How the Language of Love Limits Relationships

Some time ago a droll thing happened to me. A friend said of a couple known to us, “they don’t really act like a couple.” At the time, this friend and I were having dinner, just the two of us. Just before, we had a go together on a set of swings. As our night drew to a close, I would wait with her at her bus stop. The droll thing that struck me was that this girl and I were perhaps closer to acting like a couple than the other actual couple was. Which begs the question – what does this whole bullshit notion even mean?

How do couples act? They kiss, for one, although not necessarily in public. But we can be confident they kiss. We can safely presume they have some sex here and there. The boy pays for the girls meals. They are also, I hardly need to say, sexually exclusive. I’m already moving out of confident territory. They hang out more often, alone together.

Words can restrict how a love is conducted

The nefarious thing about the word “couple” is that it doesn’t merely describe, it also prescribes. Once a couple is self-identified as such, they tend to experience certain ideas regarding how couples act and feel. This mere mental change in how a relationship is identified ushers in a literal change in how a relationship is conducted. This change is subconscious. While it may go against either of the partner’s conscious wishes, it is an inevitable consequence of the change in how a relationship is defined. The path more travelled is well-worn and easy to find oneself on – and this goes for neural paths, too.

“Couple” and “relationship” are frames – the words activate extensive neural networks with inevitable subconscious associations. Any frame masks some possibilities while highlighting others – in this case, some possible behaviours of a couple is masked by the phrase “couple”, while other possible behaviours are thrust forward in the brain. The scary power of this is that employing such frames to describe one’s own relations has a subconscious influence on how one experiences the relations themselves.

I'm with a close friend of mine and we are embracing which is a bit like a couple but we aren't a couple as such. That's the point. We love and their isn't language for it!

Some couples don’t act like couples. And vice-versa.

Even when this internal tension is avoided – and it can be avoided with a simple change or rejection of nomenclature (not that this is necessarily an easy way out) – external pressures still exist. Social facts‘, embedded ideas for what constitutes appropriate behaviour in particular situations, will apply a coercive influence on all but the most dedicated resistors. This concept, ‘social facts’, was advanced by sociologist Emile Durkheim, to highlight what is at play when we talk about ‘how couples behave’: these social structures that we are identifying apply a constraint on the individual.

Milan Kundera bears witness to this in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. When Franz confesses to his wife (and, by extension, society) that he has been disloyal, his mistress, Sabina, is horrified. Sabina feels that “having a public, keeping a public in mind, means living in lies,” as “we involuntarily make allowances for that eye [that someone keeps on what we do].” With particular regard to her outing as Franz’ mistress, Sabina fears that, “instead of being Sabina, she would have to act the role of Sabina” (emphasis added). Once a relationship becomes publicly recognised as a “relationship”, individuals are compelled to adapt their behaviour to fit cultural norms– adversely affecting their freedom, and certainly the relationship itself.

So how should we talk about relationships?

Despite the negative effects, there is a great deal to be said for calling a spade a spade. There comes a point where tired terms such as “girlfriend” or “boyfriend” bear enough verisimilitude to warrant their use. Here, one acknowledges the strength of the similarity between what the term connotes and what it is being used to describe, perhaps also trusting one’s peers to avoid taking such a shallow word at face value.

Ultimately, though, there aren’t enough words. There are as many unique relationships as there are pairs of individuals in this world, yet we are left with barely a handful of terms to describe them. This doesn’t hamper expression alone, it hampers relating itself. As cognitive linguist George Lakoff notes, the lack of available frames can form a neural impediment to conceptualising latent phenomena: “Without the words, the idea cannot even be expressed”. Indeed, if we can’t define something, we can’t conceive of something. Lakoff has a great knack for inventing terms to help us conceptualise abstract, ineffable ideas; in the same vein modern couples might “see” each other, a frame used to describe a phenomenon that was as hard to define as it was unthinkable in an earlier time. “Bromance” is another useful neologism that illustrates how new words foment new ideas.

My best friend and I at a school sports carnival. We look happy together. I am topless and wearing a tortoise shell bra. It's a bit weird. The point is that our love, our relationship cannot be neatly described!

There are friendships, then there are topless-clam-shell-bikini-friendships. Where are the words?

The words of a language are an effect, but also a cause, of the culture associated with that language. Culture influences what words develop, and this influences what notions can be conceived of. Hindi, for example, has a range of words lacking English equivalents used to describe particular familial connections. Your husband’s elder brother’s wife is called ‘jethanii’, while the wife of your husband’s younger brother is ‘devaraanii’. In Hindi, these extra words not only indicate the significance of the represented ideas to that culture, they embed it.

Regrettably, in English, one of the richest languages available, we are left struggling to conceptualise a couple that doesn’t “act like a couple”. I can only hope that, in my life (and as a consequence thereof!), we can broaden how we speak about, and thus how we understand, the infinite range of human relationships.

What experiences do you have of how terms such as “couple” and “relationship” alter your thinking and behaviour? Have you come up with any alternatives?

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2 Responses to “How the Language of Love Limits Relationships”

  1. You’re so right!
    My girlfriend and I met at uni and have been going out for 3 months. At first everything was cool, we just enjoyed each others company (we have really similar personalities) but now everyone is calling us a couple and it just makes things weird! I wish there wasnt so much social preasure, people are so shallow these days!

    • Ah no! This sounds tricky. It would be pretty frustrating to feel pressured because of the need others have to apply some sort of label. What has this been like for you?

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