“You Can Go Now”
Politeness vs. directness in close relationships

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A few weeks ago, we got the idea that it would be fun to explore some of themes of this blog in a more dynamic format by using interviews and conversation. So today we’re trying something new – a podcast! In this episode, we tackle direct and honest communication in close relationships.

This type of communication feels risky — it leaves us vulnerable to be open, to share our true selves. We risk offending and somehow being rendered less lovable. Yet, this is also where trust and intimacy are built. Why is it sometimes hard to be clear and straightforward about how we’re feeling with close friends, family, and partners? Is politeness a barrier to closeness? What are the risks of leaving politeness behind and instead opting for gentle candor? And, who is Invisible Script’s cousin? Click below to listen to the discussion.

Image:  Harold Edgerton photograph

So Much Miscommunication: The 5 Languages of Love

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“My father only calls me if he has some logistic to settle,” my friend recently complained; this didn’t feel affectionate or loving to her. Meanwhile, her efforts to call just to say hi were just as baffling to her father. We’ve all experienced some version of this–some small misalignment with people we’re close to. Maybe you don’t understand why your partner won’t just offer to make dinner if he knows you’re running late, or why your brother doesn’t appreciate the thoughtful gift you sent him.

I recognized my friend’s father right away, though: he is an Acts of Service person. Excited for a chance to explain, I immediately exclaimed, “Do you know about the five language of love?!” I then proceeded into a lengthy explanation, enumerating the languages on my fingers.

These languages come from Gary Chapman’s book: “The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts.” I first read the book over ten years ago, actually, during the fall of my junior year in college. At the time, it interested me but did not have much immediate impact. In the years since, however, I have become an evangelist.

The book names five “love languages” that we use, consciously or not, to express affection: gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and physical touch. Everyone has preferred ways that they naturally give and accept affection. (You can– and should– take the book’s online quiz to find your own love languages.)

Here’s an excerpt from Chapman’s website to describe each language:

  • Gifts: Don’t mistake this love language for materialism; the receiver of giftsthrives on the love, thoughtfulness, and effort behind the gift.
  • Quality Time: Nothing says “I love you” like full, undivided attention… Whether it’s spending uninterrupted time talking with someone else or doing activities together, you deepen your connection with others through sharing time.
  • Words of Affirmation: If this is your love language, unsolicited compliments mean the world to you… You thrive on hearing kind and encouraging words.
  • Acts of Service: Anything you do to ease the burden of responsibilities weighing on an “Acts of Service” person will speak volumes… when others serve you out of love (and not obligation), you feel truly valued and loved.
  • Physical Affection: A person whose primary language is Physical Touch is, not surprisingly, very touchy. Hugs, pats on the back, and thoughtful touches on the arm—they can all be ways to show excitement, concern, care, and love.

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Chapman describes how we all have a “love tank” — akin to a car’s gas tank — that requires constant refilling. While the book primarily focuses on refilling your spouse’s tank, the idea applies equally to relationships with friends and family. I’ve found it particularly helpful to explain parental behavior. Certain behaviors from each of my parents that used to baffle me I can now see as their unique love languages.

For example, my mom loves to buy me things, but not necessarily things I want. She likes to pick up trinkets and shower me and my sister with presents. When she came for the holidays last year, we had, I thought, agreed to give one small gift per person. Yet she arrived with an extra suitcase of presents: soap, a mug, lotion, a frog-shaped neck warmer that you heat up in the microwave, a book, earrings, tights, bookmarks shaped like sprouting plants (I actually really love these), and the suitcase itself.  I’ve learned that this is her way of expressing her affection, yet the shower of gifts made me uncomfortable. I don’t like her to spend a lot of money on me, and I don’t like to own a lot of stuff so the barrage of presents felt somewhat like an act of disservice. With Chapman in mind, I tried hard to see them as the tokens of affection that the gifts are meant to be.

My dad’s love language is completely different from my mom’s. Growing up, we used to rollerblade together, which always included a break on a park bench. We would just sit there together, soaking up the sun (one of his favorite activities) and not talking. To my dad, this was perfect quality time: being with someone he loved and sharing a favorite activity. I always found it a bit boring (and indulged him as an act of service). As I got older, I recognized that we just have different ideas of quality time. He is happy to simply have company, while I want meaningful conversation. Chapman refers to this as a dialect; a common dialect of quality time is quality conversation. I sometimes get frustrated since family visits involve a lot of sitting around, but like the gifts, I’ve learned to see it as love, especially since my dad makes such an effort to travel a long way to see me, and be together.

