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Article 5. Language Deficit Reflects Conceptual Deficit

by Reuben E. Gross, M.A., M.S., PhD, ABP, ABPP, FAACP, LMFT

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Our Inattention To The Importance Of Reciprocal Spousal Obligations

Is Reflected In Our Language; What Are Some Of Those Spousal Obligations?

Summary: What does a group’s language tell us about the importance of certain physical phenomena or the social/cultural/philosophical values of that group? The English language has a deficit due to its limited vocabulary in describing a core dimension of the marital relationship. It would therefore appear that this core dimension: the obligations of a husband to his wife and vice versa, is not recognized as important enough to even have a single encompassing verb to describe each spouse’s responsibilities to his partner. Some of these reciprocal spousal obligations are enumerated.

Please note: All the points made in this article refer to both sexes; for the sake of grammatical simplicity “he” and “she” are interchangeable.

Eskimos living in the North Pole are surrounded by snow 24/7 and have to contend with snow. Because of its ever-presence, they talk about snow and contemplate ways of adapting to it in all of its variations. Since a person needs the proper words to describe or discuss a subject or phenomenon with all of its nuances, it is not surprising that Eskimos have numerous words to describe the various types of snow.


In his article “There Really Are 50 Eskimo Words For Snow,” New Scientist, Jan. 14, 2013, David Robson states: “Central Siberian Yupik has 40 such terms, while the Inuit dialect spoken in Canada’s Nunavik region has at least 53. …For many of these dialects, the vocabulary associated with sea ice is even richer. In the Inupiaq dialect of Wales, Alaska, Krupnik documented about 70 terms for ice….

Clearly, the quantity of words a language contains about any subject, reflects how important that particular phenomenon is in that society: in this case: “snow” in the life of Eskimo society, as contrasted to snow in the life of people who live in a much warmer climate.

Since snow is not a crucial factor in our lives in America, we don’t need separate words to describe the different types of snow. To us, snow is just an occasional event and if we want to be more specific when we talk about it, we throw in an adjective. Accordingly, it seems reasonable to believe that there are many languages of people living at the Equator that don’t even have a word for snow.

We Need to Highlight Reciprocal Spousal Obligations, But We Don’t

Now let’s talk about “marriage” and those who enter its portals. The English language gives us “marriage” as a noun and “married” as an adjective, a (passive!) state of being, but no verb to give recognition to the fact that a husband and a wife must be active in pursuing their ongoing responsibilities to their spouse and must perform them faithfully to fulfill their role, or perhaps even deserve the title “husband” or “wife.” For a teacher, the verb is “teach.” If she doesn’t teach, she is a failure as a teacher…but due to our language deficit, it makes no sense when we say: “if he doesn’t husband he is a failure as a husband.”

Now, we do have a verb “parenting” to indicate that the noun “father” or “mother” merely refers to a biological fact; but these words do not describe the responsibilities of a father or mother. With the word “parenting” we give recognition to the fact that a parent has responsibilities to their offspring: they must play an active role in the rearing of his children. And if they do not discharge those responsibilities they are a failure in their parenting.

Now, just as we have the verb “parenting” there should be a verb that describes the active role a husband is obligated to play towards his wife (husbanding?), and the wife must fulfill towards her husband (wifeing?) This deficit in our language reflects our lack of understanding of, inattention to, and our clear failure to recognize –much less emphasize– the importance of a mutual and reciprocal set of spousal obligations.

Our language’s failure to provide verbs to emphasize the active role a husband or wife must take to create and build the relationship which we call “marriage” seems to reflect the fairy tale description of marriage wherein all the person has to do is get married, and he will automatically live happily ever after. Never having heard a minimal vocabulary describing the role of each spouse to the other, it is no wonder that so many people (let’s call this category the “naïve group”) get married without the necessary understanding of what their responsibilities are to each other in the marriage, do not know what marriage is really all about, and consequently march down the aisle in naive confidence about everlasting marital happiness with their prospective spouse, lacking awareness that they are unaware of their responsibilities and are not at all prepared to fulfill their roles in the complex relationship we call “marriage.”

