What Shall I Call Thee?

At the site of the historic Pre-Emption House in Naperville, there’s a plaque stating it was the center of “gay community life.” Surprised that back in 19th Century Naperville had an active gay community? Actually, this was long before “gay” was a term used for homosexuality. For Naperville’s pioneering families, being gay simply meant having fun. Words have a way of changing meaning over time, don’t they?

And, have you noticed that some words have meanings that are personal to you? With words we label people and things, for better and for worse. Perhaps you have said “And what do you mean by THAT” or I didn’t mean THAT.” A therapist spends much of the day moving beyond hurtful blaming labels to discover a client’s true meaning. Words have such power.

During my counseling career meanings of words have changed. There was a time when we hardly ever helped couples with their sexual life. That was back when a man could blame his wife for not being aroused by his manly charms. Women were labeled “frigid” and sought counseling for their “frigidity.” Men might be cold, but would never seek counseling for their failures in the romance department. Men rarely “need” help with anything because “needing” is a humiliating concept for a man. Women “need,” but men “want.” The fact of the matter is, both men and women feel deeply but don’t understand each other’s language.

Another psychological term now out of favor is “neurotic”, which got misused in arguments by saying to a spouse: “You’re completely neurotic.” Later “neurotic” became “dysfunctional.” At least it was an improvement on being “neurotic.” Whereas dysfunctional people can be counseled to be functional through short-term “skill development,” neurotics needed longer-term “treatment.”

Now I’ve noticed the term “dysfunctional” has lost its appeal in the eternal blame game. Dysfunctional behavior and communication has given way to “controlling behavior” and being “emotionally abusive.” Being told you’re controlling is common place, but calling someone “emotionally abusive” hits between the eyes and is equivalent to an act of war. I’m sure “controlling” and “emotionally abusive” will give way to other terms which will speak to the same struggles we have with each other.

When people just complained about their spouse “nagging” home life was simpler. George Carlin, that great comedian of the English language, would have had a field day with the names we call each other.

Our words form our personal realities. Certainly our partners will argue about the reality of the labels we put on them. That’s what gets discussed in counseling sessions. Our goal in counseling is to minimize the blame game to get at heart of what people really need and want from within themselves and each other. We simply seek for our clients to have a “gay life” again.