Before Brad was married, he dreamed about how wonderful it would be to get up every morning and have breakfast with his wife, Jennifer. After he was married, he found out that Jennifer did not do mornings. He dreamed of hiking and overnight camping, but he discovered that the Hilton Garden Inn was Jennifer's idea of overnight camping. He believed in saving money. Her philosophy was, "Shop today; you may be sick tomorrow."

Chances are, you discovered similar differences during the early years of your own marriage. One of the most important lessons we can learn in marriage is this truth: Your spouse is not like you. Even if the two of you are extremely similar, you are also extremely different.

The "in-love" experience – when people are pushed along by intensely euphoric feelings for each other – has an average lifespan of two years. When they come down off the high, often their differences emerge, and they find themselves not only disagreeing, but arguing over numerous issues, as well. Within a few months, many couples are asking themselves, Why did we get married? We don't even like each other. Or another common thought is, Oh no! I've married the wrong person.

Can such tarnished relationships be reborn? The answer is yes – if couples become aware of the nature of love and learn how to express love in a language their mate can understand. Good intentions are not enough. We must also learn how to meet our spouse's emotional need for love.

The love languages

What makes one person feel loved will not necessarily make another person feel the same way, and unfortunately we tend to express love to others in the way we wish they would express love to us. Then when our spouse doesn't respond positively to our expressions of love, we get frustrated. The problem is not the sincerity of our love; the problem is that we are speaking the wrong love language. There are five distinct love languages:

1. Words of affirmation: Using words to acknowledge and encourage

"You look nice today." "I really appreciate what you did." "One of the things I like about you is … "

Your words may focus on how your spouse looks, a personality or character trait, or something he or she has done for you.

2. Receiving gifts: Giving presents as an expression of love

A gift says, "I was thinking about you." The gift doesn't have to be expensive. Haven't we always said, "It's the thought that counts"? Let me remind you that it is not the thought left in your head that counts. It is the gift that came out of the thought in your head that counts. Gifts can be bought, made or discovered in nature.

3. Acts of service: Doing something for your spouse that you know he or she would like you to do

Acts of service may include cooking, washing dishes, vacuuming, wiping white spots off the mirror, cleaning the toilet, washing the car, mowing the grass, walking the dog, changing the baby's diaper. You may remember the old saying, "Actions speak louder than words." That's especially true if acts of service is your spouse's primary love language.

4. Quality time: Giving your spouse your undivided attention

This does not mean watching television together. It means looking at each other while you sit and talk. Or taking a walk while you talk. Or going out to eat, assuming that you have a conversation. If your spouse complains, "We just don't spend any time together," he or she is not saying that you do not live in proximity to each other. Your spouse is saying that you do not give him or her enough undivided attention.

5. Physical touch: Making positive physical contact with your spouse

In a marriage, this can mean holding hands, kissing, embracing, making love, putting an arm around a shoulder or cuddling on the couch as you watch a movie.

Of these five love languages, each of us has a primary love language – one that speaks most deeply to us emotionally. It is similar to spoken language. Most of us grew up speaking a language that we relied on more than any other language. That's the language we understand best. The same is true of love. The problem is that we naturally tend to speak our own love language rather than the love language of our spouse. We assume that what makes us feel loved will make him or her feel loved. That is a false assumption. If you want to be effective in keeping emotional love alive in a marriage, you must discover – and learn to speak – the love language of your spouse.

Challenges and suggestions

The initial challenge will be to discover your spouse's primary love language. I suggest three simple ways. One, observe his or her behaviour. How does he typically express love and appreciation to others? Does she touch and hug people? Does he frequently give words of affirmation? Is she always giving gifts to other people? Does she enjoy having a two-hour lunch with a friend? Your spouse is speaking his or her own love language, and you can learn it by observing daily behaviour.

