Mark Twain once said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” If we take Twain literally, six compliments a year would have kept his emotional love tank at the operational level. Your spouse will probably need more.
One way to express love emotionally is to use words that build up. Solomon, author of the ancient Hebrew wisdom literature, wrote, “The tongue has the power of life and death.”1 Many couples have never learned the tremendous power of verbally affirming each other. Solomon further noted, “An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up.”2
Verbal compliments, or words of appreciation, are powerful communicators of love. They are best expressed in simple, straightforward statements of affirmation, such as:
“You look sharp in that suit.”
“Do you ever look nice in that dress! Wow!”
“You must be the best potato cook in the world. I love these potatoes.”
“I really appreciate your washing the dishes tonight.”
“Thanks for getting the baby-sitter lined up tonight. I want you to know I don’t take that for granted.”
“I really appreciate your taking the garbage out.”
What would happen to the emotional climate of a marriage if the husband and wife heard such words of affirmation regularly?
Several years ago, I was sitting in my office with my door open.
A lady walking down the hall said, “Have you got a minute?”
“Sure, come in.”
She sat down and said, “Dr. Chapman, I’ve got a problem. I can’t get my husband to paint our bedroom. I have been after him for nine months. I have tried everything I know, and I can’t get him to paint it.”
My first thought was, Lady, you are at the wrong place. I am not a paint contractor. But I said, “Tell me about it.”
She said, “Well, last Saturday was a good example. You remember how pretty it was? Do you know what my husband did all day long? He washed and waxed the car.”
“So what did you do?”
“I went out there and said, ‘Bob, I don’t understand you. Today would have been a perfect day to paint the bedroom, and here you are washing and waxing the car.’”
“So did he paint the bedroom?” I inquired.
“No. It’s still not painted. I don’t know what to do.”
“Let me ask you a question,” I said. “Are you opposed to clean, waxed cars?”
“No, but I want the bedroom painted.”
“Are you certain that your husband knows that you want the bedroom painted?”
“I know he does,” she said. “I have been after him for nine months.”
“Let me ask you one more question. Does your husband ever do anything good?”
“Oh, like taking the garbage out, or getting bugs off the windshield of the car you drive, or putting gas in the car, or paying the electric bill, or hanging up his coat?”
“Yes,” she said, “he does some of those things.”
“Then I have two suggestions. One, don’t ever mention painting the bedroom again.” I repeated, “Don’t ever mention it again.”
“I don’t see how that’s going to help,” she said.
The object of love is not getting something you want but doing something for the well-being of the one you love. It is a fact, however, that when we receive affirming words we are far more likely to be motivated to reciprocate.
“Look, you just told me that he knows that you want the bedroom painted. You don’t have to tell him anymore. He already knows. The second suggestion I have is that the next time your husband does anything good, give him a verbal compliment. If he takes the garbage out, say, ‘Bob, I want you to know that I really appreciate your taking the garbage out.’ Don’t say, ‘About time you took the garbage out. The flies were going to carry it out for you.’ If you see him paying the electric bill, put your hand on his shoulder and say, ‘Bob, I really appreciate your paying the electric bill. I hear there are husbands who don’t do that, and I want you to know how much I appreciate it.’ Every time he does anything good, give him a verbal compliment.”
“I don’t see how that’s going to get the bedroom painted.”
I said, “You asked for my advice. You have it. It’s free.”
She wasn’t very happy with me when she left. Three weeks later, however, she came back to my office and said, “It worked!” She had learned that verbal compliments are far greater motivators than nagging words.
I am not suggesting verbal flattery in order to get your spouse to do something you want. The object of love is not getting something you want but doing something for the well-being of the one you love. It is a fact, however, that when we receive affirming words we are far more likely to be motivated to reciprocate and do something our spouse desires.
Giving verbal compliments is only one way to express words of affirmation to your spouse. Another dialect is encouraging words. The word encourage means “to inspire courage.” All of us have areas in which we feel insecure. We lack courage, and that lack of courage often hinders us from accomplishing the positive things that we would like to do. The latent potential within your spouse in his or her areas of insecurity may await your encouraging words.
Allison had always liked to write. Late in her college career, she took a few courses in journalism. She quickly realized that her excitement about writing exceeded her interest in history, which had been her academic major. It was too late to change majors, but after college and especially before the first baby, she wrote several articles. She submitted one article to a magazine, but when she received a rejection slip, she never had the courage to submit another. Now that the children were older and she had more time to contemplate, Allison was again writing.
