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What’s Your Love Language?

How to tell your partner you care—in a way they can really hear.

A man with a patchy, scruffy, beard is smiling as he brings his face close to a woman's lips, that also reveal a smile.
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A smiling patient in a light blue shirt sits on an examination table. A doctor wearing a white lab coat places her hand on the patient's shoulder.

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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.

They are:

  1. Words of affirmation (ahem)
  2. Gifts 
  3. Acts of service
  4. Quality time
  5. 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.

“We all express affection differently. Understanding these differences, and speaking to your partner in an emotional language they can understand, can take your relationship to the next level.”

In Tom’s case, his actions, rather than his words, were the way he showed his caring. As an experiment, I started making an effort over the ensuing weeks to notice all the ways he was telling me he loved me in his own distinctive language.

As it turns out, Tom was telling me he cared about me all the time, and I didn’t see it. The evidence was everywhere. He picked up my prescriptions. He took our daughter to the park on a Sunday so I could lounge around and read in bed. He was my IT guy when I had computer problems (“I got this,” he would say cheerfully, when I would rant that my screen was frozen).

When I was nervous before a work trip to California, Tom charged all my gizmos, packed my bag with magazines and snacks for the plane, and ordered me an Uber. His emotional language wasn’t showy and elaborate—it was a quieter one that was steady. Kind. Faithful.

I asked Dr. Chapman: Why had I not picked up on this before? “I think by nature, we expect other people to think the way that we think,” he said. “Because our thoughts are logical to us, we think everybody should think that way. But not everybody thinks the same way. You know? What’s important to one person is not important to another person. And we think we’ve communicated something clearly, but they really didn’t hear it that way at all. They heard it a different way.”

As for me, my love language was—surprise!— words of affirmation. This includes compliments, encouragement, saying “I love you,” and making affectionate remarks like “You can always make me laugh.”

Which is why Tom and I were so often at odds: I was frequently upset with Tom because he didn’t shower me with praise, when that was not his language.

Our dynamic, as it happens, is the same as Dr. Chapman’s and his wife, Karolyn’s: His is words of affirmation, while Karolyn’s is acts of service. So he makes himself vacuum the house, even though he can’t stand doing it. “My mother made me vacuum the house every Saturday when I wanted to play ball,” he said. “But I vacuum for Karolyn on a regular basis because I know that makes her feel loved. It’s one of the things that really speaks to her.” He laughs. “I don’t need to vacuum for me—balls of fuzz don’t bother me. But that’s what love is: doing something for the other person that you know they would like for you to do.”

Once Tom was hip to my language, he tried to speak it more often. It was difficult for him at first. Words of affirmation didn’t come naturally to Tom—he just didn’t grow up that way.

As Dr. Chapman has said, if something doesn’t come naturally, it’s an act of pure, unadulterated love. It was touching to watch Tom look at a new outfit I was wearing and chirp stiltedly, “Wow, you look pretty!” After we left a party together, he said, “I love going home with you.” He started thanking me more often. He said my next batch of cookies was “life-changing.” I know it took effort to say those things, which prompted a flood of affection in me. And when Tom saw how well I responded to his sweet words, he doubled down on his efforts.

When you realize what you partner does (and doesn’t) care that much about, you empathize with them. Your reasons for fighting make more sense. And of course, when you communicate better, your overall foundation is so much stronger.

So I continue to make sure I don’t overlook all of the things Tom does behind the scenes to make my life easier. And I try to express my affection in a way he can appreciate. Some people may love pretty words, or presents, or back rubs—but now I know that if I want my husband to feel adored, I should gas up the car.

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Published November 20th, 2018
A smiling patient in a light blue shirt sits on an examination table. A doctor wearing a white lab coat places her hand on the patient's shoulder.

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