Erika learned the importance of paying attention to these daily clues. "My husband took my car and cleaned it from top to bottom, inside and out, to surprise me," she said. "I drove home and didn't even notice (just like he never seemed to notice all the sweet little notes I left in his car). Over time, I learned to look for opportunities to serve him, and he learned how to give me the words of encouragement I crave."

Erika's story illustrates that it's common in the early stages of marriage for us to speak our own love language and not the language of our spouse. Consequently, even though our spouse is loving us, we're not really "getting it" because it is not being expressed in our primary love language.

A second suggestion is to record your spouse's complaints because they will reveal your husband's or wife's love language. If he says, "We don't spend time together anymore," he is telling you that his love language is quality time. If she says, "I don't think you would ever touch me if I did not initiate it," she's revealing that physical touch is her love language. You will find that the complaint "I don't know why you can't help me around the house" reveals that acts of service is your spouse's love language.

Megan discovered her husband's love language in an unexpected way. "Not long after we first started dating, my husband and I had lunch at a beachside grill," she said. "During the meal, I plucked one of his cheese fries and popped it in my mouth. From the horrified expression on his face, I may as well have heaved his entire lunch into the waves!" Megan would eventually learn that her husband's love language was receiving gifts – especially the gift of food.

The third suggestion is to record what your spouse requests of you most often. If he frequently asks you to take a walk after dinner or have a weekend away together, he is asking for quality time. If she requests a back rub frequently, then she is asking for physical touch. If he comments when you leave on a trip, "Be sure to bring me a surprise," he is telling you his love language is receiving gifts.

Each of the five love languages has various dialects. As Megan learned, one dialect of the receiving-gifts love language is food. She says, "Some men who communicate via this love language prefer to receive gifts of electronics or game tickets. My husband swoons when I hand him a heaping plate of pasta, cheers when I surprise him with his favourite candy and hugs me when I suggest we splurge on an evening of tapas." One of the keys to meeting your spouse's deep emotional needs is to learn the dialects of his or her love language.

Once you've discovered your spouse's love language, you may find it difficult to express love in that specific way. If you did not learn to speak that love language as a child, you may find it difficult to speak it as an adult. If you seldom received words of affirmation from your parents, then giving words of affirmation may seem hard for you. If you only received gifts on your birthday and Christmas, then giving gifts at other times may seem awkward to you. If your parents were not the hugging type, then physical touch may seem unnatural to you. If you seldom had extended conversations with your parents, then the thought of talking with someone for an hour may seem overwhelming to you.

The good news is that even if you did not learn to do these things as a child, you can learn them as an adult. Once you understand the importance of speaking your spouse's love language, hopefully you will be motivated to learn to speak that language. Meeting your spouse's emotional need for love is one of the essentials to having a long-term, healthy marriage.

When your spouse can't seem to learn your language

What if you've explained your love language to your spouse and he or she doesn't understand or make an effort to speak your language? Here's Eve's story and Dr. Chapman's advice.

My husband and I are opposites. I am extroverted and outgoing; he is quiet and introverted. Just as our personalities differ, so do our love languages. It has taken me time to accept that he is probably never going to spontaneously buy roses for Valentine's Day or write a heartfelt card. Fortunately, a love-languages approach reminds me to look more holistically at our relationship.

While he seldom says, "I love you" in words, he shows his love and care daily through acts of service. Every day he prepares lunch for our daughter. Every week he vacuums and does the grocery shopping. Cleaning is not as romantic as roses, but I choose to understand the language he's speaking, even though he's not speaking my native language.

– Eve from Brisbane, Australia

Dr. Chapman says:

Eve's story illustrates a powerful emotional breakthrough. Her husband has never learned to be a gift giver. But because she understands that there are five fundamental languages of love and he is loudly speaking acts of service, she has learned to give him credit for what he is doing, rather than focusing on what he is not doing. 

Dr. Gary Chapman is a pastor, speaker and best-selling author of The Five Love Languages

From the Focus on the Family website at © 2016 Gary Chapman. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.

Our recommended resources

Join our newsletter

Advice for every stage of life delivered straight to your inbox