Each partner in a couple has his or her most comfortable ways of expressing love. And each partner has his or her own ways of feeling that they are loved.
Too often these love languages are like lips passing in the night, unrecognized and leaving both parties disappointed.
Our own ways of expressing love may be different from our partner’s ways of feeling that they’re loved, and that difference takes down a lot of relationships. You might think you’re being perfectly romantic by filling the ink tank in your partner’s printer without them even asking for it, when what your partner really needs to feel loved is to engaged in eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart discussion about what’s most important to each of you.
For both partners, not hearing their favored love language is like sitting down for a celebratory meal and being served an empty bowl.
To have a good relationship we need to learn to speak the love languages that our partner can understand and feel. That may be uncomfortable at first, but learning a new language is always good. Apparently it helps fend off dementia, which could get in the way of remembering why you loved them in the first place.
Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages
Back in 1992 a counselor named Gary Chapman recognized this dynamic and published a book about it called The 5 Love Languages. It seems to have touched a nerve because the book has done very well and he’s come out with an entire gaggle of sequels for different audiences suffering from marital monolinguality.
But, so far, neither he nor anyone else has written anything about love languages for people with obsessive-compulsive personalities. Rather than take offense at being left out, I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands.
Obsessive-Compulsive Love Languages
There are significant implications for people who have obsessive-compulsive personality. At the risk of generalizing, one of these love languages comes naturally to most compulsives. Not so the other four. People with obsessive-compulsive personalities tend to hold tightly to money, time, ideas, objects, and compliments, and that makes most of these languages foreign languages to them.
Their limited love languages leaves them challenged in the relationship department. And one theory about people with obsessive-compulsive personality is that in general they come across differently from how they think they do. This distorted perception about what they communicate has a huge impact on the partner at the receiving end.
They hope for love and get lectures.
I’ll go through each of Chapman’s 5 love languages and point out how they apply to people with obsessive-compulsive personality.
But first we need to talk.
You may come to this subject with strongly held convictions about what partners should expect from each other. It’s obvious to you what’s reasonable and what’s not. I know, but you’ll need to check that at the door. I can’t work miracles here. I can only tell you what does work. And it ain’t rigidity.
And, while we’re the subject of who’s right and who’s wrong, it’s much easier to learn a language to help someone feel loved than to change the language that person needs to feel loved. Certainly it can help to appreciate a partner’s efforts to express love as they do, but that can’t replace hearing love spoken in one’s native tongue.
The Five Love Languages:
So here they are:
1. Words of affirmation
2. Quality time
4. Acts of service
5. Physical touch
Let’s explore each of these and see how the obsessive-compulsive personality affects their expression.
Words of Affirmation
Words of affirmation include saying encouraging, affirming, supportive, appreciative, and, truth to tell, flattering things to your partner. This may be a challenge for you if nothing is ever good enough, and if your strict insistence on brutal honesty makes it hard to squeeze out even the most restrained compliment.
Some of you may be hearing a little voice in the back of your head singing an old pop song menacingly:
Words of love, so soft and tender
Won’t win a girl’s heart anymore
If you love her then you must send her
Somewhere where she’s never been before
Worn out phrases and longing gazes
Won’t get you where you want to go, no
Words of love, soft and tender
Won’t win her
Considering that the author, John Philips, had four wives, was addicted to drugs, and couldn’t hold his band, The Mamas and The Papas, together for more than three years, I wouldn’t take his word for it.
If words of affirmation are how your partner feels loved, anytime you can think of anything at all positive to say about them, don’t hold back. Say it. Don’t worry, this won’t prevent them from trying to be the way you want them to be. It will, in fact, encourage them.
If you think that withholding praise will encourage them to greater achievements such as more meticulous lawn-mowing, give it up. If you think that holding out for better behavior works better than applause, you may be waiting a long time.
Besides, what’s more important to you, a precision lawn, or a good relationship?
Time is very valuable to you. I know. But if you’re too busy obsessing and compulsing to spend time with your partner, they won’t feel the love. You may feel that you’re doing something for them, but they may well want you more than your acts of service or your money.
Quality time means time in which you converse about ideas and feelings that are meaningful to you—without distractions. You focus on your partner. Make eye contact. And emotional contact.
Watching Ted Lasso together doesn’t count. That’s quality time with a screen. Unless you’re both really into it and you have a deeply engaged discussion about why the therapist completely disappeared after Season Two. (Yes, I took it personally. How could she have been so dispensable? These people have commitment issues!) Anyway, that’s quality time because you’re respecting your partner’s ideas and enjoying the exchange. It says they’re worth spending time with, and that they’re important to you.
