wellbeing-brand-logo

Inspired living

How to communicate with your partner


iStock_000007285378XSmall

According to therapist and author Andrew G Marshall, the way we demonstrate love and the way we want it shown to us makes up our “language of love”. This language is as individual as we are and, as such, must be interpreted accurately so we can have successful relationships.

Your language of love, expressed through a combination of words and actions, is specific to you and is based on your experiences in the past plus the influence of factors such as family, society and culture. Unfortunately, many of us make assumptions about how we relate to each other when we’re in love and believe our partners will understand our language of love without us having to clarify our needs.

Compounding this is the fact that during those first months of intense love there is a mutual language of love based on a purely romantic ideal that comes from the euphoria and passion experienced at the beginning of a relationship. It enfolds and cocoons us away from reality so that every moment of our existence is focused on the other person and the powerful happiness and joy we feel now that we’ve found someone who makes our heart sing.

During that first blush of love, the nuts and bolts of what loving each other means don’t come into play. Yet research and experience show that if you don’t make clear your language style, then confusion, disappointment and fear can jeopardise the shift from that first intense interaction to the next natural stage of the relationship, sometimes referred to as companionate love. As the intensity of the attention we lavish on each other eases, it can be easy to assume love itself is dimming.

According to relationship counsellors and researchers, the disappointment and confusion are triggered because the meaning and definition of love we carry around with us are generally romantic ones. We enjoy and even rely on the notion that love will conquer all, that love is enough to get you through the tough times, and that love should always be exciting.

Understandably, this puts a lot of pressure on love, and if our relationships are to survive or fail by it, we’d better know what love is and, importantly, what sustains it.

The reality of love

“I no longer feel I’m special” is a common complaint when first love wanes, says Marshall author of I Love You But I’m Not in Love With You. As day-to-day responsibilities intrude on love, it’s easy to feel that you’ve slipped down your partner’s list of priorities. Unfortunately, complete and undivided attention to each other cannot be sustained forever. Instead, as real life intrudes, your normal language of love surfaces to take up where the language of first, intense love leaves off.

Not surprisingly, it’s at this point in the relationship that you find out how much your language of love differs from your partner’s. If there’s no agreement between the two of you about what constitutes love, explains Marshall, your conversations with each other about what you feel is missing in your relationship will go around in circles until you either give up or live together unhappily.

While it’s possible to have differing languages of love and still be happy together, this can only occur if you make a point of understanding each other’s language style and acting on it. You need to ask yourself — what are the actions you and your partner need to take and what are the things you each need to say to make the other feel loved?

How do you love?

Figuring out your language of love is easy if you break it down and ask yourself a few simple questions. To begin with, it’s worth noting that when we have our emotional needs met, we feel happy and content. It’s therefore useful to think back to the times when you were happy and content with your partner and to figure out what was going on at that time.

Were you snuggling up together on the couch in front of a movie? Having a conversation where you respected each other’s views even though they might not have coincided? Did your partner remember your favourite kind of chocolate or did they buy your favourite bottle of wine? Were they supporting you in a favoured activity even though it’s not something they particularly enjoy? Or did they do something unexpected and sweet? Whatever the scenario, going back to those moments of joy and contentment can help you define your emotional needs and thus one part of your language of love.

The flip side is to think about how you demonstrate love. What are the things you do to show your partner how much you love them? Do you feel it’s important to say “I love you”, to show an interest in your partner’s day, to provide a clean home or a regular pay cheque, to remember their likes and dislikes, to provide support for all their endeavours? Once you have this clear in your mind, it’s important that you find out whether the way you show love is the way your partner needs you to show it.

“In knowledge there is strength,” says author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman. Knowledge of your partner’s emotional needs can and will help to forge a stronger partnership, but it will also help to deter any feelings of discontent, loneliness or uncertainty. Feeling secure in a relationship is by far the best way to keep problems at bay, which isn’t to say couples who understand each other’s needs won’t ever argue or fight. What it does mean is when you do argue, you will argue over the real issue that has upset you and not any underlying feelings of frustration or insecurity that have built up.

To discuss your individual language styles, you both need to be able to clarify what it means to be loved. Introspection, an acknowledgment of past relationships and an evaluation of your attitude to love are the three steps to further identifying your love language style. Asking yourself a series of questions can help to open your mind to the ways in which you view love. Why did your past relationships end? Was it because you didn’t communicate your needs effectively? Did you even know what they were? Was the point at which passionate first love waned the moment when you began to wonder if you had made a mistake being with this person? Did you feel neglected? What were your expectations of how love should feel?

When it comes to your attitude to love, it’s important to try to shake off romantic notions of how first love feels and get down to long-term loving. How do you want a long term relationship to play out? How will you survive day-to-day distractions and still be attentive to each other? Will it mean making time each week just for the two of you, whether that’s having a meal, seeing a movie or taking a walk in the park? Will it be making a point of having a coffee together before work, regardless of what else is going on, so you can start the day properly? Will it be a love note, a text message or a gift that says “I appreciate you and everything you do”?

Your emotional needs define the finer points of your relationships and you must acknowledge these needs before you can expect to have them met by your partner. There are many emotional needs humans experience, including the need to be appreciated, accepted, needed, respected, safe, valued and understood. Each of these needs will resonate at a different level with you, helping you to create a priority list with which to approach your partner.

