Sex & Relationships

Not All Compliments Are Created Equal

Experts explain how to decode niceties from your partner.

by Laken Howard and Paulina Jayne Isaac
Originally Published: 
My boyfriend never compliments me. Is that normal?
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Nothing has the power to brighten your day quite like a well-placed, sincere compliment from someone you love. And depending on how the affirmation is delivered, it can serve multiple purposes. "First, they are nice gestures to make [people] feel good,” says Jonathan Bennett, a dating and relationships coach and owner of The Popular Man. “Second, they provide valuable, positive feedback. If you like something your partner does or a particular trait, complimenting them provides great reinforcement."

The benefits go both ways: According to the CBC, Canada’s national public broadcaster, doling out compliments can subconsciously make appreciation a daily habit, which in turn can boost your cognitive gratitude and psychological fitness.

But on the flip side, if you have a partner who never compliments you, it can start to erode your self-esteem over time, and not all niceties are created equal. If your partner could use a crash course — a Complimenting 101, if you will — start by tracking the ways your partner compliments you. It can reveal a lot about the relationship. Below, we check in with experts on some common compliment conundrums, and what each could mean about the fate of the relationship.


If They Never Compliment Your Appearance

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"If your partner never compliments your appearance, it could be a sign that your partner doesn’t find you very physically attractive," Bennett says, which could in turn damage your self-image, and is also a potential red flag. "So rather than giving insincere compliments, [they] will avoid saying anything on the topic and focus on other areas of attraction instead. But it’s also possible your partner values other traits more, like personality, humor, and intelligence."


If They Only Compliment Your Appearance

On the flip side, if your partner solely compliments your looks, that can also be a sign of trouble. “It indicates that they place an overly high value on physical characteristics," Bennett says. "While it can certainly be flattering to know your partner finds you physically attractive, if that’s all they focus on, it also could indicate shallowness. After all, long-term relationships are built on more than just physical attraction."


If They Give Backhanded Compliments

Being on the receiving end of a backhanded compliment is the pits, and it's even crappier when it's coming from a significant other. Bottom line? They’re manipulative and rude, and have no place in a healthy relationship. "Watch out for 'damning with faint praise,'" Bennett says. "This is when you get a compliment, but it’s a very weak one that might even be an insult."


If They Primarily Compliment You Online

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Gushing about your partner on Instagram is all well and good, as long as it’s not the only form of positive affirmation you recieve. According to Jennifer Chappell Marsh, a marriage and family therapist, a person who constantly posts about their significant other online might “be looking for positive attention in the absence of getting the reassurance from their partner,” she told Huffington Post earlier this year.


If They Rarely Give Compliments

Obviously there's no minimum "acceptable" number of compliments. It will vary in every relationship based on individual preferences. However, if you notice that your partner rarely compliments you — but feels comfortable criticizing you — that's a warning sign that your relationship is unhealthy. "I advise you to make compliments regular and sincere," Bennett says. "Don’t compliment excessively or to suck up. Most people know instinctively when your compliments aren’t sincere."


If Their Compliments Seem Insincere

What's worse than no compliments at all from your partner? Compliments that leave you questioning your partner's intentions. They can mess with your head, especially if they come at "convenient" moments (i.e., when your partner wants or needs something from you). "If the compliments seem insincere or manipulative, be wary,” Bennett says.


If Their Compliments Are Highly Specific

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"When we think of compliments, we think of giving them in a nonspecific way, but specific compliments are more effective because they tell a story and give very specific feedback of what is working in the relationship," says Marc Zola, a psychotherapist and founder of Eugene Therapy. "​Non-specific compliments can, over time, actually become sources of resentment and misdirection."


If They Compliment You All The Time

"If someone compliments you excessively, it might sound good in theory," Bennett says. "However, too many compliments can wear thin, especially if you feel your partner is doing it for selfish reasons, like wanting something from you.” Also, constant compliments could be a response to your partner’s own insecurity. Communicate your worries to them in order to get to the root of the excessive niceties.


If They Don’t Compliment You Often

If getting a compliment from your partner feels like a rarity, that could be a problem. Complimenting someone isn’t superficial; it shows appreciation. People want to feel seen. Are you constantly cleaning the house? Are you training for a marathon? Are you gunning for a promotion? Your partner should recognize what you care about and commend you for your work.


If They Compliment Things That Make You Insecure

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Everyone has insecurities. Maybe you’re embarrassed by athletic inability, or are worried about being a good parent. Having a partner who notices, and then takes the time to build up your confidence, is important.

"Many people have a natural gift of providing the right kind of positive feedback, delivered authentically, at the right moment," Bennett says. "If your partner possesses the ability to brighten your mood with a few words of praise when you need it most, it’s a great sign that they understand what makes you tick and appreciate your authentic self."


If They Compliment Your Hard Work

Being with a partner who notices how hard you work and the results of that energy is rewarding — be it in an elementary school classroom or board meeting. It shows they pay attention to you and to what matters to you.


If They Compliment Your Friends

Ding, ding, ding! Surprised to see this on the list? Don’t be. Think of Carrie Bradshaw’s friends! Many of Carrie’s suitors couldn’t handle Samantha’s candor or Charlotte’s antics. But Big could. It’s important to find someone who actually likes your friends. If they compliment the people you love, it ultimately shows their commitment to you.


Jonathan Bennett, counselor, part-time professor, and owner of The Popular Man

Marc Zola, LMFT, LPC, psychotherapist and founder of Eugene Therapy

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