Why 'I Love You' Isn't Enough

Here's what your partner needs to hear most of all.

Posted May 11, 2014

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Many partners do loving and heartwarming things. My husband, Steve, brings me coffee in the morning, usually cooks dinner, and fixes every technological glitch with my computer. He often tells me how much he loves and admires me and how lucky he feels to be married to me. Except on his bad days, his positive comments exceed the negative ones by a healthy margin.

But some years back, when I read Ellen Wachtel’s book on couples, We Love Each Other, But… I realized that Steve had long ago stopped telling me specific things he notices and admires about me, something he did a lot of when we first got together. I also realized that I wasn’t making such positive comments to Steve, either (not that he was complaining).

Interestingly, adults understand that children of all ages need praise for their specific qualities and behaviors. It’s not good enough to tell a child, “You’re the greatest” or, “I love you so much.” Kids need to hear, “Great job sharing your toys!” or, “I think you were very brave to tell your friend how you felt when she didn’t invite you to her birthday party.”

A first, I felt a little silly even wanting this kind of feedback. There’s a widespread belief that if you have solid self-esteem you don’t need outside affirmation and praise. This is patently untrue, by the way.

I decided to model this behavior myself before asking my partner to make the effort. I experimented for several months with noticing and praising him for the specific things I had stopped noticing, or had simply started taking for granted after decades of marriage: “You were so hilarious at the party last night!” etc.

The more I expressed appreciation of his special strengths, the more deeply I appreciated him. He did the same for me when I requested it, but I gained the most by being the change I wanted to see.

Here's an interesting fact about coupling up: When couples first get together they automatically know how to make each other feel loved, valued, and special. As I explain in Marriage Rules, this "selective attention" flips 100 percent as the relationship endures over time—meaning, the longer we're together, the more we automatically notice and comment on the specifics of what we don't like: "Why are you putting so much water in the pot for the pasta? And that's the wrong knife to cut a tomato!" etc.

Dialing down the criticism and saying "I love you" goes a long way. But so does adding the secret ingredient of speaking to the specifics of what you love and admire. For every specific criticism or correction you make, add a specific positive comment.

Then see what happens.