Just like any language, the love languages are ripe with potential for miscommunication and misinterpretation. Chapman argues that we should use the languages that our loved ones prefer to receive, rather than using the love languages that come most naturally to us, to make sure that we are communicating clearly. I agree with the value of this, though it’s incredibly difficult to do (I think we all tend to default to using the love language that comes the most naturally to us).

I think it’s equally important to try to understand what other people’s love languages are so that we can recognize their actions as affection, as annoying, perplexing, or obtuse as they might sometimes seem to us.

Since we only have the power to change ourselves, we can make the effort on both ends — to try to express our love in ways that our loved ones can accept, and to see their attempts at affection as just that.

Image:  “American Gothic” by Grant Wood (1930, Oil on Beaverboard)

Are you making “enough”?

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Two things happened in the early 1970s that weigh on my conscious when I think about them today: Richard Easterlin, looking at the relationship between income and happiness, found that more money does not always correlate with greater happiness. Around the same time, my parents, newly married, bought a two and a half bedroom apartment in Manhattan that became my childhood home.

Easterlin’s 1974 paper revealed an unexpected correlation in the data: rich countries don’t become happier as they get richer, though rich people within a country tend to be happier than poor people. This phenomenon became known as the Easterlin Paradox. Further academic studies have shown that happiness increases with income until a point at which it plateaus — a threshold after which more money does not make people happier. As long as I’ve known about this, it has given me hope that I don’t need a lot of money in order to live a happy life.

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I’m Pretty Sure Meditation Is Helping

George Bellows

I casually meant to start a meditation practice for about five years. Mostly, I thought about how my practice would be structured. I concluded that meditating before bed, while possibly beneficial for my intermittent sleeping problems, was not realistic for various logistical reasons. Meditating first thing in the morning, right when I woke up and my husband was still asleep, made the most sense. I made a mental agreement with myself to set my alarm 15 minutes earlier to build in time to sit. Each night I would look at my clock and think of some excuse for why I couldn’t do it just then. This went on for another six months or a year.

My dad named one our cats Pema after Pema Chodron, the buddhist nun and author. Pema the cat is a Maine coon; she looks like a little lioness with her puffy coat and splendid curving whiskers. She won’t sit in laps, but she loves being petted and brushed and all other forms of attention. Calm, loving, and fearless, she lives up to her human namesake. She recently chased a raccoon out out of my parents house after it snuck in through the cat flap, and then ran onto the porch to make sure it wasn’t still lurking in the vicinity. My dad calls her his hero and role model.

In my teens, my dad loaned me his copy of Pema Chodron’s, “When Things Fall Apart” during a particularly anxious and difficult period. He told me it was great. He encouraged me to read even a single page. I did read it, and I kept reading it, because it was magnificent and it helped me feel like my feelings were OK, and also that I could manage them.

On my 26th birthday, a big box arrived at work. Inside was a yellow meditation pillow, cheerfully dotted with blue and white, plump and firm and ready to be sat on. It was from, guess who, my dad. I had bought him a meditation pillow, a solid green one, a few years before. He’d gotten very practiced at meditating every morning, sometimes sitting for 30 or 40 minutes at a stretch. I liked the idea of owning a meditation pillow; it made me feel virtuous just having it around. Maybe people would be impressed with me. But I didn’t use it. I hoped my cat might adopt it as a perch. Instead it lived on a bench in the living room, propped up on its with a bunch of other ordinary pillows.

Eventually my dad bought me a copy of another one of Pema Chodron’s books, “The Places That Scare You.” Like “When Things Fall Apart,” it tackled the mental anguish, insecurity, anxiety, and pain that challenge all of us with love and also absolute clarity. You can let difficult times and experiences harden you and make you afraid, the nun counseled, or you can use painful feelings to deepen your own sense of compassion and courage. It is the best kind of sobering, certain advice that you need when you are circling the drain. I read it most of the way through and left it on my bedside table for a while, in case I wanted to reference it. Over the years, I loaned it to friends during breakups and re-read it during times or pain and uncertainty. Like many reckoning, confronting truths, the writing makes perfect sense as you read it. Then you put the book down and you’re stuck with your bad feeling again and you can’t quite remember what it was you thought you learned while reading it.

