My wife is super in to any sort of words of affirmation. It is easily, without a doubt, her number one love language, and during a life stage consisting of clingy kids and a potty training toddler and a thousand thankless tasks she performs every day, Christina needs these words of affirmation more than ever. There’s just one problem: it’s very hard for me to be verbally affirming.
Actually let me say that differently: it’s hard for me to be verbally affirming when I don’t feel like I mean it. Actually, let me try that again: if I don’t feel something deep in the core of my being then saying it to someone feels inauthentic.
Notice how that took me three times to get right? That, right there, is the problem. I want my words to be precise, heartfelt, perfect, and true. These stars align …. occasionally. My wife, however, needs verbal encouragement more often than that, and rightly so!
This has been a roadblock in our marriage for years: I’m inclined toward teasing, joking, and (hopefully gentle) sarcasm, but if Christina is only getting that from me, and very little affirmation, my small jokes feel like deep flesh wounds. Again, I want to be clear: this is a me problem, not a her problem.
For years trying to be the encourager she needs felt like being the exact opposite of who I naturally am: someone summoning up deep words of thanks on the regular while limiting my tendency to joke and tease to around once a week. That wasn’t just intimidating, it was discouraging! I didn’t know how to be that guy! So imagine my relief when I realized I didn’t have to be.
Recently, after Christina had made dinner I said “hey! I was hungry, and then you made food, and it was good, and now I’m not hungry!” It was kind of meant to be a joke—as in “look how bad I am at saying nice things”—but to my surprise Christina responded with ‘hey, thanks!”
And it was in that moment I realized I’d been seriously overthinking this “words of affirmation” thing. For years I had assumed Christina needed sonnets and treatises and words carved from the deepest of deep depths of my soul, polished and sanded, and presented to her as a fine jewel.
All the while Christina just wanted to know I saw what she was doing, and I appreciated it. Which I do!
And so now I try to always look for things she does, and verbally appreciate them. It can be as simple as “hey, I have so many shirts to choose from since you did laundry” or “the kids were kind of being little terrors today but you stayed calm. Good job!” It’s not Shakespeare, and it doesn’t have to be! I’m not saying “I love you to the depth, and breadth, and height that soul can reach,” I’m just letting Christina know that I see her, and what she’s doing, and appreciate it.
My point is this: what if what your spouse’s needs—words of affirmation, or physical touch, or gift giving— aren’t as hard to meet as you think? What if you’ve constructed a picture in your mind of your spouse’s needs using pieces of insecurity and half-formed ideas and misunderstanding, and what your spouse actually needs is something far more simple?
Another example: I am hardwired for physical affection, and it’s easiest to think of that need as revolving entirely around sex. Christina, however, has two super needy kids clinging to her all day long, which means her desire for sexual intimacy isn’t at an all-time high right now. This could easily become a huge impasse in our marriage, and to be honest, that’s something we struggle with at times.
However, when I was able to tell Christina “yes, I would like to have sex, but honestly right now if you’d just lightly scratch my arm that would feel really nice too!” she realized there’s degrees of physical affection I can receive that might feel less daunting for her.
So here’s what I’d encourage you to do: send this post to your spouse, and then plan a time to talk about it. Talk about that area of unmet expectation, maybe it’s words of affirmation or physical touch, or maybe it’s something else entirely! Don’t get defensive or judging, but instead talk about what you perceive your spouse needs, listen to how they respond, and then brainstorm together easier ways to meet that need.
The good news in all this is that maybe your spouse’s needs aren’t as hard to meet as you think!