Secrets of a Happy Life: Speak Your Partner's Language

What language do you speak?  And I’m not talking English or le français here.  I’m talking “the little things”, words of appreciation and affirmation, physical touch...  Yes, I’m talking love languages.

This may not be a new concept for some of you.  Gary Chapman’s best selling book, “The 5 Love Languages”, has sold over 10 million copies.  Still, if you’re anything like me, a little re-reflection on the subject can be helpful from time to time.

To this day, my husband has a hard time understanding why small day-to-day acts of service — filling my car with gas, doing the dishes, or surprising me with a Starbucks — are so important to me.  He’s a big picture kinda guy who doesn’t naturally think of doing these “little things” at all.  And why does it matter?  Because simple, thoughtful acts of service mean love to me.

Now those of you who speak this same “language” will totally get what I’m saying.  Those of you who don’t, well, you may think I’m weird or even judge me for being petty or simplistic.  Perhaps you need to hear a heartfelt “I love you” or have your partner devote more quality time to you for you to feel truly cared for.  Bottom line: Different strokes for different folks.  Dr. Chapman’s five languages (these being words of affirmation, acts of service, gift giving, quality time, and physical touch) serve to remind us that we don’t all express or feel love the same way.  As he writes,

“Your emotional love language and the language of your spouse may be as different as Chinese from English.  No matter how hard you try to express your love in English, if your spouse understands only Chinese, you will never understand how to love each other.”

Dr. Tara's Sunshine Query: Does a Different Language Mean We're Doomed?

So does having a different love language than your partner — as is the case for most couples — mean that your relationship is doomed?  No, but it does require thought and effort to meet each other’s needs.  According to Chapman, learning to actively express love in a way your spouse understands is the key to a happy and enduring marriage.  And we can make that choice, regardless of whether or not it comes naturally to us.

Unfortunately, sometimes beginning this process is hard.  If couples have spent years speaking different languages, they can feel unloved and disconnected, and harbour deep-seated anger and resentment.  Trust me, I get it.  But I also know that the best things in life ain’t always easy.  Relationships take work and practice and more work again.  We need to learn how to let go of the past and not let the mistakes of yesterday tarnish the efforts of the present.  I am not suggesting that we forgive and forget — no one should be expected to bury or deny their pain.  But scorekeeping and resentment are poison that prevent wounds from healing.  Forgiveness is as much an act of love for the giver as it is for the receiver.  The good news, Chapman suggests, is that either partner can begin the process, and reciprocation typically follows.  As each one begins to feel more understood and more loved, it can become easier to meet the other’s needs.

Dr. Tara's Sunshine Suggestion: Avoid Assumptions

An important word of caution here.  One of the things I know as a therapist (yet sometimes struggle to implement in my personal life — sorry husband and 3 children) is to be careful about making assumptions.  We are taught in our training to ask and to clarify instead of presuming to understand what our patients are thinking and feeling.  “I know how you feel” is a statement that really holds no value and can, in fact, be harmful.  We can empathize, relate, hypothesize, imagine, and suffer or celebrate along with someone.  But truly “know” how they feel?  That is their experience and theirs alone.

Even with the people closest to us, we are not nearly as good at understanding what is going on in their minds as we think we are.  Research by psychologist William Ickes has demonstrated that people are capable of discerning the feelings of strangers about 20% of the time.  While this number jumps to 35% with close friends and couples, it still means that we are incorrect at reading our loved ones the majority of the time.  Perhaps even more interesting, the longer couples have been together, the more they assume they’ve figured each other out when they’re actually off the mark.

Creating Your Own Happiness: Communication is Key

How does this come into play with love languages?  It is inappropriate to assume we know what our partners are looking for, or that they know what we need, without communicating.  Sometimes doing a “5 Love Languages Quiz” and sharing the results can be helpful.  And when we do discuss our desires, the how part is extremely important.  As Chapman reminds us, “If they come across as demands, we have erased the possibility of intimacy and will drive our spouse away”.  Passive-aggressive comments and ultimatums born out of anger build walls, not bridges.

Chapman’s book gives us an intuitive framework, a starting point for discussion and for modifying behaviours in order to strengthen our relationships.  It reminds us that we need to both recognize and respect that how other people — our partners included — view and experience the world can be fundamentally different.  As someone who loves trying to analyze and understand the human psyche, I am humbled by the awareness that people truly are mysterious things.