June 25, 2024

Whole Family

Trailblazing Family Excellence

Opinion | Lisa Taddeo: My Real Love Language Is Fear

10 min read

I hadn’t heard about the love languages until it was too late, until I was married to someone who didn’t speak mine.

There are five of them — the five languages of love. I say that as though they exist somewhere out there in the ether, as though they have always been. But in fact it has been only 30 years. In 1992, Gary Chapman, a pastor and radio host in North Carolina, published “The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate” with a small religious press. Over 20 million copies were sold, and the book was translated into 50 languages and made its way into the hearts and minds of laypeople and clinicians and Oprah. It has been on the New York Times best-seller list for more than a decade.

Dr. Chapman believes that most people give and receive love in these ways:

Words of affirmation. Complimenting. “I didn’t think you needed help with the USB cable because you’re so smart.”

Quality time. You want your husband to watch everything you want to watch with you, and you expect him to know which things you would never watch and those are the things he can watch by himself.

Receiving gifts. This can sound materialistic and less noble a language. But it’s just another way of feeling loved or known.

Acts of service. That means you want your husband to show his love by, for example, taking out the trash and disposing of the dead Christmas tree and building the bench and wiping the exoskeletons of ladybugs from the top of the light fixture.

Touch. I have found this one is a favorite among men.

I first heard of the languages from a friend, Emily, when she was several years into her relationship and I was in the honeymoon phase of mine. I remember thinking, oh, the astrology of the love world. Interesting. Cut to a decade later and now here I am, wondering if this Gary Chapman, who has been married to his wife for more than 60 years, holds the secret to my feeling loved in the way I need to.

Dr. Chapman writes mainly for Christian, heterosexual couples. In all of his “Love Languages” spinoffs (including “The 5 Love Languages Military Edition,” “God Speaks Your Love Language” and “The 5 Love Languages for Men”) he doesn’t talk much about the particular issues that might come up for queer or interracial couples. In one of his parenting books, Dr. Chapman says that parents may feel “shock and deep hurt” upon learning that their child is gay, but encourages them to “spend time with them, communicate with them, and demonstrate our love for them, even though we do not approve of their lifestyle.” He claims that the country’s divorce rate is so high because couples’ “emotional love tank” is “empty,” which means, as the journalist Ruth Graham wrote in Slate in 2015, that “he almost completely ignores the economic and political forces that act on families.”

But even taking these major gaps in Dr. Chapman’s philosophy into account, it is, simply, not a dismissible one. What he noticed is that love is not one thing. You may give and receive love in different ways, and in ways that are different from your partner’s. “In a marriage, almost never do a husband and wife have the same language,” Dr. Chapman said. “The key is we have to learn to speak the language of the other person.”

I asked my husband — I’ll call him Jackson, because that’s his name — to take the quiz at the back of the book with me so that we could figure out what our love languages were. He was kind of lackluster about it. But we took the quiz and “discovered” that his love language is physical touch. (I speak the language of touch, too, but sometimes I forget how to speak it when someone forgets where the hamper is.)

Mine is acts of service. I need acts of service. It is not merely my language; it is also my protein. My husband and I both work all the time and we have a boundary-less 6-year-old who has not stopped talking or thinking or winking while holding a battery to her lips since she was 2 years old. There is a lot that has to be done, and I often ask him to do it: Fix the kitchen light, clear the ladybug exoskeletons from the high fixtures, throw away the Christmas tree that is frozen in time outside by the firepit, help me write a script for our show at midnight, explain to me how to use a USB cord like I’m from the past — in fact do anything that has to do with time and me. I feel loved when he does those things, but mostly he doesn’t do them. I told him this.

He said, “My whole life is an act of service to you.”

I pointed to the Christmas tree outside, lying on its browning side on the snow-covered patio. It’s cruel to the tree, to the notion of Christmas, to the idea of loving partnerships. Or so I told him.

Women are not always comfortable saying what we want from our partners. We’ve been conditioned that it’s akin to nagging. Dr. Chapman’s framework gives people who find it hard to ask for what they need a language in which to make requests.

I thought I didn’t have a problem making requests. I thought I was really very good at it. But it turns out I’m not.

Say I want to convince Jackson that it’s not safe for our daughter to ride the ski lift by herself. I somehow cannot bring myself to say, “I’m scared, and I don’t want her to go on the lift alone, even though you ski with her often and it is your observed and considered opinion that she is ready.” I understand my fears are not rational, and I know he doesn’t go in for irrationality.

So instead I make up evidence because he respects studies and publications. I often say, “Oh, well yes, they published a study in The Times.” In this case I say there was a study I read, in The Times, about the psychological effects on children ages 5 to 8 of riding ski lifts alone. “They found,” I say, “that it has caused feelings of …”

And here I pause, not dramatically but not casually either, and wait for him to look up — his ears, his eyes, everything ready and willing and open.

Abandonment,” I whisper. That’s one of his buzzwords.

I add caveats so that it doesn’t look as if I’m lying. “But,” I say, “this was back in 2009, which means of course and naturally things must have changed. Maybe now there are no effects. Like, you know, because of the pandemic.”

