There is a good joke about the difficulty of having a successful relationship with a woman:
A man finds a magic lantern with a genie inside. The genie tells him, "You have found the lantern and so I will grant you one wish. You can wish for anything you want."
The man thinks for a few minutes and then tells the genie, "I have always wanted to go to Hawaii, but I am afraid to fly and I get seasick on boats. I wish for a bridge so that I can drive to Hawaii."
"A bridge to Hawaii?!" the genie says. "That's a really tough order. It will take years of construction. It's very complicated. Do you maybe have a second choice of a wish I could grant instead?"
The man thinks it over and then says to the genie, "I would like to know the secret of having a good relationship with a woman."
The genie asks him, "Do you want two lanes or four?"
In my work with parents and couples, I have found a kind of magic lantern for helping them have better relationships. It's Dr. Gary Chapman's idea that there are various ways in which people feel truly loved—what he calls each person's primary love language.
The languages Chapman identifies are: physical affection; compliments or words of affirmation; quality time together; acts of service; and receiving gifts. All of us need all five of these in order to feel loved, but each of us needs one of them most of all.
Surprisingly, we don't always choose a partner who has the same love language as ourselves, and this can result in problems. We think we are expressing love, but we are expressing it in our own love language which may not be the same as the other person's.
For example: If Alice's main love language is receiving compliments, and her husband Nate showers her with physical affection because that is his primary love language, Alice may end up not feeling loved. And if Brad's main love language is spending quality time with his wife Belinda, and Belinda's main love language is receiving gifts, neither might feel truly loved by the other because Brad gives Belinda a lot of quality time but doesn't place much importance on giving gifts. (Needing gifts, I should add, is not necessarily a sign of being materialistic. As one young woman recently told me, "The important thing for me is that my husband took time out of his frenetic schedule to think about getting me a gift. He put thought into it and went out of his way to buy it during his lunch hour. That's what made me feel special.")
Helping a couple understand each other's primary love language goes a long way in making their relationship happier. Often, a person is shocked when he finds out what his partner's main love language is. There's a popular stereotype that most men's primary interest is physical affection and sexual intimacy. But this is stereotype is not true in every case. In one couple I helped determine their primary love language, the wife guessed that her husband's was physical affection. But when her husband reflected on what he really needed from his wife, he realized that his primary love language was receiving compliments from her.
Do you feel especially loved when your wife cooks you a great meal or when she holds your hand as you walk together? Do you feel most loved when your husband encourages your career or when he helps you clean the house? Does your wife beam when you bring her flowers or when you plan a special date? Does your husband smile when you give him a hug or when you compliment him for his successes at work?
Discovering your own love language and that of your spouse goes a long way toward having a more loving relationship.
Copyright © Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D.
Read Dr. Wedge's latest book, forthcoming in March, 2015 from Avery (Penguin Random House).