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How to Love Your Partner the Way They Want to Be Loved

It starts with attention, curiosity, and openness.

Key points

  • Research has shown that taking more loving actions can make couples feel more in love.
  • Many relationship issues center around misunderstandings or miscommunications about what makes each person feel loved.
  • Being curious and open to a partner’s unique way of feeling loved can make people better, more attuned partners.

As much as being in love can feel like a natural state we either experience or don’t, we have much more say in it than we may think. Research has shown that taking more loving actions can make couples feel more in love. In this way, there’s much truth to the notion that love is more a verb than a noun. The more we express love, the more we ignite it in our partner and cultivate it in ourselves.

Thinking about how we show love can be a powerful practice for keeping our feelings alive and well in a relationship. The key isn’t to solely focus on our feelings of affection but to think about what our partner perceives as love. In other words, what actions would that specific person experience as loving?

It’s common and fairly instinctual to give love how we would feel it. For some people, that means showering their partner with cards and gifts, expressing lots of affection, and frequently saying “I love you.” For others, love is something more low-key, a quiet appreciation of the other person wherein you give them space to do their own thing.

Many relationship issues can center on misunderstandings or miscommunications about what makes each person feel loved. For instance, one person may expect their partner to know instinctively what they want and need. They may feel hurt by their partner when they inevitably get it wrong, thinking things like, “I would do this for them. Why wouldn’t they do that for me?” The answer may be that their partner just doesn’t see that particular action as meaningful or desirable in the same way. They simply have different things they categorize as expressions of love.

For example, a couple I worked with often got into heated arguments around their anniversary. For one partner, the day meant a lot, and she wanted to celebrate by doing something together. She thought of the occasion as an excuse to tell her husband how she felt about him and what she loved about their relationship. She liked to plan getaways and romantic dinners and was often disappointed that her husband didn’t put the same effort into celebrating.

For her husband, the date itself didn’t hold as much meaning. While he often bought her a small gift or flowers for their anniversary, he didn’t see the point in making a single day such a big deal. He felt like what mattered most was that he appreciated his wife and their relationship every day. He believed romance should be more spontaneous and not overly planned.

Their two perspectives inevitably left one of them disappointed. While she was feeling hurt and rejected, he was feeling pressured and disregarded. What finally helped them reach an understanding was each of them taking time to put themselves in the other’s shoes and recognize that the things that made their partner feel loved and appreciated were different from their own.

Once they accepted that simple reality, they saw their actions as part of a goal to make the other person feel valued instead of a sacrifice that bent them out of shape. Because each of them desired to make the other happy, they could be more open about what that meant for their partner. However, they realized that love boiled down to different actions than they imagined.

The husband realized that kind and acknowledging words, affection, and gestures meant much more to his wife than gifts that weren’t as personal. The wife started to understand how much it meant to her husband to let things happen naturally. She let their anniversary unfold more spontaneously and did not place as much pressure on just one day of celebration. Instead, she could appreciate her partner's loving ways throughout the year.

All kinds of factors determine what each of us experiences as love. Yet being curious and open to our partner’s unique way of feeling loved can make us better, more attuned partners. So, how can we “get better” at knowing what our partner wants and needs?

1. Listen to what they’re saying.

When we spend a lot of time with someone, on the one hand, we may feel we know them better than anyone else. On the other hand, we may stop noticing certain things about them as they become more familiar to us. This isn’t because we’re not interested or don’t care. It’s often just because our lives can get busy, routinized, or comfortable, so we stop actively getting to know the other person.

Paying attention to what our partner says sounds like the most obvious advice we’ll ever hear, but it’s something we have to remind ourselves to keep doing. Make a mental note of when they mention something that matters to them or something that excites them. Encourage them to be vocal about and ask for what they want.

2. Pay attention to how they express their feelings.

In addition to hearing what they vocalize, we should always try to notice what lights our partner up. It’s pretty easy to distinguish the times when they seem bored and keep checking their phones from those when they’re smiling and animated. This doesn’t mean we’re responsible for making them happy 100 percent of the time. It’s just a way of being attuned and sensitive to what makes them come alive and feel most themselves. This awareness helps us truly know our partners and understand the things that make them feel seen and loved.

3. Check in with your partner (and yourself).

None of us are mind readers, and we can’t be expected to intuit what another person wants and needs at all times. It’s more than okay to ask questions and encourage our partners to let us know where they’re at and what they need from us.

By that same measure, we should keep checking in with ourselves about what we need and want to make us feel loved and fulfilled. As much as possible, we should be open with our partner about these things—and not expect them to mind read either. By encouraging a free and natural back and forth, we become more vulnerable to each other and more capable of offering each other what we want.

4. Notice how they express love.

Chances are, the warm ways our partner treats us somewhat reflect how they enjoy being treated. If they seek out a lot of physical contact or take pleasure in small acts of generosity and kindness, they may enjoy the same from us.

Of course, this doesn’t have to be taken literally, and no task needs to be matched exactly. For example, it’s perfectly natural for each person to bring certain unique things to the relationship. One partner may enjoy doing the other’s laundry because it makes them happy, while the other prefers big, sweeping romantic gestures.

The point here is not to say that we shouldn’t have our ways of loving each other. Rather, it’s just another way we can be mindful and attuned to certain actions that could make our partner feel acknowledged.

5. Accept your partner’s needs as different from your own.

Relationships shouldn’t be about sacrifice. If making another person happy consistently means making ourselves miserable, something may really be off, and the relationship may be worth examining. However, we should always embrace that our partner is a separate person from ourselves. While making each other happy can be a huge part of our happiness, each of our feelings exists separately.

All of this is to say that it’s okay for you to want more affection and for your partner to want more communication. It’s okay for one person to feel more loved by their partner cleaning the counter than saying, “I love you.” Others might need the words. We each have different things to bring to the table and offer each other.

All our desires don’t need to sync up exactly at all times to enjoy an equal and loving relationship. All that matters is that each of us keeps an open flow of curiosity, creativity, and energy around expressing our love to someone we conveniently already love.

Couples who continually examine and define what love means to each have the best chance of keeping that feeling alive, both in their partner and themselves.

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