I thought I knew everything about relationships. Then she handed me a quiz.
“Would you be willing to take a quiz?” she asked, and my eyeballs nearly fell out of my head. This was only our third date and she was already testing me—obviously so we could skip the get-to-know-you phase and either cut it off now, or shift to the long-term mindset.
I’d never been a fan of compatibility quizzes because people can give biased, or outright dishonest, answers to skew the results in their favor. Also, a quiz can only tell you so much. The most important thing isn’t some compatibility “type” but how those types interact. In my mind, the early days of a relationship were about learning what we were willing to compromise on, what idiosyncratic tendencies we could and could not live with, and what we were willing to change about ourselves. It took time and effort. This period of intense learning, compromise, and adjustment was the foundation of any stable, lasting relationship.
So why did she want to cut through all of this and build the foundation on a quiz? Well for one, she is smarter than me; I can willingly admit that now. But also, she knew what the quiz was going to tell her. Whereas I just leapt to a conclusion without bothering to gather any further information. I’m so smart I know everything without having to ask!
The quiz she wanted me to take can be found in a book called The 5 Love Languages, by Gary Chapman, and it wasn’t what I expected. Chapman says there are five generally preferred methods by which we give and receive love: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. If your love language is words of affirmation, you prefer when people verbalize their feelings. If your love language is acts of service, you prefer when people offer practical help. Partners don’t have to share the same love languages, but they do need to know each other’s and act on that knowledge.
My girlfriend asked that I take the quiz first, and then read the book. That way I wouldn’t bias my answers too much. (I’ll purposefully leave out specifics so that you can explore it on your own if you choose.) From her tone of her voice I could tell that she really believed we’d learn something valuable from it. I was skeptical. I couldn’t help thinking, what is this going to tell me? What is it going to tell her? But I held my tongue and answered the questions as honestly as I could. As she tallied my score, I learned that love languages exist on a continuum and we all speak more than one of them. For me, physical touch came first, quality time was a close second, and words of affirmation were minimal. That made sense. I’m naturally a quiet person and my favorite way to spend a Saturday night is to stay in, cuddle, and watch a movie.
After seeing my score, she hesitated a moment, as if unsure. Then she said, “I want to set you up for success,” and handed me her answers. A feeling a dread came over me when I saw that her top two love languages were receiving gifts and acts of service. Here we go, a woman who wants me to spend all my money and energy on her. That night I read through the book twice, a second time taking notes, especially on her two languages. As I did, my fear was quelled. Turns out there were lots of practical, economical ways to make her heart melt.
As I reflected on my past relationships through this new prism, I could see how I imposed my will without considering my partner’s preference. I thought I was being the greatest guy in the world by including my partner in every aspect of my life, but I didn’t include myself in every aspect of her life. My stuff always came first. If I didn’t have anything better going on, then we could do what she wanted—unless of course, it was something I didn’t enjoy. Then she’d have to find a friend or do it on her own. I can hear how arrogant this sounds. But at the time I was oblivious, and couldn’t figure out why my relationships failed again and again.
Here’s one example. I like to watch sports, and I love to take my girlfriend to sporting events. But my girlfriend has little to no interest in sports. So when I take her to the big game, it isn’t me treating her to a night out; it’s her giving me her time. The game and the time we spend at it are my love language, not hers. Buying her tickets to an event she wouldn’t attend if not for me doesn’t count as a gift. It’s important we both understand this; otherwise the relationship can start to feel one-sided. Both people can feel like they are doing all the giving because they value different aspects of the same activity. The book helped me identify exactly what I was giving to my partner, and what she was giving to me.
My biggest takeaway from the book was that different people value different things. I know, big news, right? It sounds so naive, but before then I hadn’t really stopped to think about the different ways people express love. The beginning of a relationship didn’t have to be fraught with peril and neglected feelings communicated through months of dating, phone calls, texts, and mixed messages. Instead, we could start by sharing up front how we express and prefer to receive love. I dare say this realization changed my whole perspective on relationships.
My girlfriend wasn’t quizzing me to determine if we were compatible. She was asking for information on how to make me happy. What we learned about each other, and ourselves, enhanced our relationship from the start, making our first year together a fun back-and-forth where we were both consistently amazed at the other’s ability to do exactly the right thing. I’m happy to report that this feeling remains. It was as if a roadmap suddenly opened in front of me, titled “This Way to Her Heart.” There are stops along the way. She is a smart, strong, beautiful woman who deserves the best. There are no shortcuts to the destination.
Scott Woods is a freelance writer living in Oakland.
Recommended Reading: The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts