Love Languages: How Being an English Major is Affecting My Relationship

I’m always talking about language. I’m always thinking about what we say, how we say it, and why that particular collection of words means what it means. This obsession undoubtedly finds its roots in my focus of study. But it doesn’t end when I go home for the day. My preoccupation with diction and syntax seeps into all aspects of my life.

Honestly, it can causes some trouble. For example, my boyfriend just sort of spits out words willy nilly. Don’t get me wrong; he is incredibly clever and our banter is one of my favorite things about our relationship. His spontaneity with language can guide me to an entirely different place than he intended. This frequently occurs in communication: someone says one thing and someone else misunderstands their meaning, intent, or both. When this happens, we just rule it out as a misunderstanding. However, we should take a closer look at the reason for that. What happens on either side of the communication to cause it going awry?

My boyfriend often says “That’s not what I meant,” and I always counter with “But that’s what you said.” Here, I apply close reading. I’m essentially looking at what’s on the page: his word choice, the order he puts them in. From there, I gather my meaning. Close reading notoriously ignores author’s intent and, as a result, I don’t factor in my boyfriend’s well-meaning intent.

This is exactly what I do when I analyze texts for class, so what’s the difference? Writing is never done, but brainstorming, drafting, and revising tend to make it more polished than what we say. In spoken conversations, we veer towards off the cuff, impulsive responses. This lack of polishing on what we say can sometimes read as careless and no one wants to be spoken to carelessly.

I have two conclusions here, one on each side. First, maybe I shouldn’t hold my boyfriend’s statements up to literary analysis. I should also factor in his intent. When I analyze texts, it doesn’t necessarily matter what the author intended. All that matters is what reads on the page and how it creates meaning. After all, if the author couldn’t get across their meaning, they probably went wrong somehow. But when you’re having a personal conversation with a parent, friend, or my flippant boyfriend, intent does matter. Intentionally hurtful words are far worse than accidentally hurtful ones.

Secondly, maybe we should be more careful with our words. Although intent matters, so does forethought. Taking the time to consider what we’re saying, before we release it into the world is very powerful. It’s also an act of respect and consideration towards that important person we’re having our conversation with.