Learning the Language of Love

Tis the season to feel slightly inadequate

The holiday season is upon us. It’s the season where we give thanks for our friends and families, where we show our love through cards and gifts and baked goods. It’s also the season where I struggle most with feeling woefully inadequate compared to my husband, and mildly guilty about being the Grinch to his cheerful Christmas elf.

Despite one early misstep, Nick typically knocks it out of the park in the gifting department. (“Don’t give Hayley something electronic unless she specifically asks for it,” and “Ask Nick for what you actually want rather than making him guess,” were some mutually agreed-upon guidelines established early in our relationship.) A few years back, he got me an ornament engraved with “First Christmas Together.” That same year, I got him socks. In my defense, he really needed new socks, but in retrospect… socks? Seriously? I have had occasional flashes of gift-giving glory (surprising Nick with a TV for his thirtieth birthday balances out years of socks, underwear, and ties, right?), but overall my present-selecting skills are fairly lackluster compared to my husband’s.

My perceived inadequacies don’t stop at gift giving. I’ve always considered myself a fairly happy person. I was even dubbed “Happy Hayley” in one of those awkward icebreaker games we played at the start of grad school. (This was a significant improvement over “Hayley Hotdog,” a name I got stuck with in a similar food-themed icebreaker in undergrad.) I’m generally cheerful and usually in a good mood. Compared to my husband, however, I am Eeyore. I am a little black rain cloud, here to rain on everyone’s parade—especially Nick’s. Nick is the happiest, most genuinely cheerful person I have ever met in my entire life. He sings in the shower, he dances while folding the laundry. You can take him anywhere and he’ll have a good time and make some friends along the way. He’s not perfect, of course, but he is just so damn generous and kind and happy, all the time. I can’t compete with that.

As it turns out, I don’t have to. But it took me a while to figure that out.

lost in translation

Of all the marriage preparation books I read before getting hitched, there was one title I found myself consistently and consciously avoiding: “The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts.” To my type-A, literal, checklist-oriented brain, it just sounded too… vague. Maybe even a little hippieish? In any event, I doubted I had time to learn one new language before the wedding, let alone five, so I didn’t feel too badly about skipping over this particular book.

So I was pleased to find, when scrolling through Facebook one night after a few glasses of wine, a link to a quiz called the “Love Languages Personal Profile.” Perfect! I thought, tipsily. I can figure out what my love language is without actually reading the book.

I was less eager to find out Nick’s love language, because I was pretty sure I already knew what it was: snacks. No matter the occasion—an illness, a promotion, a bad day—Nick will find a special snack or drink or meal for us to celebrate or commiserate over. If I am having a bad day, Nick can stop at any grocery store and identify no less than ten treats he could bring me home to cheer me up—Orville Redenbacher popcorn, Barefoot Pinot Grigio, Hershey’s cookies and cream bar—right down to the specific brands I prefer. If the situation were reversed? You’d find me pacing in the candy aisle, frantically trying to remember if my husband is allergic to nuts. Even worse, when Nick surprises me by bringing home something sweet as a token of affection, I find myself secretly thinking, “That’s nice… but I wish you had grabbed laundry detergent if you were stopping at the store anyway.” Romantic, huh?

Needless to say, I was looking for some comfort that I am not a horribly inconsiderate, ungrateful wife who cannot confidently rattle off even a few of her husband’s favorite indulgences (or potentially life-threatening allergies), but rather that I have some other way of expressing my love that is equal to (or better yet, superior to) Nick’s methods of showing he cares. I was initially perplexed to find that “snacks” is not one of the love languages. Rather, the five languages were words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch. The quiz consisted of thirty sentences beginning with “It’s more meaningful to me when…” followed by two different options to choose from, like “…my partner gives me a gift” or “I hear ‘I love you’ from my partner.”

I’m pretty sure the quiz isn’t intended to be taken with your nosy partner sitting over your shoulder, but that’s how we did it, and I’m glad we did, because many of Nick’s answers surprised me. While Nick consistently answered that he found it meaningful to receive small gifts from me or when we hugged often, I constantly found myself answering that I found it meaningful when Nick “offers to run errands for me” or “does something practical to help me out” or “does something for me like filling my car or doing the laundry.” Not surprisingly, my end result demonstrated that my sole love language is acts of service. Nick’s results, meanwhile, were equally distributed between words of affirmation, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch—everything but acts of service. When it came to expressing our love, we were speaking completely different languages.

Learning to speak “nick”

It probably sounds ridiculous to say that a fifteen-minute Internet quiz completely changed the way I view my interactions with my husband, but it’s true. We brushed off the results of the quiz that night, laughing at the predictability of our respective “languages.” But the next time Nick came home with my favorite candy bar, it helped to remember that he wasn’t trying to fatten me up, but was genuinely trying to do something nice for me. I’m embarrassed to admit that I used to shrug off Nick’s offers to rub my back or play with my hair when I was stressed. I was tense and overwhelmed, I didn’t have time to sit down and get a massage! But now I realize he’s not trying to make me procrastinate or add to my worries, but trying to calm me down the best way he knows how.

Even more importantly, when he’s stressed, I try to remember that maybe a hug or a back rub is what he really needs—even though my instinct is to help him by grabbing a note pad to make a to do list or action plan so we can tackle all his concerns together. In return, he’s getting better about helping me manage my stress level in a way I can understand and respond to—by offering to do the dishes, or fold some extra laundry. Feeling especially loved when Nick stops to put air in the tires or pick up the dry cleaning doesn’t mean I’m cold or unromantic, just as Nick’s offers of candy bars and cuddling don’t mean that he’s a silly sap. Recognizing the different ways we give and receive love has been really eye opening for me, and also really fun—learning how to treat my husband in a way that I know will be meaningful to him almost feels like cracking a secret code that I didn’t know existed.

I’ve got some tricks up my sleeve to keep this communication momentum going through the holiday season. I started keeping a little list on my phone of books Nick mentions wanting to read or items he wants to purchase, so he won’t be getting socks or ties this Christmas. I’ve also started jotting down snacks I see him eying at the grocery store, so I’ll have some ideas for special treats the next time he needs a pick me up. (He is not, in fact, allergic to nuts, and is quite fond of frozen Snicker’s bars. Who knew?) I am even working on accepting his love in the form of back rubs. It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it.

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