Sunday, December 19, 2010

book review: The Five Love Languages

I can't believe I haven't written about this yet.

Seriously. How could I have gotten this far without it?

There's an amazing book that will change your life forever if you go out and read it. How do I know? As the saying goes, I'm not just the president, I'm also a member.

Gary Chapman has written an incredible book about the ways in which people express and feel love called The Five Love Languages. At a certain point, the book gets a little more God-and-Jesusy than I like, but before it gets there, he shares with us some observations about the way people love that have changed the way I both interpret people's behavior and express my own feelings.

Chapman's argument is that there are five major styles -- languages, if you will -- that people use to express their love. And those, in turn, influence the way people feel loved by other people.

Those five languages are these:

1. Acts of Service
Some people will DO THINGS for those they love. They will take on the chores they know disgust you, or go out of their way to perform a task for you, whether you've asked them to do it or not.

My father is a perfect example of this. Once, when I was incredibly sick (and a mere two blocks from the doctor's office), I called him hoping for some sympathy. My father, instead of telling me how much he loved me and letting me know I would be ok, immediately offered to get into the car, drive to where I was, and take me to the doctor. He was more than willing to take 3 hours out of his day to find me, chauffeur me to wherever I needed to go, and then go home. Because he understands love to be about DOING.

2. Words of Praise
Some people are moved to show their feelings by saying nice things. It could be as simple as "you look pretty" or as complex as a sonnet on the shine of your hair, it doesn't matter. Words of praise people will TELL you how much they love you.

I had a boyfriend once who fell into this category. He sent me the most romantic letters, poems, and emails. He spared no opportunity to speak to me with words that made me smile.

3. Quality Time
Still, others prefer stopping their world and making spending time with you the most valuable thing they could be doing at the moment. To these people, it doesn't necessarily matter what you do, just as long as you are BEING together.

I once had a boyfriend who found that time on the phone to his family was also quality time. What mattered to him wasn't the amount of time, but rather the intention behind the time -- making space to really connect with another person -- that mattered.

(This was a good thing, as he happened to live across the country from me, too.)

4. Physical Touch
These people are the huggers. They're the hand-holders, neck-nuzzlers, and back touchers. They're the ones who seek reassurance and connection through physicality. And it's not just about Naked Time. It could be sitting on the couch with his feet in your lap, or patting him on the head as you walk out the door. These people FEEL love physically.

5. Gifts
Gift people like to give things -- expensive or free -- to those they love. They collect and hand over presents that the object of their affection has either requested or not.

My mother is a perfect example of this. She always plies us with food or "something I saw at the store that made me think of you." I remember growing up and taking long car trips -- my mother would GIVE us a little something to unwrap every hour.

Odds are that you fall most strongly into one category or another. That doesn't mean you have to speak only one language, but that your main mode is likely to be only one of the above.

Me? I'm all about gifts. I love to give people presents, and I've been known to squeal with glee when someone gives me something that made them think about me while they were out and about. But I'm also into words of praise. After that, I'm probably acts of service, and then physical touch. Quality time is very difficult for me to understand -- why wouldn't you want to be with me all the time?? So it's best for me to go out with men who are either gifters or who understand the value of gifts to me.

And this is where it gets cool. When you know the five languages, you can choose to express yourself in any language, not just the one that makes the most sense to you. If you know your partner feels love through quality time, you can make an appointment with him or her. Conversely, you can interpret your partner's behavior -- wanting to spend a night with you -- as his or her way of expressing love.

Let's go back to my father for a minute. When I called him, I was looking for words of praise -- "You'll be ok," "I love you," that kind of thing. But my father hasn't read this book and doesn't know that his way of expressing and my way of feeling loved aren't the same. So it was up to me to interpret his act of service as love. Once I realized that he was sharing his love in the only language he spoke, I was able to hear how much he cared.

Similarly, with my Quality Time boyfriend. When I realized that his language was one I couldn't comprehend, I told him about the five styles. I told him I was more a gifts/words of praise kind of girl, and he tried to modulate his behavior to meet me there. And I tried to see his desire to spend time together as his way of saying he loved me.

This has been an incredible tool for me in understanding why people behave the way they do. Why, when all that matters to me is that you tell me I'm beautiful, are you always taking out the trash? Who cares about watching TV on Friday nights -- can't you just bring me home a tootsie roll?

