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Contrasting Expressions of Love

Reciprocal and matching love styles are one of the most meaningful and delightful experiences people can experience. If the way each person's offerings of love are understood and welcomed by the other partner, they are far more likely to create magical, successful long-term relationships.
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The thoughts, feelings and actions of love are some of the most beautiful gifts one person can give to another. Being treasured, honored, and desired enhances our vulnerability and strengthens our sense of personal value.

When intimate partners experience deepening love for each other, they usually value the relationship enough to stay together. Long-term devoted lovers become more than the sum of their parts, multiplying their love of each other and of life in general.

The caveat is that sustaining love requires that both partners are able to express it in a way that the other hears and feels what those behaviors mean. More often than not, that is not the case. Most intimate partners do not express love in the same way, and often do not experience what each is trying to convey. People rarely express their love at the same levels of intensity, at the same times, or in the same manner. Most often, what is natural behavior for one partner is not for the other. People have different rhythms, different interpretations, different ways of communicating, and differing needs for frequency of connection.

For example, one lover may be more comfortable with passionate touch or emotion, perhaps flooding the other with overwhelming displays of affection. The overloaded partners may intellectually and emotionally appreciate the love offered, but pull back because of the way it is expressed. The more-passionate partners may then feel the withdrawal as rejection and respond with even greater intensity to close the escalating gap. Their love for each other is eclipsed by their misunderstanding.

In another case, one partner may be a "touch-and-go" lover, wanting close connection within limited periods of time. When done with their intimacy, these kinds of people rapidly retreat to recuperate and emotionally reload. If their partners don't understand the reasons for their untimely "time-outs," they may feel confused or abandoned, wondering what they might have done wrong to push the other away. They may feel angry or hurt and close down in order to deal with the assumed rejection. When the unsuspecting, temporarily-absent lovers return for reconnection, their now pulled-in partners may respond negatively. Before they are willing to accept the offer, they may insist on processing what happened, transferring the rejection to the other partner. The negative spiral begins.

Some people feel most natural expressing their love physically, seeking frequent touch and affection. If they choose partners who prefer to express love verbally, they may feel they are not physically attractive enough, rather than understanding that their partners may need a different kind of connection. They may incorrectly assume that their physical bodies are unattractive, or that they are competing with another, clandestine relationship. Both partners may have the same ultimate goal of sexual intimacy, but their disparate ways of getting there invalidates the other's expression of love.

Some people write better than they talk, while their partners hunger to hear romantic phrases before they can open to further intimacy. They feel erased and rejected when they cannot hear what they need to hear, even though their partners want them to feel their love.

Other intimate partners make it a point to remember their partner's subtle desires, and delight in spontaneously presenting them with unexpected surprises. They may be unequally paired with those who treasure emotional and physical intimacy in the moment, but do not focus on prior hints or requests for special treatment. Past and future are just not on their radar, and they may see their partner's "special gifts" as unimportant compared to the present, more immediate connection.

Unless intimate partners can authentically and comfortably communicate their differences and learn each other's personal languages of love expression, they are bound, over time, to believe that the other may not really "love" them, even when they do. In the misunderstandings that are bound to arise, both partners may feel unappreciated and erased. What once seemed perfectly acceptable now feels terrible to both. Instead of living in each other's hearts and minds, they have become emotional foreigners to one another. Instead, what could have been a greater capacity to meld becomes a rigid judgment of the other's style.

There are relationships where different ways of expressing love are more destined to put the relationship in peril. These more serious misunderstandings are most likely to happen when intimate partners resign themselves to "disconnects" that are harboring festering resentments. They rationalize that the rest of their relationship will compensate, and do not stay in touch with the growing imbalances that are building. Perhaps they are afraid that the situation cannot be changed, and are not willing to risk the conflicts that might arise. Sometimes, couples aren't comfortable communicating their vulnerabilities or deeper needs to each other and continue to withhold crucial information that might cause problems they cannot solve. If these hidden, growing, and unmet needs eventually emerge, their different love-expression styles can become the undoing of their relationship.

Sarah and Jake

Sarah was raised in a large family where sharing and support was not only expected but required. She was the oldest and prided herself on her capacity to give without expectation of reciprocity. Because the family was fair in the distribution of its resources, she knew that she would be compensated when it was her turn.

Throughout high school and college, she accrued the reputation of racking up more volunteer hours than anyone else in her community. The more she gave, the more people appreciated her, and she began to value and trust that selfless generosity was the most important way she could love and honor another.

During her last year of college she met and married Jake. He was the baby and the only boy in a family of five, indulged and beloved from the moment he was born. Blessed with good-enough looks and an adequately interesting personality, he's had no lack in attracting devoted women who loved to indulge him.

In the beginning of their relationship, Sarah and Jake dovetailed perfectly. He loved her devotion and willing sacrifices and repeatedly told her how much her caring meant to him. She had no trouble observing his preferences and to give him whatever he needed at hand at all times.

The first few years were close to blissful. Then they had their first child. Sarah's capacity to give Jake whatever he wanted was sorely compromised by the time it took Sarah to care for a new baby. Certain that Jake would automatically rise to the occasion of naturally putting his child before his own needs, she was confused and resentful that the legitimate reciprocation she had always counted on was not forthcoming. But Jake hadn't signed up for sacrifice nor did he feel obligated to share the spotlight at the cost of his own comfort.

To make sure he continued getting what he'd been promised, Jake invited his mother to stay at their house for six months to "help" Sarah with their new child. His mom was thrilled to be included and immediately reassumed the intense devotion she'd always felt for her only son. Now there were two people focusing on Jake's needs, and the caring and support that Sarah felt would automatically come her way did not happen. Sarah left with the baby to "spend some time with her own family" and never came home.

What happened between Sarah and Jake could have been resolved had they talked about what their expectations were early on in their relationship. She loved making him the center of her life when there were no other priorities. Jake basked in her devotion and repeatedly told her so. He assumed that her greatest joy was to give selflessly to others, and he was just the lucky recipient. He truly believed that his loyalty, presence, and appreciation were all that was needed in return.

When intimate partners are able to talk about and understand the differences in the way they express their love, they are far less likely to make incorrect assumptions or experience unnecessary disappointments. They get it that, no matter how well-intended, they may not be communicating their love and devotion in ways their partners receive those messages. It is the responsibility of both partners to express their love in a way that their partners experience what is intended. That understanding and consequent behavior makes each responsible to translate their love language into what the other understands and can appreciate.

When people first enter an important relationship, they will have a better chance at long-lasting love if they define what love means to each of them early on. They need to explore how comfortable each of them is in expressing their love and what they need and can give in return. All expressions of love are valuable to the right person at the right time and in the right way, but can cause sad and unnecessary relationship damage if not openly discussed and accepted. Reciprocal and matching love styles are one of the most meaningful and delightful experiences people can experience. If the way each person's offerings of love are understood and welcomed by the other partner, they are far more likely to create magical, successful long-term relationships.

Dr. Randi's free advice e-newsletter, Heroic Love, shows you how to avoid the common pitfalls that keep people from finding and keeping romantic love. Based on over 100,000 face-to-face hours counseling singles and couples over her 40-year career, you'll learn how to zero in on the right partner, avoid the dreaded "honeymoon is over" phenomenon, and make sure your relationship never gets boring. www.heroiclove.com

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