Keith, Allison’s husband, had paid little attention to Allison’s writing in the early days of their marriage. He was busy with his own vocation and caught up in the pressure of climbing the corporate ladder. In time, however, Keith had realized that life’s deepest meaning is not found in accomplishments but in relationships. He had learned to give more attention to Allison and her interests. So it was quite natural one night for him to pick up one of Allison’s articles and read it. When he finished, he went into the den where Allison was reading a book. With great enthusiasm, he said, “I hate to interrupt your reading, but I have to tell you this. I just finished reading your article on ‘Making the Most of the Holidays.’ Allison, you are an excellent writer. This stuff ought to be published! You write clearly. Your words paint pictures that I can visualize. You have a fascinating style. You have to submit this stuff to some magazines.”
“Do you really think so?” Allison asked hesitantly.
“I know so,” Keith said. “I’m telling you, this is good.”
When Keith left the room, Allison did not resume her reading. With the closed book in her lap, she dreamed for thirty minutes about what Keith had said. She wondered if others would view her writing the same way he did. She remembered the rejection slip she had received years ago, but she reasoned that she was a different person now. Her writing was better. She had had more experiences. Before she left the chair to get a drink of water, Allison had made a decision. She would submit her articles to some magazines. She would see if they could be published.
Keith’s encouraging words were spoken fourteen years ago. Allison has had numerous articles published since then and now has a book contract. She is an excellent writer, but it took the encouraging words from her husband to inspire her to take the first step in the arduous process of getting an article published.
Perhaps your spouse has untapped potential in one or more areas of life. That potential may be awaiting your encouraging words. Perhaps she needs to enroll in a course to develop that potential. Maybe he needs to meet some people who have succeeded in that area, who can give him insight on the next step he needs to take. Your words may give your spouse the courage necessary to take that first step.
Please note that I am not talking about pressuring your spouse to do something that you want. I am talking about encouraging him to develop an interest that he already has. For example, some husbands pressure their wives to lose weight. The husband says, “I am encouraging her,” but to the wife it sounds like condemnation. Only when a person wants to lose weight can you give her encouragement. Until she has the desire, your words will fall into the category of preaching. Such words seldom encourage. They are almost always heard as words of judgment, designed to stimulate guilt. They express not love but rejection.
Encouragement requires empathy and seeing the world from your spouse’s perspective. We must first learn what is important to our spouse.
If, however, your spouse says, “I think I would like to enroll in a weight-loss program this fall,” then you have opportunity to give words of encouragement. Encouraging words would sound like this. “If you decide to do that, I can tell you one thing. You will be a success. That’s one of the things I like about you. When you set your mind to something, you do it. If that’s what you want to do, I will certainly do everything I can to help you. And don’t worry about the cost of the program. If it’s what you want to do, we’ll find the money.” Such words may give your spouse the courage to phone the weight-loss center.
Encouragement requires empathy and seeing the world from your spouse’s perspective. We must first learn what is important to our spouse. Only then can we give encouragement. With verbal encouragement, we are trying to communicate, “I know. I care. I am with you. How can I help?” We are trying to show that we believe in him and in his abilities. We are giving credit and praise.
Most of us have more potential than we will ever develop. What holds us back is often courage. A loving spouse can supply that all-important catalyst. Of course, encouraging words may be difficult for you to speak. It may not be your primary love language. It may take great effort for you to learn this second language. That will be especially true if you have a pattern of critical and condemning words, but I can assure you that it will be worth the effort.
Love is kind. If then we are to communicate love verbally, we must use kind words. That has to do with the way we speak. The same sentence can have two different meanings, depending on how you say it. The statement “I love you,” when said with kindness and tenderness, can be a genuine expression of love. But what about the statement “I love you?” The question mark changes the whole meaning of those three words. Sometimes our words are saying one thing, but our tone of voice is saying another. We are sending double messages. Our spouse will usually interpret our message based on our tone of voice, not the words we use.
“I would be delighted to wash dishes tonight,” said in a snarling tone will not be received as an expression of love. On the other hand, we can share hurt, pain, and even anger in a kind manner, and that will be an expression of love. “I felt disappointed and hurt that you didn’t offer to help me this evening,” said in an honest, kind manner can be an expression of love. The person speaking wants to be known by her spouse. She is taking steps to build intimacy by sharing her feelings. She is asking for an opportunity to discuss a hurt in order to find healing. The same words expressed with a loud, harsh voice will be not an expression of love but an expression of condemnation and judgment.
