Love: Not a Spectator Sport

One of my favorite concepts to teach in the Family Communication course is how, in our families and intimate relationships, we need to understand each other’s “relational currencies." Relational currencies are those symbolic acts or statements used to express our love, care or concern for another person. For example, to some, receiving chocolate on Valentine’s Day is a symbol of how the giver feels about them. Chocolate = love. For others, a heart-shaped card filled with affectionate phrases = love. To yet others, a call from a distant friend = "I care about you.”

For me, waking up on Valentine’s Day to the smell of bleach and the sound of sponges moving over tile (as my husband cleans the toilets, tubs and sinks) would be much more appreciated than cocoa, cards or calls. Cleaning the toilets = deep and passionate love for me, dear Valentine.

If you’re in a long-term happy relationship, you likely know firsthand that true love is no spectator sport. You have to DO something to keep the love alive; you actually need to learn the "language" of your loved ones. Like the student, staff member and happy couple I recently observed, each knew exactly what their efforts would mean to their significant other.
Holding Hands
Now married, recent UST alums Amanda and John call themselves “a very happy couple!”

I’m one of the professors on campus who writes, researches and talks a lot about “happy couples.” I even occasionally photograph them. My favorite location? On campus, of course. Shameless plug: check out my co-authored books published recently with UST alumna Anna Kudak about the loving little rituals of happy couples.

It was at a recent book-signing on campus, as Anna and I enjoyed conversation with students, colleagues, staff and administrators, when we saw a young male student hovering around. He looked as if he might have been studying late the night before and with eyes averting ours he finally approached and said out loud, although in a whisper: “Um, I’d like to get one of these.” He was pointing at What Happy Couples Do. We tried to ease his obvious discomfort with our unwitting enthusiasm: “Great! Can we inscribe it to you and someone special? Is it a gift?!” He fumbled to explain in a low and still hushed voice: “Yeah. It’s for my girlfriend.” His eyes shifted all around as if he was about to be caught doing something bad. “My friends told me that my girlfriend got me the coolest gift in the whole world and that I’d never be able to top it. Then I thought ‘a book about happy couples. That would do it.’” Dude, you are SO smart (that’s what we thought and then quickly said as much). Bravo! This young man had obviously learned about relational currencies. A book about relationships given from dating man to woman he is dating = “I LOVE YOU!” a million decibels strong.

Then just last week as I worked a little later than usual and the sun went down outside my OEC office window, I heard a very light tap on my office door. I have to admit it startled me a bit; it was almost as if someone wanted to knock, but not really. Although it only took seconds to open the door, by the time I did no one was there. But I saw a young man – a staff person in a neighboring department – about half way down the hallway. I gently called out “Hello! Were you looking for me?” He excitedly turned and came back to explain why he had come. With a similar shy/embarrassed/excited/eager/nervous voice of the young man at the signing, he talked in slightly hushed but rushed and excited tones. As he spoke he reached inside the little brown paper sack he held in his hands. “It’s such a pleasure to meet you. I was wondering … you see … I bought … for my girlfriend … well … I know she’d really like it if you’d be willing to sign this book I bought for her.” He pulls out the lunch-like sack a copy of What Happy Couples Do and admits with a chuckle that yes, he is “too cool” to carry around a copy of a happy couple book. “My colleagues might make fun of me.” Cute. I was touched by the gesture he was making for his girlfriend; he knew she “would LOVE the book” and that the purchase and signature was an expression greater than any other. Wonder when he learned that action is often the most convincing means of expression?

And on the eve of our national holiday dedicated to the expression of love, it seems wildly appropriate to share one of my favorite stories from What Happy Couples Do. It was submitted by the couple’s daughter who had observed, for years, her parents’ long-standing Valentine’s Day ritual: a cost-free yet valuable method for each to express their love. Might be one we all want to try out during these tough economic times. It’s called “A Priceless Valentine”:

My parents don’t have much money, and what they have they don’t like to spend on things they think are frivolous. So on Valentine’s Day they always go to a greeting card store together and pick each other out a card. They then read their cards out loud to each other. They also tell each other what they would have written in the card had they bought it. They get the sentiment without the expense and have developed a loving tradition that has been with them for many, many years.

The people we love are priceless, aren’t they? Make sure you’re DOing something to show them as much. And not just tomorrow, but every day.