& Annie Evans
Written by Lizz Schumer for goodhousekeeping.com, originally published on Dec 31, 2019
It’s almost Valentine’s Day, and that probably means you’re thinking about what gift you can give your significant other that truly expresses your love in the way they’ll most appreciate. And that’s not necessarily the same way you would, according to therapists.
“So many times, we’re so worried about what we’re getting or not getting in terms of love, yet we don’t pay a lot of attention to what we’re giving or not giving in terms of love,” explains Lori Gottlieb, psychotherapist and author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone. “It’s really important to remember that your partner isn’t you. And that how you want love expressed is going to be different from how your partner wants love expressed.”
Around Valentine’s Day, many couples end up fighting because of misplaced expectations. So what’s the best way to say “I love you?” Some people respond well to grandiose displays (think the stuff of rom-coms), while others prefer a quiet but heartfelt moment in private. If your partner responds best to quality time and you come home with an expensive material gift but can’t make time for a dinner date, both parties will end up feeling dissatisfied.
Communication is key
Of course, the best way to find out how your partner prefers to be loved is simply to ask. Gottlieb explains that some people think frank discussions like that are unromantic, but straightforward communication is really a sign of a healthy relationship. “Asking someone how they want to be loved is one of the most loving things you can do,” she adds.
If you need a starting point for the conversation, consider using the five love languages. According to The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts by Gary Chapman, everyone has their own love language (yep, that’s a real thing). Ask your partner to take the five love languages quiz to lay some groundwork for pinpointing Valentine’s Day gifts – not to mention expressions of love all year ’round – that really resonate.
Turn toward your partner
If the love languages don’t quite fit for you, or you can’t pinpoint just one of the five, think instead about turning toward your partner, says Gottman Institute marriage and family therapist Stacy Hubbard. If your partner feels like you’re actively trying to communicate with them and consider their needs, that will make them feel loved and appreciated more than any fancy night out will.
“Think about what makes your partner feel like you’re connecting with them,” she explains. “Get to know your partner, ask open-ended questions, and get to know how they feel and receive love.” As you get used to doing these things, you’ll naturally learn their “love language” — or combination of love languages — over time.
Try the other three little words
Sure, you may have said the big L, but what’s missing in many relationships is another sentiment of connection. “I think I think one of the things that’s often overlooked is that sometimes the three words that they want to hear aren’t ‘I love you,’ it’s ‘I understand you,'” Gottlieb explains. Sometimes, just listening to your partner without judgement or agenda is the best way to show you care.
You don’t have to agree with them or even see the issue the same way, but resist the urge to share your perspective. Just sit back, listen, and let them share. That can be more meaningful than the most expensive gift or most carefully planned date night. “It’s such a loving act to offer your understanding to somebody even if – and especially if – you don’t agree with them,” Gottlieb adds.
Use words of affirmation
If your partner’s love language is words of affirmation, you need to tell them how you feel. Take some time to think about what you really love about your partner rather than making broad, overarching statements that could apply to anyone. That will both reaffirm those qualities, and show how much you’re paying attention to your partner.
“When you actually say what you admire and then share a story about a time they showed that, that’s more meaningful,” Gottlieb says. “Saying, ‘I love you because I appreciate what a dedicated parent you are,’ or ‘I love you because of how thoughtful you are and how you volunteer at the charity center,’ means more than just saying, ‘I love you’ period,” she explains.