By Molly Keeton, Ph.D.
The information in this article comes from a book by the same title “The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts” by Gary Chapman.
As I was reading this book, I found myself going back and forth in my response. One second I was thinking “this seems to be surface level sort of stuff – how profound of an impact can it really have?” The next minute, I was truly blown away by the depth of what could be communicated and healed by speaking one another’s love language. In the end, I found the concepts to be meaningful, relevant, and useful. While no one thing is going to be the solution to making love last, I believe this could be a valuable contributor. Learning one another’s love language (and actually taking the time to speak that language) not only offers love to one’s partner in a way that will make them feel the most loved, most secure, and most taken care of but also will convey investment and commitment to the relationship.
When I have come upon earlier editions of this book, I noticed that a very specific religious context was put upon the concepts. This is not the case in the most current version, which I read for this article. If you are looking for Christianity to be incorporated, you may enjoy the earlier edition. I am not certain what this might have added, but I can say that I did not find the book lacking in any way without this lens.
One final observation – I found the language in this book to be disappointingly heterosexist. The author often used the word “spouse” but mostly referred to “marriage”, “husband”, and “wife”. He made no mention of same sex relationships. It is never my preference to recommend a book that does not acknowledge and celebrate same sex relationships; however, I felt the information was valuable and wanted to share it. I also firmly believe that it applies to all people and relationships equally.
Falling in love, falling out of love
Human beings require love and affection. It is one of our most basic needs. The need to feel that we belong and are wanted is essential to the human experience and to our overall emotional health. This begins in infancy and childhood but does not end there. As adults, when we have that all consuming experience of falling “in love”, this need appears to be met in a very fulfilling way. When this happens, we feel as though we have met our soul mate. It is like heaven on earth – we could spend all day together and never run out of things to say. We have more in common with this person than we ever dreamed possible. They are a perfect fit to our best selves, our quirkiest selves, our truest selves. We hardly ever disagree, but when it happens, we are able to move on quickly. In dreaming of the future, we know bigger obstacles will come but are confident that we will triumph over them. Together we can work through anything because our love is special and we are truly committed.
Although our need to be loved is temporarily satisfied by early love, over time the euphoria begins to fade. Studies show that this infatuation stage of early romance can last up to about 2 years (it may last twice that long in the case of an affair) but does ultimately come to an end. “Welcome to the real world”… of partnership… “where hairs are always on the sink and little white spots cover the mirror… where shoes do not walk to the closet themselves… and socks go AWOL during laundry. In this world, a look can hurt and a word can crush. Intimate lovers can become enemies and marriage a battlefield” (p. 30).
We ask ourselves if we were wrong, was our love not the real thing, was it not meant to last? The truth is that it wasn’t meant to last – not the obsession of early love, during which nothing else seems to matter (work, housekeeping, paying bills, seeing friends and family). It is virtually impossible to keep any balance in one’s life during that initial and overpowering stage of love. As such, it is a good thing for the world that it does not go on forever.
The sense of connection during the early “in love” stage gives us a false sense of intimacy. It also gives us a false sense of ourselves – in this phase, we are truly selfless. Giving to our partner is the most gratifying thing on earth. Their faults are easy to overlook. This is made easier by the fact that our partner feels the same way towards us – truly loving and altruistic. However, as life goes on we inevitably return to our own interests and needs and so does our partner. We realize again that we are two people, not one. Two people with different goals, needs, feelings, preferences. We may feel we are falling out of love, and in a way this is true once that all consuming “in love” feeling begins to diminish. At this point, many couples may split. They may believe their only alternative to moving on and hoping to find “the one” is to settle into a life of disappointment with this person who so clearly does not understand their needs. However, one other option does exist – to recognize that the “in love” experience was meant to be temporary and to learn how to have a truly intimate long term relationship with one’s partner. True love cannot really begin until the obsessional love phase has come to its conclusion.
“True love’ …is emotional in nature but not obsessional. It is a love that unites reason and emotion. It involves an act of the will and requires discipline, and it recognizes the need for personal growth. Our most basic emotional need is not to fall in love but to be genuinely loved by another, to know a love that grows out of reason and choice, not instinct… if, once we return to the real world of human choice, we choose to be kind and generous, that is real love” (p. 32-33).
People speak one of five different love languages, usually the language of our caretakers, which we can think of as our native language. Each of the five basic love languages can contain a number of dialects. This means that there are countless ways to express love to one’s significant other while using their love language – the language that will truly make them feel loved. Over time, we may acquire new or different languages, but typically other languages will not come as easily as the primary language we were taught in our family of origin. One’s primary love language is likely to be drastically different from that of their spouse or significant other – possibly as different as English and Chinese. In order to communicate our love more effectively, we must be willing to identify our own love language, the language of our significant other, and to learn to speak one another’s love language.
Love Language #1: Words of Affirmation
Words of affirmation are words that build another up. These are words that express love verbally. They may be complimentary or express appreciation. They are as varied as one’s imagination and may speak to physical appearance (“Wow, are you looking hot tonight!”), a character trait (“You always go above and beyond for the people you love”), or encouragement (“You have both the talent and passion required to become a great artist”).
This literally means to “inspire courage”, to help build up our partner’s sense of security and self-esteem. This does not involve harassing your partner into doing something that you want them to do but helping them find the courage to pursue what is meaningful to them. It comes from a place of empathy and being able to see the world through one’s partner’s eyes.
To truly communicate love verbally, one must use kind words and a tone that matches. This is especially important in the face of an argument. When spoken with kind words, even sharing a disappointment (“I was really hurt that you did not make it on time to dinner tonight”) can build connection.
