I’m a long time reader of your blog and I have a mostly positive question! About feeeeelings. And communication styles.
I’ve currently got two lovely partners, one nesting and one not, and things are going great. Edging towards serious territory even. Nesting partner loves other partner and we’re all really good about the communication thing.
Except both of them are really verbal about expressing affection and I’m just …NOT. I’m a quality time and acts of service person. I try to do my best to meet halfway, and we’ve talked about differing communication styles, and nobody’s complained, but I feel bad because I just never know what to say.
I know you’ve written some stuff on differing love languages etc, but if you had any extra insight on learning not to feel guilt over it and how to compromise better I’d be so happy to read it!!
This is a great question! And one I have a lot of thoughts on because my top love language is Words of Affirmation — and while I have dated people in the past who also had a top language of Words, neither of my current partners have it as theirs.
Here are some ways to bridge the gap.
Explain What You’re Doing With Your Preferred Love Language in Words
One of the easiest workarounds I’ve encountered is explaining what you’re doing out of love in words.
My partner Justin’s top love language is Acts of Service. So the way that he shows he cares about me is by doing nice things for me. He’s always offering to pick up food on the way home from places. He keeps my car in good running shape. And he’s always happy to help me figure out how to organize my things and put together any furniture I need in order to do that.
But he’s not naturally a person who gushes or doles out a lot of verbal compliments. And while he does tell me he loves me, it’s not typically as often as I’m inclined to say it to him (to be fair to him, I’m someone who says it — and various other loving things — a lot).
Meanwhile, he’s silently moving heaven and earth to make my life easier.
This used to actually make me feel quite nervous. Particularly as I’d dated other people in the past who only did nice things to build up social capital so they could basically emotionally blackmail me into doing something I really didn’t want to do for them later on, out of guilt.
Well, one thing that’s helped on both accounts is now whenever Justin does something for me out of a loving place, he just doesn’t do it silently, he also accompanies it with an explanation. Something like, “I’m doing this for you because I love you.”
And weirdly, it’s really been working well. Not only do I feel more loved in the moment, but over time, I’ve gotten better at making that connection myself. (And it also helps reassure me that this isn’t a favor being done in the name of future emotional blackmail.)
So you could do that with your own Acts of Service.
And it wouldn’t be too hard to do with Quality Time either. If you’re planning on spending time with someone or doing a fun activity with them, you can tell them, “I want to do this because I love spending time with you.” Or “I thought we’d have a good time, and it makes me so happy when you’re so happy, because I love you.”
It might seem unnecessary or like over-explaining to you — but it can make a person who craves Words of Affirmation so happy. And it’s a simple tweak.
Feel Free to Use Memes, Song Lyrics, or Famous Quotes to Get Your Point Across
If part of your issue is that you’re struggling to find the right words or don’t feel eloquent enough, don’t be afraid to look outside of yourself for inspiration.
Send memes, song lyrics, and/or famous quotes to your sweeties with the words “this made me think of you.” Or something like that. “This reminds me of you.”
One partner melted my heart by handing me a book that they thought I’d love. I did. And we were able to have some really great discussions as I worked my way through it.
It makes a huge difference to me when a partner hands me something and tells me, in words, “this reminded me of you.” It’s so incredibly heartwarming. I love it.
Figure Out What Kind of Compliments Make the Most Difference
Another thing that can be helpful, especially if you’re not naturally inclined to dole out Words of Affirmation is figuring out what sorts of sentiments will make the biggest impact.
In an earlier piece, taking a page from zoology, I called this figuring out your partner’s supernormal stimulus. Essentially though, it’s pretty simple… you’re figuring out what matters most to your partner and then doing that over and over. In that article, I talk about it in terms of chores and other Acts of Service (because I’m a Words person and in that piece I’m trying to figure out how to help someone with Acts of Service feel more loved), but the same principle can be applied to Words of Affirmation.
What realm of compliment is their sweet spot? Do they prefer appearance-based ones? Compliments based on their abilities? Statements about how much you value them (“I love you,” “you mean the world to me,” etc.)?
Interestingly, a lot of Words of Affirmation people already know what their favorite genre of compliments is (though not all).
Recently, I actually dated two other Words of Affirmation people. Despite all having that same top love language, we all had a different supernormal stimulus. One of us liked compliments based on ability/talent (intelligence, capability, bravery, courage, feeling like a good person who was making a discernible impact on the world). Two of us liked appearance-based compliments — although one of us preferred to be told how attractive they were (“you’re so pretty”) and the other one liked to be told they were sexually desirable (“you’re so f*cking hot”).
