My mother is a marriage therapist. There are good and bad parts to growing up with a shrink in the house. She was extremely compassionate, a great listener and gave terrific advice. But the downside was that absolutely everything was up for analysis. “So, you’re unhappy with our cereal choice? Tell me about it. Why do you think this upsets you?” “I DON’T KNOW! I’M THIRTEEN! I’M UPSET ABOUT EVERYTHING! STOP TALKING TO ME! RAGE!!!” Just yesterday, as she was petting the dogs, she diagnosed them: “Havvy is a classic narcissist and Gracie has passive dependent personality disorder, the dynamic between a pimp and prostitute.” Yes, this is my Mother. It’s hard to run away from feelings in this family. Believe me, I tried. But thirty years of deep emotional probing has inevitably had its way with me. And I’d like to think I’ve learned a thing or two.
Without further ado or a $150 therapy bill, I’ll reveal the top two lessons my Mom shares with any client… and as a byproduct, me – when I’m trying to eat cereal.
The key to any successful relationship, whether at work, in romantic relationships, or friendship can be boiled down to how you show each other that you care and how you resolve conflict.
LESSON#1: HOW I LOVE YOU, LET ME COUNT THE WAYS
According to Dr. Gary Chapman’s “Five Languages of Love,” the ways we show love are through affirmation, affection, attention, acts of service and gift giving.
Affirmation: “Your ass looks out of this world.” “You’re the funniest girl I’ve ever met.” “You’re so wise.” *Clears throat… just random examples, of course.
Affection: Kiss kiss, hug. This is anything from holding hands to the full monty.
Attention: Quality time spent together. Go on a bike ride to discuss your day, care about the minutiae, root for each other, connect.
Acts of Service: This is anything that you can’t necessarily put a price tag on. Fixing their lamp, going with them to the doctor, putting ass cream on that hard to reach spot…
Gift Giving: Something tangible you can hold onto, whether it’s jewelry, a dinner out on the town, or even picking a flower to show that you were thinking about him / her.
While we need all five, we each rank them differently. The key is in knowing what your mate’s top priority is and making sure you’re speaking that language (and he yours). In my most recent relationship, my ex told me that he didn’t feel like I was putting as much into us as he was. I couldn’t understand it, I told him all the time how great/smart/fill-in-the-blank he was, gave him lots of physical affection, and hung out with him all the time. What other way could I show him I loved him? But he wanted me to plan more things for us, whip up romantic dinners, give him gifts just because… I was slacking on the last two love languages. He was so great at planning things that I didn’t realize it was even missing. But he did.
My friend’s parents were celebrating their 38th anniversary recently. The husband was out of town on business and sent flowers. She told him, “I don’t want you to buy me things, I want you to be here.” You can’t send in one love language to do another love language’s job. This book helps put into words what we need to feel fully loved. Before, you might have felt something was missing and couldn’t quite explain it – for me, this gives a language to it.
Typically, the love language you’re best at is the one you need the most. My number one, if anyone cares, is Words of Affirmation. I need compliments like air. They let me know how someone feels about me. A thousand dollars doesn’t tell me as much as a few sweet words. It’s not surprising, then, that the flipside is, I can be sensitive to not-so-sweet words. This is where the next part comes into play: Resolving Conflict.
LESSON#2: OUR GO-TO DEFENSE MECHANISMS
So, my Mom always talks to me about John Gottman’s book, “Why Marriages Succeed or Fail.” In it, the author discusses the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Apocalypse meaning the downfall of a relationship, not society… Unless he knows something I don’t. Whenever I get irritated by my Mom and try to avoid her, she tells me that stone-walling is one of the Horsemen. Does anyone else have a mother like this? The other Horsemen, or greatest contributors to divorce, are criticism, defensiveness and contempt. Contempt being the biggest forcer of doom.
Criticism: attacking a person to make them feel like they are in the wrong. “Why are you doing it that way? That’s not how you do it.”
Contempt: attacking a person to hurt their self worth. “You’re an idiot / slob / ass puppet.”
Defensiveness: not listening to the other person’s perspective because you’re too busy seeing yourself as the victim.
Stonewalling: and my personal specialty, emotionally withdrawing as a means to avoid conflict.
Conflicts are inevitable, every couple faces them, but the outcome depends on how you deal with it. Recognizing what bad patterns you have when you get mad or hurt (Do you throw around accusations or hole up into your shell?) and then getting into “early repair” can help you and your partner stay out of the bad fighting parts and into the good happy parts longer.