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)

The Problems We Take With Us

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Whenever I’ve thought seriously about changing jobs, it has always been a reaction to a problem – a boss I didn’t like, underwhelming responsibilities, or just non-specific dissatisfaction. This is the normal way. But is it the best first response? Sometimes, making a switch is the right choice and does make us happier. Other times, switching jobs doesn’t solve anything, because we haven’t acknowledged our own habitual patterns or recognized the small things we can do to improve our job satisfaction. Without realizing it, we carry the problem with us wherever we go. (read more…)

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.

(read more…)

It’s Not About You…and other lessons from a crisis hotline

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For the last year, I’ve volunteered answering phones one night a week at a crisis hotline. I started doing this to make helping others part of my life. My day-to-day work is full of emails, conference calls, and writing things that no one will read, and I often feel like I’m not making a tangible impact. Although my motivation was to help others, I’ve found something unexpected: mostly the hotline has helped me. Here are six important lessons I’ve learned since becoming a volunteer:

1. I got it good

I started volunteering not long after a big break up, and while I didn’t mean to help people worse off than me in order to feel good about my own life, that’s what happened. Most of the people that call are dealing with a mental illness and/or a serious emotional issue, and have few (if any) people in their lives to support them. After spending a few hours listening to other people’s problems, I leave the hotline feeling so lucky about all the good things in my life, especially my many supportive friends and family members, not to mention good brain chemistry. Walking out of the hotline’s office to head home, I am almost glowing with gratitude.

2. How to take better care of myself

Answering calls can be draining, so it’s important for us volunteers to keep our own spirits up. “Self-care” was a big topic during the volunteer training. I learned my best self-care lesson from the attitude that I take with callers. Recently, I was feeling upset during one of my shifts at the hotline. I had worked myself into a panic about my relationship, worried that my boyfriend didn’t care about me.  I took a bathroom break to cry a bit in one of the stalls. I asked myself, “What would I tell a caller?” I had been treating my own feelings dismissively (“I’m just overreacting; everything is fine”), but if someone else were expressing the same things, I would have validated their feelings, telling them that’s its ok to be upset, and talking them through why they are feeling that way.  It’s hard to invite your own help, but I have gotten better at it by becoming more practiced helping others.

3. The term “help-rejecting”

This happens a lot on the hotline: someone calls, upset about some problem, and shoots down all of my suggestions, however reasonable. They are help-rejecting, and when someone is help-rejecting, they don’t want my advice. So I try to stop giving it. It doesn’t mean that I’m not actually helping. Sometimes all they really want is to vent to someone who will listen and not criticize. Even with friends, I have found it very helpful to be able to name this behavior. I sometimes get frustrated when I feel like I’m trying to help, only to be met with (usually weak!) reasons that my great suggestions aren’t going to work. Once I can say (to myself), “oh, she’s being help-rejecting,” I can let go of my need to help by trying to solve the problem and just listen.

4. The importance of white space

After I got comfortable taking calls, I was shocked that my favorite part of each shift was the time in-between calls. During this time, I am free to do what I want (limited of course by the need to stay close to the phone). I don’t have to do anything. After all, I’m already volunteering, ready for the next call. I can allow myself to do exactly what I feel like at that moment. When I first started, I made lists of things I wanted to get done, only to find that I rarely got to most of them. I stopped making lists and started just asking myself “what do I most want to do now?” Sometimes, it’s to read the news, catch up on emails, read a book, shop online, or doodle. I’m trying to bring this attitude into the rest of my life and leave more unscheduled time, white space, to do exactly want I feel like that moment. As Brene Brown describes, “Cultivate and appreciate the white space for what it is, not for what I can squeeze out of it.”

5. Sometimes you need to hang up

I have a hard time saying no, and an especially hard time being rude. Our calls generally have a minute time limit: if the caller isn’t having a crisis, I try to politely end the call after about 10 minutes. Most of our regular callers are very understanding of this limit, but occasionally I get someone who argues back or just keeps talking over my attempts to end the call. Eventually, I just hang up (with a “Thank you for calling, I need to hang up now!”). Sometimes, I need to disengage. It feels rude and uncomfortable, but it’s ok.

6. It’s not about you

Here’s how it goes at the hotline: people call and I talk to them – or rather, mostly I listen. Sometimes, by the end of the call, I feel like I’ve helped them, but often I don’t. Neither of these outcomes is really about me. I just meet the caller wherever they are.  This is generally true in life. Your partner is upset? Your boss is whispering to a colleague? Your friend didn’t return your call? It’s so easy to react to all of these personally. What did I do? What are they saying about me? The answer: probably nothing. Nine times out of ten, it’s not about you. At all. Your partner is upset about work, your boss is whispering because it’s a sensitive topic about a client, and your friend got busy because her mom needed her help.

When these feelings come up, sometimes I still get upset and wonder what I did wrong. Then, I remember what I’ve learned at the hotline, and I try to list likely explanations that have nothing to do with me, and go back to feeling grateful about my life.

Images: Roy Lichtenstein: “Ohhh…Alright” (1964) and “M-Maybe” (1965)