The manner in which we speak is exceedingly important. An ancient sage once said, “A soft answer turns away anger.” When your spouse is angry and upset and lashing out words of heat, if you choose to be loving you will not reciprocate with additional heat but with a soft voice. You will receive what he is saying as information about his emotional feelings. You will let him tell you of his hurt, anger, and perception of events. You will seek to put yourself in his shoes and see the event through his eyes and then express softly and kindly your understanding of why he feels that way. If you have wronged him, you will be willing to confess the wrong and ask forgiveness. If your motivation is different from what he is reading, you will be able to explain your motivation kindly. You will seek understanding and reconciliation, and not to prove your own perception as the only logical way to interpret what has happened. That is mature love—love to which we aspire if we seek a growing marriage.
Love doesn’t keep a score of wrongs. Love doesn’t bring up past failures. None of us is perfect. In marriage we do not always do the best or right thing. We have sometimes done and said hurtful things to our spouses. We cannot erase the past. We can only confess it and agree that it was wrong. We can ask for forgiveness and try to act differently in the future. Having confessed my failure and asked forgiveness, I can do nothing more to mitigate the hurt it may have caused my spouse. When I have been wronged by my spouse and she has painfully confessed it and requested forgiveness, I have the option of justice or forgiveness. If I choose justice and seek to pay her back or make her pay for her wrongdoing, I am making myself the judge and her the felon. Intimacy becomes impossible. If, however, I choose to forgive, intimacy can be restored. Forgiveness is the way of love.
I am amazed by how many individuals mess up every new day with yesterday. They insist on bringing into today the failures of yesterday and in so doing, they pollute a potentially wonderful day. “I can’t believe you did it. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. You can’t possibly know how much you hurt me. I don’t know how you can sit there so smugly after you treated me that way. You ought to be crawling on your knees, begging me for forgiveness. I don’t know if I can ever forgive you.” Those are not the words of love but of bitterness and resentment and revenge.
If we are to develop an intimate relationship, we need to know each other’s desires. If we wish to love each other, we need to know what the other person wants.
The best thing we can do with the failures of the past is to let them be history. Yes, it happened. Certainly it hurt. And it may still hurt, but he has acknowledged his failure and asked your forgiveness. We cannot erase the past, but we can accept it as history. We can choose to live today free from the failures of yesterday. Forgiveness is not a feeling; it is a commitment. It is a choice to show mercy, not to hold the offense up against the offender. Forgiveness is an expression of love. “I love you. I care about you, and I choose to forgive you. Even though my feelings of hurt may linger, I will not allow what has happened to come between us. I hope that we can learn from this experience. You are not a failure because you have failed. You are my spouse, and together we will go on from here.” Those are the words of affirmation expressed in the dialect of kind words.
Love makes requests, not demands. When I demand things from my spouse, I become a parent and she the child. It is the parent who tells the three-year-old what he ought to do and, in fact, what he must do. That is necessary because the three-year-old does not yet know how to navigate in the treacherous waters of life. In marriage, however, we are equal, adult partners. We are not perfect to be sure, but we are adults and we are partners. If we are to develop an intimate relationship, we need to know each other’s desires. If we wish to love each other, we need to know what the other person wants.
The way we express those desires, however, is all-important. If they come across as demands, we have erased the possibility of intimacy and will drive our spouse away. If, however, we make known our needs and desires as requests, we are giving guidance, not ultimatums. The husband who says, “You know those apple pies you make? Would it be possible for you to make one this week? I love those apple pies,” is giving his wife guidance on how to love him and thus build intimacy. On the other hand, the husband who says, “Haven’t had an apple pie since the baby was born. Don’t guess I’ll get any more apple pies for eighteen years,” has ceased being an adult and has reverted to adolescent behavior. Such demands do not build intimacy. The wife who says, “Do you think it will be possible for you to clean the gutters this weekend?” is expressing love by making a request. But the wife who says, “If you don’t get those gutters cleaned out soon, they are going to fall off the house. They already have trees growing out of them!” has ceased to love and has become a domineering spouse.
