Lesson Number Six

We each define love differently.

My patients repeatedly teach me that couples can have very different ways of showing ‘love’ – and have different ways of knowing that their partners love them. More worrying, perhaps, is the fact that partners often seem to assume that their partner would know that they are loved via the same way that they, themselves, know that they are loved.

The Five Love Languages, a wonderful book by Gary Chapman, gave structure to a vague recognition that was always in the back of my mind – that people so often seemed to miss the meeting point when it came to giving and getting the message of being loved. It is hard enough to get couples to agree on a definition of love. The Greeks have 7 different words to describe different types of love. We just have one – and it is no wonder we struggle somewhat with it all.

Talking to Anton and Louise, this question of being loved came up. Louise explained “I know that Anton loves me – but I don’t feel loved.

Anton declared that he couldn’t understand this. He loved her greatly – and that this was what was making him so unhappy. He brought her gifts. He tried to make life as easy as possible for her. His problem was that he wasn’t sure that Louise loved him. He added that he felt that he wasn’t doing too well within the relationship, and that somehow (he couldn’t find out exactly why) Louise couldn’t tell him what he was doing wrong.

I asked Louise how she would know that she was loved. She replied, “Oh, that’s easy. I would know that I was loved if Anton pampered me and organised tickets for holidays and so on – so I could do ‘useless.'”

Anton retorted that she tended to handle arrangements better than he did, and she had more time to do these tasks. Besides which, she could sort out tickets as easily as he could – if not more easily. Was that ‘love’?

Anton had clearly missed the point. Louise was providing him with the input that defined what she wanted – and how she would know that she was loved; and what he was doing ‘wrong’. But, since the message didn’t match what he defined as showing love (gifts and making her life easy) the message was ignored. His view of the logic or validity of her requirements is irrelevant. Whether he feels that his taking care of arrangements would indicate that she was loved is beside the point. It is the gesture and the meaning for her.

I then asked Anton how he would know that Louise loved him. His reply stunned her. He said that he would know that she loved him by her recognising what he did do for her – instead of being disgruntled by what he didn’t do for her.

Louise was so clearly focused on what he didn’t do for her, that she had failed to wonder about what she wasn’t doing for him. Besides, she had assumed that he didn’t need her to reinforce him.

There is an assumption that we share the same definitions – or the same indications – of being loved, but we often don’t. I suspect that few couples have ever had the discussion about their respective needs for indicators of being loved. We tend to assume that others conform to our beliefs and ways of thinking – perhaps especially with a partner with whom we share so much. Therefore, it is readily understandable that we tend to show love to the other person in a way that we are familiar with, or in a way that we easily comprehend. We are unaware that the other person might start from a totally different place.

Therefore, one of the questions I almost invariably ask my patients is, “How would you know you were loved? Give us the signals that you are valued.” Of course the question sounds mechanical in an arena where we believe that the other person should have a spontaneous knowledge of us without being told. But if they don’t know, is it better to continue with the same miscommunication?

I sometimes take the risk of asking (before the response arrives) what answer they predict that their partner would give to that question? The risk is of the embarrassment when they discover how often they are inaccurate.

I get around the difficulty outlined in the opening paragraphs of this section by abandoning the search for an agreed definition of ‘love’ by the couple. Instead, I just ask them to define what their criterion is for feeling loved. It’s a lot simpler – and a lot more practical!