Now, if sometime during the marriage ceremony, the clergyman would ask the prospective mates “And do you agree to fulfill all of your responsibilities, duties and obligations to each other with love, care and respect for the rest of your lives?” I wouldn’t be surprised if the young man replied “Well sir, whadda y’mean by that? I know all about the love part, I’m madly in love right now and that’s why I’m marrying her, but nobody ever told me about responsibilities, duties and obligations. That’s news to me.” And he’d be right! Poor fellow. He sure knows about being in love, but nobody ever told him about all those other pesky things like responsibilities, duties and obligations.

Contrasting with those who are naïve about marriage, are those who are only too well aware of its risks, having seen marital breakups in the marriages of parents, family members, friends or neighbors and being very much aware of the marital world around them. These sophisticated individuals are very concerned about the stability of marriages and fear, correctly, that they are not prepared to handle the problems that await them. These individuals are happy enough to live with their partners and postpone marriage for years, sometimes waiting until one, two, or even three children are born.

What Are Some of Those Reciprocal Spousal Obligations?

How do I address the problem of reciprocal spousal obligations in my practice? After making the initial appointment with a couple, married or not, I send them a number of questionnaires to fill out at home and bring with them to our first meeting. Filling out these questionnaires helps them understand their strong and weak points, and gives me a panoramic view of their situation, as they experience it. One of these questionnaires I named “Measuring a Couple’s Relationship-Building Communications.” The replies help me gauge how active each person behaves in building and maintaining the relationship. How good are they at fulfilling some of those “pesky” obligations and duties that they owe to their partner? I ask them to ink in a score to evaluate themselves and their partners on the frequency with which they display certain behaviors. Understandably, the list of obligations is not complete, but it gives each spouse an understanding of how successful he and his partner rate in discharging at least some of their responsibilities to each other. Understandably, no two persons are alike; people differ in the strength or frequency that they wish or need certain relation-building interactions. In each case, the couple is encouraged to reveal and openly discuss their personal and specific needs and wishes to each other.

For more information on the Relationship-Building questionnaire which lists many spousal obligations, please click here for my article: “How Do We Assess a Couples' Relationship-Building Communications?” Some universal needs and wishes are enumerated at the end of this article.

The Couple Should be Taught to Recognize And Acknowledge Relationship Problems And Should be Taught to Resolve Them Peacefully And Effectively

And should the clergyman, note: “Well, you know that no two people agree on everything, and sooner or later as decisions have to be made, you will be arguing your points with each other. How skilled are you at keeping those arguments from escalating to not listening carefully, interrupting, losing patience, raising your voices angrily when you’re not getting your way and fighting with each other?” The young man might say. “Sir, we love each other and get along very well. We don’t intend to fight. We’re not like all those other couples that you hear about.” The cleric then sighs slowly and says: “Okay….”

Learning How to Argue in a Respectful Fashion

is a Prerequisite to Avoid Fighting

The problem of discussions or arguments escalating to fights, when I work with a couple, especially those who complain “We’re fighting all the time” or “We have communication problems,” one of the first things I tell them is: disagreeing and arguing your point is good. After a good argument, each person knows more about the subject than he knew before the argument began. But arguing means a respectful exchange of ideas, listening to what the other person says with an open mind, looking for the best solution to the problem, and showing a willingness to compromise. When you fail to follow the rules, you are not arguing, you are fighting.

I then introduce a list of 19 behaviors in communication that people employ when arguing or complaining. On the left side of the page, I list the unhelpful behaviors. For example: #1 forbids verbal put-downs or insults, e.g., name-calling as well as non-verbal put-downs (making a face, rolling eyes, etc.).

The desired behavior is listed on the right side of the page, viz. to show respect at all times. Another no-no is interrupting; the desired behavior is to wait patiently until the other person is finished, or gesture that you need to talk. A third no-no is failure to give your spouse your undivided attention when listening. A fourth no-no is minimizing a partner’s feelings or opinions. Next comes raising voice angrily etc.