When you make a request of your spouse, you are affirming his or her worth and abilities. You are in essence indicating that she has something or can do something that is meaningful and worthwhile to you. When, however, you make demands, you have become not a lover but a tyrant. Your spouse will feel not affirmed but belittled. A request introduces the element of choice. Your mate may choose to respond to your request or to deny it, because love is always a choice. That’s what makes it meaningful. To know that my spouse loves me enough to respond to one of my requests communicates emotionally that she cares about me, respects me, admires me, and wants to do something to please me. We cannot get emotional love by way of demand. My spouse may in fact comply with my demands, but it is not an expression of love. It is an act of fear or guilt or some other emotion, but not love. Thus, a request creates the possibility for an expression of love, whereas a demand suffocates that possibility.
Words of affirmation are one of the five basic love languages. Within that language, however, there are many dialects. We have discussed a few already, and there are many more. Entire volumes and numerous articles have been written on these dialects. All of the dialects have in common the use of words to affirm one’s spouse. Psychologist William James said that possibly the deepest human need is the need to feel appreciated. Words of affirmation will meet that need in many individuals. If you are not a man or woman of words, if it is not your primary love language but you think it may be the love language of your spouse, let me suggest that you keep a notebook titled “Words of Affirmation.” When you read an article or book on love, record the words of affirmation you find. When you hear a lecture on love or you overhear a friend saying something positive about another person, write it down. In time, you will collect quite a list of words to use in communicating love to your spouse.
You may also want to try giving indirect words of affirmation, that is, saying positive things about your spouse when he or she is not present. Eventually, someone will tell your spouse, and you will get full credit for love. Tell your wife’s mother how great your wife is. When her mother tells her what you said, it will be amplified, and you will get even more credit. Also affirm your spouse in front of others when he or she is present. When you are given public honor for an accomplishment, be sure to share the credit with your spouse. You may also try your hand at writing words of affirmation. Written words have the benefit of being read over and over again.
I learned an important lesson about words of affirmation and love languages in Little Rock, Arkansas. My visit with Bill and Betty Jo was on a beautiful spring day. They lived in a cluster home with white picket fence, green grass, and spring flowers in full bloom. It was idyllic. Once inside, however, I discovered that the idealism ended. Their marriage was in shambles. Twelve years and two children after the wedding day, they wondered why they had married in the first place. They seemed to disagree on everything. The only thing they really agreed on was that they both loved the children. As the story unraveled, my observation was that Bill was a workaholic who had little time left over for Betty Jo. Betty Jo worked part-time, mainly to get out of the house. Their method of coping was withdrawal. They tried to put distance between themselves so that their conflicts would not seem as large. But the gauge on both love tanks read “empty.”
They told me that they had been going for marriage counseling but didn’t seem to be making much progress. They were attending my marriage seminar, and I was leaving town the next day. This would likely be my only encounter with Bill and Betty Jo. I decided to put all my eggs in one basket.
I spent an hour with each of them separately. I listened intently to both stories. I discovered that in spite of the emptiness of their relationship and their many disagreements, they appreciated certain things about each other. Bill acknowledged, “She is a good mother. She also is a good housekeeper and an excellent cook when she chooses to cook. But,” he continued, “there is simply no affection coming from her. I work my butt off and there is simply no appreciation.” In my conversation with Betty Jo, she agreed that Bill was an excellent provider. “But,” she complained, “he does nothing around the house to help me, and he never has time for me. What’s the use of having the house, the recreational vehicle, and all the other things if you don’t ever get to enjoy them together?”
With that information, I decided to focus my advice by making only one suggestion to each of them. I told Bill and Betty Jo separately that each one held the key to changing the emotional climate of the marriage. “That key,” I said, “is to express verbal appreciation for the things you like about the other person and, for the moment, suspending your complaints about the things you do not like.” We reviewed the positive comments they had already made about each other and helped each of them write a list of those positive traits. Bill’s list focused on Betty Jo’s activities as a mother, housekeeper, and cook. Betty Jo’s list focused on Bill’s hard work and financial provision of the family. We made the lists as specific as possible. Betty Jo’s list looked like this:
He hasn’t missed a day of work in twelve years. He is aggressive in his work.
He has received several promotions through the years. He is always thinking of ways to improve his productivity.
He makes the house payment each month.
He also pays the electrical bill, the gas bill, the water bill.
He bought us a recreational vehicle three years ago.
He mows the grass or hires someone to do it each week in the spring and summer.
He rakes the leaves or hires someone to do it in the fall.
He provides plenty of money for food and clothing for the family.
