Best Valentine’s Day gift? Learn what love means to your partner

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My last few blogs have dealt with several factors that can harm relationships or the psychological well-being of the people in them. In tribute of Valentine’s Day, this blog will briefly examine how the expectations surrounding such an event can cause problems on a day that is as supposed to celebrate love and commitment. (Although the history of this holiday might surprise some.)

Each year, countless people comment on how greeting card companies, chocolate manufacturers, florists and other businesses have brainwashed the masses simply to promote consumerism. Recently, more and more people are choosing to reject this holiday.

No one should be made to feel that what they are doing to demonstrate their love, affection and devotion for someone is “wrong,” whether they choose to follow the more common Valentine’s Day recommendations or they decide to resist the tradition altogether. Accordingly, this blog is not intended to criticize what anyone does on February 14.

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Instead, the reader is advised to consider the more general problem of what happens when two intimate partners have different ideas of what “love” is and how they should express it. This is a very common issue facing couples in my clinical practice, many of whom never thought to discuss such matters.

The reality is that there are so many different ways to conceptualize love. People typically develop their schemata or belief system regarding love and relationships based on what they observed between their caregivers or older family members growing up; what they observe on TV, in books and movies and other media; their friends’ stories; and/or their own personal experiences. Given these various factors, it should not be surprising that someone might have very discrepant views from his or her partner concerning love.

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Although I am not a fan of “pop psychology,” I do recommend many of my patients to take the quiz on this website based on a best-selling book from the 1990s, The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. The basic idea is that people typically want to receive or tend to express their love for others in at least five different ways—namely, through

–       words of affirmation

–       acts of service

–       giving/receiving gifts

–       quality time together

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–       physical touch

Although I do not promote any particular faith or religion (the book is faith-based), and I warn my patients that some of the choices in the quiz might be somewhat frustrating (one has to choose which of two options they would rather experience with their partner, yet sometimes neither option is particularly pleasurable or relevant), it is a great exercise for any couple to perform. I recommend that each person do the quiz for him/herself and then do it again, imagining how their partner would answer. The couple can then review the results together and may discover that they have been miscommunicating their feelings for each other. Most importantly, they can better learn what their partner may need in order to feel loved and valued.

Valentine’s Day obviously most strongly promotes the “giving/receiving gifts” language of love. Problems can arise if this is a very powerful language for one partner but a meaningless one for the other—especially if that other person feels, for instance, that all of the things they do for their partner every day is a far more important indication of their love than splurging on an expensive gift once per year. Again, the focus should not be on Valentine’s Day per se but rather on each person’s beliefs and expectations in the relationship in general.

My next blog will discuss Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love, which has helped many of my patients function more adaptively in their relationships. In the meantime, the interested reader can take the quiz on this website to learn more about this relatively simple yet valuable and interesting model. What better way to spend Valentine’s Day than proactively taking as many steps as possible to improve your chances of experiencing healthy and satisfying loving relationships now or in the future?

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