Not long ago, I made my husband, Tom, his favorite triple-chocolate cookies. As I set a plate of warm cookies in front of him with a flourish, I smiled at him expectantly. He grabbed one and ate it, eyes on his computer screen.
“Mmm,” he said.
I waited for more accolades as he scarfed down another. “So you like them?” I prompted.
He nodded. “Delicious,” he said.
For some people, that brief-but-sincere approbation would suffice. But I come from a family of appreciative eaters, where elaborate praise is the norm. I regularly grew up hearing things like, “I hear a choir singing when I bite into this lasagna,” and, “Everyone, I need a moment of silence to process how amazing this cheesecake is.”
I’ll be the first to admit that our family praise-fests are ridiculously over the top, but in my case, it’s just one of those weird-but-fun elements that defines the culture of a family.
You’d think that after 17 years of marriage, I’d be used to the fact that Tom is not Mr. Effusive. But every time I make something for him, I still find myself fishing for compliments—and if I don’t get them, I feel hurt. More deeply, I don’t feel like he appreciates me, or even cares about me.
Then a friend recommended The 5 Love Languages.
The 5 Love Languages is one of the most popular relationship books ever published, with approximately a gazillion sold (OK, more than 10 million, which is still pretty impressive). The author, a North Carolina marriage counselor pastor named Dr. Gary Chapman, maintains that there are five main ways that people speak and understand emotional love.
- Words of affirmation (ahem)
- Acts of service
- Quality time
- Physical touch
As much as we think our partners know us well enough to intuit what we want, they often don’t. Or can’t.
When partners don’t speak the same language, tensions arise. If a person’s love language happens to be gifts, they will get very upset when their partner forgets birthdays and holidays or buys them an impersonal gift card. If their language is physical touch, they may feel rebuffed if their spouse doesn’t respond to, or initiate, hand-holding or hugging.
There’s no scientific research behind love languages—but it’s what Dr. Chapman has learned from counseling couples. We all express affection differently. And Dr. Chapman says that understanding these differences, and speaking to your partner in an emotional language they can understand, can take your relationship to the next level.
New York psychotherapist and relationship counselor Claudia Glaser-Mussen says she gets why this concept is so popular. “Our emotional worlds can be complicated,” she says. “And I think Love Languages softens the edges of that complexity, and gives couples a method that’s clear, efficient, and non-threatening.”
We think we know each other so well, she goes on, but there are always parts of our partner that remain mysterious to us. “In sessions,” she says, “I’ll hear, ‘We’ve been together forever. How could you not know this about me?’”
To find out which languages we were fluent in, Tom and I took the 30-question quiz on Chapman’s website. Tom’s was acts of service—doing things your spouse would like you to do that require thought, planning, and effort.