Thursday, September 1, 2011

Thoughts on Seven Years Together

I learned yesterday about a concept called The Five Languages of Love (there's a book, and it's actually a Christian marriage counseling kind of book, so you know... I won't be reading the book for the obvious reason, but like with AA, this is one of those "take what you need and leave the rest" dealies). The five ways to express love include Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Receiving Gifts, Acts of Service, and Physical Touch.

Depending on your personality, and depending on your partner's personality, you will primarily express love to each other in different ways--and it's key to know what your partner's preferences/needs are so that you can give them enough of the kind of love they require. We all need ALL FIVE of these, but each one of us seems to distinctly need one or two more than the other three.

I, personally, am an attention-whore. I crave physical touch. I need to be hugged, I need to be kissed, I need to be stroked and patted and have my hand held, I need those long, lingering looks and I need to be made love to. Because I like all these things, I like giving them back. Consequently, when my partner doesn't give them or let me give them back, I feel rejected.

I also need continual affirmation. I need to know I'm doing okay, that I'm pleasing my partner, that she thinks I'm still lovable and wonderful and that there's nobody else turning her head and that she thinks we're just right the way we are: there's no danger of some deal breaker smashing us to bits or of a Beautiful Ms Thang coming along who'd make her be tempted to trade up.

If this sounds like I'm a big bundle of insecurity, well, that wouldn't really be a lie. There's a reason I need these two things in a relationship more so than the others. I was very affectionate as a child and my mother and father were as well. I remember napping with my mom with my arm thrown around her; I remember my daddy bouncing me on his foot as I grabbed onto his leg, playing giddyup horsie; I remember my daddy used to sometimes scratch my back or take my hand and gently rub my fingers when we were sitting next to each other on the couch watching Sailor Bob. Then, as sudden and intense as a lightning strike, this all went away when I was six. My mama killed herself and Dad remarried a cold woman, and affection vanished from my life. I spent the rest of my childhood trying to win the affection of a perfectionist who wouldn't be pleased (you know the type: you bring home all As and one B and get punished for the B), so I learned that love is this thing that comes with conditions, and at any time a person may withdraw it. Not once, after my mother died, did my father or my stepmother hug me or tell me they loved me.

So it is natural that I crave affection as an adult, put a high priority on it, and also need to feel safe. It's just the way I am.

I'd probably drive some people crazy because they'd see me as being too insecure and needy. But really I'm not. I know perfectly well I can stand on my own two feet and can be in this world all by myself if I need to. I have done so. It's just that now, I don't choose that kind of independence. I choose relationship.

Now, my wife's upbringing was quite different from mine. There was certainly affection in her family, but it wasn't a high priority item; in her family, love was shown mainly by doing for others (service) and by doing fun things together (quality time). She got a lot of positive reinforcement in these two areas, so this is what she's come to need most from relationships: doing things for each other as a display of affection (like me making her dinner or doing one of her usual chores if I know she's really busy) and hanging out together doing the things we enjoy (horse racing, baseball games, watching Survivor).

She's also a big giver of gifts--but so am I--and she collects things she likes, so you'll find our home has been transformed into a horse racing museum. I know these things are important to her, so I don't mind that she keeps eBay sellers in business by buying horse halters, horse mugs, horse prints, horse shoes... although it's probably fortunate that I like horses.

How do the twain meet, when we place different priorities on different ways of showing our love? It's by doing all of these things and making a concerted effort to be sure each one of us is getting enough of the things we crave. I have to get past the "house slave" stereotype and make her dinner sometimes, because I love her and she sees that as an expression of my love. She has to get past the "oh god, you want sex again?!" stereotype of me as Super-Nympho (tm) and just agree to spend an hour with me enjoying each other. And we find a middle ground, of what's enough and what's too much or too exhausting so neither of us feels drained.

This is all just common sense, but it does take a fair amount of communication and a willingness to be vulnerable as hell. We've definitely had some fights and disagreements. But relationships, I'm finding out, only work when there's a genuine understanding of each other and both people get it that one way is no better than another way--both ways are legit. People are just different, for different reasons, and differences need to be respected. No amount of nagging, bitching, complaining, or crying is going to make another person change a basic aspect of themselves. So you have to learn to honor each other's differences and work with each other so that both persons get their needs met. It's when there's an imbalance and one or both people are feeling they're not getting what they need that you've got a problem on your hands.

Then there needs to be willingness to work it out.

It is certainly more easily said than done. I like to think of our marriage as a continually evolving work-in-progress. It'll probably be like this until the day we die.

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