There comes a point in just about every marriage, it seems, when couples stop speaking the same language.
She says, "Can you empty the garbage already!?" He hears, "Nag, nag, nag, nag, nag!"
He says, "We haven't had sex in a month!" She thinks, "When was the last time you bought me something that wasn't an appliance?"
After 30 years as a marriage and family counselor, Gary Chapman, PhD had heard a lot of couples' complaints -- so many complaints, in fact, that he began to see a pattern. "I realized I was hearing the same stories over and over again," he says.
When Chapman sat down and read through more than a decade worth of notes, he realized that what couples really wanted from each other fell into five distinct categories:
- Words of affirmation: compliments or words of encouragement
- Quality time: their partner's undivided attention
- Receiving gifts: symbols of love, like flowers or chocolates
- Acts of service: setting the table, walking the dog, or doing other small jobs
- Physical touch: having sex, holding hands, kissing
"I really do feel that these five appear to be rather fundamental in terms of ways to express love to people," says Chapman, the director of Marriage & Family Life Consultants, Inc. in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Chapman termed these five categories "love languages" and turned the idea into a book, The 5 Love Languages, which has since become a huge bestseller. Chapman says that learning each other's love language can help couples express their emotions in a way that's "deeply meaningful" to one another.
It's an approach that makes sense, says Julie Nise, MA, LPC, LMFT, a marriage coach at the Aim Counseling Center in Houston and author of 4 Weeks to a Happier Relationship. "In my experience, an understanding of your partner's perspective (whether or not you agree with it) is what's most lacking in troubled marriages," she says. "I would say your No. 1 job as a spouse is to, on a daily basis, do your utmost best to really know how your partner feels and what they truly think about the issue. If you devote yourself to understanding their perspective ... things will go a lot smoother and solutions often become obvious."
In the book, Chapman claims his technique has the potential to save "thousands of marriages." He says his 5 Love Languages can also help generally good marriages that just need a little tweaking. Like mine.
I thought I'd put his strategy to the test.
What's My Love Language?
My husband and I have been married for 13 years, and I think overall we have a pretty good relationship. It's not perfect, though. I get annoyed when he lets the trash cans overflow, and he gets irritated with the sloppy way I load the dishwasher. Often we get so preoccupied with work and parenting that intimacy and romance are thrown on the back burner.
Although I'm generally skeptical about any technique that purports to fix my marriage, I figured there's always room for improvement.
So my husband and I set about learning each other's love languages.
According to Chapman, discovering your partner's love language requires some careful thought and observation. You need to ask, "What's most important to me?" and "What does my spouse seem to request most often in the relationship?"
"How do they respond to other people and how do they respond to you? If they always give you words of affirmation, that's probably their love language," he says.
You also need to listen carefully to your spouse's criticisms. "We often get defensive when the spouse complains, but they're really giving us valuable information," Chapman says. "If they're complaining about something, that very likely is their love language." In other words, if your husband is always whining that you never cook him dinner, he's probably an "acts of service" kind of guy.
My husband and I thought about what we wanted most from each other, and we realized that all the best times in our relationship -- the moments we went back to again and again -- were the times we spent alone as a couple. Our honeymoon in Fiji. The vacation when we got snowed in at a mountain resort. Our trip to London and Paris.
We were pretty sure we knew where this was headed, but we took Chapman's Love Languages online quiz just to be certain. As we suspected, my husband and I share a common love language: quality time.
That doesn't mean words of affirmation, receiving gifts, and the other two love languages aren't important to us. It's just that quality time is our primary love language.
"You can receive love in all five languages," Chapman says. "If you speak the primary language adequately, then [when] you sprinkle in the others, it's like icing on the cake."
5 Love Languages, 7 Days
Having the same love language made it easier for my husband and me to relate to one another, but it didn't solve our time crunch. How could we find quality time for each other when we could barely find time for ourselves, and everything else in our busy lives?
Being busy is no excuse, Chapman says. No matter what a couple's love language is, it takes time to accommodate. "If we understand the importance of keeping the love alive in a relationship, then we need to make time to do it," he says. "You put it into your schedule, just like you do everything else.”
Nise stresses that making quality time for one another doesn't have to be time consuming. It can be as quick and easy as grabbing a cup of coffee and talking for a few minutes, as long as it's focused attention. "You should always have couple time," she says. "You just need to do stuff together."
So what would we do together? At first we couldn't agree. I suggested something romantic, like reading poetry. My husband voted for taking a shower together. Obviously, we were going to have some trouble finding compatible activities. But finally, we did agree on seven things to do together -- one for each day of the assignment.
One day we spent nearly an hour wandering through the aisles of exotic foods at a local farmers market. The next day we went antiquing. We hired a babysitter one night and talked over glasses of wine at our favorite date-night bar/restaurant.
We soon realized that we didn't need to go out on an official date to spend quality time together. After our son went to bed, instead of sitting side-by-side watching some mindless TV show, we turned off the TV and talked. We discussed issues that were important to us -- what we loved about each other and what we felt was lacking in our marriage.
Being able to focus on each other brought back feelings and emotions that hadn't surfaced since the early days of our relationship B.C. (before children). We opened up to each other in a way we hadn't done in years.
I tried to focus not just on my husband's primary love language, but also on his other love languages, which included physical touch. Instead of wearily giving him the "I'm too tired" brush-off, I started making the first move. My efforts were sincerely appreciated.
At the end of each day, we followed Chapman's advice and did what's called a "tank check." We asked each other, "On a scale of zero to 10, how is your love tank tonight?" "Love tank" is Chapman's metaphor for how much love each person is feeling. If your love tank isn't full, your spouse asks how he or she can fill it. Every time my husband and I asked each other that week, our love tanks were full.
Now we just had to figure out how to keep them that way.
Keeping Your Love Tank Full
With a minimum of effort, couples can continue to speak each other's love language. It takes just a few minutes each day to find out what your partner needs. Then you try to meet that need.
Chapman says his Five Love Languages won't solve every problem in a marriage, but they will address the fundamental emotional needs every couple has. "If that need is met, you're more likely to be able to deal with the other issues in the marriage," he says. "This is just another tool to help you enhance the relationship, and particularly to enhance the emotional part of the relationship."
Nise agrees that Chapman's approach can have a positive impact on a marriage. "You can't go wrong with doing a bunch of nice things for your spouse," she says. "And clearly, it works."
It seems to be working for my husband and me. Our love tanks are staying pretty full these days.