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Michael Bader: The languages of love

Michael Bader

Happy couples are supposed to have a lot “in common.”

Some online dating services pair people up on the basis of their “common interests.”

In my clinical work with couples, however, I have found that some forms of similarity are a liability rather than an asset.

In the end, it’s not that similarity is a problem, but, rather, the assumption of similarity.

For example, everyone has a way that they prefer to be loved.

Some people like to be told in words that they are special and attractive.

For others, words are less important; it’s actions that matter.

Concrete expressions of care that are of practical help are especially valued.

Over 10 years ago, Gary Chapman, an experienced counselor, wrote a bestselling book, The Five Love Languages, that made a similar point, arguing that there are multiple forms of love, including physical displays of affection, gift-giving and displays of admiration.

The point of differentiating among types of love is that there is a tendency in all of us to assume that others are like us.

We tend to assume that if we are especially responsive to a particular form of love, others will be similarly responsive.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case, and when there is a mismatch, relationship trouble can begin to brew. For example, I treated a couple in which the husband (I’ll call him Jerry) felt especially loved when his wife, (whom I’ll call, Denise), did things for him, for example, when she did some of his chores in order to enable him to rest or took over the planning of vacations and some of financial management of their home.

Jerry was moved by these very practical gestures of affection.

He felt understood and cared for.

Jerry had grown up in a home in which he was neglected by alcoholic parents who were never there for him when he needed help solving a problem.

When Denise was making his day-to-day life easier, he felt seen and loved.

Unfortunately, Jerry assumed, without consciously knowing it, that Denise was like him and that she would and should equally value help with the stresses and responsibilities of everyday life and, thus, this was what he offered her.

He helped Denise in many different ways with day-to-day tasks like cooking or managing the handymen that they periodically hired.

He experienced these gestures as loving and assumed she would too.

Denise acknowledged that Jerry helped her a lot, but said that being helped wasn’t what she primarily needed from him.

Denise wanted Jerry to tell her more about his feelings for her, about the ways he loved and appreciated her.

Verbal affection was the most important thing to Denise.

She felt especially loved in this particular way.

Other forms of love were appreciated, but didn’t quite “hit the spot” like words could.

Denise had grown up in a harsh environment in which words were used as weapons and praise rarely explicitly offered.

Words of affection and care had a special power to touch her heart.

This led her to also assume that Jerry was like her and so she was free and uninhibited about vocalizing her affection, desire and appreciation of him.

She felt that such expressions conveyed the depth of her love.

Jerry, however, didn’t register them in the same way, since his preferred way of being loved involved action and not words.

Denise’s words didn’t really sink in.

Each person, in other words, gave the other what he or she most wanted from the other.

They had a hard time understanding how their partner could feel unloved or deprived.

The reason was that they were speaking different “languages of love.” Both felt cheated and misunderstood as a result.

We all tend to assume that other people’s minds and hearts work like our own.

The challenge in healthy love is to understand and accept the ways that our partners are different than us, that they are separate and have very particular needs and psychologies that determine what they can and can’t hear and feel. Jerry had to come to understand that Denise had a special and idiosyncratic need to hear about his love for her — not simply to be shown — while Denise had to learn that Jerry valued showing, that he registered loving actions more than loving words.

Both had to learn to communicate what they really needed and why, in order to encourage the growth of empathy and to increase the likelihood that each partner would correctly perceive each other’s true intentions.

Michael Bader is a psychologist in private practice in Grass Valley. He can be contacted at michaelbaderdmh@gmail.com.

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