Admittedly, I am not the best gift giver and for that matter, neither is my wife. We do just fine for us, sure, but from the outside I’m sure it looks pretty funny. Rarely do we give each other gifts on the day you're supposed to. Instead we give anniversary gifts the day before or Christmas gifts a month late. Kim even gave me an “engagement present” a month before I asked her to marry me! Please understand, some of the best and most meaningful gifts I have ever received or given have been between us, but giving each other gifts is just not a way in which either of us prioritize expressing love. I show love by doing little things to serve our family. I really enjoy moments where I can do the laundry, or fix and organize something to make life better or easier. I don’t mind taking time after the kids go to bed to clean up after the day. My wife shows love through her kindness and words. She is great at offering verbal compliments and words of appreciation to express love and build others up. Being self aware and utilizing the way that we express love, helps to empower us as a couple to communicate love to one another and to mitigate expectations. We don’t expect the most amazing, most impressive gifts from one another, but I love to receive my wife’s words of affirmation, and appreciate when she is open to my acts of service. This helps us to keep our “emotional tanks” full.
Dr. Gary Chapman’s five love languages are an easy way to understand how we express love and attune to the way our spouse expresses love. When we receive and are able to give our preferred love language it fills our sense of intimacy and connection (our emotional tanks). When these expressions are not received or even rejected, it will quickly damage intimacy and connection and drain our emotional tank. Dr. Chapman has identified the following expressions of love as well as what may happen if the emotional tank is drained:
Words of Affirmation - these are verbal expressions of love. “Thanks for making dinner tonight, I really appreciate it.” This person may be sensitive to insults.
Acts of Service - doing something helpful or kind such as cleaning the tub so your spouse can take a bath. Perceived lack of support or ambivalence can be received as damaging and dangerous.
Receiving Gifts - items that help the other feel noticed. Might be tangible like sending your partner flowers, or intangible such as attending all your partners choir concerts. Not having little moments of connection or missed special occasions can be hurtful.
Quality Time - Enjoying an activity or experience together. A distracted or distanced partner can lead to feelings of disconnection.
Physical Touch - Physical expressions of love, whether sexual or platonic. Without these moments of touch the person may feel isolated.
Knowing your preferred language, and developing an awareness of what to do when you perceive rejection can help build emotional resiliency to choose to love. Expressing love to another is a choice, and one that we have to constantly commit to making. Learning your spouses preferred language will help you to attune to show them love in the best way for them to receive it. If I decided to constantly criticize my wife everyday it would drain her emotional tank quickly and lead to constant resentment and hurt. If she were to not notice my acts of service or show a lack of care about it, I might walk away feeling disrespected and unseen leading to anger and contempt, thus draining my emotional tank. By choosing to love one another, we become aware of how we express love and where we might also be slightly sensitive and easily hurt.
So, here are some steps to take to increase your understanding of your love language and how to partner with your spouse to fill your emotional tanks:
1. Learn your own love language first! You can do this online at 5lovelanugages.com and take the free quiz. You can also pick up Dr. Chapman’s book The 5 Love Languages to have a better understanding of the languages and discover your preferred. Knowing your own preferred language and how it tangibly expresses itself in real time, is critical. It will help you to communicate your needs and establish boundaries with your partner.
2. Invite your partner to consider their own. Do not force them into it as the languages are going to look differently for each person and remember, we have to choose to love. I have encountered many clients in therapy who are quick to accuse their partner of not filling their emotional tank. Well, a great way to push a person into coping behaviors is to try and force them to do something. Start by considering what your spouse does that helps you to feel seen and significant. Try to validate this. Maybe they really love to give you a big hug when you see each other for the first time each day. Start by simply noticing this and then build from there. Kind of like a snowball, as it gets bigger it will be seen and more appreciated. Conversations and invitations are much more easy to receive when we feel seen and heard.
3. Work to attune. In the same way we may naturally attune to a child’s emotional needs, such as being patient when they are overly emotional, or encouraging when they are scared, the same is true for our spouse. When we are hurt we become protective and it can be very difficult to be vulnerable to the other persons needs. However, it just takes one person to break the jam. If I know my spouse prefers quality time, then maybe I need to stretch myself to prioritize that time for the next couple weeks. Attuning to our partners needs and monitoring our own, empowers us to be vulnerable and connected.