Language shapes our lives before we even know how to speak it. Verbs such as “to begin,” “to grow,” and “to be” describe our entry into this world. Verbs such as “to grab,” “to smile,” and “to resist” aren’t far behind. Ideally, “to learn” and “to love” and “to be loved” fill our days from that point forward but we know these are the ones that carry the most complexity. We learn to love and to be loved from the responses of our caregivers. They form an internal compass that guides us—inward and outward, toward and away—often without our conscious knowledge.
Many of us spend our whole lives wondering why we engage with ourselves and each other in the ways we do. Some of us take quizzes to discover our attachment styles or our partners’ love languages. Some of us avoid the topic of intimacy entirely until a partner begs us “to open up” or “to show affection” or “to share what’s on our mind.” For those of us who struggle with intimacy, these verbs can feel daunting. But “love” itself is an active verb. It’s imbued with intention and meaning and contains an implicit call to action. “To love” contains infinite other verbs, such as “to care,” “to notice,” “to respond,” and the big ones usually reserved for wedding vows—“to have” and “to hold.”
It’s been said that we need fifty words in a foreign language in order to speak it. In the language of intimacy, basic fluency comes down to just seven verbs:
These seven verbs are so effective at getting us started in the language of intimacy because they are some of the first ones we practice. Our understanding of intimacy as adults comes initially from our earliest experiences of these verbs. And behind each one are questions about how we learned to love and be loved:
Part of this emotional scorecard is obvious, but much of it is often unspoken and concealed even from ourselves. It’s part of the diary that each person brings to the unknown continent of adult love. Having some language to describe the seemingly indescribable and undefinable helps us understand how we formed our expectations, conflicts, hope, and disillusionment with intimate connections.
The experiences that revolve around these seven verbs shape our beliefs about ourselves and our expectations of others. They influence how we conjugate so many of the other relational verbs: to meet, to listen, to desire, to seduce, to fuck, to rest, to fight, to fight back, to surrender, to console, to manipulate, to empathize, to violate, to protect, to lie, to omit, to admit, to hide, to abandon, to reconcile, to make love, to promise, to be together, to do better, to reveal, to learn, to grow, to change, to inspire…the list goes on for as long as we do and it varies in every relationship. Trace the lineage of any of these verbs and it will bring us back to the original seven.
Verbs are everything we do and everything we do to each other. We didn’t have a choice of how we learned them but we have some say in which ones we prioritize in our relationships with ourselves and each other. Challenging ourselves around the ones that are harder for us is an essential act of intimacy with ourselves. Every time we practice one of the verbs that we feel clunky about, we learn to give up some of the unhelpful coping strategies we developed that were once meant to protect us. It increases our vulnerability and our understanding of not just how we learned to love and be loved—but how we want to now.