For example, for some, feeling loved may only take words. “I love you”, “I love this about you”, “I’m so happy you’re in my life”, “I missed you” are all ways you may want your partner to tell you of their love. For others, it could be the demonstration of physical affection — a hug, a kiss, snuggling in front of the television or holding hands as you walk down the street together. For yet others, it could be a need for your partner to demonstrate they understand who you are by knowing the kind of tea you drink, your favourite food or film, or the things that are most important to you. It could also be that you need romantic gestures like flowers or love notes to prove your partner is thinking of you.

Each of these ways of showing love is valid and they are, according to Marshall, the most common ways we feel loved. Communicating this effectively to your partner so they can act is the next step, as actions are just as much a part of the language of love as words.

Communicating love

“It’s easy to think love ends because of some monstrous piece of bad behaviour,” says Marshall, “but more often it decays gradually through a million minor hurts.” Couples end up in counselling or disenchanted with their relationship because one partner feels their love is not returned and, over time, they become detached. To avoid these minor hurts becoming too great a hurdle to breach, you must communicate to your partner the language they need to use in order for you to feel loved and you must also acknowledge the right moves and gestures they make — when they make them.

A lack of attention is how many couples describe the downturn of their relationship. Simply saying “I don’t feel loved” is not enough, though. You must explain why. If your partner thinks they’re doing everything they can to show you how much they love you and you don’t explain your needs, your relationship may be lost. Instead of saying “I don’t feel loved” try saying “I don’t feel as loved any more because we don’t spend time together at the end of the day/I need you to demonstrate your affection through hugs or kisses/I need you to say you appreciate the things I do.”

Unfortunately, we often assume that if our partner really loved us they would intuitively know how to show it appropriately. However, this assumption isn’t a fair one. We all need guidance in understanding each other. Love doesn’t automatically offer us insight into one another. Conversation, attention and curiosity do that. The point of learning each other’s language of love is that when it comes down to it, love makes us vulnerable and we need reassurance. Knowing each other’s language of love ensures that reassurance comes in the form you recognise.

Taking our relationship for granted is a trap many of us fall into in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, and sometimes it can take the threat of losing the relationship before we step up and do something about it. While you may think that just being in the relationship is enough proof of love, it’s wise to make sure you are meeting your partner’s needs.

Asking for love

Being in love is scary. It exposes you; it makes you vulnerable; your heart is on the line — and so is your ego. Asking your partner what they need to feel loved is crucial and often easier than addressing your own needs, but being able to ask for what you want is something you simply must learn how to do. When it comes to intimate conversations, it’s not uncommon to be hesitant and shy about asking for what you want and need, but most often this is because your self-esteem is low and you don’t feel worthy of love.

You need to feel worthy of love, though, to be loved in the way you want and need. If there are issues surrounding your sense of worthiness, it’s important to look at where these feelings stem from and to deal with them. When you have been disappointed in the past, it’s easy to become defensive or to decide not to ask for what you want so you can’t be let down, yet loving and being loved necessarily mean you have to make yourself vulnerable. It necessitates the taking of risks and it requires a good deal of trust.

Now that you have determined what it is you need to feel loved, the next step is to take a deep breath and express it. The best time to do this is not in the middle of an argument but when you are calm, relaxed and perhaps away from the house taking a walk, having a picnic or dinner or even going for a drive. Getting away from the everyday can set a platform for easier conversation where you aren’t distracted and you can focus on what’s being said.

Once you’ve talked about how you each need love to be expressed, the way to make sure you act could mean incorporating a quick phonecall into your day, perhaps an email that says “I’m thinking of you”. It may mean sharing your day over a glass of wine when all the chores have been done, or holding each other in bed and talking before you turn out the lights. Maybe it’s dinner out on a monthly basis, a bunch of flowers or a bottle of wine at the end of the week. Perhaps it’s just expressing an interest in how things are going. Whatever the method, love needs to be tended and not taken for granted.

It’s also crucial that you clearly understand your own needs and can articulate them and that you are willing and, indeed, excited by the prospect of understanding and fulfilling the needs of your partner, too. Remember, communication is not just about talking: it’s about listening and it’s about acting on what you learn. If you do this, if you take the time to be aware, you can enjoy a passionate, intimate, loving relationship for the long haul.

Marshall suggests finishing these two questions as a beginning to thinking about what love means to you:

“I feel most loved when…”

“I am most likely to complain that my partner never…”

The second, says Marshall, is the most telling, as what we complain about most is usually what we long for most.

Take the time to look at the following list and prioritise them. This will give you deeper insight into how you want love to be expressed to you. Do you need to feel:

  • Appreciated
  • Accepted
  • Needed
  • Respected
  • Safe
  • Valued
  • Understood
  • Once you have your list in the right order, think about how your partner could demonstrate these things. For example, if being appreciated is very important to you, perhaps you need your partner to say thank you for all you do in words, or perhaps in occasional gestures such as a voucher for a spa treatment or a special dinner. If you need respect, perhaps you need your partner to ask your advice more often or to show interest in the activities that are important to you.

    Nikki Davies is a freelance writer with a special interest in health, lifestyle and relationship issues. Nikki is currently based on the far north coast of New South Wales where she is continuing her research into how we can achieve better relationships.