William Shakespeare wrote that “Expectation is the root of all heartache” – a lesson that I just can’t seem to learn.
Just two short weeks ago I wrote about expectations and gratitude, citing Ray Wylie Hubbard’s statement that “The days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, I have really good days.”
Yesterday Don and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary, and I managed to keep my expectations way higher than my gratitude, making for a miserable day for both of us.
Following our therapist’s advice we’ve been working on understanding and acting on one another’s “love languages” based on The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. An overly simplified explanation is that people differ in how we express and receive love, and that these differences can be broadly categorized into five “love languages”. If someone expresses love to us in a way that does not align with our love language we might not even interpret the behavior as loving, leading to misunderstandings, confusion, and heartache.
My primary love language is “receiving gifts.” To quote from the Five Love Languages website “If you speak this language, the perfect gift or gesture shows that you are known, you are cared for, and you are prized above whatever was sacrificed to bring the gift to you. A missed birthday, anniversary, or a hasty, thoughtless gift would be disastrous – so would the absence of everyday gestures. Gifts are visual representations of love and are treasured greatly.”
Don’s primary love languages are “acts of service” (which is pretty much what it sounds like – having someone do things that ease their burden of responsibilities) and “words of affirmation. According to the website “If this is your love language, unsolicited compliments mean the world to you. Hearing the words, “I love you,” are important – hearing the reasons behind that love sends your spirits skyward. Insults can leave you shattered and are not easily forgotten. Kind, encouraging, and positive words are truly life-giving.”
The challenge for us comes with the understanding that, while “acts of service” are pretty important to me, “words of affirmation” is way down my list of preferences, while for Don “receiving gifts” is at the bottom of his list. I have to make a conscious effort to remember to affirm him and his actions to reinforce that I love him, while he really struggles (and has throughout our marriage) with gift giving which has been the source of much tension and meltdowns throughout our marriage.
It doesn’t help that because of childhood experiences with words that were never backed by action or real demonstrations of love, for me “words of affirmation” ring false and usually trigger anger and a profound sense of loss. And I have my own theories about childhood traumas that make giving gifts so very hard for him…
We’d actually read The Five Love Languages a few years ago on our own and didn’t really follow through on applying the concepts, but have been making an effort to put the ideas into practice over the past couple of weeks as our therapist suggested in the hopes that we could move past the hurt and start to show each other the love we each feel in ways that are meaningful to the other person.
Which brings us to yesterday, our 30th wedding anniversary…
I’m not going to go into all of the gory details (we do have a personal life after all!) but suffice it to say that I had put some effort into picking out a card that really expressed my love in his “words of affirmation” love language, and included a small gift because that is my preferred way of expressing love.
I had left him a reminder about my preferred love language on his daily “honey do” list, and while I wasn’t expecting anything extravagant I was expecting a gift of some kind. What I got was a “card” that he had printed on the computer with a single line of text saying he loved me.
I tried to say thank you but my disappointment was obvious, and when he noticed and realized that he had hurt me I dissolved into tears that turned into sobs. He really can’t cope when I get upset, so he panics and shuts down…and that is what happened. What I wanted was for him to try to make it right – to go out and buy a gift or take some other action that would let me know that he understood why I was hurt. What I got was verbal apologies and hand-wringing…but no action.
This was a huge trigger and the longer it went on the more hurt and upset I got, and the more upset I got the less capable he became of taking action…all because of my expectations that Don didn’t, and probably wasn’t able to, meet.
This is not a new dance for us…
Fortunately, we had scheduled an appointment for our therapist for yesterday afternoon, figuring our anniversary was as good a time as any to work on our relationship. As we talked about what was happening I learned that Don had set out to buy me a gift, but got so anxious about finding just the right thing that he panicked and never made it out of the car. While this gave me some empathy, it didn’t actually relieve the hurt and it meant a lot to me that our therapist acknowledged that feeling hurt was not an unreasonable response. She also gave Don some ideas about managing his anxiety, and about gift giving…although between his emotional state and his mild cognitive impairment I don’t think he retained much of this.
After our session she (bless her) took her own time to go with Don to buy a gift for me while I went home.
The gift helped assuage some of the hurt, but unfortunately while I was home walking the dog I again built up expectations that this would be a turning point and that he would truly understand why I need him to “speak my love language” even though it is hard and not natural for him and even though his cognitive issues make it even harder.
We headed off to watch the sunset and have dinner, but I could not let go of those expectations and kept pressing him (drilling him, really) about my love language and what he could do to meet my needs and expectations. Let’s just say the evening was full of tension and less than a success…again due to unrealistic expectations on my part.
I still wasn’t able to let go of these expectations this morning so I left for work on a sour note, but he actually came to my office and brought me a little gift, which went a long way towards making me feel heard, appreciated, and loved. The fact remains, however, that my expectations may have been understandable, but they were also unrealistic given our history (and our individual histories), how early we are on our therapy journey, and Don’s cognitive issues….and the result, as Shakespeare so wisely predicted all those centuries ago, was heartache.
As we move forward I am realizing that, fair or not, my ability to manage my expectations and my reactions to how those expectations are met is going to determine whether I/we are miserable or are able to navigate this journey through the next phases of our life with some semblance of grace.
The path ahead lies in finding ways to help Don give me the love I need in the way I crave it (and when he can’t, finding healthy ways to give it to myself), in giving him the love he deserves in his love languages, in making the investment in therapy even though it gives me budget anxiety, in carving out time to swim, meditate, and reflect, in staying connected with friends and maybe even being more honest with them about what is going on in our lives and, most of all, in keeping my gratitude higher than my expectations. Given my personality I think it will be a pretty steep climb, but I’m lacing up my hiking boots and hoping I am ready to take it on.