You may have heard the saying, “Shoot at nothing and you’ll hit it every time.” Just as true is, “Hit a bullseye on the wrong target and your score is still zero.” This happens all too often with couples who are far off the mark of what would be a “love bullseye” for their partner. It’s amazing how often I hear the couples seen for therapy say something along these lines:
Mary: “You just don’t love me anymore.” (said with either sadness or anger)
John: “What?! I don’t understand. Of course, I love you! Don’t you see that I work hard, take out the trash and help out at home? (said with surprise and hurt)
Mary: “Well yes, I appreciate the help, but why don’t you want to spend time with me?”
I’m sure conversations like this are not unique to the people I see for couples counseling in Orange County. Maybe you’ve heard or even said something similar. The truth is, the problem rests in a fundamental tendency for all humans to assume that others think and feel the same way as they do. Want proof? Just watch a child when they give you a gift that they want themselves, or they ask you to read something for them while sitting right in front of you and blocking it with their own head. They assume that if they can see something or like something, you must too.
So, when John takes out the trash without being asked, helps out around the house and works hard to take care of all the bills, it’s probably because he would value the same for himself. After all, wouldn’t everyone see that as loving? Unfortunately, no. Mary, who values time together with others, is left wondering why John doesn’t spend time with her because, after all, wouldn’t everyone value that the most? Poor John would find it hard to make time together because he is so busy doing all the things he thinks will show Mary that he loves her. When it’s clear to John that Mary is still not happy, he doubles down his effort and works harder to do more. You can guess how unimpressed Mary is by now.
In the book “The Five Love Languages”, Gary Chapman does a great job breaking down the five common “love languages” in which people communicate love. He notes that couples rarely have the same love language, so that’s the common challenge. Here is a brief summary of what Chapman singles as five love languages:
Gifts: Like the name implies, it is receiving a present from the other person. Cost is not important since a flower picked from the garden has the same value as a diamond from Tiffany & Co. It has to do with a gift that fits with what you know the receiver would enjoy.
Quality time: This is time intentionally spent together to connect. It doesn’t have to be deep, but it does have to be focused on connecting with the other person in the moment. This could be sitting on the couch and talking or changing the brakes on your car together as long as you are aware of and sharing the experience with the other person.
Acts of service: Taking out the trash, picking up the kids from school, cooking dinner, doing laundry, mowing the yard etc. You get the idea. It’s doing a task for the other person that they value.
Physical touch: Just to be clear, men, this is non-sexual touch. It is holding hands, sitting beside each other, a back rub, touching their shoulder as you walk by. If the touch is intended to lead to sex, it does not count in this category.
Words of affirmation: Word can be spoken, in a card, a text message, sky writing etc. Anything that involves words that appreciate and affirm the other person. This can be appreciation for taking out the trash or more personal, like affirming the character of the person.
While a person may appreciate all of these expressions of love, there is usually one that stands out as most valuable. Sometimes there is another that is a close second as well. If you’re not sure which is yours, do a little self-check. What are you most jealous of if your partner speaks one of these love languages to someone else and not you? Or, if someone does the opposite of one of these love language, like a verbal insult rather than an affirming word, is it doubly painful for you?
It’s important to note here that couples rarely have the same top level “love language,” making it all the more challenging to remember the need to translate your feelings of love for them into a “language” that is going to be best understood by them. Like any new, and not natural, habit, it will take time and practice and I’ve even written about how couples can use a “reminders” app on a device to prompt you toward something new until it becomes more natural. It may not sound romantic, but I think that kind of effort to remember something that is important to your partner is even more valued than doing something for them that would be natural and automatic.
When you get a clearer picture of what “speaks” love to you as well as to your partner, it’s going to be much easier for each of you to hit the “love bullseye” and maximize the impact of your loving efforts. If you would like help decoding your love language and learning to speak in more fluently, a great place to learn is couples therapy. As an Orange County CA psychologist, I’m ready and available to help you hit the “love bullseye” in all your important relationships.