Coastal Voices: Do you believe in love?

Matthew C. Durkee, The Triplicate

I'm pretty sure most holidays are scams propped up by companies - like Hallmark and Hershey - that want to sell cards and candy.

I guess that makes me not much of a romantic.

Yet here comes the quintessential romantic holiday, Valentine's Day, another opportunity, I fear, to disappoint my wife Lynn by not making a proper show about it.

Her idea of a romantic occasion and mine are not the same.

As one Crescent City woman, Va Vang, put it to me, "Everybody has

their own opinion of love."

This of course is the great conundrum of every romantic relationship:

no partner sees love the same way, no partner communicates the same

way, and therefore every couple will have unique strengths and flaws

when it comes to expressing and understanding each other's love.

I had originally intended to write about how different local cultures

express romantic love. I suspect there are some cultural practices and

attitudes that distinguish one culture's forms of affection from those

of others.

But the problem with this kind of question is that it could quickly

devolve into a series of stereotypes or over-generalizations.

For example, while researching one culture's love, courtship and

marriage practices, I discovered a great deal of conflicting

information. A lot of marriages sounded loveless and sad, while others

of the same culture described their marital love in some of the most

beautiful language I've ever read.

The fact is this is basically true of every culture. Some individuals

are better at loving than others. Some couples are just irredeemably

bad matches.

I was wrestling with these issues last week when I happened to make a

stop at the pharmacy.

The staff was laughing about something as I approached the counter,

and one of them said, "Ask him."

"Ask me what?" I said.

They giggled, hesitated and then decided they shouldn't ask me, but I

insisted.

"Do you believe in love?" they finally asked.

Well, I may not be a romantic, but that doesn't mean I'm without

romance. I said yes and told them that coincidentally I was working on

an article about how people show love. One of the pharmacists suggested I

take a look at a bestselling book published in December 2010, called

"The Five Languages of Love: The Secret to Love that Lasts" written by

marriage counselor David Chapman.

The five languages he refers to are different ways people show love

and feel loved. Chapman's five "languages" are "words of affirmation,

quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service and physical touch."

Boy howdy, does that resonate with me. My wife and I are almost

complete opposites when it comes to speaking and understanding these

"languages." Despite no knowledge of this book before last week, Lynn

and I have been talking a lot lately about how we try - and often fail -

to express our love for each other. In the past few months, I think

we've learned more about each other than we ever understood in our

previous 13 years of marriage.

Lynn excels at acts of service and gift-giving. I appreciate the

former much more than the latter. Gifts, in my mind, are just cold,

materialistic wastes of money that will eventually wind up in our

garage, a black hole of crap we can't bear to part with yet never use.

It would be easier for me to speak the language of gift-giving if I

had any imagination for it, but I don't. Early in our romance, I often

bought flowers for Lynn. While I'm sure many women appreciate flowers,

it's safe to say that it's not a particularly imaginative gift,

especially after the sixth or seventh bouquet. But it's the thought that

counts, right?

Apparently it depends on who's doing the thinking. Lynn recently told

me that the problem with bouquets is they shrivel and die, and then she

has to throw away my symbolic gesture of love, which ultimately makes

her feel sad.

The language of love I understand best is quality time: a nice dinner

with Lynn at a good restaurant or simply an evening spent together at

home, talking or playing games as opposed to merely being in each

other's presence while ignoring each other with our attention fixed on

books, TV, computers or smart phones.

But Lynn doesn't really understand this language. A warm body next to

hers - a simple expression in the language Chapman calls "physical

touch" - means as much to her as any word of conversation. She can read

thousands of pages in hundreds of novels and never feel unloved as long

as I'm sitting or lying beside her. Meanwhile I'm feeling jealous of her

novels and wondering if an electric blanket would make her just as

happy.

As if that weren't enough, when I take her out to dinner, she'll

reliably complain about the food, something she never does at home even

if the cook has made a terrible mistake. As it is with me and gifts, so

it is with her and dining out - a waste of money, in her mind.

So where does this leave us? We tied the knot, then we tied ourselves

into all kinds of knots we didn't expect. Is it hard to believe we

actually love each other?

Not for us. What we've learned in our discussions of the past few

months is that perhaps we're terrible at appreciating each other's

efforts to show love, but the efforts themselves fill the hours of our

days together. It really is the thought that counts. The trick is seeing

past your own thoughts and trying to understand your partner's.

Valentine's Day for the Durkees, then, may be a quiet affair, not

much different from any other day. But I'm finally learning that's fine

with Lynn. For us every day is like Valentine's Day, filled not with

wine and roses but simple expressions of affection worth all the flowers

and fine dining in the world. We love that.

Matthew C. Durkee is assistant editor of the Triplicate.

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