Love is a language, and every one of us speaks our own personal dialect. There are infinite love languages co-existing on the planet and often we are in partnership with someone who speaks a radically different love language than our own heart's mother tongue. In such cases, we love each other, but we don't know how to love to each other -- not exactly. We know our partner loves us, but we don't always get to actually feel it.
Case in point: Husband hangs the bookshelves, all the while wanting to -- and believing -- that he is expressing love for his wife by being helpful and taking care of what she needs done. Wife feels grateful for the help, but as a vehicle of love, the bookshelves leave her feeling unsatisfied and ultimately lonely. The expression of love and connection that was intended by the husband, sadly, creates a rupture between the couple and contributes to the wife's sense of isolation. Wife is left feeling deprived, empty, and not known, since what she needs to feel loved has not occurred and, perhaps even more painfully, is not understood. So too, she feels guilty that she cannot be more loving about receiving what she does not really crave. Husband, too, is left suffering, feeling confused, helpless, and sometimes even resentful, having communicated love in his emotional language and yet received a response that does not match with his heart. What started out as an attempt to connect ends up in a profound chasm.
As a psychotherapist, I have spoken with lots of women of many generations. While not always the case, women often experience and express love through some form of emotional connection. She feels loved when she feels understood, listened to, and deeply known. Love happens when what is important to her is held, remembered and acknowledged by her partner, when her emotional needs are treated as a priority. So too, women often describe feeling loved through intimate touch -- the caress of an arm, a back rub in the way she likes it. Most importantly, it is a touch that comes with no demand/expectation (sexual or otherwise) behind it -- something she can receive without having to give anything back in return.
Again, radically generalizing, men often express love through the language of doing, fixing, providing, and other such practical offerings, as well as sex. The husband is feeling and showing love when he hangs the bookshelves or invites her into the bedroom -- but it is what love means to him, not her.
So what are we to do with these divides and fundamentally different emotional languages? Can we ever get what we really need when it comes to love, given that we perceive, feel, experience and communicate in such fundamentally different ways? There isn't space here to cover both sexes, and so I will defer to my home court and address this dilemma from a female perspective. If, as women, we want emotional connection and intimate touch, and instead receive bookshelves and the invitation for sex, should we give up on getting to have the direct experience of love -- to feel it, not just know it?
The "experts" advise women that it is our job to understand our partner's emotional language and be able to translate it into our own. We are taught that his hanging the bookshelves "should" be enough, and "should" adequately fill our hearts. And furthermore, that we "should" be grateful for his efforts to love us. A reasonable and rational love is a good thing for sure, but as empowered women, I also know that we can ask for and create even something even more.
Emotional nourishment is fundamental to our well-being and thus it is important for us to try and create a partnership in which we actually experience it. When our partner demonstrates love in his language, he gets to feel it, but we do not, not in its immediacy. This is the sadness and the gap that leaves us lonely. Living on intention and "should"s after a while is like subsisting on fumes. We can't survive on it, not if we want to be truly well. The direct experience of love is the soul's food.
In truth, the knowledge of our partner's intention may not be enough, even when we remind ourselves that it is an intention of love. It is okay if intention is not enough.
Instead of expending our energy becoming more skillful at explaining love to our hearts and getting better at living with not enough, we need to turn our efforts to receiving what we actually need. We are better off using our energy to teach our partners how to communicate (and thus provide us) love in the emotional language that our heart actually speaks. All of it takes a lot of energy, so why not spend it trying to be truly fed? Ultimately, we want to be able to throw away our emotional thesauruses, love apps, and self-help books and kick the experts out of the room -- to experience love with just our heart.
As women, we can ask for, participate in and commit to getting the full and direct experience that is love. After all, to love someone truly is to be interested and willing to create the experience that is love for them, and thus to become truly bilingual in the language of the heart.
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