5 Emotional Love Languages For Expat Partners

No one knows as well as an expat what it’s like to try communicate without speaking the language of the host country. Gestures, nods and smiles only go so far. Feelings of confusion, frustration, misunderstanding and anger are felt when communication is blocked.

The same emotions can be felt within expat marriages when we can’t convey our love as we’d like. Dr. Gary Chapman, a marriage and family psychologist, in his book “The Five Languages of Love”, states that people speak different love languages. Your emotional love language and the language of your spouse may be as different as Cantonese and English. Once you know what love language your partner understands, you can learn to speak their language, connecting you deeply.

The 5 Emotional Languages of Love

1. Affirming Words

Words of affirmation build up, acknowledge, compliment and express your appreciation. They mean the world to someone who has this as a love language. On the opposite end, when you cut them down, say hurtful or angry words, your spouse is deeply wounded. Ideas:

Acknowledging words – “You look stunning in…” ;  “You are… such a great cook, a nurturing mother, so courageous facing your team like that…”  ; “I so appreciate…” ; “Thanks so much for…” ; “I love it when you…” ; “I see ______ in you.” – 

Indirect complementing – Compliment your partner to someone else, either with or without them present. “My wife has…coped so well with our relocation…done an amazing job of setting up our new place to make it a home…”Love note with flowers

 Writing words allows something tangible to keep –  texts, emails, cards, notes left under the her pillow or in a file he’s taking to work; left in a clothes wardrobe or kitchen drawer – a lovely surprise.  This picture is of a card my husband gave me that meant so much. He knows this is my primary love language and affirms me in amazing ways!

 Encouraging words inspire courage. What is your spouse struggling with? Encourage their efforts and how you see them trying. Be their “word” champion.

2. Physical Touch

Just reading it puts a sly grin on guy’s faces. “Yup. This is my love language”, they say! This language isn’t all about physical intimacy, though that is part of it. A person with this as their primary language longs for other physical touch often and regularly. When they’re stressed, or in crisis, physical touch is extremely important.

Ideas: Hugs, pats on the back, holding hands, thoughtful touches on the arm, shoulder, or face, massage, around waist or small of back, a gentle rub where they like it most, cuddling on the couch or in bed, an arm draped around shoulders…

Physical touch can make or break a marriage because it communicates either love or anger. The best way to find out how your spouse enjoys being touched is to ask. Don’t assume. Touch is done in their way and time, not yours. Some touches may be uncomfortable or irritating while others convey you love them deeply.

3. Quality Time

Quality time is all about really being there for your spouse. It’s focused attention. This can be hard with cell phone alerts, or when tasks trump relationships. If your spouse has this as their primary love language, the best thing you can do is turn off the TV, cell phone, settle the kids in bed, and put any chores on hold. A failure to listen or focus attention can really hurt.


Quality activities are any activity that your spouse or both of you have an interest in. My husband loves browsing show homes and sitting in the hot tub. So guess what I do? He alsCouple eating togethero loves watching the news in the evening – I don’t do it every evening, yet sitting with him means connection (I have learnt NOT to talk). Quality activities give great memories to draw from in hard times.

 Quality conversation allows you to understand and by focusing on what you’re hearing. It’s not about analyzing problems or coming up with solutions. Marriage is a relationship, not a problem to be solved. So listen to understand feelings, thoughts, desires and dreams. Nothing needs to be fixed – just interacted with. “What I hear you saying is…” or “It sounds like…” are a good way to paraphrase what you hear.

4. Receiving Gifts

Spouses with this love language thrive on the love, thoughtfulness and effort behind a gift. It shows they are known, prized, and cherished. A missed birthday, anniversary or a thoughtless gift can be disastrous. On the other hand, a gift says “he thought of me” or “she remembered me” even with busy schedules. Gifts can be made, found, or bought. If you don’t like spending money, see this as an investment you’re making into your relationship! Who do you know you gives gifts? Ask them for ideas. Ask your spouse what they like. Make a list of all the gifts your spouse has gotten excited about over the years.

Ideas:  Flowers – cut or potted; personal gifts such as jewelry, clothes, a book; written notes; something made; souvenirs; a magazine; give them the gift of your unexpected presence; special foods – chocolates, a gourmet package of something; add a treasure hunt before the gift for some anticipation…

5. Acts of Service

The spouse with this love language SO wants to hear “I’ll do that for you!” Anything that you can do to take a load of responsibility from them makes their day. When you make more work for them, or are lazy, they feel like they don’t matter. Acts of service need to be done with a positive and cheerful spirit! Show your love by doing things.

Ideas: Cook a meal, set the table, do the laundry, dust, put away your clothes, fold or iron clothes, take out the garbage, get to the ‘fix it’ list, sweep, take the kids for a walk or get them ready for bed, put away the kids toys while your spouse is getting the kids ready for bed…

My husband does 95% of the ironing! He knows it’s my most dreaded chore. Period breaks watching hockey on TV are the perfect time for him to pull out the ironing board.  Find out what would be most meaningful for your spouse, rather than what you most feel like doing. The sacrifice is well worth it!

How do you know what your love language is? Several questions to help you decide:

How do you most often express love to others? We often try to express our love to our spouse in the way we would like to receive love. If you’re regularly doing acts of service, this may be your love language. If you are consistently affirming people, then words of affirmation is likely your love language. Or if you want to hang out and be with people – either doing thing or talking, then quality time might be your primary love language.

What do you most often complain about? When you think, “My spouse doesn’t ever touch me if I didn’t touch him first,” physical touch may be your love language. When your spouse goes on a trip and you say, “You didn’t bring me anything!” receiving gifts could be your language. The statement, “We don’t ever spend time together,” indicates what? Your complaints often reveal unmet needs and desires. If you have difficulty remembering your complaints, ask your spouse. Chances are they will know. ?

What do you request of others most often? If you’re saying “Will you give me a back rub?” you’re asking for physical touch. “Do you think we could go to dinner, just the two of us this month?” is a request for what? What about “Could you help me bath the kids?”

Suggestions for moving forward from here

Go through this information together. Great in-home date night activity. Decide what your primary love language is and talk about how your partner has spoken it to you in the past. Give suggestions for what they can do moving forward.

Speak your spouses’ language. Just do it! Take a suggestion from above and try it out. There may be some awkwardness if you haven’t spoken this language much before. That’s natural and ok. It Couple huggingmay be messy. Keep trying. Make it a goal for 21 days, each day, to express this love language: it takes 21 consecutive days to develop a new habit.

Encourage each other. It’s hard learning a new language. Remember that and encourage your spouse when you see them trying. Learn to laugh, especially when it’s messy.  Learn to say “I see you’re trying. Thanks for trying. I so appreciate it. That was great… or, if you do it this way, it will mean even more to me.” Acknowledge the trying and speak into what works.

I encourage you to begin learning a new language for the sake of your spouse. If you’ve already been speaking it, become an expert. Speak it a little each day. A new depth and dimension will be added to your partnership!

Empowering you to build a strong expatriate marriage,

Signature of Becky Matchullis - Expat Family Resilience Coach


More resources:

Purchase “The Five Languages of Love: The Secret to Love That Lasts” by Gary Chapman: http://www.amazon.com/The-Love-Languages-Secret-Lasts/dp/0802473156

Take an assessment to see what your love language is: http://www.5lovelanguages.com/

Be held accountable with 5 languages in 5 weeks program – www.lovelanguagechallenge.com


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