There are certain aspects of relationships which are never a question of blame, but always a question of hurt. When we love someone who doesn’t show their love in the same way — who can’t quite understand the things we need from them — it will always feel like a terrible defeat, even if it is no one’s fault. We have all had friends who aren’t as touchy-feely as us, or who don’t recognize certain things that may hurt our feelings, or aren’t good about getting back by phone. We’ve had the lover who just didn’t enjoy spooning, with whom it always felt like something of a personal insult when you were relegated to separate sides of the bed. We have had the family member whom we often saw through a wall of our own inability to comprehend one another, with whom communication was always occurring on two very disparate wavelengths that the other couldn’t tune into. It’s a fact of life, but that doesn’t make it any less sad when it happens.
I can remember feeling deeply wounded by a friend once because I felt that, whenever I tried to express my genuine affection, she became uncomfortable or distant. She didn’t seem to know how to reciprocate it, or even make sense of it. When things were light and we were laughing, there was no one else we’d rather be with — but when it came time for a deeper moment of confession or gratitude, I seemed to be speaking a language that she had only learned basic conversational phrases in. When I would talk to her about things I had felt slighted by, or ways in which she would communicate more articulately, she seemed to feel attacked and to want to retreat into herself. She would apologize, but it was clear that she wasn’t fully sure what she was apologizing for.
And it wasn’t until I began looking for reasons why this might be that I realized all of the myriad ways in which she was demonstrating her love for me every day, ways which I didn’t automatically perceive because I would not have done the same thing. But I only needed to look through our email exchanges for example, seeing how nearly every day she had sent me something she thought I would find funny, or tell me something that had happened in her life and ask my advice on it, to see that she was saying how much she cared. When she would write messages to check up when I was hurt about something unrelated, even if the wording was rather sparse, it was clear that she was concerned about me and wanted to make sure that I was okay. It was clear that, while my love was expressed in broad conversations and declarations, hers was expressed in humor. It was in little moments of attentiveness, of remembering me, of asking questions to which she genuinely wanted the answer. Her love for me was clear, but expressed in a very different way.
These differences are based as much in who we are as people as the kind of relationships we are looking for in life. Some of us love touch, some of us love deep conversations, some of us love humor. We are allowed to love all three — and a million more things — all in as many variations as we want. My friend is naturally a more reserved person emotionally, and I tend to be more expressive, but this doesn’t mean that either of us love the other one less. And if another friend gives me an overlong hug and I tense up (true life: hugs tend to make me uncomfortable, I don’t know why, deal with it) it doesn’t mean I’m not happy to see them. I just don’t demonstrate my affection in that way. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
There are people who show their care by making people feel like welcome, tended to guests. They love having people over and making things perfect for them, reminding them that anything they want is no problem. There are people who use humor to bridge the gaps that we can’t always reach in literal terms — they make people laugh when they need it most, and connect with them over things they both enjoy. There are people whose love pours out in complicated, profound words. They could fill books on the way their partner looks when they just wake up, or how much they love spending time with their best friend. People love to cook for the ones they love, or do favors, or pamper them, or compliment them, or just hold their hand in silence. And none of these demonstrations of emotion are wrong, or bad. None are not worthy of being acknowledged and appreciated.
The truth is that there will be a million people in your life who actually don’t love you, whose dismissal of your feelings or tendency to ignore what you want are rooted in genuine apathy. They are everywhere, and make navigating our emotional lives even more complicated. But there are also many people who do love us, and who want to show us, but just may not be able to do it in the way we most want to hear. And it’s important to distinguish between the two, to look at the things people are actively doing for us and take account of the things we’re lucky to have in them. Because we are lucky to have love — in any of its forms — and no way of saying “I love you” should be forgotten about.