He carries the garbage out about once a month.
He provides money for me to buy Christmas presents for the family.
He agrees that I can use the money I make at my part-time job any way I desire.
Bill’s list looked like this:
She makes the beds every day.
She vacuums the house every week.
She gets the kids off to school every morning with a good breakfast.
She cooks dinner about three days a week.
She buys the groceries.
She helps the children with their homework.
She transports the children to school and church activities.
She teaches first grade Sunday school.
She takes my clothes to the cleaners.
She does the washing and some ironing.
I suggested that they add to the lists things they noticed in the weeks ahead. I also suggested that twice a week, they select one positive trait and express verbal appreciation for it to the spouse. I gave one further guideline. I told Betty Jo that if Bill happened to give her a compliment, she was not to give him a compliment at the same time but rather, she should simply receive it and say, “Thank you for saying that.” I told Bill the same thing. I encouraged them to do that every week for two months, and if they found it helpful, they could continue. If the experiment did not help the emotional climate of the marriage, then they could write it off as another failed attempt.
The next day, I got on the plane and returned home. I made a note to call Bill and Betty Jo two months later to see what had happened. When I called them in mid-summer, I asked to speak to each of them individually. I was amazed to find that Bill’s attitude had taken a giant step forward. He had guessed that I had given Betty Jo the same advice I had given him, but that was all right. He loved it. She was expressing appreciation for his hard work and his provision for the family. “She has actually made me feel like a man again. We’ve got a ways to go, Dr. Chapman, but I really believe we are on the road.”
When I talked to Betty Jo, however, I found that she had only taken a baby step forward. She said, “It has improved some, Dr. Chapman. Bill is giving me verbal compliments as you suggested, and I guess he is sincere. But, Dr. Chapman, he’s still not spending any time with me. He is still so busy at work that we never have time together.”
As I listened to Betty Jo, the lights came on. I knew that I had made a significant discovery. The love language of one person is not necessarily the love language of another. It was obvious that Bill’s primary love language was Words of Affirmation. He was a hard worker, and he enjoyed his work, but what he wanted most from his wife was expressions of appreciation for his work. That pattern was probably set in childhood, and the need for verbal affirmation was no less important in his adult life. Betty Jo, on the other hand, was emotionally crying out for something else. Positive words were fine, but her deep emotional longing is for something else. That brings us to love language number two.
1. Proverbs 18:21.
2. Proverbs 12:25.
If your spouse’s love language is Words of Affirmation:
1. To remind yourself that “Words of Affirmation” is your spouse’s primary love language, print the following on a 3x5 card and put it on a mirror or other place where you will see it daily:
Words are important! Words are important! Words are important!2. For one week, keep a written record of all the words of affirmation you give your spouse each day. At the end of the week, sit down with your spouse and review your record. On Monday, I said: “You did a great job on this meal.” “You really look nice in that outfit.” “I really appreciate your picking up the laundry.” On Tuesday, I said: etc. You might be surprised how well (or how poorly) you are speaking words of affirmation. 1. Set a goal to give your spouse a different compliment each day for one month. If “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” maybe a compliment a day will keep the counselor away. (You may want to record these compliments also, so you will not duplicate the statements.)
2. As you read the newspaper, magazines, and books, or watch TV or listen to radio, look for words of affirmation which people use. Observe people in conversation. Write those affirming statements in a notebook. (If they are cartoons, clip and paste them in your notebook.) Read through these periodically and select those you could use with your spouse. When you use one, note the date on which you used it. Your notebook may become your love book. Remember, words are important!
3. Write a love letter, a love paragraph, or a love sentence to your spouse, and give it quietly or with fanfare! (Chances are, when he dies, you will find your love letter tucked away in some special place.) Words are important!
4. Compliment your spouse in the presence of his parents or friends. You will get double credit: Your spouse will feel loved and the parents will feel lucky to have such a great son-in-law or daughter-in-law.
5. Look for your spouse’s strengths and tell her how much you appreciate those strengths. Chances are she will work hard to live up to her reputation.
6. Tell your children how great their mother or father is. Do this behind your spouse’s back and in her presence.
7. Write a poem describing how you feel about your spouse. If you are not a poet, choose a card that expresses how you feel. Underline special words and add a few of your own at the end.
8. If you find speaking “Words of Affirmation” is difficult for you, practice in front of a mirror. Use a cue card if you must, and remember, words are important.