Several years ago when my husband was just my fiancé, we took a marriage prep class. Newly engaged, we needed all the help we could get to prepare us for a lifetime of good and bad. Sure, we had already decided to commit to each other for the rest of our lives, but we knew that there were things we could still learn about how to navigate our relationship. So when our marriage prep teacher Pete McFadden assigned The Five Love Languages for coursework, we jumped on it.
If you have not read Gary Chapman’s book, you’re missing out. Chapman’s bestselling book has sold more than ten million copies worldwide. It’s no wonder why—these two hundred pages have transformed countless relationships, including my own.
In his book, Chapman explains that we tend to give and receive love in five main ways: words of affirmation, quality time, gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. My then-fiancé and I devoured our copies in a day, discussing our love languages afterward over takeout in my tiny living room. He couldn’t decide between physical touch and quality time (it turned out to be both). Mine was a clear winner: words of affirmation.
What Chapman’s book taught us—and what it teaches most people, I suspect—is that love isn’t always communicated in a way that the recipient responds best to. The reason for this is that couples rarely share the same love language. My husband, for example, tries to show me he loves me with bear hugs and by dancing with me in the kitchen. I’m sad to admit that cuddling is just not my thing. At the same time, I’ve tried to show my husband how much I love him through countless acts of service. I cook every single meal and ensure the house is spotless before he’s home. But because his primary love language is not acts of service, these efforts are often lost on him. Yes, he appreciates my gestures. But whether the dishes are clean or the floors are shining do not reflect how loved he feels. He feels most cherished with a simple face rub just before bed.
For me, I feel safest when I hear how he thinks and feels about me. The words “I love you” warm my heart. But hearing why he loves me? That sends me straight to heaven. Conversely, rudeness, insults, and even a brusque tone deeply injure those whose love language is words of affirmation.
Four years, three big moves, and two kids later, my husband has gotten pretty good at filling my love bucket with words of affirmation. The journey hasn’t been without its challenges for either of us. He used to think that a text message a day from him would be enough (and I used to think he should be happy with a hug as he walks through the front door!). But through trial and error, we’ve mastered each other’s love language.
As Chapman explains in his book, everyone appreciates receiving all of the love languages. Even if your partner’s primary love language isn’t words of affirmation, you can benefit from these skills. It’s not just about letters, text messages, phone calls, or emails here and there. It’s not about filling our days with deep conversations either. It’s as much the content of what you say as how you say it. For words of affirmation to have any impact, it’s necessary to put time, thought, and yes, love, into them.
Here are a few powerful themes that run through my husband’s words to me. If you are looking for more meaningful ways to express your feelings to the one you love, use these to help. And for once, your words might actually speak louder than your actions.
Every night, we go through a ritual that we like to call “Three Things.” We tell each other (1) what we regret doing (or not doing) that day (2) what we’re thankful for and (3) how we know the other person is “the one.” My husband and I both have huge egos, so it’s nice for us to have a safe space at the end of the day to acknowledge any mistakes we’ve made toward each other. We lay down our imperfections in front of the other person. And we receive forgiveness, understanding, and a chance to try again the next day. This is also a good opportunity to air out any stewing annoyances or hurt feelings so that they don’t blow up in our faces in the long run.
If you’re having a hard time saying sorry, a note is a great way to do so. And there’s nothing like a humble heart to break down a wall between two people.
Examples of words of humility:
- I regret/I’m sorry for . . .
- Next time, I’ll try to . . .
- I could’ve done ___ better today . . .
- You must have been (upset, confused, etc.) when I . . .
02. Gratitude & Appreciation
Nothing fills me up more than hearing my husband notice all the little things I do for him. Whether he sends me a quick thank you text for the delicious lunch I made, or he lists all the actions he appreciates during “Three Things,” his thankfulness shows me that he doesn’t take me for granted. Simple heartfelt gratitude gives extra meaning and purpose to our daily actions.
