chores. I feel that I do a lot for him and us. No matter what he says, I still feel like asking for something more from him is confronting or embarrassing him. And at the same time, requiring a connection through verbal, emotionally-loaded conversation seems to dismiss how I do take care of him. I feel that my way of loving him gets disregarded. And saying what I want sexually, to me, really spoils the fun of lovemaking. I want some mystery in our sex life. Not everything needs to be said in the bedroom!”

“It is almost as if we speak different languages,” says Liam. “It’s true. I feel very connected to Junya when we talk. If he is not saying things to acknowledge how I am loving towards him, I end up feeling anxious. In my family, we say lots of things to stay close. All of my family lives in Massachusetts, but I keep in close communication with them. I text my sister quite often, and I Facetime my parents once a week. I want to be wanted explicitly with words of affirmation. I do appreciate things that Junya does for me. Retrospectively, I fell in love with him initially because he possessed an immutable presence in his quiet nature, which I found beautiful. Yet, I also want something that I am familiar with. I don’t dismiss his way of loving me, and I do appreciate what he does for me. However, I cannot deny my need to connect verbally, emotionally. I want Junya to give me words of affection and affirmation.”

Can they hold this dilemma?

“For a love relationship to thrive, there needs to be some healthy degree of separateness while you maintain some closeness,” says Michele Sheinkman. And I believe that Liam and Junya can accept and embrace their unique quality by utilizing “And/Both thinking” (Esther Perel Tedtalks). What they want from each other is a valid dilemma or conflict.

And their dilemma is also a gift. And their gift brings an opportunity here in the love relationship: to accept and embrace what each one brings from his unique experience, history, and culture.

Sayer and Doer complement each other

I say to Liam and Junya that it makes sense that Liam wants to feel connected via verbal communication since he grew up with a family that has placed so much importance on verbal connections and communication. Simultaneously, it is also to be expected that Junya wants to be loved and love Liam by doing things for him that account for the fact that he was raised by the parents who were brought up in Japanese culture.

I help Junya and Liam create a space where they get to embrace each of their authentic selves and their relationship like a Venn diagram that holds the merging space in between them. This is a co-created space in the middle where they get to create their own loving place, the reflection of each of their unique authenticity complimenting each other.

I think we all want to bring our authentic self and authentic form of loving to our love relationship. I think the sayer and doer very much complement each other and can create a very beautiful, delicate balance. Would you and your partner reflect on how you give and receive love by making space for your differences, and visualizing them by drawing a Venn diagram? And what do you see in the middle of your unique Venn diagram? I bet something beautiful that two of you embrace.