on Aug 23, 2006
Observing that men and women are different is so appalingly obvious that when someone puts out a book to document this point it sets my teeth on edge. Books like Men are from Mars, Women are from Vesus are so tiresome to me that I want to hunt down the author and punch him in his smug Martian face until my arms go numb. The fact that different human beings have different priorities and perceptions of the world is, in fact, a good thing and helps to made our lives more robust. The fact that these differences make for a vast, rich source of sitcom fodder is just a bonus. Unless you hate sitcoms. Which I do.
However, I did find a book along these lines that turned out to be useful. It had practical application. The book was The Five Love Languages, and it outlines a simple set of ideas that could probably be articulated on a single page, but which was stretched out into an entire book because nobody is going to pay $29.95 for a hardcover edition of a two-page document where page one is the table of contents. I didn’t read the book, but my wife did and gave me the basic premise. It sounded like another attempt to smooth things out between men and women (and to a lesser extent, people in general) by over-simplifying the problem. However, the thing stuck in my head and I’m often surprised at how useful the idea is. The stuff the book has to say has actual utility, and so I want to put these ideas up here and see what happens.
The thrust of it is this: There are a lot of ways of expressing love, affection, or appreciation. They can be roughly divided into five types:
- Gifts (giving someone a thing)
- Physical contact (This includes huggy-kissy-touchy-feely, but also lesser, non-romantic touching like a slap on the back, high-five, and other encraochments on personal space)
- Service (Doing a thing for someone. Pull some strings on their behalf. Mow their lawn. Fix their computer.)
- Words (Telling someone “I love you”, “You’re awesome”, or “nice job”)
- Spending Time (Spend some of your precious allotment of time with the person in question)
I had several nitpicks with this list, since I dislike any attempt to distill and catergorize human interactions into neat lists, but it works well enough and makes things easier to discuss.
The idea is that everyone has one or two ways in which they express and recieve love. These are very often asymetrical, so one guy might express love by buying stuff for people, but doesn’t feel particularly appreciated when others do the same for him. Instead, it is far more meaningful to him (makes him feel you really value him) if you (for example) spend time with him. While most of the things on the list are nice, there is at least one that each of us craves, and that makes us feel loved. Lots of friction in relationships between people rises from the fact that the people involved are expressing affection in a way the other person doesn’t find gratifying, and at the same time feeling neglected because they are not recognizing the other person’s attempt to do the same.
My first impulse when I heard this was to denounce it as horsehockey. But then I thought about it, and instead denounced it as interesting horsehockey. Then the thing grew on me as I started thinking about the many ways in which it applied to a lot of relationships – romantic and otherwise – that have been difficult for me over the years.
This setup leads to the classic situation where the husband can’t figure out what his wife’s problem is: He slaves away all day to put food on the table and that ungrateful woman can’t do anything but complain. And she’s stingy with sex. At the same time the wife is feeling unloved because he never says “I Love You”. And would it kill him to get her something nice once in a while, maybe some flowers? He’s doing #3 and craving #2, while she is craving #1 and probably giving #4. Each of them is expressing love (albeit in a way that is meaningless to the other person) while feeling frustrated that the other person never seems to reciprocate.
As cliché as this is, I think there is a reason it is a cliché. I think it is, for the most part, a pretty handy way of looking at various misunderstandings. When you boil things down, you realize this is not a problem between men and women per se, but a problem between any two people in a relationship. It’s just that romantic relationships between men and women are the kind most of us are familiar with.
And now I’m finding all sorts of ways to apply this to my relationship with my kids and even coworkers. I’m so amazed by this discovery that I even considered reading the book once. Amazing.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.