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What's Your Love Language?

It's really not that hard to identify someone's love language—just notice what they most complain about! Which love language is the one you speak?

By
Stephen Snyder, MD,
Episode #1
love languages

If you’ve ever looked online for help with a couple’s problem, chances are you’ve come across the idea of love languages, made popular by marriage expert Gary Chapman in his book The Five Love Languages. 

The basic idea is that people are different from each other when it comes to what makes them feel loved. So, the things that signify love to you may not mean much to your partner. 

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As Chapman writes, “No matter how hard you try to express love in English, if your spouse understands only Chinese, you will never understand how to love each other.”

The Five Love Languages

Chapman says the idea of love languages first dawned on him after many years of counseling couples as a church pastor. At some point, he decided to go back and review his notes from these counseling sessions to try to understand the different ways people express love.

In the end, he came up with five basic ways.

1. Words of Affirmation

Chapman called the first love language Words of Affirmation—expressing out loud how you feel about the other person, and telling them what you appreciate about them.

Chapman writes that this is his own love language, as it is for lots of people. When he first got married, he naturally assumed words of affirmation would make his wife feel loved, too. But no matter how much he expressed himself in words to her, she didn’t seem to respond.

2. Acts of Service

It turns out Chapman’s wife was someone whose natural love language was what he called “Acts of Service.” Just telling her all the ways he loved her might be nice, but she didn’t really feel loved unless he vacuumed the house, which for her was more romantic than a dozen long-stem roses.

3. Receiving Gifts

On the other hand, roses might be ideal for someone whose native love language is in a third category, which Chapman calls “Receiving Gifts.” That kind of person may not feel truly loved unless you give them something valuable.

That might sound expensive, but remember, not all gifts have to come from the store. The key thing is that the other person has something to hold in their hand that reminds them you love them.  

4. Quality Time

Then there’s a fourth category—“Quality Time.” People in this category don’t feel loved unless you spend time giving them your full attention. Chapman describes the case of a couple where, for 30 years, the husband cooked dinner for his wife every night and then did all the clean-up by himself.

But she never felt loved. “We never talk,” she said. “We haven’t talked in 30 years.” What she really wanted from him was quality time where he’d be really present with her.

You’d think that people would naturally be attracted to partners who speak their same love language. But strangely enough, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

5. Physical Touch

Finally, there’s a fifth category—“Physical Touch.” These people express love primarily through their bodies. I’ve known a number of married women in my office who were deeply frustrated because their husbands’ primary love language was limited to physical touch, which just didn’t do much for these women, unless it was preceded by something else, like words of affirmation, acts of service, or quality time. 

You’d think that people would naturally be attracted to partners who speak their same love language. But strangely enough, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Why not? Chapman suggests it’s because falling in love clouds your vision. So, unfortunately, you don’t really get to find out your partner’s love language until after you’re already in a relationship.

Discovering Your Love Language

If you’re like many people, you may not know right off the bat what your own love language is. According to Chapman, there are three good ways to find out:

  1. Ask yourself what causes you the most misery in your relationship? As Chapman writes, “The opposite of what hurts you most is probably your love language.”  
  2. Think about the things you find yourself asking for over and over again. If something’s important enough for you to keep mentioning it, year after year, chances are it’s in your love language.  
  3. How do you express love? What do you most like to give? Most of us naturally feel the urge to give the things we’d most like to get.

Are Love Languages Real?

There’s genuine value in finding out what your partner cares about—if only so you don’t waste your time cooking gourmet meals for them if all they really want is an hour of your undivided attention.

But what if the things your spouse needs to feel loved are things you don’t really like to do? According to Chapman, you should just do them anyway. 

There’s genuine value in finding out what your partner cares about—if only so you don’t waste your time cooking gourmet meals for them if all they really want is an hour of your undivided attention.

For instance, in The Five Love Languages, there’s a story about a man whose primary love language is physical touch, but his wife’s primary love language is for him to do the laundry. Sometimes love languages are kind of specific that way.

Chapman tells him, “The love you feel when your wife expresses love by physical touch is the same love your wife feels when you do the laundry.” So the man starts doing laundry. Presumably, this makes his wife so happy that now she’s ready to shower him with lots of physical touch—and I assume lots of good sex as well.

Do Love Languages Work?

In theory, the husband in that scenario ends up happily doing the laundry because it feels like some kind of foreplay. His wife gives him lots of physical touch, presumably because it’s become associated in her mind with warm, fluffy towels fresh from the dryer. And, voila!—the relationship thrives.

Is this an accurate picture of what happens in a good relationship? I think there’s some truth to it, but it’s only half the picture.

In most good relationships there’s a balance between taking care of your partner and taking care of yourself.

In most good relationships there’s a balance between taking care of your partner and taking care of yourself. If you commit to doing something you don’t really like, just because your partner wants it, that can be hard to sustain in the long-run.

Maybe you’ll learn to like doing laundry after all. But maybe you won’t, and she’s just going to have to accept that doing laundry is not your thing, love language or not.

Understanding Your Partner’s Love Language

Let me illustrate this with a personal example:

When my wife and I had been married a few weeks, I came home from work and found her lying on the couch reading a magazine. She’d gotten home early, and she’d left her things all over the floor.  

For some reason, this made me intensely sad. 

“What’s wrong?” she asked, as I sat down beside her.

“When I was growing up,” I told her, “no one ever left stuff lying around like this. That’s one of the ways we knew my Mom loved us. She made the house look nice.”

My wife looked at me patiently. “So if you come home,” she said, “and the apartment is messy, you don’t feel loved?”

Exactly. I didn’t feel loved at all.

Several weeks later, she woke up one morning with a sore throat and a runny nose and announced, “I’m sick.” I replied that she should make sure to stay hydrated and go back to bed. That hurt her feelings terribly, because in her love language, being sick means the person you love gives you lots of attention and makes a big fuss over you.

Speaking Your Own Love Language

Now, according to The Five Love Languages, my wife should have resolved to pick up more around the apartment. And I should have committed to making more of a fuss over her when she’s sick.

But we were both much too stubborn for that. So instead we ended up stumbling onto what I think is ultimately a better solution—to realize you can’t always get what you want, so you’d better get over it if you want to be happy.

We’ve now been married for almost thirty years. I’m still not the most sympathetic person in the world when she has a cold. And when I come home, sometimes things are still a mess. 

Does that make me feel less loved? Absolutely. But hey, it’s an imperfect world.

Sometimes, when you feel a yearning for the sound of your own love language, you just have to speak it to yourself.

Here’s the bottom line: You can’t go on forever in a relationship looking for your partner to make you happy. Eventually, you have to learn to validate yourself.

If your partner manages to make you feel loved at least some of the time by speaking your love language, that’s wonderful. But don’t expect them to do it all the time. That’s just not realistic.

Sometimes, when you feel a yearning for the sound of your own love language, you just have to speak it to yourself.

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