Sometimes events come together in my life and form a message about a new step in my recovery. That happened for me this weekend. In order to tell this story, I’m going to have to talk about some books and concepts that are not part of the Al-Anon program, but that have meaning to me.
Friday night, my wife and I went to a workshop at our church on the “5 Love Languages.” It’s based on a series of books with that title. The basic idea is that there are different ways in which we feel loved. That some ways are more important to us than others. That we most often express love in the ways that we want to receive it. That our partners way of feeling loved is probably not the same as ours. And finally that if we don’t understand the way in which our partner feels most loved, it may weaken or destroy our relationship.
I had first encountered the 5 love languages several years ago when a friend in the program loaned me a copy of the book. At that time I was struggling with rebuilding my relationship with my wife, which had been severely damaged by her alcoholism. She had been sober for over 5 years, and I had been in Al-Anon about 10. As our book How Al-Anon Works says in the discussion of Step 1 (“We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable”), “Al-Anon does not promise … that sobriety will solve our problems or fix our relationships”. I read the book cover to cover, and came to a couple of realizations.
I’m going to come at those realizations from the loss or pain that brought me to them specifically. As a friend said in the workshop on Friday, paraphrasing from the book, it can help to think about where you most feel loss or pain in your relationship(s), when you are trying to decide which love language is most important to you.
And maybe I should talk about what those 5 languages are! Again, these are the ways in which you feel loved: According to the book, they are
- Words of appreciation: these can include compliments; thanks and gratitude for things you do, say, or be; or maybe the 3 simple words “I love you.”
- Acts of service: when someone does something for you.
- Physical touch: a caress; a light touch on the shoulder; a pat on the back; a hug or kiss; or sexual intimacy.
- Quality time: doing things together; simple conversation; sharing thoughts, plans, fears.
- Receiving gifts.
On to the realizations…
Number one is small but important (to me): My wife would often ask me to do simple things, which I thought she could just as easily do for herself, such as picking up something from the drugstore. (And not because I was going there already.) I would feel annoyed that she didn’t just do it herself — why did she need to ask me? The book helped me to see that one of the important ways my wife feels love … as you probably already guessed … is through acts of service. When I saw that, my attitude and response to her simple requests changed “180”. I saw that she was really asking me “Do you love me?” After that, whenever she asked me to do an errand, I could hear “will you show me your love by doing this thing for me?” And I could lovingly respond, “Yes.” Thus healing a small emotional scar in me, and helping me to feel closer to her.
The biggie, though, hit me hard. At this time I had developed a close friendship with another Al-Anon member. We would share long phone calls and emails, talking about program, but also just about our lives, thoughts, and feelings. Looking back on it from the perspective of several years, I can see that I became needy, that I placed a lot of my serenity in the hands of this other person. Of course, I didn’t ask if they wanted that burden, and if I had, I’m sure they would have said “NO!” And then, I read the book (5 Love Languages). After reading the chapter about “quality time”, I realized these things: that quality time was important to me; that I was not getting it in my marriage; and that I was trying to fill that hole with time spent with my friend. Worse, though, was the realization that I was actively pushing away my partner’s attempts at spending time with me. I wanted quality time at the same time I was refusing it in my marriage.
Fast forward to this weekend. I had never shared the book or any of my insights with my wife. A few weeks ago, she said “I signed us up for a workshop on the 5 Love Languages.” I was a little apprehensive, but said “yes, let’s do it.” Or maybe I just said “OK”. Friday night, I found myself sitting in a circle with 8 couples, listening to a couples therapist tell us about the love languages, about why she thought they were important, and then giving us our assignments.
We had worksheets. First, we were to rank the 5 for ourselves, from most to least important. Then, we were to rank them for our partner — which we thought our partner most valued to least. All this without “looking” or discussing with our partner. Next, the worksheet had a column for each of the 5. We were to write down at least 2 ways in which we felt we received love in that language (from our partner). And then, for our top 2, we were to write one or 2 requests that we could make to our partner to receive love in that language.
What an order! Could I go through with it?
The therapist helped us put our requests into loving language, and to make them SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-limited.) For example, I originally wrote, “Go to a museum or park with me.” She suggested I say something like “I would really feel loved if you would plan a 2 hour trip to a museum or park in the next month.”
And then came the moment of truth. We had to share what we had written with our partner. We moved the chairs so I was sitting face to face with my wife. Looking at each other, we shared. Both she and I had identified each other’s top 2 languages, but in the other order. She had put my number 1 as 2 and my number 2 as 1. And I had done the same for hers. I felt that was pretty good. And honestly, I think I had not considered that things might have changed for me since I first read the book. At that time I put “quality time” first because that was the lack I was most feeling. I put “acts of service” second. I’m not sure whether that’s still true for me. Digression: I am the primary cook in our family, and always have been. She has recently started “prepping” our dinner meals — chopping vegetables, etc., so that when I get home from work, I can quickly assemble and cook dinner. I really appreciate this and it makes me feel loved. So maybe, at this point, “acts of service” is more important. Maybe she knows me better than I know myself?
And as for my ranking of her love languages, I think I was also thinking of my realization that acts of service were important to her, and forgetting that she has expressed many times her frustration that I don’t give compliments. And earlier in our relationship, it was almost like pulling teeth for me to say “I love you.” So maybe, if I had really thought about it, I would have put “words of appreciation” first for her, instead of second. Ah, well, hindsight…
What’s all this got to do with Step 6? (“Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character”)
I didn’t see any connection until the next morning, when I went to my Saturday meeting. As I’ve said, this is a step study meeting. It being the 3rd Saturday of the month, the table I usually sit at would be studying Tradition 5. That table was quite full, and I switched to the other table to balance things out. We were on Step 6. I have found a lot of power in Steps 6 and 7. For me, this is where the real change in my recovery comes. Step 6 is, for me, about really owning my “defects of character,” about accepting that they are part of who I am, so that I can find the humility to ask for help in changing (removing) them.
But as we read from Paths to Recovery about the step, I started to connect with my experience of the night before. To remember the difficulty I had in opening up with my wife. To remember the discomfort of sitting face to face, looking at her, and talking about the important ways in which I feel loved. To remember forcing myself to ask for more. Why was that so hard? What is still stopping me from being open and honest with her? What do I need help with?
And so, there I was, sitting at the table I had coincidentally moved to, realizing that I was solidly in Step 6 on these questions. The worksheet I had filled out the night before was an inventory of what I had, what I wanted, what I lacked in my relationship with my wife. By speaking about it in the meeting, I shared with my higher power, with myself, and with several other people (Step 5). And now it was time to become ready to ask for help from my higher power to move forward. Help to shower my wife with words of appreciation. Help to feel more comfortable opening up and deepening the time we spend together, to give it more “quality.” Step 6 tells me that I don’t need to do it alone. In fact, that I can’t do it alone. Part of being “entirely ready” is the realization that I have not succeeded in doing it myself. So why not ask for help? What is stopping me? Pride? Fear? Shame?
I am a grateful member of Al-Anon. I am grateful that life and my higher power give me coincidences like these, so that I can continue to find new paths to a happier, more serene and satisfying way of living.
Please call us at 734-707-8795 or email firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions or experience, strength and hope. Or just leave a comment right here.
The letter that Amber sent, and that I read in the last episode, can be found on the Al-Anon blog.
Music from the show
Nazareth: Love Hurts
Angel Olsen: Shut Up Kiss Me