Mixed Signals

By: Dr. Gregory Popcak

fighting couple

“No matter what I do, it’s never good enough. I just don’t feel like he loves me and I’m completely fed up.”  Colleen and David began marriage counseling as far apart as two people could be.     Often during a first session, I will make time to speak to the husband and wife separately, so that each can feel free to say what they need to without fear of being contradicted. Colleen took the first turn while David headed out for a cigarette.  “I have really tried hard to show him how much I love him.” She said. “I used to pack little notes in his lunch. I try to keep the house looking nice. I try to be romantic. Things have been rough for a while, but a couple of weeks ago, I thought I would try to do something special. I made a nice meal, lit candles, set the table with our good china….” Colleen trailed off, gathered her thoughts and began again.

“He barely said two words the whole meal. We just sat there, eating in silence. I wanted to stab him with my salad fork, I was so angry.” She grabbed for a Kleenex and composed herself. “It’s like that all the time. I try to do things that let him know that I love him, but he never responds. Not only doesn’t he appreciate what I do for him, he never does anything to show me he cares. He says he loves me, but those are just words. Why doesn’t he show me?”


We discussed a few more issues, getting the general overview of her situation, and then it was David’s turn.  “She is just so fussy. Everything has to be perfect all the time. I feel like it completely kills any spontaneity. The other week, she made this dinner. I came home and I was tired. I was really looking forward to an evening of just hanging out on the couch together, being close, just relaxing–maybe over a pizza or something–and I walk into all this pressure. She had the candles lit and the good china out.     All I wanted to do was get out of my jacket and tie, and all of a sudden I felt like I was underdressed in my own house.

“I was irritated, sure, but I figured this was important to her. We hadn’t been getting along all that well for a while, so I thought I would try to play along, maybe it would help soften her up a bit. I was enjoying the meal well enough, but then I saw her get that ‘prissy face’ she gets when she’s mad at me, and all I could think was, ‘Ah, man, what did I do now?’”  He sighed and made a face. “I was too tired to deal with it. I just kept my mouth shut and got out of there as fast as I could.”  David continued. “She’s always doing stuff like that. I’m always trying to do things to let her know I love her. I try to hug her, but she’s always a million miles away. I used to call her from work to see how she was, but she was always too busy with some project to talk. I tell her I love her, but she says, “That’s just words!”     I love to fix things and keep the house in good shape, you know, guy stuff (he smiled conspiratorially) but she doesn’t really need me to do any of that for her because she’s so competent. Meanwhile, I’m killing myself trying to show her that I care, and she isn’t doing anything for me. It’s always about what she wants.     I just got sick of it after a while.”


David and Colleen were struggling with a common but serious marital problem. Specifically, the couple’s individual “lovestyles” were crossed.     To put it another way, each was working hard to communicate love to the other in a way that made sense to him or her self, but was completely irrelevant to the other. Colleen, having a more visual lovestyle liked to concentrate on atmosphere.  She was attentive to details, and showed her love in the way she decorated the house, presented a meal, and set the mood with candles and other visual indicators of affection like her appearance, or notes and cards.  David on the other hand was not as visual as his wife. Employing both kinesthetic (kin-es-TET-ic) and auditory lovestyles, he was more oriented to touch and action-oriented expressions of love as well as verbal affection. He tried to communicate his feelings for Colleen through acts of service, hugs and other physical displays of affection, and calling her to check on her day, in addition to saying, “I love you.” as much as possible. Unfortunately, despite all this love going around, both David and Colleen felt horribly neglected.

Back to School.

To understand the concept of lovestyles better, I need to take you back to grade school for a minute. Teachers spend a great deal of time trying to figure out how their students learn best (their “Learning styles”). Some students are visual learners, and do well with reading assignments, workbook pages, and other visual input. Others are more auditory learners. They need to be talked through tasks. They also do well in lecture classes and discussion groups and other oral/auditory learning activities.     Others still are kinesthetic learners, who learn by doing. These students learn through their hands and do well with projects, acting out assignments, manipulatives, and other physical activities that inspire learning.  Because learning styles are neurologically based, they don’t disappear in adulthood, they generalize out of the classroom and become communication styles–and in marriage– what I call, “lovestyles,” which brings us back to our couple.

