Anyone who’s been in a relationship for any length of time can identify with this scenario: You ask your partner for “A” and you get “B.” Again. And again.
So, you try a variety of tactics. You hint around, to no avail. You turn it into a running joke, hoping the lighthearted message will sink in eventually. Finally, you spell it out, “THIS IS WHAT I NEED FROM YOU.”
And, still, you get “B.”
As you beat your head against the closest wall, you contemplate the possible explanations. Could your partner be that tone-deaf? Perhaps more passive-aggressive than you previously thought? Or maybe it’s one of the two remaining and equally unpalatable alternatives: S/he is either unwilling or incapable of delivering what you need.
This story line has been playing on repeat at my house for the last few months. Because, basically, I’m a word person. My husband is not.
When I ask for signs of reassurance that our marriage, which has been tested this past year, is on more solid ground, I ask for words. I need words to answer the questions like “How are you feeling about things?” or “What makes our family worth fighting for?” or “Why do you love me?” Because words give me insight. They give me context. They give me proof. They help me crack the code of uncertainty.
But words don’t come easily for my husband. They are actually quite hard for him. I’ve learned they’re not only not his primary “love language,” they’re not even his second or third.
Instead, he speaks the language of action and service: delivering a fresh cup of coffee in the morning while I’m still half-asleep, or emptying the dishwasher, or running with the kids when I’m trying to steal a few minutes of work.
In my mind, those things are great – but I consider them little extras, the “nice-to-haves,” and they can’t begin to substitute for words. Because a cup of coffee doesn’t help me understand what he’s thinking or feeling or planning. A cup of coffee without any context is just that – a cup of coffee.
That’s why some days I want to grab him by the shoulders and shake loose words of affirmation that we are solid, that he chooses me, and that he knows full well the reasons why. And, meanwhile, he’s wondering why I can’t Just. Shut. Up. About. The. Words. DRINK THE DAMN COFFEE I BROUGHT YOU AND KNOW IT MEANS I’M HERE TO STAY.
In our attempt to reconcile this fundamental communications issue, both our marriage counselor and a dear friend recommended Gary Chapman’s “The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts.” And it might just be the best ten dollars I ever spent.
The essence of Chapman’s counsel is relatively simple: as children in our families of origin, each of us learns a language to communicate, be it English, Spanish, Chinese, etc. We also learn from our parents and family interactions different ways to communicate love. There are five primary languages of love, according to Chapman: words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, acts of service and receiving gifts. (Take this quick quiz to determine your primary love language.)
Then, when we grow up and enter into relationships with others, it’s entirely possible – likely, even – that they won’t speak the same love language we do, he says. So there’s great risk that the communication between partners becomes broken and difficult, with too much getting lost in translation.
“Your emotional love language in the language of your spouse may be as different as Chinese from English,” Chapman writes. “No matter how hard you try to express love in English, if your spouse understands only Chinese, you will never understand how to love each other.
“We cannot rely on our native tongue if our spouse does not understand it. If we want them to feel the love we are trying to communicate, we must express it in their primary love language.”
He’s so right. Communication in a relationship can be messy enough. Now imagine the challenge that comes with speaking different languages of love: Signals get crossed, if not missed completely. What’s like crystal to you is clear as mud to the other. They simply cannot pick up what you’re putting down.
This week, in a flash of clarity, I finally understood something Hubby said – not with his words, but with his actions. “Let’s paint the bedroom,” I said. And all he said in return was, “Okay” – but I heard “I love you” loud and clear.
Helping me pick just the right shade of gray from the 50 options I put in front of him – not too beige, not too blue, not too brown – before he’d even had his first cup of coffee said, “I accept you even when you drive me crazy.”
Singlehandedly moving all the furniture into the center of the room meant, “I’m willing to work really hard for our relationship.”
Crouching down on the floor to do the trim and inhaling fumes and sleeping in our daughter’s twin bed while the stinky paint dried overnight said, “You’re worth any sacrifice.”
Investing the time and energy into the place we call home – particularly in a way that’s so symbolic of a clean slate – said, “I’m 100 percent committed and in this for the long haul.
At last, I heard him. Things made sense. I found in his actions the comfort and reassurance I needed, even though he didn’t say a word.
Now I’ll never look at our bedroom – or my morning coffee – the same way.
This post was originally published on You Are Not Stuck, here.