Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Let's Talk About Love (Languages)

(originally posted on Velvet Park Magazine on July 14, 2009)

Half way through Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate, I thought to myself, “where the hell was this book three relationships ago!?” When I checked the copyright page, I discovered that this book has been in print for at least 17 years. So this review is for the other nine people in the country that have never heard of Chapman or his insightful book.

If you are lucky, you have been in love at least once in your life. That butterfly feeling in your stomach when the object of your affection walks into a room and you can’t wipe that big ass grin off your face. But at some point those butterflies turn to moths and suddenly, when your ball and chain shows up, you can’t help but roll your eyes. What happened? For many of us, we never figure it out. We just call it quits and move on to the next relationship. Well Dr. Chapman has an answer for all those interested. All the news is useful, but not always easy to hear.

Case in point: The “in love” feeling that is present in the beginning of most relationships lasts for about two years for the average couple. That’s why you hear folks saying, “The first couple of years were great, but then he/she just started to change.” According to Chapman, the euphoric “in love” feeling is a necessary function, but the way we act during that period can be confusing to our intended and set up a series of expectations that we will not be able or willing to fulfill later in the relationship. This is the time when we tend to throw caution to the wind and do things we normally wouldn’t. We eat foods we hate. We watch movies we think are stupid. We tolerate their obnoxious best friend. We are so enamored by this new love that we convince ourselves that what they like we like. And they are doing the same thing for us.

I have a friend that is married to a firefighter. When they first started to date, she would go to the firehouse and sit with him on the nights he was in charge of the “watch.” She would make him his favorite dinner, bring it and a big thermos of coffee to the station and they would sit from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. talking and getting to know each other – and keeping the inhabitants of the firehouse safe. At 7 a.m. she would go home, take a shower and go to work. She did this for a year, never missing a Thursday that he was on watch. During the second year of their relationship, she cut back to doing the watch with him maybe twice a month. By the time they moved in together during the third year of their relationship, he had to practically beg her to come down to the fire station.

According to Chapman, my friend and her husband experienced a normal shifting in their relationship. He says that after the “in love” period starts to cool, the couple starts to feel like they need to return to their individual habits and idiosyncrasies and here is where the poop hits the fan. Suddenly your partner starts to wonder who is the evil, cold, messy, inattentive, always late doppelganger that has taken your place. You are no longer on the same wavelength with your honey bunny. But if you take the time to learn your partner’s love language you have a better than average chance of moving your relationship to the more solid foundation of “mature love” and avoiding the pitfalls that plague so many relationships.

Chapman defines the five emotional love languages as Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Receiving Gifts, Acts of Service and Physical Touch. During the average falling in love period, we tend to do all these things consistently and frequently. But, in reality, only one or two of these languages actually speak to the person you are with – everything else is just gravy. When the cooling off period begins and the relationship begins to settle, there is a high probability that your honey might stop doing the one thing you value the most.

Back to my friend and her firefighter husband. My friend’s primary love language is Acts of Service (so is mine). So when she was showing up to the firehouse with dinner and coffee and taking care of him, that is how she was showing him she loved him. In reality, my friend is a huge fan of sleep and it was a big sacrifice for her to spend all those Thursdays (after a full day of work) with him. On the other hand, her husband’s primary love language is Quality Time. He relished having this special alone time with her every week and missed it terribly when she stopped coming to hang out with him. The food and coffee were nice, but he wanted her time.

It is not unusual for a couple to speak completely different love languages. How we express our love is informed by our family of origin, where we grew up and cultural determinations. Because you and your one true love most likely grew up in very separate ways and places, you will express your love differently. It is like a New Yorker and a Southerner getting together. Sure, they both live in America, but they see and experience the world very differently.

Besides the assessment profile in the back of the book that is designed to help you determine your love language (Warning to my same-sex loving brothers and sisters - the profile uses the traditional terminology of husband and wife, but don’t let that distract you from answering honestly.), the other most interesting chapter in the book is entitled “Love Is a Choice.” For most of us, we think that love is something that just happens to us. We either love the person we are with or we don’t. But I think Dr. Chapman is rather radical in asserting that we have more ownership over our love lives than we act like we do. That ownership is even more necessary when betrayal or hurt comes into the relationship. So, if your love boat is heading toward the jagged rocks of break up, Chapman says you can take control of the helm and steer yourself into smoother and calmer waters.

Some romantics among us will push back against the notion of having to work at being in a loving relationship. They believe it should just happen. But these are the same people who find themselves blindsided when the natural ebb that happens in any relationship shows up and they’re left wondering where all the love went.

Is this book going to be the magic fairy dust that resurrects your relationship? Maybe. Maybe not. But it will give you some new tools to talk with your love puddin’ and get a better understanding of what they are trying to say to you.


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