I Swear Couples Therapy Can Be Messy
You are in couples therapy to describe your feelings and hopefully, be heard and understood. For many couples, my therapy office may be the only place where they can engage in authentic conversations. I make it clear to couples at the outset that I am a fan of strong language … but only if they are so inclined.
I also swear that some couples are just a bit too polite for their own damn good. They censor themselves to the point of being emotionally mute. Many couples in trouble have lost their capacity for frank and spontaneous communication.
Before I made my feelings about cussing known, when an F-bomb sputtered out in therapy, the offender would glance at me, sheepishly anticipating my therapeutic disapproval.
I now tell them that I follow the science wherever it leads. And the science behind being a potty mouth is not what you think.
Why Do We Use Swear Words?
Why do we swear? I mean it’s just crude and rude.. right? Intelligent people don’t swear…or do they?
Would it surprise you to learn that there are social scientists and researchers who actually study this sh*t?
Send the kids outside, and I’ll tell you all about it.
Five Kinds of Cussing
Probably because he has nothing better to do, psychologist Steven Pinker created a TED talk about swearing. He tells us there are five kinds of cussing:
- Idiomatic Swearing: Using cuss words for the hell of it (instead of saying Golly…or Gee Whiz…)
- Cathartic Swearing: As a couples therapist, I’m kinda big on catharsis. It’s a relational way of telling the world that you’re having a bad day.
- Emphatic Swearing: I kinda like this one too. People want to be understood, so they emphasize specific thoughts or feelings with salty language.
- Dysphemic Swearing: This is the nasty kind. Preferred by 10-year-old boys and stand up comics. The goal is to shock and offend. It’s the opposite of using a euphemism. Instead of toning down the provocative language…you are ratcheting it up.
- Abusive Swearing: The worst! Definitely, something I don’t allow in couple’s therapy! Keep this sh*t up, and I will send you home!
Swearing taps into a deep and old part of the brain. Neurologists tell us that aphasic patients (those have lost the ability to utter articulate language) somehow retain their ability to cuss and swear. According to Pinker, that’s because swear words are kept in the right hemisphere, which modulates negative affect far more than the left side of the brain.
Is Swearing a Fearsome Yelp?
We think of chanting as soothing and swearing as a sign of constricted agitation. Wrong.
Cussing can be very cathartic too… although I’ve never chanted a cuss word. Hmmmm..now there’s an idea!
We have a particular neurological pattern, which is very similar to what Pinker calls the “fearsome yelp” many animals display while in pain or when in apoplectic rage.
However, humans have the power of speech. We have better options than just yelping. Pinker says that swearing “engages the full expanse of the brain: left and right, high and low, ancient and modern.”
Cussing…I mean inspired cussing.., is entirely contextual.
You yell something different to the friggin’ idiot who cuts you off in traffic than at the screen door that you just slammed on your finger. Pinker calls these “response cries.” They convey our annoyance over an event that other humans can relate to. It’s primal and relational at the same time.
Pinker tells us that a strategic cuss is our way of saying “the world that [a] setback matters to us, indeed, that it matters at an emotional level that calls up our worst thoughts….” It’s our primal howl when the challenges of life lead us to scream at the universe when we become, however briefly, unfettered by any notion of civilized restraint.
I follow my client’s lead on cussing. If they’re uncomfortable, I keep it clean. I encourage my couples to cuss with feelings, at feelings, but not at each other because that would be contempt.
If they feel relieved to have an option to cuss in therapy, I disclose to them that… I too… am a closet potty mouth.
The Amazing Science of Swearing
It’s a robust cultural belief that swearing is a sign of a vulgar, unintelligent lout who is also an uncouth moral imbecile.
Wrong on every friggin’ count!
Research published in the Social Psychological and Personality Science by a team of researchers from the Netherlands, the USA, the UK, and over in Hong Kong report that people who cuss and swear tend to be honest and forthright in conversation.
Numerous research papers have indicated that swearing is positively correlated with honesty. Humans, with their power of language, employ cussing and swearing to express unrestrained feelings and frustrations with utter sincerity.Dr. David Stillwell is a lecturer in Big Data Analytics at the University of Cambridge. He is one of the lead researchers measuring the relationship between swearing and honesty.
“The relationship between profanity and dishonesty is a tricky one. Swearing is often inappropriate but it can also be evidence that someone is telling you their honest opinion. Just as they aren’t filtering their language to be more palatable, they’re also not filtering their views. The main thing we found is if you filter your language when speaking then you’re probably also filtering what you’re saying as well. You are less likely to be about what you think and more about what you think other people want to hear.” Dr. David Stillwell
The international team of researchers set out to gauge people’s views about this sort of language in a series of questionnaires, which included interactions with social media users.
Another research paper analyzed data from 75,000 Facebook users to measure their use of cuss words employed in their online social media posts. This research also correlated cussing with complete frankness.
These Facebook users were recruited from across the United States, and their responses took note of the regional variance in swear words that are used across the USA.
For example, those in the north-east corridor and New England were more likely to swear than the good folks in the Southern states (such as South Carolina, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee where they tend to bring out the soap if you get too carried away).
As if that wasn’t enough, researchers from the University of Cambridge, Maastricht University, Hong Kong University, and Stanford University all reached the same finding; people who swear seem to do so solemnly.
They tell the truth… the whole truth…and nothing but the friggin’ truth.
People who swear can usually be trusted to mean what they say…and say what they mean.
The researcher found “a consistent positive relationship between profanity and honesty; profanity was associated with less lying and deception at the individual level and with higher integrity at the society level”.
More Shocking Research on Swearing
Researchers asked the study subjects why they had a tendency to swear so damn much. Most of them said that they used profanity to convey their negative feelings and reveal their true selves. They also said that swearing was a way to tap into an open and honest assessment of their negative emotions.
Professor Stilwell says the kind of honesty measured in the research was a daily sort of “low-level, everyday honesty.” People are essentially offering their real and frank opinions. These honest, homely feelings are just the sort of messy sh*t therapists struggle with during couples therapy in every session.
Another recent study indicates that intelligent people swear more. There has been previous research that showed that cussing might indicate an above-average intelligence.
A 2016 study found that individuals with higher levels of verbal intelligence, the kind of intelligence associated with language, tended to use more swear words.
Inspired cussing is positively correlated with overall verbal fluency. The more words you generated in one category means there are more words you can create in another category.
I Swear I Am Almost Done Here
So there you have it. Cussing excessively might be seen as low-brow, but honest, smart people swear too. So when my couples say they are OK with swearing….so am I.
There are two other reasons why swearing is helpful in couples therapy. New research also says that swearing is an analgesic.
It reduces pain, and reduced pain allows for feelings to shift and flow in the therapy room. Cussing can enhance communication in a way that is inherently relational and analgesic.
Honest feelings from intelligent people… passions struggling to be expressed and understood.
What more could a couples therapist want?
Couples therapy is hard work. At times, you need to be less squishy, more direct, and maybe even a wee bit outrageous.
I use everything I have with my couples…and I always follow the damn science.
As if that wasn’t enough. Swearing can be memorable. It sticks in the mind when recruited for emphasis.
A seriously well-placed cuss word from a therapist can emphasize an essential therapeutic intervention. As Master couples therapist Susan Johnson once said, “a good therapist says important things…a great therapist says friggin’ important things over and over.”
OK…so maybe she didn’t say “friggin’.”