Deciphering the Language of Love

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This week we’re going to talk about relationships, when you really love someone and you’re just not connecting. This is the deal, you can dance alone, but the art of dancing with another takes communication to the next level. Being in partnership requires you to tune into your own values and desires while paying attention to someone else’s. It’s easy to make assumptions that others understand your perspective or have the same priorities as you, or most important, that they receive love the way you do.

In an earlier blog, I spoke about Gary Chapman’s five love languages. This common misunderstanding was happening in my own backyard, and I didn’t even know it. In December 2001, my family was coming to the West Coast to celebrate my father’s 70th birthday. I invited my parents to extend their trip in order to attend a weeklong retreat in Hawaii that I was teaching. They said, “Yes,” and I found myself up at night worrying about the prospect of leading both of my parents through a weeklong communication workshop.

Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. What if their communication concerns had to do with their middle daughter? Me. What would I do if they asked a question about their marriage? Awkward.

I decided to ask my co-facilitator, Bev, who had 40 years of experience leading groups for help. She was a trusted advisor and someone who had taught me. She said, “Neha, I’ve taught both of your parents, and they are genuinely interested in their own growth and learning. I’m okay with it if they’re okay with it. And if it gets to be too much, you just trust yourself. You can always defer to me.” Well, I wasn’t going to argue with her, so for the most part during the workshop, my parents followed the guidelines for participants and stayed focus on their own learning.

Then we began talking about the fundamental human need to be acknowledged and heard, and that’s when things began to heat up. I said to the group, “Now I’d like you to take out your journal and write about two experiences in your life when you felt most valued and heard.” After a few minutes, my mom raised her hand and blurted out, “What if your husband never tells you that he loves you and he never spends time with you? It’s really hard to feel loved and appreciated in a relationship with someone who works all the time. He’s never home and, when he is, he’s busy with all these other projects, like tennis courts for the community.”

Just as I was about to answer, my father interrupted with an irritated tone. He said, “What do you mean? That’s not true. I’ve woken you up with bed chai every morning for decades. I vacuum; I clean the dishes; I’m domestic. I take care of the cars and the house. I spend a lot of time at home. By the way, I’m not like a poet. I’m not good at saying all those things.” My mother’s arms were crossed, and my father was looking in the opposite direction. I glanced over at Bev and said, “I’m going to take a stab at this one and if I get in trouble, you’re on standby, okay?” She just smiled and nodded.

I said, “Mom, Dad, thank you both for your honesty. I hear how important being appreciated, acknowledged, and feeling heard and loved is to each of you—and you’re both trying to do it. This is one of the most important points of this week, so Mom, let me start with you first. What I hear you saying is that you value hearing ‘I love you’ out loud and that you want more quality time with Dad, but his projects keep him occupied. Is that right?” And my mom said, “Well doesn’t everybody want that? And the words don’t always have to be said out loud. Every once in a while, a card would be nice too.”

“Wow, I hear how frustrated you are and that you may have said this in the past and not felt heard,” I responded. “It sounds like you feel appreciated when people express their love through words and spend time with you.”

“Yep, and this isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned it,” she said. “Yes, I’ve always enjoyed writing letters and reading. Come to think of it, that’s how my best friend and I communicated for years, even when I moved here and she was in India. We also spent summers together when I was back home, so yes time and letters and words mean a lot to me.”

I then said, “Mom, let me talk through what dad said. I’ll come back to help you understand why it feels so hard.” She nodded, a little unsure it seemed at that point, but she agreed.So I turned toward my dad.

“Dad, I hear how hard you work, how domestic you are, how much housework you do, and that you have woken us up with chai every morning. These are, in fact, acts of service and love. Is that true?”

“Absolutely!” he replied. “This is an unfair comment by your mother, because I’ve always worked so hard, both at work and at home to show my love. I give everything to you.” He reiterated that he’s not good at poems or saying, “I love you.” That’s just not how he was raised.

“I hear you, Dad, and I hear that acts of service and providing for the family, cleaning the house, and maintaining the cars and making chai is love for you. And one way I’ve always felt loved and appreciated is through your affection. I love your hugs.” I saw him take a deep breath, his shoulders relax and a gentle smile come to his face. I knew he was softening a little bit. “Here’s the deal, you’re both right,” I said to my parents.“The problem is you’re just not speaking each other’s love languages.”

My parents had an arranged marriage and had been together nearly half a century. In that workshop it became so clear to me that the way they were conveying their appreciation to one another was not matching the way the other person received love. They both wanted to feel valued, yet they were unaware that how they communicated mattered on the receiving end. All it took was some awareness and curiosity about their love languages combined with the ability to listen deeply to turn around this love and appreciation disaster.

When you’re feeling challenged in a relationship, it’s important to identify the ways that someone else is showing love and appreciation—even if it’s different from how you receive love. By doing this, you acknowledge the other person’s efforts and create common ground. Then you can tell him or her what your favorite love language is, the one that resonates for you. Make sure you do more than hint; you have to tell the person out loud. Now, it might seem a little awkward initially, but you want to give this key information so you can strengthen your relationship together.

For those of you who might not have heard of the five love languages, let me give a quick recap. Gary Chapman talks about the five ways we give and receive love and appreciation.

  1. Words of affirmation—that’s what my mother was asking for from my father, such as saying “I love you” or writing cards or letters.
  2. Quality time—shared experiences, spending the weekend, down time, or evenings with somebody.
  3. Gifts—whether it’s high, medium, or low monetary value, or has no monetary value, such as sentimental value. It could be a picture I drew of you or I picked flowers from the garden.
  4. Acts of service—this was my dad, he was cleaning,taking care of the house and the cars, providing for the family, and making chai.
  5. Physical touch.

The interesting piece in all of this is that my mom’s love languages are words of affirmation and quality time, while my father’s love languages were acts of service and physical touch. So for half a century, they were like ships passing in the night. I’m happy to say that it brought awareness and connection to them and broke some patterns that were a little bit painful.

Who do you want to connect to, and how might you be missing the boat, even though both of you have the best of intentions?

Write comments below or send me a tweet at #AskDoctorNeha.

Awareness Prescription

  1. Identify two ways you feel most appreciated. Let the people close to you know what those ways are. (Yes, I mean out loud).
  2. Notice the ways that other people give love. (Ask if you don’t know.)
  3. Give to others in the way they receive (not the way you do!).

Love, love, love,

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