Thursday 19 June 2014

Beziehungsunfähig (no Tango post)


Now that‘s a word, that I have heard many times since the early 90‘s. It translates as „not capable of maintaining a meaningful romantic relationship“.
When a german grown-up with a certain level of education goes through or prepares a break up, he (or she) will most likely ask him- (or her-) self: Am I „beziehungsunfähig“ and should I therefore give up trying to have a relationship in the first place? In some cases: What do I have to change to become „beziehungsfähig“. (Capable of...) 

I have heard these words from friends, I have heard them from partners... it seems to be such a common way of thinking. But fact is: I have never used them, whether by referring to others, nor to myself. I guess some ex-partners would point out, that this lack of questioning my general capability of bonding was one of the major problems, but I wonder... is it just a different cultural background?

Because yesterday, during my Yoga workout, I started to think about the word "beziehungsunfähig" and tried to find an english translation. I did not succeed and neither did my preferred translation tool on the internet. I tried English, French, Italian, Portuguese and Polish. No such word exists in either of these languages.

And this is where I ask myself: Does the concept even exist in other languages? Do people of other origins question their capabilities of maintaining a relationship after a breakup or do they „only“ suffer, move on or do whatever people do before they start looking for somebody new. Is it only Germans who over-psychoanalyse every move they make? (And is this the reason why I don‘t read german authors... by the way?)

I am not like that. After a breakup, I am sad, I suffer, I move on or I don‘t, I ask myself what has gone wrong or I am just mad or relieved that it‘s over. I sometimes wonder, if I will ever find love again, but I never ask myself, if I should stop trying because of a general incapability.

The language you use will influence the way you think, will define limits and possibilities. So, the question is: Am I too not „deep“ enough or just lacking the „German“ gene? Is it because I grew up with three languages instead of only one, that I don‘t even think in that direction? Am I doomed to make the mistake of bonding to someone new over and over again, although I might be „beziehungsunfähig“, just because I am not german enough to enough to admit it? 

So... What is it? Do non-germans even think that way? Can they, if they don‘t have a word for it? Or do they just don‘t give a damn?


Marc van Oostendorp said...

The idea that language influences thought is known in linguistics as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis; it is a topic of a lot of controversy, there are some experiments which seem to speak in its favour and others which seem to speak against it. But in any case I think there is consensus that language does not absolutely determine what you can think about (otherwise people would never be able to invent something new before they have a word for it; or think of the many things you know about tango which you can only show, but not describe precisely).

Dutch culture is very close to German culture in many ways, but we do NOT have a word for Beziehungsunfähig (as far as I am aware). In this case, culture wins: people think about this topic a lot, and it is of course easy to describe – you explain it in English in just a few words.

tangogeoff said...

This is the first time that I've heard of this in real life, so perhaps it's a cultural thing. Your usual reaction to the end of relationships is the same that I'm familiar with through personal experience and popular culture.
The only occasions when I recall encountering this concept are in fiction.
So...well done, Melina! You sound perfectly normal to me. I can write a certificate for you if you like!

Anonymous said...

In Finnish there is a related, but not exactly same word, "sitoutumiskammoinen" which means "somebody who is afraid to commit".

Unknown said...

well, if one of the languages you grew up is german, then the concept of being beziehungsunfähig should be native to your conceptual system, what a brilliant word by the way :).
it would consequently mean that you just don't give up that easily, which is a wonderful thing :).

personally, i tend to think that cultural and social peculiarities affect the way we represent ourselves and the world around us much more than the language does.
so the concept of beziehungsunfähig should not be that alien to all the French and Argentinians who are equally mad about psychoanalysis.

thus you open an interesting question: is having a strong concept without having a name for it even possible? and does not-being-able-to-mantain-a-relationship count as a good name for the concept?

Melina Sedo said...

Thanks for the certificate Tangogeoff. I'll take it gladly! ;-)

But i really do not worry soooo much about myself here… It is more the question to what extend language influences thinking.

It is nevertheless interesting that you perceive the concept as rather "unrealistic" whereas Marc finds it is part of his cultural background as well.
There are some other opinions on my Facebook profile as well.

Thanks guys!

Melina Sedo said...

Wow. Interesting Mikko. You are the first one who comes up with a word for it in your language.


Melina Sedo said...


I am not sure, if you are mixing up the words.

BeziehungsUNfähig = NOT being able to maintain a relationship. Often implying that you should rather NOT try to have one. Therefore actually giving up.

Bezihungsfähig = BEING able of maintaining a relationship.

As for myself: I dunno… Sure, I grew up with german, but my family was quite international and even my german mother does not "think" very german, as she spent so many years amongst english or american people. So I even misused some german words as a child and had to re-learn them as an adult. So many of my internal concepts and representations might base on a weird mixture of cultures… ;-)

Melina Sedo said...

humm.. and why are my comments all posted at the end and not in order of publishing… :-(

Elizabeth Brinton said...

Well, it is really two word, but in English you can say "commitment phobe" to describe someone.
Of course, this means one fears commitment, which amounts to unable?

msHedgehog said...

I was about to say the same: what people normally (and very commonly) say is "commitment-phobic". It strictly means afraid of comitting, but the sense is of not being able to because you don't really want to.

You can say anything in any language if you spend the time - the concept of word divisions and exactly what counts as a single word is really an artefact of spelling conventions. If people don't have a word for a concept that strikes them as useful, they make one up or 'borrow' one fast enough. It seems much more likely that the things people want to say determine what they have words for much more than the other way round.

Madeline L said...

I would be surprised if any thinking person, particularly if over 30 or 40, did not consider this at the end of a relationship, whatever their language or culture. Having a word/label for it makes it 'normal' or less particular to the individual. I thought it many times, and enjoyed being free and not committed as a consequence! However when I hit 45 I began to consider commitment and amazingly met someone who was compatible, still with him more than 20 years later. Maybe it is just about right timing, right person, right time of life?