What finally got me meditating wasn’t strength of character, or will power, or maturity. It was personal crisis. My dad, the same one who bought me the books and the meditation pillow and who named the cat Pema and who calmed me down whenever I was upset, was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of bladder cancer. There are plenty of books that say they can help you through that kind of thing, but I didn’t want them.

It’s OK if you don’t read the Pema books cover-to-cover, my dad said. Pick them up again whenever you need them. It doesn’t matter what page or chapter. You’ll find something useful.

One night after my dad’s diagnosis I looked at my alarm clock and decided I had the motivation to set it back by the 15 minutes that I had up until then only had the courage to think about. This small act that felt so significant took about five seconds to complete. The next morning I got up, pulled my practically new meditation pillow from the bench where it lived, and dropped it in front of my living room window. During the one or two times I had tried to meditate in the past, I’d lit a candle to focus on. This time, I just looked straight out my window at the southern magnolia tree planted in the sidewalk outside. The leaves moved in a similar way to a candle’s flame, to and fro, gently swaying. I sat for 10 minutes, using a meditation app I’d downloaded on my iPhone. When I got up, I felt better. I mentally corrected myself from the feeling of “better” by remembering something I’d read in one of my Tricycle newsletters:

Meditation is a haven away from the ubiquitous world of self-improvement. It’s not just that there’s no such thing as ‘bad’ meditation, but there’s no such thing as ‘good’ meditation either. It is what it is. (Barry Evans, “The Myth of the Experienced Meditator”).

I got up the next day and the next day and the next day and kept doing it.

My dad had four rounds of chemo, each spaced three weeks apart, through the spring of 2013. He weathered them as well as we could have hoped. He was tired, and sometimes very heavy with the intense awareness of his mortality, knowing he was sick yet not feeling like a sick person. But mostly, he was alright. I joked that he was the valedictorian of cancer. In mid summer he was scheduled for surgery to have his whole bladder removed, and a new one refashioned from three feet of small intestine (I called this his DIY bladder). Three days before his surgery, my mom organized a mass meditation for any friends and family who wanted to participate as a cosmic, prayerful exercise. My husband got up early with me that day so that we could coordinate the timing of our meditation with my family, who were in a different timezone. He used the meditation pillow because he can’t sit cross-legged comfortably, and I took a couch pillow. We sat together we sat for ten minutes.

When my dad got out of surgery, he was very weak. He had to stay in the hospital for five days while nurses constantly took his vital signs, emptied the many tubes and bags coming out of him, and cheerfully made him do all sorts of things he did not want to do. He had an ornery French-Canadian roommate named Jean who complained constantly about the quality of the hospital’s care but refused to be discharged. It was July. Outside, New York cooked like an oven, but inside the hospital my dad could not get warm.

He and I didn’t talk about meditation in the first few weeks of his recovery. I thought about bringing it up, but I didn’t have the energy. Sitting on a pillow felt like an insurmountable effort for me, let alone him. After about a month, though, once I was back home and he was more mobile, I mentioned it. No, he hadn’t been meditating, he told me. Yes, he had been thinking about it. He would do it. Maybe he would start today.

Image: George Bellows, Dempsey and Firpo (1924)

My Mother’s Other Career

My mom with her horse, Isis.

My mom is an artist, and for most of her career was an art teacher. First she taught in after-school programs and a children’s museum, then in a retirement facility, and finally, in public high schools in New York City.

But she had another job this whole time as well, as a rescuer of various animals, usually off the street and often on our own block. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that this was unpaid. My mom doesn’t just see a homeless animal, feel bad, and move on. She scoops it up, feeds and cares for it, and finds it a new home. And she’s done it despite a very small apartment, two kids, a reluctant husband, and limited funds. I’ve always shared a passion for animal welfare with my mom, and have also done years of volunteer work in that field. I didn’t think about it much growing up, but as an adult I can she that she has been the inspiration for all of it. I wanted to know more about her career as a rescuer, the role animals had played in her life, and how she managed this incredibly meaningful yet taxing commitment. Here is what she had to say.

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