More Than The Right Love Language: A Couple’s Resiliency Depends On Learning To Value Their Differences
Couples frequently come into couples therapy wanting or hoping that their partner will change in some specific manner so that they feel more connected, supported and heard. Recently, one way both couples and individuals have voiced their concerns to me about their partners has been in terms of love languages, a framework of five ways we show affection coined by Gary Chapman in his 1995 book The Five Love Languages that has experienced a resurgence in the past few years. Couples often ask me: “Are we compatible if our love languages are different?” “What if our love languages aren’t complementary?” or “I’m a ‘physical touch’ person. She’s an ‘acts of service.’ What should we do?”
For couples, this has become not just a way to understand their partners and themselves, but a type of shorthand to talk about frustration over differences. My issue isn’t with the framework of love languages per se (I’m all for tools!), but with couples’ desire for either sameness or a set formula for compatibility, such as opposites attract. What couples are inadvertently saying is that they don’t know how to connect without being the same or a perfectly matched opposite, and are judging each other for these differences.
Instead, it’s more important to a couple’s resiliency that they learn to build with their differences. This means discovering the ability to, as a couple, move toward each other, and learn about each other’s perspectives, especially those in which you have differing experiences or upbringings.
Couples Can Overvalue Both Sameness And Compatible Opposites
Many couples value sameness, especially around life goals, belief systems, religion, and even, love languages. Sameness in relationships can be comforting and make the relationship feel easy as if you’re both on the same path. Couples can also feel pressure from parents, extended family, and the wider culture to be with partners that share certain values.
However, I think couples can overvalue sameness or mistake it for intimacy. It can be a challenge to see another’s differing perspectives, understand where they’re coming from without judgment, and allow them to think and feel differently without taking it personally, or feeling this as a pulling away or rejection.
In as much as many couples identify sameness as key to their relationship, though, there are also a lot of folks who identify as coming together because opposites attract. However, no matter how much sameness or difference there is between partners, the crucial work is very much about building a relationship, in which knowing your partner as the individual they are and are becoming is key.
Couples Should Focus On Understanding Not Only How Their Partner Feels Loved, But Why
When I hear couples saying things like, “We have different love languages,” “S/he wants too much sex,” or “They don’t soothe me or support me in the right way,” I often think, “Well, yeah! You’re different people, which is fantastic. Let’s learn about that.” Rather than worrying about being the same or having compatible ways of showing affection, couples need to focus more on understanding–understanding not only how your partner feels loved, but why. The most happily paired couples have a deep sense of why their partner is the way they are, and have empathy for that.
Humans are complicated creatures, and the way we give and receive love has a lot to do with our families of origin, experiences, and all the messy stuff that comes along with being a person in the world. It’s helpful to be curious about your partner, even when it is around topics in which you think there should be a right and wrong answer or way to express affection.
In particular, knowing the history behind what helps your partner feel safe and loved is what relationships are built on. For instance, maybe your partner never had anyone tell them they were loved when they were a kid, so verbal expressions of love are really important to them now. Or perhaps it means so much to your partner that you pay the bills on time and are predictable because they were never cared for consistently by their folks.
Appreciating Each Other’s Different Perspectives Is Essential To A Couple’s Growth Over Time
These conversations become about learning about each other and strengthening the relationship. This way, instead of trying to mold each partner’s opinion or how they express themselves, couples can connect around and have respect for each other’s stories, and how they came to believe what they think is so important. Often what couples need so desperately is to be seen and heard by each other in deep ways. It’s less about love languages and being the same or compatible in this way, and more about being able to give your partner the benefit of the doubt, being responsive, and understanding who they are in terms of what they need.
This ongoing process of understanding is integral to growth as a couple over time. During the course of a relationship, especially relationships that span different phases of life, perspectives, beliefs, and desires change. I saw this in my work with couples and families at the FDNY. The events of 9/11 deeply changed how folks felt in the world, and this impacted couples significantly. While traumatic events may alter a couple in their lifetime, joyous events, such as the addition of a child to the family, will change them too. It is an important part of a couple’s shared resiliency to keep adjusting and appreciating their differences.
When couples come into therapy wishing their partners would change or do things differently, or complaining that their partner isn’t responding appropriately to the love language they “speak,” I work to help create a more expansive way for the couple to understand each other–eliciting the stories behind these needs, and finding new ways of being closer and flexible as they move through life together. I want to help couples be as responsive to each other and to what the relationship needs throughout the inevitable demands, sorrows, and joys of life. This is the work of creating a life together, and there are moments along the path where couples sometimes need some guidance.