The counseling session in my office sounded like a scene from the Abbott and Costello comedy routine "Who’s on First?" — except this was no comedy.

I had been working with Kevin and Kendra for several weeks. They were in their forties, married 16 years with two preteen children. They told me their marriage had been stable and mostly happy with a few bumps along the way. These "bumps" were nearly always exacerbated by the couple’s inability to communicate clearly and effectively with each other.

We worked together to improve their communication skills — a common malady for many couples. Things were going well until they had a heated encounter in one of our sessions, where I was able to see first-hand some of their difficulties.

"I don’t like the way he spends money," Kendra said abruptly, with obvious tension in her voice.

Kevin rolled his eyes in exasperation, and then shot a darting glance at her.

"What’s the problem," I asked.

"I just don’t like it, and he knows it and does it anyway," she said again, even more forcefully.

"I hear your frustration, Kendra," I said, "but can you be specific about what bothers you about his spending?" She continued talking as if she hadn’t heard me.

"He knows what I don’t like about it, but he still keeps doing it. He didn’t used to be so bad about it, but it’s gotten worse lately. Sometimes, I think he is mean. He spends money we don’t have, and guess who has to pick up the pieces? I do."

"Never mind, Doc," Kevin said impatiently. "I know what she’s getting at. She resents my motorcycle. It’s easier for her to look at me and my spending than look at herself. She hasn’t told you about her shoes. Must have twenty five pairs."

As the conversation vaguely centered around money, I tried to get a clearer picture of the issue. More importantly, I wanted them to arrive at a common understanding of the problem and begin developing ways of talking about it and solving it. But, this was more difficult than it seemed.

"I can understand a man needing his motorcycle. I guess all boys need their big-boy toys," she said sarcastically. "But he blows money lots of other ways and it drives me nuts."

"Like what," Kevin jumped in angrily. "I work my tail off so I can have some nice things and you resent them. I told you when we got married that I work to play, and that’s not going to change. I make sure I spend time at home with you and the kids."

"That’s not the point," Kendra said firmly. "And besides, you’re gone a lot of weekends riding with the guys." She paused for a moment. "I just don’t like the way you spend money, plain and simple. I’m not going to argue about it, and I don’t know how else to say it."

Kendra looked over at me, ignoring Kevin and his icy stares.

We continued to try to determine the real issue that morning. I encouraged both to look not only at what they considered the real issues to be, but also their way of communicating. They were a classic example of "speaking Greek" in marriage, and it is no wonder issues using this muddled method do not get settled. Let’s look more closely at what it means to speak Greek and what can be done about it.

"Speaking Greek" means talking in a way that obscures the real issues and keeps them unsettled. It includes the following unfair fight tactics:

• Changing the topic — Greek speakers shift from one issue to another, refusing to stay focused on the topic and the desired outcome

• Refusing specifics — Greek speakers refuse to offer their mate specifics about what exactly is bothering them and what they need to feel better

• Blaming the other for the problem — Greek speakers blame the other, thereby raising the level of tension and adding to the confusion

• Becoming defensive — Greek speakers refuse to look at their part in the problem, thereby playing hide and go seek with the issues

• Playing the victim — Greek speakers act like they are getting the raw deal in the transaction, keeping the focus off them and their issue

• Crazy-making — Greek speakers keep the other off balance, deflecting critical comments, shifting the blame, minimizing their actions, always trying to keep the other off guard rather than solve problems.