I have always cared a lot about other people. I wasn’t a person who was afraid to pay compliments to other people or tell my friends (and later crushes) how I felt about them. Instead, I was brave. I put myself out there. Openly admired others.
For a long time, this wasn’t reciprocated — at least not in a way I could understand.
I did have a few lovers who remained a secret because we were closeted. When I was young, growing up in Maine in the 80s and 90s, my same-sex relationships were secret out of necessity. A young gay man had been murdered in recent memory where I lived, a hate crime. Not to mention your normal standard issue adolescent fears — the need to fit in, to not be socially ostracized. Being bisexual wasn’t safe, so while it was something I definitely was, it wasn’t something that I — or any of my other queer friends — owned beyond an immediate circle of trust.
On top of those connections, I did have a few opposite-sex dating experiences. But even those boyfriends also didn’t seem particularly proud of me. There was a lot of secrecy involved. One of my boyfriends was five years older, so there were some legal issues on his side since it was technically illegal for us to be together.
But when it came to my high school boyfriend Greg (who was 8 days younger than me), we just had a terrible relationship. We were always on-again, off-again. Long distance didn’t help things. And I’d later find out that he cheated on me a lot. Mercifully, this bit of unpleasant information came 5-10 years later when I was working at a bookstore with someone who went to high school with him. This meant that it didn’t hurt. (Since I didn’t have feelings for him anymore.) Instead, it just explained a lot.
It’s Only Been the Last Decade or So That I’ve Felt Loved in Return
Anyway, this start to relationships — as well as a love for torch ballads, because of supporting myself as a jazz musician for some time — meant that my picture of what love looks like was one-sided.
I thought of love and affection as something I always gave, and if I were lucky, perhaps the other person would accept that love. But no, I never expected to be loved in return.
I had no model of that. It didn’t seem realistic, didn’t seem possible.
It’s only been the last decade or so that I’ve felt loved in return. The majority of my life, it was always being in love and showering others with adoration without feeling very loved in return.
Even when I finally got into a relationship in which I received open affection and adoration, it took a little doing for me to understand what was going on. Because the first person who really made me feel loved (my husband Justin) expresses love differently than I receive it. And vice versa for what it’s worth.
My top love language is words of affirmation. This is his absolute dead-last love language.
His top love language is acts of service. That’s my second to last (my absolute last is gifts).
So I feel the most loved when he tells me that I’m beautiful or that he’s proud of me or of what I’ve done. This isn’t natural for him at all. He actually has this problem where he sort of forgets what he says aloud and what he’s actually just thought really hard. So complimenting me — to him — feels like stating the obvious. Meanwhile, it’s very easy for me to interpret silence as resentment — or a lack of compliments from him as very telling.
Conversely, with acts of service as his top love language, he’s thrilled whenever I make his life easier in tangible ways. When I took over the meal planning and shopping, it was a huge help. I also went way out of my way to get better at chores and to do them without having to be asked. For some reason, it really makes him happy when I do his laundry, especially when I fold and put it away (which is weird for me because that particular chore seems really easy, at least to me).
It does help that our second top love language is the same: Physical touch. But even there, we had to adjust. His physical touch tends to be more cuddling and things like that. My physical touch was decidedly more sexual (New Englanders aren’t very cuddly, as a general rule and my family of origin wasn’t physically affectionate at all, so it’s more the way I was raised — for a long time, even cuddling felt sexual to me).
Why I’m Glad We Didn’t Have the Same Love Languages
I’ve been on the record that given a choice, I don’t think I would have chosen for us to have to work so hard to understand each other. It was really not fun becoming a neatnik. That was what basically had to happen — I had to become as neat as him and very proactive about chores. Sounds great, right? Well, it’s time consuming. While I’m quite capable now, the process to learn was humiliating at times as I seemed to fail at things that came naturally to him and other people. And I also really dislike how I notice mess now. That was really the big thing before — I didn’t notice it at all, so it didn’t bother me. Now that I notice mess, I find I’m often stressed out by surroundings that normally wouldn’t have bothered me.
But you know what? He’s worth it. So I’m forging my way forward with this new neatnik normal.
And I know, for his part, that it has been very frustrating for him whenever he feels like he isn’t good at doing what I long for (giving spontaneous compliments). Just from the little bits that he’s said, that’s what I’ve gathered (again, he’s quiet and he stops short of explaining fully a lot, so you have to guess what he means a bit — asking followups can be very stressful on him, particularly if you ask too many).
But in a way, I’m glad we didn’t have a choice. And I’m glad it happened this way — even though I would have surely chickened out of this work if it were possible to do so and still be happy together.
Because through knowing him and learning to understand how he shows his love (by helping me fix things, by getting me coffee, etc.) I was able to realize that there were plenty of other people before him who had loved me. I just hadn’t realized it. Because it didn’t come in the form I easily recognize. Because they, too, had an inefficient way of showing it (when it came to me anyway).
Not just romantically — but friends, family members, teachers.
I could suddenly see how all these acts of service from people in my past were far more meaningful than I ever realized. That there were lots of people who cared about me — and I just didn’t recognize it at the time.
And realizing this was one of the greatest gifts of my life.