“You know, Page,” he says, “it seems like every time I turn around, I bump into someone who has just discovered the Love Languages framework, and they’re so excited about it.”
I nod. “I know what you mean. I can actually remember when I first heard of it about 10 years ago, when Rob gave me a copy of the book. It kind of blew me away. Just the idea that people could need different approaches to feel loved. And that it was okay and not some symptom of being deficient.”
“It’s validating,” he says.
“Definitely,” I say. “And a message that people don’t get enough: Different isn’t necessarily wrong. I dunno. I learned that in grade school, but the Big Bad World didn’t follow suit. So many people are insecure and looking for an opportunity to throw people under the bus, even a romantic partner, so that they can feel a little better. They’re quick to interpret difference as being a sign of inferiority. The Love Languages broke from that pattern. So I got excited… and evangelical.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Similar happened to me. And make no mistake: It was a game changer, having some kind of system to explain what kinds of gestures made me happiest. A quick one that was easy to understand — and easy to bring someone else up to speed on. So that they could let you know, too. But it definitely has its limitations.”
“Even if you know, generally speaking, what their top love languages are, you don’t always know what exactly to do within that broad area that will make the most impact. Sometimes they don’t even know. You know, that supernormal stimulus thing that you wrote about.”
“Mmm, sometimes you still have to be rather creative. As you know, it took me several years to figure out my partner’s. And even then, I don’t always do the best job at remembering to do it all the time. Life gets in the way.”
When You’re Bad at Your Partner’s Top Love Language
“And well,” he says. “Not to be negative, but sometimes you’re bad at it.”
“I am,” I say. “I’m terrible at chores.”
He laughs. “And by you, I mean me.”
I laugh. “Ooooobviously. What was I thinking? Not knowing ‘you’ meant ‘me.'”
“Some people’s children,” he says.
I laugh. “So you’re bad at your partner’s top love language, too?”
“Horrible,” he says. “She’s into Words of Affirmation. And my clunky dad jokes don’t count. Nor do other tactics I’ve tried, like sending her romantic writings that make me think of her. Or songs. She wants me to say romantic things to her, original ones, and well. And I’m pretty horrible at it.”
I nod. “I relate… but with vacuuming, since both of my partners are big on Acts of Service. Words is my top love language though, and I’ll tell you — it means a lot to me when someone tries. Even if they’re not good at it. So that’s what I try to do when I feel bad about my janky cleaning. And I bet your partner appreciates that you try, too.”
“Maybe,” he says.
“I think things go best when we try to meet somewhere in the middle,” I say. “Like you put forth whatever effort you’re capable of, and they try to appreciate that, even if it isn’t exactly what they were hoping for.”
“Maybe,” he says. But he still doesn’t sound convinced.
I Once Wrote that Relationships Are Won (or Lost) in the Details
“You wrote an essay a while back about how relationships live or die on small kindnesses, not grand gestures. Do you remember that one?” he says.
The way that successful romantic relationships are framed is often very deceiving. Societally we put a lot of pressure on the grand gestures. The big moments. Celebrating anniversaries together with a big trip. Or a diamond necklace.
For one, I don’t know so many folks who can just conjure up a couple thousand bucks out of nowhere to demonstrate their commitment, Robin Leach style.
And truthfully? The Big Moments are not when relationships live or die. Instead, relationships are lost (or won) in the details. In the series of tiny interactions that make up our relationships.
A lover can be delighted or devastated over whether we seem happy to see them when they come home. Or are genuinely interested in what’s going on in their lives.
Do they make time for us to do what we’d like to do? Initiate physical contact? Brew our coffee when we wake up feeling half-dead in the morning? Send regular “good morning” texts?
Now, what someone needs to feel loved can vary depending on the individual, of course (for a popular example, please see the Love Languages framework). But what’s important to keep in mind is that the most effective way of building a strong relationship is a series of little things, not a large effort in the wake of a string of minor disappointments.
Even for folks who are very into gift-giving, a series of small thoughtful presents can mean a heck of a lot more than a rare, extravagant one.
Because it doesn’t matter how big the occasional highs are. Without an underlying base of feeling loved and appreciated, those grand gestures have a way of falling flat.
I nod. “I know the one.”
…But Some People Need Grand Gestures
“At the time I really agreed. That’s because I’m a person who thrives on small gestures. The little efforts. Not the big moments,” he says.
“Me, too,” I say. “Probably not shocking since I wrote the damn thing.”
He laughs. “And I think I still agree with the basic premise of the piece, that grand gestures will fall flat if you don’t have the little things nailed down, but… I’m starting to think that some people need the grand gestures, too. That there are people out there who not only need gestures in their own language but grand gestures in their own languages.”
I think about what he says, before nodding. “I’ve run into that,” I say. “It’s like you’re speaking the right language but at the wrong volume.”
He laughs. “Can you hear me now?”
“Man, that’s an old commercial,” I groan.
“Right?” he says. “Good times.”
“Words of Dad-firmation again,” I say.
He groans. “You’re just as bad as I am sometimes.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” I say.
“You would,” he says, smiling.
When You’re Talking About Loving Gestures, One Size Might Not Fit All
“You know,” I say, “I wonder if that isn’t another dimension to the Love Languages framework. Not just type of gesture but size. Because I’ve found plenty of people who prefer the smaller gestures and are actually overwhelmed or freaked out about the bigger ones.”
“Kind of a baby bear, mama bear, papa bear situation?” he says.
“Exactly. One porridge is too hot, one’s too cold, and one? That one is just right… except with romantic gestures.”
“You might be on to something,” he says.
I smile. “In any event, I think it’s always perilous to treat relationships in a One Size Fits All way.”