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‘My husband says he never has to be affectionate because he shows his love in other ways’

Ask Roe: He is not affectionate and never compliments me or says he loves me unprompted

Dear Roe,

My husband and I have been married for five years and we’ve had some issues with communication and connection. I’m a very affectionate person, so physical affection is very important to me, as well as sharing compliments and telling my husband that I love him. He is not very affectionate and almost never compliments me or says he loves me unprompted.

A couple of years ago, I did look up some tips and techniques to improve our communication, and came across the idea of love languages. My husband latched onto this and now says that his love language is acts of service, and that he expresses love by doing things around the house and watching our children, so I shouldn’t try change him and force him to be more affectionate.

But I do really struggle with feeling loved and appreciated. We do have sex fairly regularly, but I don’t enjoy it as much anymore because he doesn’t tell me he finds me attractive so my confidence is low. I don’t want to seem ungrateful for what he does for the family or nag him about this, but it’s difficult.


Ah, Love Languages, my nemesis. At last we meet.

For the uninitiated, the idea of love languages was popularised by the book The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate, by Dr Gary Chapman, first published in 1992.

Chapman’s argument was that there are five ways of expressing and receiving love – words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch.

Chapman believed most people enjoy each of these to a certain degree but individuals usually have one preferred love language, and recognising what love language you and your partner prefer can help you understand each other, and how to express your love together.

The basic categories offered by the love languages idea can be helpful in letting people identify the different ways that love, affection and appreciation can be expressed in a relationship, and articulate when one form is missing or being neglected.

My issue with the love languages idea is context and application, and this seems to be the problem you and your husband are experiencing. Chapman, who is an evangelical pastor with degrees in religious education and philosophy, used the love languages to describe broad relational dynamics that he had observed, and offered a framework to help think about communication styles. He did not declare these to be objective, universal truths; scientific or psychological facts; or unquestionable doctrine.

The problem arises when people like your husband latch onto the idea of people having one love language as an innate, immutable trait that people are born with, and use this as an excuse to never work on improving or developing their communication style, regardless of their partner’s needs. This is, frankly, immature and obnoxious.

As a parallel example, many people enjoy astrology and appreciate horoscopes as offering a fun, thoughtful perspective on their personality and the world. But if someone chooses to bully and steamroll everyone in their life while declaring “The stars said I’m just born stubborn! There’s no point trying to change or improve me, so you all have to shut up and put up with me!” – the problem isn’t that they’re a Taurus, it’s that they’re terrible.

Your husband might indeed find it easier to do things around the house than to tell you that he loves you. So what? Romantic relationships should not be defined by or limited to what each individual finds the easiest, but what works best for both people. That’s what makes it a partnership. Perfectly equal levels of happiness and fulfilment won’t always be achievable, of course, but both people should at least be invested in the effort.

It’s this effort and investment that sounds unequal in your relationship. Your husband doesn’t compliment you, tell you that he loves you, and isn’t physically affectionate. This is affecting your self-esteem, your sex life, and your marriage.

You’ve discussed this with him, actively researched communication techniques, have tried to make him understand how unappreciated and unloved you feel. And instead of listening to you, of acknowledging your needs, of making an effort, he’s instead using the rhetoric of the love languages – an idea you introduced him to! – to make all of this seem like this is your problem, not his.

(Tangentially, he’s also apparently saying that contributing to your shared household and “watching” his own children are proof of his love? No. They’re proof he is fulfilling the absolute basic minimum requirements of being a married person with children. Anyone who brags about “watching”, “minding”, or “babysitting” their own children is outing themselves as someone whose partner is doing the lion’s share of the work.)

Approach this conversation again, explaining how his lack of affection makes you feel, and the toll it’s taking on your relationship. Ask him why he is not more affectionate, and if there is an underlying cause that needs to be addressed.

Then ask how he is going to work on being more affectionate, what effort is he going to make so that his wife feels loved and appreciated – and start talking solutions. If he insists that he finds expressing physical and verbal affection incredibly difficult, get incredibly prescriptive. Give him a list of the type of compliments that make you feel good, and tell him to practice. Tell him that you want to hear that he loves you, unprompted, once a day for a month. Remind him of something romantic he did for you before you were married and ask him to top that.

If he genuinely finds romance and affection difficult, you’ve just given him the cheat-sheet. He may find it a bit awkward at first – but for someone who likes the idea of languages, he should understand that fluency always takes practice.

If your husband is unwilling to even try, however, then you may have a different problem: one of commitment, care or empathy. A couple’s counsellor may be necessary to help you communicate your way through that.

Roe McDermott is a writer and Fulbright scholar with an MA in sexuality studies from San Francisco State University. She is researching a PhD in gendered and sexual citizenship at the Open University and Oxford.

If you have a problem or query you would like her to answer, you can submit it anonymously at Only questions selected for publication can be answered.