Listening to a lover is a vital skill in relationships, but there is an associated and perhaps less well recognized talent that we may also need to nurture; that of sometimes, not quite listening to what a lover is saying in favor of deathly imagining what they might really mean, which could be a different thing altogether. Though taking someone at face value is rightly judged to be a supreme symbol of respect, within love, it may at points be more accurate, as well as a great deal kinder, to dig beneath the surface-meaning of words in a search for a partner’s real, but more bashful, complex or hesitant, underlying intention. We need to get better at the business of emotional translation– at navigating the gap between what people say and what they mean. Here are some typical examples of the divide. It can feel profoundly humiliating to admit to another human being that they have the power to unnerve, hurt, and destroy us. To start to love someone is at once to be strengthened in key ways, but also to be weakened and placed at their mercy, for we become, if love has gone right, heavily reliant on their good behavior, their kindness, and their dependability. When this is not forthcoming, we may choose not to lay bare our weakness to the lover who has exploited it. Our protestations that we’re “just fine” are an attempt, as unconvincing as they are touching, to lay claim to a solidity and invulnerability that our love has, in fact, stripped us of. It cannot, of course, be that simple or that stark. For a start, we almost never say such things to people we aren’t certain love us really quite a lot. We need to be very secure and comfortable around someone before we can dare to tell them that we want them dead. Secondly, this kind of rage is evidence not of simple contempt, but rather of immense hope. We don’t speak like this to our colleagues or our friends, not just because we’re polite, but because we don’t care about them enough. We haven’t bothered to expect very much from them, and therefore, cannot muster a fury when they disappoint us. Only when the bar of expectation has been set dauntingly high, do we allow ourselves to give way to boundless fury. This kind of incensed talk is one of the odder gifts of love. Our authority over our lovers is frequently rather tenuous. There are so many things we’d like them to do and want, but we cannot, sadly, direct them like marionettes. Often, the only recourse is to demand without asking– to imply without saying. We aren’t just being coy– we’re up against the limits of what we’re able to control. Passive aggression is what happens to dictatorial wishes when they’re tempered by the egalitarian reality of relationships. For the person on the receiving end, it’s often hard to know what’s happened. They feel controlled, heavy, guilty, and perhaps a bit sad. The passive aggressive partner has been clever enough to leave no traces of their manipulation. On the surface, it sounds like the partner has some options, but within the reality of the relationship, it’s evident that they will simply have to do what they haven’t even directly been asked to do. It sounds controlling and managerial. It might be a follow-on to a request to take out the bins, to count how many bottles of milk are left, and to remember to show up no later than 7:00. This kind of bossiness sounds as if there’s no love left. But the desire to control procedurally is often a symptom of a fear of losing one’s partner emotionally. One has to feel quite out of control to become controlling. The sternness is really a misguided plea for closeness. The real message has nothing to do with the table. What it means, in truth, is that one senses the partner’s lack of trust and devotion, and is resorting to exercising practical control over their life in order to achieve some kind of control over what one really wants to get a handle on: their emotions. One would stop if one felt more reassured of their love. Controlling behavior is a bid for affection delivered as a barking order. Most of the time, what people really mean in love is kinder, more tender, and more poignant than what they manage to say. But there are also times when the surface is sweet and the reality, far darker. As Marcel Proust knew, “In love, it is often the one who loves less who makes the tender speeches.” The partner may be fooling us and themselves in a sentimental direction, exaggerating all its pure, good, and simple. When we translate their words, we should get fruitfully suspicious. Perhaps we’ve set the bar of being honest too high; we’ve created a situation where we are refusing to accept difficult news, and their ambivalent, complex emotions. Quite possibly, with a little more open-mindedness and sang-froid, we could come to deal well enough with the darker parts of our partners. But for now, we’re engaged in a dangerous collusion to keep our fears at bay, thereby allowing them a higher chance of becoming realities. In the ideal future, we will have, in our ears, little devices that will translate our lover’s words into what they mean. We will hear, via our discreet, brushed, steel appliances, not what they overtly say, but what they are attempting to communicate. And ideally, they’d be wearing one, too, for the challenge of translation is, of course, always a mutual one. Until that time, though, we should always make the effort to decode the messages that we receive, accepting that it’s a legitimate part of the effort of love– to interpret, rather than just to listen to another person’s words.