Couple talking outside

One of the biggest reasons that couples come to counselling is one or both partners feeling unloved.

Lots of people – particularly those who’ve been with their partners for a long time and have been doing things the same way for a while – come for help because they feel their partner never expresses appreciation or affection and, as a result, they don’t feel wanted or cared for.

But often, the problem is as much to do with how affection is being expressed as anything else.

We all have different ways of showing someone that we care about them. This could be called your ‘love language’.

The five ‘love languages’

The main ‘love languages’ people use are:

  • Giving gifts. This might include buying flowers or chocolates – physical items intended to please your partner and show you’ve been thinking about them.
  • Carrying out kind acts. This could be something like cleaning the car for your partner or picking up the shopping. Little (or big!) gestures to make them happy.
  • Spending quality time together. This could be putting aside a whole evening to spend in each other’s company so you can really reconnect.
  • Physical touch. This could be walking along holding hands, giving hugs, receiving a neck massage. Sensual gestures to make you feel physically closer together.
  • Saying nice things to each other. This could be paying compliments: ‘your hair looks nice’, ‘I really like you in that suit’, ‘you’re a really talented singer’ or just affirmations of how you feel about each other.  

Most people have one or two main ‘love languages’ that they ‘speak’ – through which they express affection - and that they most appreciate and understand when ‘spoken’ to them.

So someone who feels that spending quality time together is the most natural way of expressing and developing affection might really appreciate it if their partner puts aside an evening for them to go on a date or have dinner. Or someone who feels close to their partner when being touched physically might really enjoy a back rub.

Likewise, we usually have one or two ways of expressing affection that don’t mean all that much to us – perhaps receiving gifts doesn’t really do it for you, or you can go a little longer without dedicated quality time. 

Where do we learn our ‘love language’?

How we express affection is often heavily influenced by what we learnt growing up. If your family liked spending lots of quality time together, for instance, you might value the same things in a partner. If there was embarrassment at expressing feelings verbally or physically, this may continue into adulthood. But there are no real hard and fast rules – we may make a choice to do things differently in our adult relationships. In the end, we express affection the way we do because that’s what makes the most sense to us.

When you speak different languages

If you and your partner are speaking different ‘love languages’ without realising it, that’s when there can be room for miscommunication – and dissatisfaction.

You might both end up feeling like the other doesn’t say or do anything to show they care, and may end up wondering whether they care at all.

For instance, if someone really values kind acts, but their partner’s way of expressing love is, say, buying gifts, they may feel like they aren’t having their needs met. Likewise, their partner may feel the bunch of flowers they bought the other day was a really nice way of showing they care, but was put out by their partner’s underwhelmed reaction.

Over time, this kind of miscommunication can really drive a wedge in a relationship. Both partners may start to feel they’re doing all they can, but that it’s still not enough to make each other happy. As a result, they can start to feel bitter and resentful.  

How can you address this?

For a relationship to be healthy you both need to understand each other’s needs.  

You and your partner may need to explore how you both feel most comfortable expressing – and receiving – affection.  If you think you might find this conversation difficult, you might like to think about the following:

  • Give it time and space. Don’t try to talk when one of you is busy, tired or getting ready to go out. Set aside a time when you’ll be able to chat uninterrupted. It can also be a good idea to choose nice, comfortable surroundings – in the living room with a cup of tea, for instance.
  • Focus on feelings. You might like to use lots of ‘I’ language: ‘I sometimes feel’, ‘I don’t always know how to”¦’ rather than ‘you’ language: ‘You often make me feel”¦’, ‘You never seem to”¦’. This way, you’re taking responsibility for your emotions and your partner is less likely to feel like they’re being accused of things.
  • Start on a positive. Sometimes, it can help to begin by focussing on what you like about the relationship: ‘I love that we can rely on each other for the big stuff, but I was hoping we could talk about some day to day things’. This can get things off to a more positive start and help you partner understand you aren’t just trying to get at them.

For lots of couples, discovering that they and their partner are speaking different love languages is a real lightbulb moment. They might have been feeling miles apart, but suddenly realise they do love each other – it’s just that the messages haven’t been getting through.

How we can help

If you think you and your partner could do with help talking about any of the above, Relationship Counselling can be a great way having conversations that you might otherwise find difficult. Your counsellor will help keep things calm and constructive, and everything you say is completely confidential.

Or you could try Live Chat, which allows you to talk to a counsellor online for free.

Thinking of taking your relationship to the next stage of commitment, such as marriage? This article was written in conjunction with Marriage Care, who lead marriage preparation courses where topics such as how you share affection, how to handle conflict are discussed in a fun and informative way.