Seven or eight years ago I was dating a woman, named Terri Ann, who, among other things, introduced me to the idea of the five “languages” of love.
These are the five primary ways we express romantic love (and other kinds, as well), and they are: words of affirmation, physical touch, quality time, gifts, and acts of service. Terri Ann explained to me that everybody generally uses all five in a relationship, but that we tend to use one or two more often than the others.
Things did not work out with me and Terri Ann, but we remained friends for a long time afterward, and I was there at her wedding to meet the man lucky enough to marry her. I still think fondly of her, but what I think about since then, and lately, is those five expressions of love.
I think that she and I were able to remain friends, where I’ve failed to do that with other girlfriends, because of the way we expressed ourselves around each other. Our languages of love were complementary. We both liked and appreciated physical touch and quality time. It may have been a contributing factor that she lived an hours’ drive north from Portland, and we had to make a special effort to spend time together, so any time we were in each others’ presence was quality time and a gift of sorts. Especially since I did not own a car and had to make explicit arrangements to go see her1.
I’ve never read the book that she got the idea from, but I’ve developed my own ideas about these five languages. I’ve decided that the “primary” one is learned from family, and that we tend to both take it for granted and de-emphasize it, while seeking out the ones that we did not get as children. That makes sense, right?
I don’t remember a lot of physical affection from my parents when I was growing up. I’m not saying they didn’t love me; I’m just saying they didn’t express themselves with hugs. My father tended to express love as acts of service; he worked hard to make sure we had a roof over our head and food on the table. He liked fixing and making things. I remember being in middle school when I was taking a class on the two World Wars; I needed a project for the class because the teacher assured us an A if we did some kind of special project. My dad suggested building a balsa-frame model of a WWI fighter plane, something I had never done before. My dad built the Red Baron’s plane; I built a replica of the Sopwith Camel, the plane flown by the man who shot the Red Baron down. Dad and I spent a lot of time on either side of the dining room table putting those models together, covering the frame in tissue paper, and painting it.
I was a kid. I didn’t value the model in and of itself. I valued the time I spent with dad working on it together. Later, when I was in high school, my friend and I blew that model up with fireworks, which was spectacular (for a teenager). I’m sure my dad would be dismayed to hear about that, if he doesn’t already know. But that’s the thing: I valued the quality time, not what was derived from it. And in another way, I devalued the time we spent together because I assumed it would always be like that.
So as an adult, when dating and trying to form close relationships, I model my parents’ behavior. I spend time, lots of time, with the woman I’m courting. I work on their computer, or help them get their car tuned up.
But I also crave physical touch. I like holding hands as soon as I think I won’t be rejected for doing so. I hug. And I think I crave all that because I did not get a lot of that when I was younger.
I was in high school before I remember hugging someone who was not a member of my family. I can clearly remember the circumstances. I was in the theater, on stage, after drama class, with some of my fellow students. I was an awkward and shy kid (who doesn’t think of themselves that way?) and me and another male friend (the same one I blew up the plane with2) were leaving. The details of it all are gone, but I remember Tina deWitt, class president, turning to me and offering a hug. She was bright, and cheerful, and very cute, all dark curly hair, just a bit shorter than me, but I didn’t really think of her in terms of romance.
Until she hugged me.
I’m pretty sure my body responded to her touch in a way I’ll leave undescribed, but luckily she didn’t notice because it was a lean-in hug. That was all it took. I can still smell the perfume in her shampoo; to this day I can feel her arms around my shoulders and hear the sparkle in her voice. And the reason I can remember all this is because it was so freakin’ rare for me.
When I remember past girlfriends, even now, I am hugging them in my memory. And often, my present mind is analyzing the hug to demonstrate how uncomfortable they were with it.
I can remember Terri Ann standing in my apartment, dressed up for dinner out, and I go to hug her. Her head is above mine; I have to turn my head up to look at her and kiss her. In her heels she’s three or four inches taller than me. She laughs, looking away, and I ask her why. She remarks on the height difference, and I laugh and tell her “I’m OK with it.” Was she?
I can remember being downtown with Deb, and she was getting on MAX to go home, and while we waited for the train to show up, I hugged her. And I felt her pull away a little, and she didn’t look me in the eye, so I asked her about it. “Do my hugs make you uncomfortable?”
“A little” she admitted. “Sometimes it’s just… too much.”
I’m no longer with Deb, clearly. That was six years ago now. But the memory, of me wanting touch, and being rebuffed, in words and small nearly unnoticeable movements, is still fresh.
Thinking of that, now, I connect it with a memory of my mom standing at the sink putting dishes in the dishwasher, and my dad coming up behind her to hug her from behind. And mom tenses up, stops what she’s doing, and waits it out. “Bob,” she says, simply, scolding. And dad laughs, but I can tell he’s hurt, and he holds her a second longer, and then lets go, walks to the fridge, and gets something out of it, while mom goes back to washing dishes.
I know how he feels now. Over and over again.
Am I attracted to women who don’t want what I want? Am I over-doing it? Or is it just a mis-match in communication?
So many questions… and it feels so much like there’s less and less time for answers.
1 Thank you, Zipcar! Although back then it was FlexCar, or possibly Portland Carshare; the company has changed over the years).
2 Hi, Terry! (I’m pretty sure he reads my blog)