How We Hear "I Love You"

As a therapist I often get asked the question, “Why do relationships fail?” However, I’ve yet to be asked “What makes a great relationship?” There is a powerful distinction between these two questions that essentially search for the same thing: the key to happiness with the person you chose. But why worry about how the question is asked and not just answer the question? The answer is simple.  When we ask about failure we are focusing on the negative. We wallow in all the things that have gone wrong. We get stuck on these negative reminders of the bad choice we made in our partner. But when we ask about great relationships, we focus on the things that make happiness a reality. We bask in the warmth of all those good feelings that remind us of the love we have, or at least once had and can hopefully regain.

This is a good lesson to keep in mind when looking at your relationship with your partner. Instead of looking at all the negatives, such as dirty dishes in the sink, toilet seats left up, sexless nights, we have to look at the things that put that smile on our face. You know the one. It’s the one that automatically comes out when something unexpected makes us happy. But sometimes we’ve lived so long focusing on the negatives that we can’t even remember what those smile-provoking behaviors were. That’s where hopelessness decides to step in and become a third member of the relationship. But how do we get back to happiness when we can’t even remember the last time our partner put that smile on our faces?

It’s simple. First, we need to rediscover those things that make us truly happy in our relationship. Second, we need to rediscover those things that make our partners happy in the relationship. Third, we need to do them. Hey, I said the answer was simple, not easy.

Relationships can last a long time, but it takes work! One couple I saw was married for 64 years. Now, I’m not going to say that they had a fairytale love story. They thought about splitting up, especially in the beginning. They constantly fought and found fault in everything the other person did. However, they came to the realization that there were things they needed from their partner and then there were things they wanted from their partner. They decided to really look at what are the needs and what are the wants. I remember them telling me that what saved their relationship was discovering and focusing on the needs before tackling the wants. For example, we’d like for our partners not smack their lips when they eat, but we need for our partners to eat dinner with us because that is the time we sit and talk about our day. See the difference?

We need to focus on those things that are needs so we don’t wallow in the misery. Is it when our partner tells us how much they appreciate us? Is it when our partner washes the dishes without us asking? How about when our partner shows up with a present…one that didn’t even cost a penny? Maybe what puts that smile on our face is when we just spend time doing something silly with our partner, like going to garage sales together? Or, maybe we get that smile when our partner gives us small (or big) touches, like a pat on our back when they walk by or hugs out of the blue.

Dr. Gary Chapman discusses what he calls the Five Love Languages in his book The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts. A love language is how we communicate our love and appreciation through our behaviors. When our partner communicates using our love language, they are doing that thing that puts that unconscious smile on our face. However, when our partner speak a love language that is different than our own, we might not see or hear their love. That can cause conflict because we don’t understand the language our partner is using. It’s like any language we don’t understand. We can try to communicate in other ways, but we’ll still feel frustrated that we didn’t get our message through completely. We can go to the finest three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris, but if all we can do is point to something on the menu, we might end up getting braised liver. Now, maybe you like that, but I certainly would have rather had a perfectly roasted chicken.

As Dr. Chapman states, there are five distinct love languages. They are Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service, Receiving Gifts,Quality Time, and Physical Touch.

Words of Affirmation

Nathaniel Hawthorne once said, “Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” He was on to something here. Words can cut and hurt. They cause damage that can last for a lifetime. Words can also prop someone up, lift their spirits, and inspire people to do great things. When your love language is Words of Affirmation, then you communicate love through verbal compliments, praises, and recognition. This isn’t just saying, “I love you” to your partner. This is verbally acknowledging your partner. Some examples are:

  • “I love your sense of style.”
  • “Wow! You really did a great job putting that bookshelf together.”
  • “Thanks for taking the kids for an hour so I can catch up on my show.”
  • “I just wanted to let you know that I’m thinking of you.”
  • “Did I ever tell you what a great kisser you are?”
  • “You are looking great! All the work at the gym is really paying off.”
  • “I’m sorry for hurting you.”
  • “I forgive you.”

These statements speak volumes to a person whose primary love language is Words of Affirmation. These words convey the message, “You are in my thoughts. You bring me happiness. I appreciate you. I love you.”

Acts of Service

For someone whose primary love language is Acts of Service, what you do is more important that what you say. Acts of service isn’t about getting your partner to do everything for you. It’s about showing love, giving praise, and providing recognition to your partner through small and big acts.  Here are some examples:

  • Doing the laundry because your partner hates doing laundry
  • Draping a blanket over your partner on those cold nights
  • Opening the door for your partner
  • Picking up dinner so your partner doesn’t have to cook
  • Taking out the dog in the morning so they can sleep in
  • Setting up the DVD to record your partner’s favorite show when they are working late.

These actions communicate, “I love you and therefore, I am taking care of you.”

Receiving Gifts

As Dr. Chapman said in his book, “Gifts are visual symbols of love.” The love language of Receiving Gifts is not about monetary value or material things. If this is your primary love language, getting a gift means that you were in that person’s thoughts. Your happiness was that person’s main goal. How wonderfully loving is that?  There are times when the gift is something costly or rare and sometimes it’s free and easily available. Here are some ideas:

  • Flowers you picked from a field
  • Seeds to help your partner start that garden they were wanting
  • A playlist of your partner’s favorite songs
  • Tickets to the concert of your partner’s favorite artist
  • A drawing of your partner’s favorite landmark or place

Quality Time

Being with your lover and spending time together, regardless of what you are doing, is the ultimate expression of love for those whose primary love language is Quality Time. It does not matter what you are doing. What matters is that you are giving of your time and attention to your partner to create memories.  Here are some things that you can do to spend quality time together:

  • Work out together
  • Go for a walk around the neighborhood together
  • Watch a movie together
  • Eat dinner together
  • Play games together
  • Go to a sporting event together

The key to conveying love with this love language is that it is a shared experience, not just two people who happen to be occupying the same physical space.

Physical Touch

Oh boy. This is where I caution men. At a cursory glance, most men will choose this as their primary love language. For men, sex can be a physical need. Do not mistake this for your primary love language. Also, Physical Touch is not sex. In fact, it does not have to be sexual at all. I met a couple who had been married for over 40 years. The wife was sick and could use a hospital bed at home. However, she and her husband were absolutely against it. They bought a queen-sized adjustable bed that was close to the ground so they could sleep together. When I asked why, the husband said, “Hospital beds are singles and we need to sleep in the same bed. She doesn’t sleep well if she can’t reach out in the middle of the night and feel me. She’s always been that way.” For this wife, Physical Touch was her ultimate love language. It helped her feel safe, secure, loved, and not alone.   Some ways that communicate love through Physical Touch are:

  • Holding hands
  • Playing “footsie” under the table
  • Rubbing your partner’s back as you are reading the paper
  • Hugging your partner
  • Kissing your partner every morning when you get up and every night when you go to bed.

Physical touch can be done deliberately or absent-mindedly. Touching can be the physical expression of your intimate connection.

So, back to that original question. How do we get back to happiness when we can’t even remember the last time our partner put that smile on our faces?   First, rediscover those things that make us truly happy in our relationship. That’s discovering your love language. Second rediscover those things that make our partners happy in the relationship. Discover your partner’s love language? Third, we need to do them. Learn to speak your partner’s love language and then talk to them in it. Again, it’s not simple and will take practice. This may not fix all the issues in your relationship, but at least you are now speaking the same language .