And one of the really neat things to look at is whether or not you use your own love language on yourself. If you're a gifter, do you allow yourself to buy that sweater you can't stop thinking about? If you like words of praise, what kind of things do you say to the mirror? When do you schedule the quality time with yourself?

Forgive my oversight in not having posted this sooner. There's still time -- go out and buy this book! (See? I'm trying to gift it to you right now!)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

the most perfect baby in the world

Watch out, because I'm about to brag.

I have the most perfect nephew in the entire universe. He's cute, hilarious, warm, sleepy, adorable, and the softest, sweetest lump ever created. And he's mine!

Over Thanksgiving, I was rocking him to sleep on my shoulder and his tiny little butt was tucked into my elbow, his sweet little breaths coming quickly and shallowly near my ear, and my heart just melted.

Tears welled up in my eyes, and I looked at my sister.

"Do you ever just love him so much that it hurts?"

She looked at me with a smile and four months of Mommy Wisdom, and then I loved her so much that it hurt.

So, Kate, aside from the fact that he's perfect and you're lucky, who cares? Finding and connecting to that kind of pure love was so powerful, so clean and raw, I feel like it's something everyone should experience. It felt like a light shining from the depths of my heart onto the baby, and my sister, and my family, and me.

Maybe you're not into babies. That's fine. They're noisy and they poop a lot. I get it. What I'm saying is how important it is to really connect with something pure and something 100% love. If that's theatre, then see a show. If it's music, start playing. If it's writing, grab your pencil. And you don't have to marry it, or move in with it, or make it your life. (Lord knows I've turned down a free apartment in Boston more times than my sister has offered.) Just connect with it. Feel it. Let it shred you a little. The stitching back together feels incredible.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Emotional Coat

A few weeks ago I returned to Yale for a reunion of my comedy group. I knew that going back to campus would be hard -- being in New Haven has always stressed me out, but when I got there, I met up with my best friend from the group (and one of my favorite people of all time) and we caught up.

"I'm just not where I thought I would be," he said, after outlining what's going on in his life. And I knew the feeling. When I graduated, I thought that by 33 I'd be running the world. I'd be some famous Broadway actor at night and running meetings in powersuits during the day. I'd have an apartment uptown and -- get this -- a car! As time has passed, though, I've gotten used to the simpler pleasures in life, and no longer seek stardom or parking. In truth, my friend is exactly where I'd like to be. He has a stable, challenging, great-paying job, a husband, a house, and two new cats. You know... everything!

"I'm not where I thought I'd be, either," I said, and all my doubts came flooding back in. Was I ever going to meet someone? Was I ever going to make enough money to afford a house or a baby? Was I ever going to amount to anything?!

At some point over the weekend, I realized that I was in the passing lane on the expressway to the land of self-doubt that I inhabited as a late teenager. And what better place to reinforce the message of "what have you done with your life?" than one of the most prestigious (and expensive) universities in the country? I felt tense, sick to my stomach, and unable to sleep.

I met a woman who made me feel really safe, and in talking with her I realized that I didn't have to feel so gross. I've accomplished a lot since college, not the least of which was growing into a sense of self that isn't defined by the need to amount to something. The difference between me now and me in college is that now I wear that self-doubt like a big, ugly coat. It gets hot, so I take it off any chance I get. Sometimes I even check it at the door! In college, though, I wore it like a skin, not even aware that it was something to be shed.

I bring this up now because soon, many of us will be headed home for the holidays. And what better place to revert to old habits and old messages of worthlessness than our childhood homes? (I know, sad, right?) I'm blessed. My family is so open that we've talked about these things, and about how much better it feels if we behave like children on purpose instead of by default. We ask for the attention we seek, and I find that I don't need to ask for nearly as much as I used to subliminally (and ineffectually) demand.

It's unpleasant, but I encourage you to put on your coat. Maybe it doesn't look like mine, laden with doubts about how good you are, (though if I had to guess, I'd say it probably does). Whatever material is used to construct it, pick that up. And then, before you go home, practice putting it down again. Hell, put down the coat you're wearing today. See that you have a choice about the thoughts that run through your head, and, in the spirit of the holidays, choose nicer thoughts.

Santa would want you to.