And even when people don’t necessarily explicitly know what kinds of compliments hit them the hardest, you can usually figure it out by complimenting them in a certain way and seeing what happens, looking for patterns (note: this is typically much easier to do in person than over text since you can see their facial expressions).
Utilize Lists of Good Compliments
Very much like the technique of sending memes, quotes, or songs, you don’t have to think up everything on your own.
If you’re having trouble coming up with compliments out of thin air, feel free to consult lists of them.
Yes, they exist. You can find them by using search engines. But here are a few I found in the past that have some really good compliments:
Word of caution here: Whether you came up with the compliment yourself or it’s one you saw in passing, only ever give compliments sincerely. Don’t just pick one at random and send it if it has no relation to the person you’re sending to.
But if you see ones that make you think of your sweetie, then you’re golden to give them that compliment.
Be Careful with the Guilt; It Is Not Your Friend
I’m glad you mentioned guilt. You need to be careful with that. Justin also struggled with guilt over not being naturally good at Words of Affirmation. And the sad reality is that guilt tends to make it even harder to do something well and can cause you to clam up.
For Justin it actually made the process a lot harder than it had to be. As he kept beating himself up over not being naturally good at Words of Affirmation, he had far less energy to spend on actually trying things and getting better at it.
So an important part of the process of you getting a bit better at Words of Affirmation will involve practicing self-compassion. I’ve written about self-compassion on this blog quite a few times, but in the most basic terms, it’s about forgiving yourself when you make a mistake or don’t do something well, the way you would a close friend who were struggling with something similar. Giving yourself permission to be imperfect. Focusing on improvement rather than perfection.
Researcher Kristin Neff has a set of eight exercises on her website to build self-compassion. I found the very first one — “How would you treat a friend?” — to be the most personally helpful.
Remember That Being Loved and Feeling Loved Are Different
Please also keep in mind as you work through this that feeling loved and being loved are different. I’ve learned this the hard way a few times.
As I mentioned above, not only is my top love language Words of Affirmation, but I also dated two individuals in recent times whose top love languages were also Words of Affirmation.
While I felt loved, things were not as they seemed. They both had… honesty problems… yeah, we’ll call it that. Honesty problems. It wasn’t malevolent purposeful intentional lying or anything (at least not that I’m aware).
But they both lacked the self-awareness to really tell the truth about anything.
So they said all the right things, but what they were saying often had no relationship with reality. Because they were good at my primary love language, I surely felt loved by these individuals when we were together, but at the end of the day, there wasn’t a lot there. The words didn’t match anything that was going on.
And I’ve definitely been in relationships where my partner loved me to death but I had a hard time feeling it (because of love language mismatch, although in Justin’s case it’s been improving as he’s taken the above steps, and I’ve taken ones for him).
Has it at times been frustrating to be with partners who aren’t as naturally prone to giving out Words of Affirmation? Sure. I’ll admit it.
There have frankly been moments where I’m like “give me more sweet words or I’m gonna diiiiiiiiie.” Flailing dramatically in the corner until I make myself laugh, at which point I typically cheer the heck up and stop being so emo.
It has been frustrating occasionally, sure.
But I’ll take someone who struggles to say the right things but genuinely loves me and is ultimately compatible with me in a ton of other ways over someone who speaks sweet words that are utterly divorced from reality any day of the week.
Note: There will likely be a reader or two who will chime in to say that any Words of Affirmation need to be unique, spontaneously generated, and firsthand in order to be valid. Who will say that telling someone that something someone else wrote reminds them of you doesn’t “count.” Who will contend that applying a compliment you found somewhere instead of one you spontaneously generated lessens the gesture.
If that’s you, I challenge you to lean into why you feel like that. Most of the language we generate is — subconsciously or consciously — not precisely new. It’s a product of socialization and at this point thousands of years of cultural history. Most of what you say to other people isn’t as unique as you probably think it is. For a famous example, “I love you” are words that many people long the most to hear, but they’re hardly original, are they?
And some people really do struggle with eloquence. If that isn’t you, if you’re naturally eloquent, then awesome. But some people have a really hard time expressing themselves in words, and if that person is your partner, it only makes sense to me that you would want to support them in ways that would make that easier. Both for them and for your own sake (so that you can enjoy some lovely Words of Affirmation).
Sincerity? Yes, that’s very important. Essential for a good compliment.
Originality? Considerably less so. And thank goodness for that. So much of what we say to one another would already be taken and off limits.
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