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I am often asked to present seminars on sexual communication and negotiation. In the preliminary part of the lecture, I examine the different types of words we use to speak about sex, from childhood vocabulary (peepee, dinkie, down there) to scientific terminology (vagina, scrotum, coitus) to street terms (prick, fuck, pussy). A fourth method of sexual communication is code, perhaps the most universally understood…and misunderstood …of all. Code comprises all the non-verbal and symbolic ways we communicate with each other, from the randy tap on Mama’s behind to the cold-shouldered fetal position of an angry lover.

Given that we have a much better chance of getting what we want if we ask for it, I am generally an advocate of direct, clear language in romantic matters. I realize, however, that nonverbal communication is often the most powerful of techniques. It forms the basis of flirting behaviour, providing a sort of shorthand moving us from hello to good morning. It’s fun, exciting, and effective. The danger lies in misinterpretation. If I toss you a ‘come hither’ look, for instance, which you think means I have sand in my eye, we must revert to verbal methods of getting clear if we are to proceed.

When code is misinterpreted, it can lead to a communication standoff. During a recent therapy session a desperate wife cried out through her tears, “I hate you for disappointing me so!” Her husband, defensive and confused, shot back that it had been she, not he, who had changed the rules and brought disaster to their previously happy union. This couple had enjoyed a loooooong relationship and, moving toward twenty years together, decided to start their family. After all, they agreed, theirs was a time-tested relationship, solid and unassailable. They produced two children within the next five years, bringing them the joy of family and precipitating an estrangement neither of them understood.

The crux of their problem lay in the stereotypical gender role behaviours they each adopted with the coming of the children. He continued his life outside in the ‘real’ world while she stayed home with the babies. A few years later, she discovered that she had become a mother and ceased being a lover. Her gentle husband, dutiful provider, misinterpreted her distress as something he needed to fix, and he was flummoxed about how to do this. By the time they came to me for help, they had long ago lost the romantic ‘glue’ of their childless years together.

The husband did not understand his wife’s anger. He had been a faithful, constant mate and an involved and caring father, yet had failed to notice his partner’s slide into discontent. His defense was withdrawal and silence. It was her angry outburst that betrayed her true feelings and made way for growth in the relationship.

She was not, you see, angry, but hurt. She had not permitted herself the vulnerability of grief and so converted it into a more powerful angry expression. When we decoded her message to read “I am so frightened that I may never again be anything other than Mother,” both parties could soften and gain perspective of the other’s position.

Code is like that. Sometimes it is light-hearted, spontaneous, and evocative. Other times it distorts our message and leads to ruin. It is often tempting to preserve our dignity by denying our helplessness and transforming our message from a plea to an accusation. Lashing out feels easier than letting in. But such backwards communication cannot be effective in resolving issues.

If there is a moral to this story, it is that we do well to confine the use of coded communication to situations unburdened by negative emotions. When tackling serious issues, verbal communication establishes less room for misinterpretation. If we want to say, “Comfort me. Support me. Cherish me” and we express it as “You never pay any attention to me anymore,” it is foolish to expect the hoped-for response. When we are clear, honest, and unguarded we better our odds of maintaining smooth relationships.

Code is a useful communication tool. It has it’s place. We are wise to keep it there and hone our verbal skills.