Both Colleen and David were working very hard to demonstrate their love for one another, but almost all of their efforts were for naught, because they were communicating love in a manner that the other was not neurologically “wired” to receive. Because of that, Colleen’s visual efforts at romance were dismissed as mere, “fussiness” by the more kinesthetic David, and David’s attempts to communicate love through physical affection and words were experienced by Colleen as being either “groping” or as “empty words” respectively.  When I explained this to the couple, they were initially underwhelmed if not outright pessimistic. David said, “It sounds like you’re saying we’re doomed. That we’re just wired differently and that’s all there is to it.”  Clearly, this is not what I was trying to say. The good news is, to the degree that you have five senses, you can rewire and expand your lovestyle. The difficulty is that it simply never occurs to most people.     A person with a more visual lovestyle tends to believe that everyone should give and receive affection just as they do. It never occurs to them to try anything else.     The same is true of the other lovestyles. So they tend to dismiss, or simply miss, those displays of affection not communicated in the lovestyle they are most comfortable with. And it never occurs to anyone to notice all that they are missing.


The answer to this problem is a combination of generosity and awareness. Catholic marriages are founded on the notion of self-donative love, the idea that it is a spouse’s duty and privilege to use his or her whole self–body, mind, and spirit–to work for the good of the other. By challenging our comfort zones and consciously working to love our spouse the way he or she needs to be loved, instead of just the way we want to love him or her, we expand our capacity to give and receive love, and open our own minds to experiencing a world previously unknown to us.  I suggested that David and Colleen try an experiment.     I asked them to list at least twenty different actions that communicated love or attentiveness to them. These items could be more romantic, like cards and flowers, or they could be more mundane, like taking the garbage to the curb, or giving up the TV remote for the evening. The only requirements were that these activities should be low-expense, not terribly time consuming, and still be meaningful enough to cause the recipient to have a gut-level reaction that says, “Ahh! That made me feel very well taken care of.”

Over the next few sessions, David and Colleen developed their lists and worked to overcome some of the basic objections to each other’s requests. Colleen said, “One of the first reactions to some of the things he wrote down was, “You want me to do WHAT!?     I’m ashamed to admit it now, because it wasn’t as if he was asking for anything immoral or demeaning, he just wanted me to do things that don’t mean a great deal to me, and would require me to challenge my comfort level. Things like holding his hand in public, or sitting on the couch and snuggling together in front of the fire even if there were chores that still needed to be done, or keeping him company when he changes the oil. I would NEVER think of doing those things on my own, and honestly, when he has asked me to do them in the past, I just dismissed them because they didn’t mean anything to me.”

David agreed. “My first reaction to her list was, ‘This is really stupid.’     I think I’m a pretty loving guy, but a lot of the things she wrote down didn’t seem so much loving, as they were fussy. ‘Wear something nicer than old sweats in the evening.’ or, ‘Write me a note that says you love me and why.’ or ‘make sure the bedroom is straightened up and light candles when you want to make love.’ I just don’t care about that kind of stuff on my own. Honestly, it seemed a little silly. I mean, why would I need to write her a note? I tell her I love all the time. I just thought she was being picky.”  But after we spent some time addressing their objections and they had an opportunity to practice the items on each other’s lists, the difference was remarkable. As Colleen put it, “It occurred to me that I had been very selfish.     I was only willing to love him the way I wanted to love him. I didn’t care how he needed to be loved. In a sense, my loving efforts in the past were more focused on helping me feel good than they were showing him affection in any meaningful way.”

David added, “It was hard for me to remember to do the things on her list at first, because they just don’t come naturally to me at all. But I tried to check the list everyday and tell myself that it wasn’t important if this stuff meant anything to me. It was just important that I wanted her to know I loved her, and in order to do that, I needed to learn to speak her language. And the first time she read the little love note I wrote in about ten minutes earlier in the day, she just beamed. I knew I’d scored big.”  But the benefits didn’t end there. David and Colleen both learned important lessons about themselves and opened their eyes to new ways to experience and share love. As David put it, “Colleen told me that she can really see how doing these things is helping her become a more open, loving person who is more relaxed and less ashamed about showing affection. And I’m becoming a whole lot more attentive as a husband. I used to think that as long as I was a better husband than most of the guys at the office, that was good enough. Now I realize that God expects me to be the husband she needs me to be, not just the husband my friends think I ought to be.”

If you are experiencing the tension of loving someone with a different love language, call your PaxCare Tele-Coach today and find the solutions you are looking for. Call us to get the skills you need to succeed.

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