We all hear love the same way — there are only so many words and expressions to say, “I love you.”
But we feel love differently.
We don’t know this through an expert or through science; we know this from being human. From having a childhood. From marriage. We all know what it’s like to hear someone say, “I love you,” and then have them do something very unloving — whether it’s a parent or boyfriend or friend. Which means more to us? (Which means more to our kids?)
Love isn’t just a word; it’s an action.
Except sometimes we don’t know how the people we love need to be loved. Again, I learned this from just living and paying attention; I’m sure you have, too. We know how it feels when someone is trying to love us, but the message gets redirected through tangled pathways, pushed through on the momentum of their conditioning, their environment. They might feel love in their hearts, in their minds, but if it isn’t outwardly expressed — if we don’t feel it ourselves — then is it love?
We might think “love” is giving solutions, helping. We think love is nagging or correcting — tough love is real love. We think love is buying expensive gifts. Maybe it is to some, but isn’t it worth asking?
If we aren’t going to love someone the way they feel love, then what’s the point?
“How can I help you feel loved?”
I read this question in a relationship book, written by a marriage counselor, and I dog-eared the thought in my brain. It was one of those perspective-opening moments, like a lens snapped into place and the same-old picture was now that much clearer.
I took that question with me through the rebuilding of my marriage — through months of my heart, my perspective, waxing and waning — and right onto an airplane where it spilled out in the most unexpected way.
“That doesn’t make me feel loved,” my strangely insightful 6-year-old boy muttered to my husband right before take-off. His small arms were loosely crossed in his lap, shoulders low and defeated. He had wanted his dad’s attention, but there were distractions, safety announcements, too-large carry-on bags being shoved over our heads.
I held my boy’s hand for take-off and waited.
Once the airplane (and our emotions) stabilized, I brought up what he had said. I like how he phrased it — how he articulated what he felt, owned it, and said it with such honesty.
“So when do you feel loved? What can mommy and daddy do to help you feel loved?”
His eyes smiled, and he sank his head back into the blue vinyl seat. The wheels started turning; I flashed my husband a “Here we go” eyebrow raise.
“When you play video games with me.”
It was his very first answer, and I immediately understood why. I initially had quite a resistance to video games — unfairly demonizing them with some preconceived opinions and “It’ll melt yer brain!” attitudes — and he felt that. That was before I realized how happy he felt playing them with his friends, and saw the skills he was developing. Even still, I don’t dig video games. They bore me, and he knows it. So him saying he feels loved when I play video games is more about me showing interest in something that interests him, even though it’s not my favorite. It’s joining in on his thing, and watching him shine at something he’s proud of.
“When you surprise me with my favorite food.” (Heard: When you pay attention and think about me.)
The list spouted from there:
“When you hold my hand.”
“When you really laugh at something I say, not a fake laugh.”
“When you cuddle me at night.”
“When you stop doing the dishes and play with me.”
“When you smile at me.”
“When you watch me.”
“When you ask about my drawings at school.”
“When you give me a hug when I’m sad.”
“When you race me to the door.”
“When you don’t yell.”
One simple question and just like that, bam, we were staring at his beating heart.
He feels loved when we pay attention, listen, see him for who he is and what he likes. He feels loved when we stop our to-dos and prioritize him, even for just a few minutes. When we stop and look, smile, laugh. When we’re affectionate. When we’re here. And even though he didn’t say it, I think he felt loved when we asked him that question and really listened to his answers.
One simple question.
How will your kids answer it?More On