In my work as a couple’s therapist, I often hear comments such as the following:
Why doesn’t he ever give me gifts? Why can’t she give me the encouragement that I need? What will it take for him to do his share of the chores at home? It would be nice to hear that she appreciates me.
These individuals are not just filing complaints with their partners. They are sincerely puzzled as to why their loved ones do not demonstrate love in ways that seem so obvious to them. The source of this disappointment is usually a misunderstanding about which different expressions of love are most important to their partners, and vice versa. Each of us has our own expectations and ways of expressing love due to our different life experiences.
Ways We Express Love
The six general expressions of love are, in no particular order:
- Spending time together
- Giving/receiving gifts
- Words of encouragement or belief in each others' abilities
- Helpful behaviors
- Physical affection
- Words of caring or appreciation
This topic was the subject of a book, The Five Love Languages, by Gary Chapman. Due to his theological background, Dr. Chapman uses biblical references in his writing on the subject, but here I will discuss the topic within a secular context.
Let’s take one example of how an expression of love may have a very different meaning to the giver vs. the receiver. Many of us can remember how wonderful it was to have the complete attention of a parent when we were children, even it was for just an hour or two. It may have been time playing outdoors, a special shopping trip, cooking together, watching TV together, or just having time to talk. Your appreciation of that time together might lead you to prioritize such shared activities as expressions of love.
In contrast, your significant other might be looking for a very different sign of love. He may be feeling a greater need for words of encouragement from you. He may not ask you for such encouragement because he assumes that you know what he needs and that you are just unwilling or unable to give love in that way. As a result of not receiving this type of love from you, he may feel less loved by you.
Moving Toward a Resolution
Many of the individuals with whom I have worked have indicated that they and their partner have different ideas about what constitutes an expression of love. This is usually because they assume that the other person needs or wants the same expressions of love that they desire.
A female client of mine stated she wished that her husband would hold her hand more often as they walked together. Her husband did not realize how much that meant to her, and it took effort from him to remember to do so. After understanding the importance of telling each other what they needed, he was able to ask for words of caring from her. That was something that she was not in the habit of saying, but was willing to do for him when she understood its importance.
If you have a conversation with your loved one on this topic, you have a much greater chance of giving each other what each of you really needs to feel loved. And, since “not feeling loved “ has been cited in research (Gottman,1999) as a major underlying cause of separation/divorce, this is a conversation worth having.
Following are some simple guidelines for beginning this conversation with your partner.
- Identify what your partner does to express caring, and let him/her know that you recognize and appreciate that action.
- Identify what you are doing now (they may not realize that you were doing this with intent) and tell her/him that this is one way that you express your love.
- Ask your partner what he or she most needs as a sign of love from you. You may have to list the six expressions of love, in order to get the conversation going.
- Tell your partner what you most need, and suggest that both of you make an effort to give more of what the other needs.
- Lastly, always thank the other person for making the efforts to change behavior in ways that improve your relationship. Positive reinforcement is well-known to be the best way to encourage behavioral change.
You may be surprised by what you learn about yourself, as well as your partner, when you begin the conversation suggested here. But then, isn’t loving someone one of the ways that we discover our true selves?
Chapman, G. 1992. The Five Love Languages. The Secret to Love that Lasts. Northfield Publishing, Chicago.
Gottman, J. 1999. The Marriage Clinic. A Scientifically-based Marital Therapy. W.W. Norton & Co. New York.