Couples are often told a successful relationship is built upon knowing how to love the person you’re with in the way they need to be loved. While this isn’t bad advice I think it may be just one side of a very complicated coin! Numerous copies of the book “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman have been sold and used to help people get along better. Honestly, it’s a great book and I often mention it when talking with people about improving their relationship. Chapman sums up the core idea of his book when he says:
“We tend to speak our own love language, to express love to others in a language that would make us feel loved. But if it is not his/her primary love language, it will not mean to them what it would mean to us.”
I agree. If you continue to show love to someone in a way they don’t understand or appreciate, they struggle to feel loved. But what if the love language of your partner is one you just can’t learn? What if you’re with someone with a history of sexual abuse or has some physical limitations that keep them from showing love physically? What if sexual love is a real struggle for your partner yet you thrive on it and need sexual love to feel special in your partner’s life? Is the relationship doomed? Should your partner force themselves to learn your love language even though it’s painful, difficult, and something that becomes a real burden for them? Should we demand they speak our love language?
Love can never be simplified to be some general rule of engagement. Love is dynamic, involves an exchange of people, and is best experienced when communication and intimacy is part of the dynamic. Perhaps along with asking your partner to learn your love language you can learn to feel loved based on how they can show you they love you? Love is a mutual exchange and if that exchange occurs in a healthy way, even if its one not important to you, it becomes special because it’s important to your partner. Sometimes the best way to show love is to allow someone to love you the way they know how. Sometimes the best way to know you’re loved is to allow your partner to love you the way they know how and simply receive that as the gift it is.
Sure, learning one another’s love language and showing each other love in the way each of you needs to feel love is great. However, so is learning to be loved in the way your partner shows you they love you as a selfless act of care for your partner. When we sacrifice what we want to allow the other to be themselves we communicate to our loved one what’s most important is not what I get from this relationship but rather that the relationship we share thrives, flourishes, and transcends each of us to create a life of care and grace. Love is complicated but its complications create a mystery in which two people continue to find ways to transcend themselves to become a part of someone else.
More and more I am convinced the heart of all human misery is the result of a fracture in a very important psychological mechanism built into the human heart. We are intended to be creatures that love others and receive love. When we cannot love others in a healthy way or have not been loved in a healthy way we create a world that is fractured, broken, and hurtful. Psychologists have numerous theories that talk about the minutiae of how this mechanism works, but in the end, we struggle to love others and are negatively impacted by those that love us in a broken way. Here are just a few ways that happens.
A very early and significant way we are negatively (or positively) impacted by how we are loved is related to something known in psychology as attachment theory. The manner in which your primary care giver shows you love, meets your needs, provides a sense of safety for you, etc. can impact how you engage the world later in life. The theory was formulated by John Bowlby but explored extensively by Mary Ainsworth. Without going through all the details of the theory and the subsequent research it developed, attachment theory finds that those children who were provided with a caring, loving, responsive environment were more able to adjust to the world around them than those who were not. When this care and love is not provided properly, insecure and anxious attachments develop in people and they exhibit such behaviors and emotions as anxiety, the inability to regulate emotions, difficulty with developing relationships with peers, etc. Later research even demonstrates insecure attachments impact romantic relationships and marriage satisfaction. Taking all this into consideration you can see that when someone is not loved properly they struggle to give and receive love in a healthy way. Then, that gets propagated to others and the world continues to spiral into a broken dysfunctional pit that seems impossible to overcome. When we cannot love or are loved in an unhealthy way we in turn love others in ways that are broken. The cycle is difficult to break.
Taking things further, excessive abuse has been found to certainly have a negative impact on people raised in such a toxic environment. While certainly high levels of abuse create people who deal with physical injury and developmental issues, it also creates psychological damage. First, it can create an internal experience of self-hatred. Many people dealing with this self-hatred and abusive history consider suicide, become addicted to drugs, and deal with depression and anxiety. Post traumatic stress disorder and other trauma related mental health concerns are commonly found in children and later adults who experienced extreme abuse. However, even more disturbing, some research indicates excessive abuse of children during formative developmental ages causes the empathy pathways of the brain to be stunted and underdeveloped causing anti-social behaviors and at its worst, antisocial personality disorder. The most extreme lack or inability to love children being raised in our very homes creates people who’s neurological structures make it exceptionally difficult for them to empathize and love others.
Over the course of the next few posts I want to explore how we can change this trend and learn to love others and receive love in a healthy way. This innate characteristic of being human is essential for living life well and flourishing in the world. Imagine if we could transform the world to be a place where people can learn to love others and be loved in a healthy way. What might it be like if we could help people learn to mitigate against the broken and distorted love they received in order to break the cycle of distorted love? The world could at least be a little better because of the things I want to discuss. Augustine of Hippo, a Christian philosopher and minister in the 5th century often spoke of sin as nothing other than disordered love. Perhaps we need to reconsider that again in our day and age? How is our love disordered and how does it perpetuate a disordered world today? I look forward to sharing thoughts on this with you over the next few posts!