Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

The Language of Love

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on December 21, 2011

   Ashley and Eli, both in their thirties, have been married for ten years. Ashley turns to Eli, while in couples therapy, and asks “are you going to take care of me when I get sick?” Eli quickly responds, “it is my duty, so yes, I will do that.” Ashley breaks down into tears. Eli is painfully confused. “Duty” I repeat, “was the trigger.” I say, looking at Eli. Eli gets obstinate. “It is my duty,” he insists. “Maybe so,” I respond, but there might be more loving words you could use to describe your loyalty to Ashley. Eli digs in his heels. He continues to use the word “duty” and he continues to make Ashley cry and feel scared and disappointed in her marriage.

  “Words are such powerful weapons,” I say, trying to describe the brutality of Eli’s insistence on using the word “duty”. Eli seems to resist feeling bad about his word choice and so he becomes more defensive. I realize I have to try another way to help Eli understand why Ashley is feeling so discouraged in their relationship. Understanding and using the language of feelings happens early on in development. I am not sure it can be taught later on in life, but at the same time, as with most things, learning new ways of being in the world is very dependent on motivation.

In the moment of our session, Eli was not interested in seeing the world from Ashley’s point of view. Ashley was left feeling alone, as she often does in her marriage. The time between sessions allows for Eli’s defenses to diminish and so we will have another chance. For now, Ashley clings to hope.

4 Responses to “The Language of Love”

  1. Shelly said

    Something tells me that Eli knows quite well what disturbed his wife in his reply and that for some reason he enjoyed her distress. Is he able to vocalize and express genuine feelings of love to his wife, generally? You say this has roots in childhood. What do you mean by that?

  2. Yes and no, I think. Eli is being stubborn. I agree with that. I am not sure if he enjoyed her distress or if he was rigid in his stance. Eli is not able to express feelings towards his wife, or at least he does not appear to be. By saying Eli’s lack of language for feelings has roots in his childhood, I mean that he came from a family which did not express feelings towards one another. Thanks..

  3. Rita said

    I’ve been following your blog for a few months, and find most of your posts thought provoking. This one especially strikes me, both the original post and your reply to the previous comment. ‘Brutality’ is not a word I’d have thought of, but it is quite perfect, I think. It captures for me a kind of primitive process. I’d not suspect Eli was conscious of how his choice of the word duty, and his persistence in its use would cause his wife pain, nor that he grasped that by implication his ‘caretaking’ would be out of obligation, not freely, lovingly, given. As well, I wonder whether he came from a family which did not express feelings towards one another, or a family in which love was not central, or perhaps even experienced? It may be a dreadful oversimplification, but I know very few truly loving people who cannot articulate in some way their feelings. You say that understanding and using the language of feelings happens early on in development, I wonder if it is possible to have a full range of emotions/feelings and not learn to understand and in some way articulate them.

    • Hi Rita,
      Welcome to my blog and thank you for your comments. Yes, it is absolutely possible, and I would go so far as to say tragic, that people can experience their full range of feelings without the corresponding ability to express them to themselves or to others. Feeling your feelings and putting words to your feelings, usually begins in childhood, with a parent who helps a child de-code their feelings. When this does not happen, it becomes much more challenging to understanding your feelings later on in life. Therapy helps, but it is still a challenge. Thanks Again. SV

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