Coastal Voices: Do you believe in love?

By Matthew C. Durkee, The Triplicate February 14, 2012 01:14 am

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.