Be specific. It’s a wonderful gift to show the other person how much you care about his or her unique role in your life. In addition to your significant other, this also applies to your parents, friends, and colleagues.
Examples of words of appreciation:
- I appreciate that you . . .
- I couldn’t ___ today if it weren’t for you . . .
- I am thankful that you . . .
- I’m glad to have you as my (mom, sister, friend, etc.) because . . .
Apart from being the lifestyle editor for Verily, I’m also a wife and mother. Needless to say, there are a lot of areas in my life where I have opportunities to fall short. Even on days when I feel most successful, I question whether I could have done this or that better. My husband puts my self-doubts at ease when he tells me how much he believes in me and my abilities.
He knows that the middle of the day is the craziest time for me. After all, I’ve been with the kids all morning, trying to balance work, errands, and my sanity. So he usually gives me a quick call to ask how I’m doing and to offer a few words of motivation. A simple "You’re a great mom. You’re so patient, and the kids love you so much!" is enough to convince me that I have everything I need to conquer another dirty diaper and food strewn all over the floor. Who knew that taking a minute to give someone a little encouragement could change a person’s entire attitude for the rest of the day?
Examples of words of encouragement:
- I believe in you because . . .
- It impressed me when you . . .
- The good news is . . .
- When you need something to lift your spirits, just remember that . . .
My husband struggles with empathy. Many of us do unless we’ve been in another person’s shoes. Words of affirmation are a way for me to know that I am understood. It’s comforting for me to have someone to experience my struggles with. When my husband tells me that he recognizes my sacrifices and sufferings, I feel closer to him. I feel like someone is helping me carry the weight on my shoulders.
A great way to empathize with someone’s emotions, even if you don’t quite understand them, is to reflect on what they may be feeling or thinking. Paraphrase what you can tell they might be going through.
Examples of words of empathy:
- It must be really tough that you . . .
- I can’t imagine how hard it must be for you to . . .
- That sounds . . . Is that right?
- I could see how you would feel that way because . . .
05. Respect & Admiration
Whenever my husband and I ask couples for their secrets to a long and happy marriage, respect is among the top three answers. We may respect and admire the people we love, but how often do we express it with words? When my husband builds me up with concrete reasons of why he respects me, I can’t help but feel loved. In this way, it encourages me to stay true to myself, to grow, and to continue to follow my dreams and goals as an individual. It moves me to recognize the strengths I have that I may take for granted, especially in the throes of daily life. It also reminds me of the complementary aspects of our personalities, as we often admire most in others what we tend to lack in ourselves.
Every day, my husband writes me a letter. Sometimes it’s on a sticky note, and sometimes it’s on two large pieces of paper. He hides it in my laptop or leaves it on the bathroom mirror. In doing so, he never fails to make me feel honored, whether it’s noting how creative I am with the kids or admiring my ability to work late into the night. It encourages me to keep being the best version of myself that I can be. And in turn, it helps me build him and our family up as well.
Show your loved one that you respect him or her by speaking politely and giving compliments. Be specific and sincere. When you do disagree on something, refrain from making judgmental statements. Reach out by asking questions or offering to talk about it more instead. In the end, it’s OK to have differences. As an act of love, words of affirmation should be focused on the other person, not on yourself.
Examples of words of respect:
- Great job . . .
- I’m so thankful to have you in my life because . . .
- I wish I could ___ the way you do.
- It makes me happy when you . . .
- I’m proud of you for . . .
By now, you might be thinking, “Wow, you’re super needy.” This is true. I need words of affirmation. I crave them. You may crave something else. If you aren’t sure what your or your loved one’s love language is, take the quiz here to find out. After reading the book, my husband and I knew what each other’s love language was—but we couldn’t apply them to our relationship overnight. It takes thoughtful conversations, continued practice, and loving feedback to learn how to “speak” one another’s language. Even so, there’s always room for improvement. It’s a good thing we have the rest of our lives together to work on it.