The Language of Love

Recently I mailed a package to a loved one, who responded – “presents are my love language.” We didn’t always have a lot while my kids were growing up, especially after the divorce, but I tried my best to be sure that there were presents for birthdays and Christmas, and healthy food on the table. It makes sense, then, that presents would be the physical manifestation of being loved to some of my adult kids, especially when food is included in the care package.

A beloved priest once told me “food is love,” as we shared a gift of candy and talked about how important it is, physically and Spiritually, that families have meals together. Food was his love language. For one of my cats, it’s treats (early and often). For the other, though she does enjoy an occasional treat, snuggles are definitely the way she wants to be loved. She will lie on my chest all day if I let her (no matter what position I happen to be in at the time), the whole time purring loudly enough to be heard in the next room. I have some friends who love to talk on the phone for an hour or more, and others who, like me, are content with occasional check-in texts. There are some with whom I always share a meal when we get together, others who prefer a walk outside, and others with whom I do both. Learning the love languages of those we care about is part of what relationship is all about!

The idea of gifts being part of our family love language got me thinking about how we express and accept love, and how often that ability and perception is set in childhood. The epitome of a healthy parent/child relationship occurs when there are ample displays of affection between parents and children, and between the parents, so that children learn through modeling what love looks like on the outside. Most well-adjusted children are secure in the knowledge that their parents love and care for them, because they are told so in many ways – verbally, physically, emotionally, and in those sweet little thoughtful gestures such as making a big deal out of birthdays and little childhood successes, kissing boo-boos and using kindness to express appreciation. Material gifts are included in this display of affection, but not the only means, nor the most important. In more materialistic affluent societies, unfortunately, sometimes having an abundance “stuff” becomes a huge component of the love language a child is taught, and they may spend the rest of their lives collecting possessions in order to feel loved.

How many times as a child were you told – “If you’re good in the store today, we can get ice cream afterward.” Or – “Santa Claus will only bring you presents if you’re good.” Or – “You’ve been a good girl, so come get a hug.” This process of conditioning something you value on your behavior – someone else’s (or society’s) interpretation of what being “good” means – can set up a lifetime feeling of never quite measuring up. It takes what should be love language and turns it into the language of manipulation and coercion. It can lead to an adulthood of chasing what we need – food, holiday joy, physical closeness – by trying to live up to someone else’s standards, and may set up unhealthy relationships with food, shopping, sex, etc. to try to get “love” externally. It can sometimes lead to thoughts that we don’t have nice things because we’re “not good enough,” or that we’re somehow being punished for some real or imagined transgression. This is especially damaging when we feel that if we aren’t partnered, or don’t have enough or are feeling down, it’s somehow our “fault.” Some religions are based on the premise that only those who follow the rules will be saved and reach paradise when they die – some even go so far as to tell their adherents that they will be horribly punished for eternity if they make a mistake and don’t repent. If there is a loving parental god/dess and they’re superior to their creations in all ways, would they really be vindictive, manipulative and coercive toward their creations, when there are those of us humans who would die before we would subject our beloved children to such torture? That’s something I could never believe, or even understand.

One of the ultimate perversions of parental love and love language (one that some of us carry into adulthood with disastrous results) is saying “This is for your own good,” or “This hurts me as much as (or more than) it hurts you,” or “This is because I love you” while punishing a child, especially physically. So they’re saying – “I cause you pain because I love you,” but what’s going on is “I’m more powerful than you, and can cause you pain at my whim, so you had better do what I say.” Of course, not every parent who spanks a child fits the profile of an abuser, but equating pain and subjugation with love in childhood is a set-up for a lifetime of abusive relationships. No one should have a love language of suffering.

What’s your love language? Do snuggles and cuddles give you the warm fuzzies? Dancing under the stars? A rousing romp between the sheets? Declarations of love and devotion, heard often and with sincerity? Expensive gifts such as jewelry, cars or trips? Flowers? Chocolate? A good meal? Time with friends, singing your favorite songs or reliving happy times? Or is it the more practical, everyday loving gestures – someone taking care of you when you’re sick, taking on one of your chores when you’re tired, smiling at you from across the room when no one else is looking? Is it an unexpected call or text from a friend? A love note in your pocket? Someone remembering your birthday or serving your favorite flavor of tea when you come to visit? Knowing when you’re sad and taking steps to ease your pain? Just listening without judgment? Clearing the ice and snow off your car, taking it to be washed, gassing it up and checking your tires? There are so many ways that others make us feel loved. If the ones that really make your heart sing are not present in your relationship, it may be time to rethink it.

But wait – first ask yourself whether you’ve communicated your needs to your partners, friends, family members. If your husband buys you diamonds for your birthday when all you really want is to hear him tell you you’re beautiful to him regardless of your advancing age, it may leave you both feeling deflated. But there may not be a lack of love, just a failure to communicate. You’re each speaking a different love language. Unless you talk – try to learn what love language your significant other speaks and let them know what you need to feel loved – your affections will be lost in translation. Yes, some of us are mind readers, but best to assume that most are not. Be open, be clear, don’t say “nothing” when someone asks you what you want and need, unless you really want and need nothing (since that’s what you may end up getting). Sharing your needs is a sign of a mature psyche, not selfishness. Communicating your love language isn’t egotistic, it’s essential, and integral to a healthy relationship. Expecting your partner to know what you want without teaching them the language first is setting them up for failure. Start with: “I really love the jewelry, and I appreciate you wanting to buy me something expensive for my special day. But I’m feeling kind of stale these days, and would love to hear whether you still feel the same about me as you did when I was young and nubile. Sometimes I have doubts, especially as the time passes and my body changes, and I need reassurance.”

What’s my love language? Because I spend a lot of time in my head and heart, it’s no surprise that mine is based more on ideas than actions (though my husband is so very good at those beautiful helpful little every day gestures I mention above – and we are running out of space for the love cards we leave around the house for one another). My heart speaks in the language of behaviors that reflect that my loved ones see me and treat me with respect, acceptance and appreciation. Because I’m not a mainstream type of person, most of those in the conventional world see me as weird or out-there, or even stupid or nuts, and fail to take me seriously. It made my life as an attorney difficult. When someone respects me for the different perspective I bring to a conversation, accepts that I have inherent, though unconventional, value, and appreciates my empathy and intuition without judgment, they are speaking the language that makes me feel included and cared about. They lose me at the first impatient or “teasing” (actually mocking) remark, sarcasm, eyeroll, or almost-under-the-breath titter of derision. For me, respect is real love. In my interactions with others, I attempt to determine (if they haven’t told me outright, which few of us do) their language and use it when I want to communicate – I try to be as multilingual in that respect as I can. When I care about someone, I want them to know it, and hear it in their mother tongue. It’s the best way to say “I love you.”

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