We were married for about a year, living in a small rental home when my husband and I sat down to put together a bathroom shelf. It was the inexpensive metal kind that you slide over the top of the toilet so all your toiletries have a place to live because there are zero cabinets in the bathroom. Sounds easy enough, right? Absolutely not.

What did you just say to me?

Maybe it was a long and stressful day at work, or maybe the stars weren’t in the right place in the sky. I don’t know, but for whatever reason, I had no patience for putting that shelf together. It was infuriating because it was supposed to be quick and simple. I tried to keep it together as I fiddled with the instructions and the Allen Wrench. My husband could tell my frustration was building and he said, “Calm down.”

There’s a code word for that

I don’t remember every single thing I said, but I remember the volume with which I said those things. When the snakes on my head stopped hissing and the fire in my eyes calmed to an orange flame rather than blazing blue, I yelled and told him the worst thing you can do when someone is irate is to tell them to calm down. It was then that the first codeword of our marriage was born, and it has been instrumental in diffusing conflict ever since.

We decided to pick out words ahead of time that would relate specific things without having to explain it in a long and drawn-out way. It’s one way we validate the way the other person feels before a conversation turns into an argument. This can be a simple way to express a thought, feeling, or an expectation.

Give me an example

The codeword that was produced that night was “mango slurpy.” It’s one of our favorites and one of the most used codewords in our marriage. And yes, I do realize it’s two words, not one. Why mango slurpy? Because it’s cool and refreshing and frustration can be heated and sometimes explode into anger. Surprisingly enough, neither of us get irritated when the other says “mango slurpy”, but you could probably hear the crack in the earth if one of us was to tell the other one to “calm down.” It’s the way we acknowledge that we see the other person is becoming upset, without making the situation worse.

Another trusty favorite is “whiskey neat” and it means “just shoot it to me straight.” It means you need an honest answer about something and you don’t want it watered down. The reply still needs to be respectful, but without all the fluff. You don’t want to go to that party? Tell me. You prefer not to spend the holidays with my family for more than an afternoon? Let me know. Just tell me how you feel and what you want.

According to this article on PsychCentral, good communication in marriage starts with respect, and codewords are one way to simplify information on the spot, respectfully.

Plan for it

As with so many things in life, planning is key. It doesn’t usually work to come up with words on the fly, in the heat of an argument—at least it didn’t work for us. You might consider thinking of a few situations that could use a codeword to communicate meaning quickly and easily. If you choose to use codewords to diffuse disagreements in your relationships, it’s important to note:

  • You need to choose words you’ll remember.
  • Pick ones that you and your partner mutually agree on.
  • Write them down if you need to.

You and your spouse can always go back and follow up on what happened earlier when you’ve had time to process it. The codewords don’t have to be the end of the discussion. They could simply bridge the gap for a time. If you put time and energy into the relationship with your partner, you’ll learn to talk through so many different scenarios. You’re more likely to feel heard, understood, and valued. This simple process can be crucial in creating a culture of mutual respect in your relationship, and that can help you navigate conversations in a more meaningful way. You may be better able to diffuse conflict, resolve disputes and have more constructive dialogues.

“Communication works for those who work at it.” So, what code words do you and your partner have in mind to make communication work for you? – John Powell

Related Resources to Help Diffuse Conflict


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