Updated: Feb 15, 2021
We debunked the idea that men and women are fundamentally different. We also focused on how important it is to assess and understand your partner's personality. Once you know each other's individualities and strengths and weaknesses, you will indeed have a better foundation to a better interpersonal dynamic. However, this was just a rough overview.
Romantic relationships are more precise: they are based on love. As such, individual differences when it comes to how we love (how we give and receive it) must also be accounted for. What does it mean?
I had closed my previous post on the topic with a quote by Gary Chapman. It was no coincidence. Gary Chapman is a pastor with decades long experience in marriage counselling, and what he learnt over the years is that there is often a mismatch between what a partner does for love and what the other expects, leading to frustration. In 'The 5 Love Languages', his highly recommended worldwide bestseller, he breaks down these differences into what he calls five 'love languages': words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch. Their names are self-explanatory. His is a simple idea, but particularly useful.
You might think showering your soulmate with compliments, or doing DIY around the house, or buying out-of-the-blue little gifts, or planning weekends getaways, or what-not-again are acts of love; but, your partner, because of their different love language and so their different needs in terms of receiving love, will not see it that way. It's the over-familiar complaints we all have been guilty of: 'no matter what I do or say he/she is selfish and ungrateful!'; 'I put more than he/ she in this relationship!', 'I don't feel loved!'. To avoid such pitfalls, it's therefore important for partners to know each other's love language. If not, as Gary Chapman stresses, the couple may walk a tight rope:
'...if we do not feel loved, our differences are magnified. We come to see each other as a threat to our happiness. We fight for self-worth and significance, and marriage becomes a battlefield rather than a haven.'
Talking of 'fighting for self-worth' might sound overtly dramatic, but he is right. In 'Hold Me Tight', the clinical psychologist Sue Johnson brilliantly shows how John Bowlby's Attachment theory applies to adults as much as it applies to children. Her argument flies in the face of the zeitgeist pertaining to our individualistic and egotistical societies (whereas emotionally depending on someone else is perceived as being weak, clingy, needy, if not downright dysfunctional!) but, as she demonstrates, secure adults are so precisely because they rely on others for emotional safety - not by distancing themselves. As she bluntly and rightly asserts:
'...reminding defended and isolated is a sad and empty way to live.'
It's especially true in romantic relationships. When partners are strong enough to give themselves in, open up about their vulnerabilities, be supportive of each other's weaknesses, and, above all, constantly acknowledge and fulfil each other's needs for emotional connection (physical intimacy not limited to sex, special time and rituals, open acts demonstrating affection and longings...) then a strong bond occurs from which blossoms trust. Partners, here, know full-well that they both emotionally need each other; like a child needs his mum. They fit right into John Bowlby's Attachment theory. They therefore end up within a healthy dynamic, fuelled by trust, where nothing can threaten them - not even an argument. Sue Johnson again:
'...the facts of a fight (whether it's a fight about the kids' schedule, your sex life, your career) aren't the real issue. The real concern is always the strength and security of the emotional bond you have with your partner. It is about accessibility, responsiveness, and emotional engagement.'
What a sharp contrast with failing couples! Here, there is no such emotional engagement put in when things are good. Intimacy is limited to sex only (if they have sex at all!), there is no special time and rituals, no recognised acts of affection, and no reciprocal 'love language' being acknowledged. Partners are like abandoned and uncared for children, and, like abandoned and uncared for children both will go on developing a whole set of issues (especially trust issues) within the couple. The dynamic is rotten. Worse: because there is no emotional engagement when things are good, things turning bad become their sole opportunity to try and create such engagement! Arguments which start about the silliest things will indeed quickly escalate into criticising, blaming, withdrawing, and/ or triggering 'raw spots'. The purpose is, of course, to provoke the other into reacting to show they care (enough is enough!) but it's doing so through hurt and blame. And what do you do when you feel hurt and blamed? You get defensive, and/ or fight back in kind. How counterproductive! This only feeds a cycle of negativity, that will spiral out of control until couples end up in therapy or in a divorce/ break up. No wonder - when partners lose sight of how they need each other for emotional security (and so never show it) any argument will turn nasty and shattering. Sue Johnson expresses the point very clearly:
'If you have a responsive love partner, you have a secure base in the chaos. If you are emotionally alone, you are in free fall.'
You don't want to be in free fall? Then don't be emotionally alone. How?
We saw it all along. First, have a deep understanding and acceptance of each other's personalities (what we discussed here). Then, interact by adjusting to your partner: speak their love language, not yours - if they truly respect and love you, they will respond likewise. Above all, do not let your selfish pride and ego fool you! You need your soulmate's validation to feel secure and happy; as much as they need yours. Accept it and show it! John Gottman goes even further in his ground-breaking book 'The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work', by outlining a few key attitudes for success: know each other intimately (engage, build what he calls a 'love map'), focus on the positive to develop mutual fondness and admiration (remember why you fell in love), turn towards each other for emotional support and help when in need (no, it's not being clingy!), and learn and influence each other instead of trying to negate and change each other's individualities (no ad hominem arguments!). These principles sound obvious enough, yet how many couples put them into practice? Then here we are: the keys to a happy love!
This post was originally published in Hirateh. 'A Vow', my collection of love poems, is available on Amazon: