What is your partner asking for when they say “I want to hear more words of affirmation?”

Valentines /Palentines day is an opportunity to reflect on your chosen way of giving and receiving love, as well as what your friends and lovers preferred methods are. By now the concept of the Five Love Languages, based on the book of the same title, is mainstream, pop-psych enough, that the question, “What is your favorite love language?” is asked on dating sites. While there are many other ways to express care, the book reduces them to five categories: words of affirmation (verbalizing what you appreciate or find attractive), gifts (a handmade card or the conventional bouquet of flowers), acts of service (cooking dinner or helping clean up afterward), quality time (prioritizing and initiating plans) and touch (hugs, cuddles and more).

Recently, I was interviewed about the value of handwritten cards for Palentines days for an article in InStyle. I thought of my clients who value words of affirmation and are partnered with guys who tend to use as few as possible. Some men may struggle to utter the words,” I love you” because they did not grow up in an emotionally expressive household, while others ask me if saying it five times a day is a lot. In both scenarios, their partners seem to need more and they are as frustrated as the word thirsty partners, unsure of what to do. If you are in a situation where you are the one saying, “I tell you I love you and that you are beautiful, isn’t that enough? Why don’t you believe me?” here are a few things to consider when distributing words of affirmation. 

  1. What is your mood? Are you feeling loving or annoyed when you speak them? The state you are in carries with it a certain energy. If you are rushed and on autopilot, “I love you” can come across as “Have you seen my keys?” It may feel as if you are getting something done and checking a box.
  2.  You will savor anything if you have it less frequently. Chicken pot pie is your favorite treat but do you want to eat it 3x a day every day? I am not encouraging you to only say, “I love you”, once a quarter, but don’t make it a throwaway. Consider changing your compliments as frequently as you change your underwear …or shirt if you tend to go commando. Some people like to wear uniforms or eat the same thing every day but many enjoy and admire variety.
  3. Specificity helps personalize a compliment. Saying, “You are beautiful” or “You have beautiful eyes” is different than saying, “I love how your eyes change color depending on what you are wearing”. Or, “ I notice these yellow flecks around the edges inside the golden warm honey color.” When my client is the one wanting the affirmation, they are trying to understand what does my partner appreciate about me? Why do they love me? What are they actually attracted to? What qualities do they appreciate most? They keep asking because the answers coming in are vague, such as the above examples, or possibly incongruent with the behavior that follows the words.
  4. Brainstorm a list of qualities you love about your person. Sometimes people feel put on the spot and freeze up when expected to express themselves. It can feel vulnerable or intimidating to compliment someone you think is incredibly beautiful or maybe you fear they don’t feel the same way? Now that you have this list the qualities are top of mind and are easier to draw from
  5. Write your heart out in a card. This offers two things, you get time to collect your thoughts and your bestie gets to read and digest what you have written. Even though someone longs to hear loving words, they may also have a hard time absorbing them. Part of their need to hear words of affirmation may be that they dismiss and minimize kind words when they are spoken, hence, running on empty when it comes to them and wanting to hear them frequently. Growing up in a critical household where they were bullied, can make it hard to believe they are adored in the present. It’s like having a hole in the bucket. Of course the water runs out and needs to be refilled constantly.
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© 2022 By Charna Cassell, LMFT. Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. MFC 51238.

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