“Love makes requests, not demands” (p. 45). We need to know and understand one another’s desires in order to develop intimacy. Stating those desires as an order, a threat, or an ultimatum will not lead to connection. Sharing our needs and giving our partner a choice in meeting those is a way to guide them. Making a request of your partner indicates that s/he has something to offer, which affirms their worth.
Love Language #2: Quality Time
Quality time involves giving someone else your undivided attention. “When I sit with my”… partner… “and give her twenty minutes of my… time… and she does the same for me, we are giving each other twenty minutes of life. We will never have those twenty minutes again; we are giving our lives to each other” (p. 56).
This is more than just being in proximity or doing something together while paying attention to other things. On the contrary, it is not limited to sitting quietly and looking into each other’s eyes or having hours of conversation about our hopes and dreams. Focused attention may involve an activity that one or both of you enjoy, but the activity itself is almost irrelevant because our intention in doing it is giving our attention to our partner.
This is a very common love language that involves a true sharing of thoughts, feelings, and opinions in a loving and uninterrupted manner. We are focused on listening and truly hearing from our partner, encouraging them to share more of themselves. This is not likely to involve offering solutions or analyzing what they are saying but being attuned to your partner’s feelings. You may have to learn to listen to offer this love language, and you also may have to learn to talk – to share openly from your heart and let your partner see inside of you.
These include any activity in which at least one of you has an interest, but again,the emphasis is on the why and not the what of the activity. The meaning behind the activity is to experience something together, to express love by doing this thing together, and to add to your memories of meaningful time spent together.
Love Language #3: Receiving Gifts
“At the heart of love is the spirit of giving. All five love languages challenge us to give to our spouse” (p. 82). A gift is a tangible thing that can be given, a symbol of one another’s love that can be seen and felt. Giving someone a gift involves thinking of them, and the gift becomes symbolic of this thoughtfulness. For people who speak this love language, having a visual symbol of their partner’s love is incredibly meaningful. Gifts may be bought, made, or found. The value of the gift or the money spent is not the key component here. It rarely matters what the cost of the gift is unless it is thought to be very far outside of what one can afford (in either direction).
If receiving gifts is the primary love language of your partner, you may have to alter your beliefs about how money should be spent. If gift giving seems frivolous to you, think of creative ways to give that don’t involve too much money. And when it comes to the times that money needs to be spent, think of it as an investment in your relationship.
Also, be aware that the gift of self can be powerful, especially for those who see love in visual ways. Giving of yourself by being present during a special event or a time of difficulty may speak volumes to your partner.
Love language #4: Acts of Service
To do an act of service is to do something for your partner that you s/he would like to have done. Acts of service “require thought, planning, time, effort, and energy. If done with a positive spirit, they are indeed expressions of love” (p. 92). Acts of service could include doing the dishes, getting the tires rotated, hanging a picture, cleaning the litter box, paying bills, or making a call to the mortgage company. Oftentimes, this doing for one another is a regular part of the “in love” phase but fades out once a long term relationship begins.
Doing acts of service does not mean to become a slave or a doormat. It is not to become a servant or to give in to manipulation, coercion, guilt, or demands. It means giving to our partner through taking on some of the tasks of daily life and expressing one’s love by relieving your partner of that particular burden. Getting comfortable with giving acts of service may require re-examining what you learned about what it is to be a man or a woman in a relationship and letting go of some outdated stereo-types (you may find their effect whether you are in an opposite or same sex relationship).
Love language #5: Physical Touch
“Whatever there is of me resides in my body. To touch my body is to touch me. To withdraw from my body is to distance yourself from me emotionally” (p. 112). The sense of touch is incredibly powerful for human beings. Many studies have shown that babies who are affectionately touched more often are physically stronger and more resilient and grow up to be emotionally healthier.
Unlike the other senses, touch is not limited to one part of our body. Physical touch can communicate a variety of things – love, hate, tenderness, aggression. For a person who speaks this as their primary love language, touch may communicate far more than words ever can. The dialects are also infinite in the language of physical touch – what one person finds meaningful may do little for someone else. You must learn to speak each other’s dialect when it comes to physical touch and never assume that what feels good or loving to you applies equally to your partner.
Loving physical touch can be explicit or implicit. Explicit touch requires effort and attention (a massage or sexual interaction). Implicit loving touch may take less time and effort but does require thought and intentionality. This could be sitting close to one another, touching them as you pass by, giving a quick kiss when saying hello, or holding hands as you walk together.
Sex may be a primary dialect within this language, but not all need for physical touch should be assumed to be sexual. Also, a strong and frequent desire for sex does not necessarily mean that physical touch is one’s primary love language. If you find little meaning or interest in being physically affectionate outside of sex, then physical touch is not likely to be your primary love language, even if your craving for sex is quite intense.
Identifying your love language
Just reading the brief descriptions of the five languages may have clearly illuminated to you what your primary love language is. You may or may not be able to guess the language of your partner as well. If you would like to do a more formal assessment, there are questionnaires in the book. Another option that Chapman recommends is reflecting on the following questions:
- How do you most often show love to others? When you want to express to someone that they mean a lot to you, do you find yourself doing nice things for them (acts of service) or writing them a note to tell them how much you care (words of affirmation)?
- What have been your typical complaints to your partner within your relationship? Do you find yourself expressing frustration over not spending enough time together (quality time) or wishing s/he would do more to help around the house (acts of service)? These complaints will shed light on your unmet needs. And if you are not sure of the answer to this question, ask your partner. They are very likely to know your complaints.
- What do you ask your partner for most often? Do you find yourself asking for a backrub or hug (physical touch), for a token of their feelings (gifts), or for encouragement when you want to pursue something (words of affirmation)?