If good communication is at the heart of a healthy relationship, it helps if you are speaking the same language. My Dutch boyfriend and I live in Amsterdam. His English is excellent; my Dutch, until recently, was non-existent. English is the de facto language of our home, but he gets fed up when he's tired and wants to speak his own language for a change, or when something that he wants to say to me gets mangled because he can't find the exact English word to express it. So, as an act of commitment and love for him, as well as, slightly less romantically, to be able to file my own taxes online, I have thrown myself into learning to speak Dutch.
As of January this year, three times a week, I go to a language school on the first floor of an artists' squat near the River Amstel. Five of us sit together in a classroom that doubles as someone's living room, struggling through reading comprehensions about changes in the Dutch speed limit or self-picking tulip farms. After I've gone home and done my vast amount of homework, I try out my new language skills on my boyfriend, and he's touched and impressed by my dedication, but still laughs at me when I accidentally call bananas horny (geil) rather than yellow (geel). At night I dream in confused Dutch and wake up tangled in the sheets and verb conjugations.
Sometimes I think it would be faster to invent a chip to implant the entire Dutch language into my brain than it is to learn Dutch. My mind contorts itself trying to adapt, first merely associating the strange jumble of consonants and vowels with sounds, then words, then sentences and concepts. As I progress, and meaning emerges, it feels like magic. Like those drawings from the 1990s, that looked like pages of dots, until you squinted and saw dinosaurs. It's exciting, realising that I can now read a newspaper, join in a chat at a party, eavesdrop on people on the tram. But there's something missing. Making my way through the textbooks, through chapters on travel, the environment, food and drink, I notice that not once across the entire syllabus from beginner to advanced level is there a chapter on how to express your emotions. I will complete the course able to write a report on diseases of the inner ear (De Finale page 151), and, yes, file those taxes, but if I want to tell my boyfriend I love him, let alone voice any more complex feelings, it's back to Google Translate.
I notice that not once across the entire Dutch syllabus from beginner to advanced level is there a chapter on how to express your emotions
Meanwhile my boyfriend is also learning a new language, of sorts. On Thursdays, while I try to subdue the pluperfect, he attends workshops in nonviolent communication, or NVC. NVC was developed in the 1960s by a psychologist called Marshall Rosenberg as a way of being more compassionate with ourselves and others, through the way that we think and speak. It's a technique that has global applications for the resolution of conflict, but the practice of it begins at home, which means that I am, by extension, learning nonviolent communication too. Together we watch a three-hour-long seminar on YouTube, in which Rosenberg spends a considerable amount of time wearing a set of furry giraffe ears and talking to a glove puppet shaped like a jackal. My bullshit alarm is desperate to ring, but everything Rosenberg says makes perfect sense, regardless of his headgear. Inevitably it's hard to summarise, but the basic idea is that all human beings share the same basic needs, and that all actions are strategies to get those needs met. If we can learn to speak explicitly in terms of those unmet needs, we don't need to commit acts of linguistic violence against one another – we can be empathetic giraffes, not judgemental jackals.
It's a toss-up as to whether this or Dutch is a more natural fit with my English self. I feel awkward and demanding talking about my feelings and needs, and the form of words NVC uses feels clumsy and embarrassing: "I am feeling lonely and I need attention. Would you be willing to look up from your phone and talk to me?"
"Are you feeling frustrated because you need serene surroundings? Would you like me to fold the laundry?"
However, it's undeniable that NVC helps my boyfriend and I open up and be honest with one another. We leap on every moment of conflict as an opportunity to practice; arguments become less threatening and more interesting. Half the time I end up getting the giggles; the rest of the time, I find myself in tears, not of anger or rage, but of surprised empathy, with myself or with him. It turns out that I often don't have a clue what I'm really needing, and using NVC can be incredibly revealing. One thing becomes clear to me: if you don't know how you yourself are feeling, it's impossible to really hear what the other person is saying. If I don't know why I get so defensive about my lack of enthusiasm for housework, then I can't hear his simple request that I do my share of the dishes; I translate it into an accusation that I am lazy and failing him – a judgement I am making about myself – and the next thing I know, I'm snapping at him. Since we've been using NVC, this isn't something that happens any more.
Using NVC can become exhausting. We're just not skilful enough yet to adapt the form of words to always be able to express ourselves clearly, let alone for the new way of thinking to become instinctive. And my fledgling Dutch can hardly come to the rescue, unless we want to be nonviolent about our views on greywater usage in new-build housing estates in Utrecht. So most of the time, we revert to our habitual, English, non-nonviolent ways. If good communication is at the heart of a healthy relationship, hopefully the healthy relationship is enough to keep us going until the communication catches up.
Love Stories: This week on The Pool, our writers are discussing love and relationships