One aspect of quality time is true listening, receiving what they say and feel without giving advice about how to solve a problem. Men typically have more difficulty with this, but women often get caught in problem solving as well. This is especially true of most compulsives, men and women. We like to have everything neat and settled.
Have you ever noticed that what you really wanted from your partner was not problem solving but just hearing what you’re going through? (“I know that! What do you think, I’m an idiot? I just needed to get something off my chest!”)
Which brings me to another point about quality time. It means you talk about how you feel.
This doesn’t mean repeating your latest obsessive cycle–which is not quality time–but sharing the feelings you’ve been trying to avoid with those mental acrobatics.
Don’t expect your partner to use their x-ray vision to spy underneath your obsessions to read your emotions.
Still, this is all very subjective. You may need to ask your partner: What’s quality time for you? It could be quiet time spent reading together, fly-fishing together, or finally building that chicken coop together that you talked about on your first date.
While some might appreciate the material value of a gift, most partners who like getting gifts like it because of what it represents for them. Which would be Love. It’s a reminder that you think about them when they aren’t around, and that you try to think about what they like.
This can be difficult for many compulsives because they tend to be frugal. “Why would my partner need me to spend money on them just to know that I love them? Isn’t it more reasonable to save money for our future together?”
As Chapman points out, saving money is just a different way of spending it. In effect, saving money may just be spending it on yourself, investing in the things you want. Saving might be a way to boost your self-worth or emotional security.
Besides, you don’t have to spend money to give a gift. Some of the best ones are the home-made variety. But even that takes generosity of spirit, which you may need to cultivate.
Acts of Service
If you’re compulsive, your most comfortable way of expressing love is probably through acts of service: doing things you think will make your partner feel good. Ironing a shirt, cooking jambalaya, building flower beds, moving mountains. It may feel natural and gratifying to you because you feel like you’re actually getting something done. All good. Especially if your partner happens to speak the same language.
But you may not have been attracted to someone who’s just like you. So, too often, acts of service are not good enough. Your partner speaks English and you’re prattling on in Punjabi. It doesn’t mean a bloody thing to them whether you clean out the coffee machine, clean out the car, or clean out your lewd language. (The fact that you like getting things done and that you get something out of these acts of service doesn’t help your case.)
I’m not recommending that you stop performing acts of service. I don’t doubt that there is genuine love expressed in them. And doing them for your partner is rewarding for you as well. Just don’t imagine that it will communicate enough of what you want to communicate to your partner.
It would be as if your entire love language consisted of verbs.
People who are compulsive tend to either obsess about, or neglect, the body. Gym routines become sacrosanct while physical affection becomes superfluous.
But there’s no getting around it; the body knows when it’s being ignored and it doesn’t like it one bit. Holding hands, hugging, stroking hair, kissing, and making whoopee ‘til the cows come home are all examples of physical affection.
Before you blow this off as ludicrously touchy-feely, consider the many measurable health benefits of touch: decreased inflammation, decreased heart rate, decreased blood pressure, decreased pain and decreased cortisol.
And, at the same time, touching leads to increased oxytocin, the not-so-technically labelled “feel good” hormone.
Still, your partner should not have to justify their need for physical touch or sex by citing the New England Journal of Medicine article and verse. Unless you agreed at the outset that this would be a non-touching relationship, it’s not unreasonable for your partner to want physical affection.
Also, when the body becomes an object of critical obsession, when wrinkles and bulges elicit your scrutiny, perfectionism may get in the way of approaching your partner physically. The body will inevitably start to sag, stoop, and stretch beyond what you had bargained for. Come to terms with this or plan on a life of perpetual dissatisfaction.
And Your Needs?
I’ve spent most of this post encouraging you to try to learn and speak your partner’s love language. But the inverse is important as well. At the risk of heaping more responsibility on you, if you can tell them what helps you to feel that you’re loved, that will give them ways to return your efforts.
If you aren’t sure what your love language is, you can take a quiz at 5LoveLanguages.com.
It’s okay to have needs. And these particular needs will need to be delegated–which may be a challenge for you.
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Learning a love language may not be all it takes to save a relationship, but it sure will help. Turn your compulsive energy to the task, with all its determination, love of precision, and gratification in mastery, and you’ll be speaking love in far less time than it takes to make your partner perfect.
For a complete guide to cultivating your Driven personality, get your copy of The Healthy Compulsive: Healing Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder and Taking the Wheel of the Driven Personality.