After introducing them to this list, my next step is to get the couple to agree to the wisdom of the nineteen rules and promise to do their best not to violate them. I use the metaphor of driving a car. As long as you stay on the right side of the road (page), you are safe. Once you cross the line and are on the left side of the road (page), you’re in trouble. I also teach them how to help each other stay on the right side of the road, and to thank each other for that help.

Couples that follow these suggestions and the techniques that I introduce are amazed at how quickly following a few simple rules can dramatically change the atmosphere in their household. Understandably, old habits resist change; we don’t expect magical transformations. But very real noticeable change can, and does take place with serious effort. The newly created positive, respectful atmosphere is self-reinforcing and, with practice, becomes the mode.

For more information on this subject, click here for my article “How to Complain Diplomatically and Argue Without Fighting.”

Developing Better Communication When Fighting is Not an Issue

Learning how to disagree, argue and even complain without fighting is very important, but not enough. The next approach in marriage counseling is to teach the couple a number of behaviors that are important to know so that they may get their point(s) across clearly to their partner when they discuss a complex situation and take the proper steps to bring about a mutually satisfactory resolution of the matter under discussion. One of my questionnaires relates to this area.

The first question on this questionnaire is “I feel understood by my partner when we discuss personal relationship issues.” If the person who raises an issue is not understood, how can the issue be addressed? Other questions refer to knowing when to listen and when to talk, revealing personal feelings when disclosure will advance the discussion, speaking directly and to the point, feeling confident that conflict will not get out of control, open-mindedness and flexibility, willingness to compromise, etc. After a full exchange and exploration of each person’s ideas, feelings and points of view on a particular subject, the couple should learn how to arrive at a mutually agreed-upon solution with an understanding as to what should be done by each person to fill their part of the agreement. These new problem-solving skills will help them address and solve complex and sensitive situations respectfully and constructively.

The couple is encouraged to open areas and channels of communication that they have never used before. One result of this openness and mutual exchange is that each person clarifies for himself, and expresses to his partner, his unmet personal needs as factors in his unhappiness. He also learns how to accommodate his spouse’s wishes for satisfaction and
fulfillment in the relationship.

A sophisticated cleric might encourage a couple to visit him, or go to a licensed marriage counselor before the marriage ceremony for premarital counseling, or have a learning experience some weeks or months after their honeymoon at which time the expert will highlight important concepts, philosophies and behaviors for each of them to adopt. Hopefully, he will encourage each person to fulfill his/her role in the relationship by adhering to the following minimal basic behavioral responsibilities:

Basic Behavioral Responsibilities That Husbands And Wives Owe Each Other

  • Showing total interest in his spouse’s life and giving his spouse’s happiness and well-being priority in his life.
  • Opening the channels of respectful communication to include sharing thoughts and feelings, and frequent fine-tuning of the relationship by bringing up problems diplomatically before they escalate.
  • Showing constant respect for a partner's feelings, opinions, and personhood.
  • Actively displaying unstinting love, care, and concern for the partner's needs for attention, acceptance, support, affection, and sex.
  • Frequent expression of recognition, appreciation, thanks, and praise for partner's personal qualities, his/her contributions to the enhancement of the relationship, extended family and social life, financial support, care for the children, management of the household, etc.
  • Spending more private time with each other for more communication, mutual sharing, and understanding of each other’s life, bonding experiences, and pleasurable activities.
  • Protecting the relationship from interfering outside forces.

But who thinks of these concepts when they walk down the aisle? How many of the marital hopefuls contemplate that indeed, it is so easy to get married, but in fact, so hard to stay married (happily)?


Spousal responsibilities, duties, obligations and respectful behavior that each partner owes the other are given scant attention in our society. This sad fact is reflected in a language deficit. There is not a single verb describing the active role a husband or wife must fulfill in their obligations to their partner. Accordingly, many people get married with the mistaken belief that all they have to do is get married, and happiness will be an automatic result. Society fails our singles by not preparing them for marriage with the result that so many people are disappointed with their partners, and so many marriages end in failure.

For more information on this subject, click here for my article “So Easy To Get Married But So Hard To Stay Married (Happily)”

End of article 5. “Language Deficit Reflects Conceptual Deficit”


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