But that nonexistent 2009 article will stick in his head. He won’t let her go up alone. I will be happy because I will have gotten my way. I will feel safe.

I am aware that I want to be able to just say, Don’t put her on the lift alone because it scares me. I am aware that I want to be married to my mother. I am aware I am not always or even often in the right. But I am aware that I do not care.

I think this is a feminist perspective?

What I mean is: Sometimes I feel as if, these days, for women, the love language should be getting whatever you want. In heterosexual relationships, women have performed acts of service for hundreds of years. It is time for men to perform more acts. It is time for men to listen.

I think I’m really just very angry. About the years of no suffrage, the rapes and beatings and the come-ons, both antagonistic and self-pitying, the tree thing, the lift thing. Someone — I’ll call him Jackson — said, “You can’t justifiably punish me for the sins of all men.”

I spoke to the clinical psychologist Orna Guralnik, star of the docuseries “Couples Therapy,” and she told me that of all the books on love and relationships, Dr. Chapman’s has had one of the most profound impacts both on her patients and on the culture at large. She thinks that’s because even if you don’t necessarily agree with the breakdown of the love languages, “the idea that people are different cues you into the difference between you and your partner. Your partner’s difference should be something that makes you curious rather than combative.”

I considered this. It reminded me of something I heard when I was researching my book, “Three Women.” Lina, one of the three, said to me: “It is not all my husband’s fault. … You are only hearing my story. I’m sure if you heard his story, you would think, Oh, maybe he’s not so bad. Maybe it’s all her.”

Maybe it’s all me. My ideal of a love story is I want Jackson to be my father. I want him to be my mother. I want him to be Bruce Springsteen. I want him to be perfect.

So you see, I am not perfect.

I have OCD. I think that if I don’t give my daughter one of her special animals before she leaves in the morning, a terrible accident will befall her. If Jackson picks her up from school and they don’t come straight home and he hasn’t told me about the change of plan, I will casually call a few hundred times. I will send gently nudging text messages like “I’m calling the police.”

I’m not simply unhinged. I’m partly unhinged, but mostly I’ve been traumatized. In short: I lost much of my family in my 20s, including both of my parents — car crash, cancer — then spent many years living so utterly alone with my fears and pains. I planned and paid for a trip to South America with a friend but bailed the night before because I was sure a lingering headache was a brain tumor. As a consolation prize, I went to get a massage and while the aesthetician was trying to relax me, I was feeling my breasts for lumps and found something and jumped off the table and went to the emergency room.

Another time, I was eating alone at the bar of a nice restaurant in downtown Manhattan, and I swallowed a bad clam. The most stereotypical, most cliché of bad clams. The mouth-feel had that punishing sensation of rot — that punishment I believe that omnivores like myself must bear without complaint. And this regular old bad clam caused the expected chain of events in the annals of bad clammery. Even though it was logical to assume I had food poisoning, I was instead quite sure it was the stomach cancer that got my mother’s mother — not yet the lung cancer that got my mother — so when I got home I left my apartment door open so that if I died, they would find me easily. I wouldn’t stink up the place for too long.

In those deep-sea years of febrile hypochondria and grief, I spent my days and nights walking the whole of Manhattan, exploring the farthest, flattest corners of Battery Park, City Hall, inglorious waterfronts, looking for nothing that reminded me of anything I’d loved and lost.

Then I found love. But I was sure I’d lose something again. I got pregnant. I had a miscarriage. Ha! I was right!

After getting pregnant a second time, I went in for an ultrasound because I had been having some pain. The doctor told me I had a lesion on my pancreas that “didn’t look good.” It ended up being a mistake, but it took nearly eight months to be corrected. For eight months, as I carried new life in me, I lived as though I were going to die. I was going to leave my new child as my parents had left me. Nothing can erase the death plans I made. Not even my husband’s daily reminders that I am alive, and safe, at least in this moment. My fear rules me. I am married to my fear. I am intimate every night with my fear.

And so. Perhaps my husband is right.

“My entire life is an act of service to you,” he says. “I have reorganized my desires around your fear.”

Cody Kommers, an Oxford Ph.D. student, writes in Psychology Today that “your primary love language is not only the most direct way to make you feel loved. It is also your biggest vulnerability. It’s where you are most exposed for someone to hurt you.” Ah so. Perhaps when I say I want acts of service, what I really mean is that I want Jackson to show me: I am here for you. I am not going anywhere. Nothing else will ever happen to anyone you love. You will not die before your child is ready for you to leave her. You will have one of those long, blessedly insipid lives, and one day I may even do something on time.

Jackson is a good husband and a great father. I understand he might be right when he says, “Everything I do, it’s never enough.” Perhaps I should touch him more. Perhaps I should fill up his love tank, instead of waiting for him to source the very rare kind of diesel that mine requires. I must accept that my real love language is soothing my fear, and I may never get what I want in that mien.

But in the meantime, there are other acts of service that need doing. I happen to know that my husband won’t believe something is real or right until it’s published in The Times.

And so.

It would make me feel deeply loved if the Christmas tree were not there in the morning.

Lisa Taddeo is the author of “Three Women.”

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