I’ve long had an interest in interpersonal relationships, and I spend a fair bit of time thinking, reading and writing on the topic. Interpersonal relationships are simply our interactions with other people, and a big part of that is how we treat others.
Have you ever thought about how you treat others? For me, one of my guiding principles was the golden rule. The wording I was taught was “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Over the years this has been simplified, with the current wording being:
Treat others the way you want to be treated is another way of saying “Be kind to people and don’t treat them like crap”. That seems obvious. No one enjoys being on the receiving end of outburst of anger, or someone being cruel. So if you don’t enjoy it, it stands to reason that you shouldn’t treat other people that way.
But this rule only really applies at a high level. “I like it when someone is kind to me, therefore I should be kind to others” is obvious. But “I like onions therefore I should give you onions and expect you to appreciate it” doesn’t really work. Unfortunately, that is often exactly what we do. We take this “rule” too far, and do things for others that we enjoy. And then find ourselves shocked or disappointed when our efforts aren’t received the way we would expect.
People are different. We have different personalities and different interests. So it shouldn’t be shocking that what we want and need from each other may be different. Instead of treating others the way we want to be treated, we need to start focusing on treating others the way THEY want to be treated.
Recently I read the “The 5 Love Languages – The Secret to Love that Lasts” by Gary Chapman, and it touches on this very idea. It’s a fairly short book (around 150 pages), and definitely worth a read, but I’ll give you a bit of a synopsis.
A while back I talked about a marital satisfaction bank account, and how the good times in our relationships act as a buffer against the bad times, allowing us to persevere when times are hard.
Dr. Chapman has a similar concept, but he calls it a “love tank”. According to him we all have love tanks, and when our relationships are in a good place these tanks are largely full. Personally I like the idea of marital satisfaction bank accounts better, but he’s the one selling books so I guess I’ll stick with his concept for now (mine’s cooler though).
We all want to feel loved and we all want to feel valued, and through years of being a counselor he felt there are five different ways couples express love to each other.
The Five Love Languages
Dr. Chapman called these different approaches to expressing love “The Five Love Languages”. They are pretty self-explanatory, but a brief overview is as follows:
- Words of affirmation. This is when someone is open about telling you how much they care, and appreciate you. It can even just saying “I love you”
- Acts of service. This is taking on tasks, or doing things for the other person
- Quality time. This is about being together, but being fully present and in the moment with each other. Watching TV together probably doesn’t count, but talking, going for walks together and just “being” with each other does.
- Gifts. This is… umm… giving gifts. Gifts can be anything from a day pass at the spa to coming home with flowers
- Physical affection. This encompasses everything from hugging and holding hands to sex.
Looking at the 5 love languages it seems safe to say that they are all different ways to express love. All of them seem valuable, and I would even argue needed in a relationship. We all need to *know* that we are loved, we all need to feel it. If you don’t feel loved in your relationship, it can lead to doubts, and it can cause things to start to break down.
We are all different though. Some people need more expressions of love while others need less. Beyond that though, what Dr. Chapman identified is that we each have our own “Primary” love language.
In counseling many couples, he found that often the couples seemed to be doing the right things. But although they were, one or both of them weren’t happy. They may not have been unhappy, but their “love tanks” weren’t full. In talking with the people individually he found that for some people, one love language is much more important and has greater impact on them then the others.
This is where the problem of the Golden Rule comes in. We tend to treat others the way that we want to be treated, and that applies to our expressions of love. But what happens when your preferred expression of love doesn’t match your partners? Well, then you have a recipe for a couple who may truly love each other, but still not be very happy.
Ask yourself how you show love to your partner. Do they just *know* you love them? If so, how? Look through the love languages and figure out which ways you actively show your partner love. If you aren’t actively doing any of them, I’ll make a guess that your relationship could use some attention.
Identify Each Others Love Languages
Instead of treating others the way we want to be treated, we need to treat others the way THEY want to be treated. And that requires a bit of self discovery.
In order to fully embrace your relationship, you need to understand your own love language. Take a look at the list above, and figure out what the most important languages are for you. There may be more than one that stands out, and that’s fine. But whatever stands out to you is the way that you like to have love expressed to you, and the way that you feel the most valued.
If you are struggling with figuring out your love language, one clue may be areas of conflict between you and your partner. The books states:
People tend to criticize their spouse most loudly in the area where they themselves have the deepest emotional need
Once you have identified your primary love language, think about times that you haven’t had it expressed to you and how it made you feel.
Have your spouse do this exercise too, and then share your love languages. Maybe you already know them, and you have been speaking to each other in the right languages. But maybe you haven’t.
One question that is addressed in the book is “what if my partners love language is one that is not natural to me”?
I’ve talked a lot in the past about how long term love is a choice. Some people don’t like that idea because it doesn’t seem to fit how love is portrayed in pop culture. Love is usually portrayed as all hormones and emotion.
But choosing love? Somehow that seems cold, and calculated, and not very romantic at all. Maybe it’s just me, but I think choosing love can be very romantic.
It’s easy to be in love when things are going well, or when it “works for you”. But a relationship involves two people. If your primary love languages aren’t matches then taking actions that you know will be meaningful and have greater impact for your partner shows a deeper love and commitment than just doing the things that are more natural to you. And if your partner knows that those aren’t natural expressions of love for you? Chances are they will appreciate it even more.
Taking another quote from the book:
The object of love is not getting something you want, but doing something for the well-being of the one you love.
I still think the Golden Rule is a good guideline in life. But it’s just a starting point. We are all different, and we all have different needs. For the people who you are closest to, and especially for you partner you need to go deeper. You need to take the time to understand them and their needs, and treat them the way they want to be treated. By doing that you show that THEY matter, and that you value them.
Depending on your own love language it may be a stretch at first, but your relationship will likely be happier for it.