“Do you love it?” A college boyfriend asked as we sat beside the ocean, my brand new necklace reflecting the sunset’s low light. He’d surprised me with a dream weekend away; painstakingly planned activities and classically romantic scenes were punctuated by gifts at regular intervals.  But all I wanted was to hear him say, “I love you” and with every minute that passed declaration-free, my frustration mounted.

Jewelry and perfume. Flowers. Chocolate. Kind words, ideally displayed via skywriter or ballpark jumbotron. Thanks to Elizabeth Taylor, Love Actually, Kay’s commercials and other media messages, we think we know what it means to be loving.

And yet we all sometimes feel unloved and sometimes we watch, befuddled, as our own carefully-orchestrated expressions of affection fall flat. What are we missing?

In The 5 Love Languages, Gary Chapman posits that people give and receive love through: (1) words of affirmation, (2) acts of service, (3) gifts, (4) quality time, and (5) physical touch. Without realizing it, we respond best to being loved in one primary language, and we use it by default when attempting to demonstrate our affection for others. Problems arise when partners speak different languages.

It sounds like complete hooey, right? No way, I thought, when I first heard the theory, I want it all.

Then, over the course of months, I saw the behavior in my house falling neatly into the framework. My husband works long hours, leaving before 9 a.m. and returning to find me asleep most nights. From 6-8:30 a.m. he cares for our three young kids while I catch up on sleep missed covering all the nighttime wake-ups. We rarely spend more than a few minutes together during the week, our contact consisting almost exclusively of text messages.

My friends ask how I can stand it.

Easy. When he texts “you’re the best wife anyone ever had” and “wow, the dinner you left out last night was amazing,” or makes a sentimental toast during our weekly date, my emotional battery recharges enough to carry me through his absence. His statements make this “words of affirmation” gal feel cherished and appreciated despite the lack of face time.

Our arrangement works for him too. At least, most of the time it does. Late one evening I texted him, “there’s spinach and chicken in the fridge for the universe’s most formidable creation.” The next morning I saw sadness, even a little anger when he leaned in for a quick peck as we passed off the kids.

“What’s the matter? Are you upset with me?” I asked.

“No, of course not.”

“Really? You seem a little miffed or something.”

“Well, I just . . . there wasn’t a plate for me.”

“What do you mean? I made food. Didn’t you get my text?”

“Yeah, but . . .”

That’s when it clicked. He wanted me to assemble his dinner as usual. That’s an “acts of service” type.

Since then, it’s become abundantly clear that my husband doesn’t hear “I love you” when I say “I love you.” When I bring him a glass of water rather than making him get up and fetch it, that’s when he feels adored.

And it’s not all semantics.

I used to resent it when he’d throw dirty socks on the floor. Now I don’t see him as a sloth who’s turned me into his maid. By picking up the balled argyles and transporting them two feet to the left, I am communicating my devotion.

How easy is that? It’s a lot cheaper than the Tiffany money clip I once got him to deafening silence, and takes substantially less thought than the lengthy love notes I used to find discarded under his bedside table.

It works both ways. These days when my husband sees that I’m upset and instinctively falls back on acts of service—making the bed and sweeping the kitchen while I continue to fume—he stops and tries words instead. (Contrast this experience with that of a friend who says the sexiest thing her husband can do is the dishes.)

It would seem the Golden Rule has no place in relationships. If there’s a difference between what you prefer and what your partner does, as there often is, you will both be happier if you do unto your partner as your partner wants done unto him, not as you want done unto yourself.

And it doesn’t just work in romantic relationships.

After realizing that my sister-in-law is a “quality time” person, I’m a better friend to her. A lover of efficiency, I almost always multitask, getting together with a few friends at once or folding laundry while chatting. Now, though, I never double-book her. I clear my calendar and focus completely when we’re together. Because that’s what makes her feel valued.

The theory helps my parenting too. My son tends toward “physical touch.” All the words in the world don’t add up to a bear hug or late night snuggle. The older apple-of-my-eye didn’t fall far from my trunk: she beams when I encourage her verbally or leave a little note.

Trying to give everyone words, service, gifts, time, and touch is an admirable but unachievable goal. Figuring out the best way to allot your energy so that the person to whom you say “I love you” actually hears it? Now that’s true efficiency. That’s loving well.

Gail Cornwall is a former public school teacher and recovering lawyer who now works as a stay-at-home mom of three and freelance writer in San Francisco. You can find Gail on Facebook and Twitter, or read more at gailcornwall.com.

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