Although love is a complex emotion, it can basically be deduced to this: It’s about how someone makes you feel. When you’re falling head over heels for a lover, their companionship makes you all warm and fuzzy inside. You feel giddy, alive, and above all, desired, wanted, and cherished. In the throes of love, each partner is reciprocating these feelings toward the other so that both benefit.

Unfortunately, the chemically induced bliss of the initial romance does not last forever. It fades away, and when it does, many couples find that they have very different “love scripts”; that is, their idea of what love is, what it means, and how it should be expressed differs quite a bit from that of their partner. With the chemical bliss gone and each partner operating according to a separate set of assumptions about how love should be shown, the signals that so attracted you to one another in the beginning can suddenly vanish, leaving one feeling unloved and unappreciated.

Nancy Taylor Robson describes how this problem cropped up in her own marriage: “I grew up in a household where presents marked special occasions. There was always a herringbone box for each of us under the tree at Christmas or at our place at the table on our birthdays. Additionally, Dad always gave Mom something each Valentine’s Day and anniversary – cards, a box of chocolates, some token, eagerly offered. I often accompanied him on these shopping expeditions. His joy in the hunt was infectious, proof of the pleasure of giving and of his love for her. I came to see these presents as the desirable norm, the tangible expression of a husband’s devotion, their absence a visible lack. So when I married a man who did not give presents on a regular basis, it was an adjustment.” (Canfield et al., 1999, p. 40)

She goes on to talk about her struggle to reconcile this present-less marriage with the script she had grown up observing. She tried to teach him by example, knitting her husband clothes and buying him presents for special occasions. When that failed, she dropped hints, pouted, complained, tried to explain, and ranted. None of it seemed to make any difference.

It wasn’t that Nancy’s husband was an unloving oaf. “Gary encourages my work, makes obvious his pleasure in our time together, willingly cooks, runs errands, does laundry, vacuums and chauffeurs the children,” she explains, “gifts to the whole family and an expression of our partnership.” (ibid, p. 42) The problem was that he found it difficult to express his love in the ways his wife desired.

Nancy is describing an all-too-common scenario that pops up in marriages and long-term relationships: that of differing love scripts and unique ways of expressing love. It’s a phenomenon that has been described by psychologists for decades and recently popularized with Gary Chapman’s book The Five Languages of Love, and it is one of the most common sources of frustration in relationships. Nancy, because of her upbringing, was conditioned to feel loved through the expression of gifts. These gestures held an emotional imprint in her mind, and she desperately wanted to rekindle these childhood experiences with her husband. Gary’s way of showing love, on the other hand, was through acts of service: deeds he did towards the family that made their life easier. Gift giving simply didn’t stir the same emotions, and so he likely viewed such gestures as trivial and meaningless.

Nancy goes on to write about how she was finally able to reconcile her husband’s way of expressing love with her own. Unfortunately, not all stories like this end so happily. In fact, it’s not uncommon for couples caught in this cycle to grow apart and wind up feeling cold, distant and unloved merely on account of the fact that their partner has a different way of expressing love than they do. Many husbands who are as clueless and unresponsive as Gary find themselves devoting far more energy to a DIVORCE than it would have taken to meet their spouse on their own terms.

Love is expressed in many different languages, and when couples don’t know how to speak a partner’s love language, it can spell disaster. This is one of the most common sources of conflict in relationships. Each partner ends up doubling down trying to express their love according to their own unique style, then feels awful when these gestures don’t seem to be reciprocated.

As one woman recalls: “For twenty-five years, I wondered what made him tick. Then I discovered that his love languages are quality time and physical touch. My love languages are words of affirmation and acts of service. When I stopped cleaning, cooking, and painting; took time to sit down and talk with him face-to-face; and started giving him loving touches, he began doing acts of service and giving me words of affirmation. We have entered a whole new stage of marriage.” (Chapman, 2005, p. 29)

Love scripts do not have to be compatible for a relationship to work, nor is it likely any two will ever match up perfectly. We’ve all had unique experiences that have gone into forging these expectations about the expression of love, making them as unique as a fingerprint. What is important, however, is that couples take the time to know and understand each others idea of love. If not, it can create ongoing conflict within the relationship as these differing expectations clash with one another. One spouse feels hurt when her partner’s actions don’t match up to her internal expectations of love, while her partner, never intending insult or injury, fails to understand why his spouse is “overreacting” or “making a big deal about nothing.”