How can you find a true connection with someone if you’re not speaking the same language? Gemma Jones discovers how learning your ‘love language’ can help you both feel more in sync
Often mistaken for another type of personality test, Gary Chapman’s concept of the five love languages has been a feature of couples’ self-help and therapy for more than 25 years.
But where personality tests tend to focus on your individual values and ethos, Chapman’s relationship manifesto attempts to explore what things most resonate with us in relationships and the different ways we need to be shown love.
Chapman, a marriage counsellor and linguistics expert, explains that if we can come to understand not only our own love language, but that of our partner, we can start to meet their needs in a more fulfilling way. ‘Relationships grow better when we understand each other,’ he says. ‘Everyone gives and receives love differently, but with a little insight into these differences, we can be confidently equipped to communicate love well.’ This is true for all forms of relationship: couples, children, friends and even colleagues.
The five love languages he has discovered are different ways of giving and receiving love. They are: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service and physical touch. While we all appreciate all of these to some degree, there will be one or possibly two that are more important to us. But there will also be one or two that are more important to your spouse or loved one – and they are very rarely the same ones. The crux of the love languages message is: ‘My partner is not me.’
This is where love languages become really important, because we tend to show our love in the ways that we want it to be shown, rather than the way someone else wants to receive it. Which, not surprisingly, leaves both you and someone you love feeling unfulfilled and can create huge rifts in a relationship. ‘People tend to criticize their spouse most loudly in the area where they themselves have the deepest emotional need,’ says Chapman.
You can take a simple test to find out your own love language. Chapman’s book The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate guides you through ways to explore your findings together.
Overleaf, we’ve identified all five love languages, and also how they can backfire if they’re not a language your loved one speaks. It’s helpful to be able to see it from both sides.
Words of affirmation
From the inimitable ‘I love you’ to hearing compliments, being thanked, hearing that you’re appreciated verbally and receiving text messages or letters of love, this language focuses on declarations of love, on the verbal importance of hearing that you are loved and valued – because it’s good to have your efforts recognized with kind words, no matter how small they are. Details are key – just saying ‘I love you’ isn’t enough. Noticing the little things, commenting on a new outfit – these are the love affirmations that really speak to some people.
Be aware though…. The problem with this love language is that, for someone that doesn’t appreciate words of affirmation, words of love go completely unheard – to someone else it is simply noise, an irritation, a feeling that someone is checking up on them, marking their work, assessing their effort. Are they really seeking approval? Did they want it in the first place?
Acts of service
This love language is about easing the burden of responsibility – doing things such as housework, food shopping or family admin. It could be things like making breakfast in bed or cooking a nice meal, but it could also be about more mundane tasks such as walking the dog or sweeping the floor. Love doesn’t always look like hearts and roses, and often, when it speaks it’s about recognising where you can help someone, which shows how much attention you’ve been paying. It also says that you value your loved one’s time too and want to help them get through the tasks of life.
Be aware though… For others, helping in this way can be a threat to independence, or seems to say to them that they can’t manage. Helping just exposes the things they haven’t done and can tap into deeper issues with their own self-worth.
This is all about undivided attention, something that this person needs on a daily basis. It might be sharing something meaningful together, cooking, exercising, being physically intimate or learning a new skill together. Crucially, a part of this is about active listening, maintaining eye contact and feeling that your partner is focusing on you, making time for you and prioritising you in their schedule. Spending meaningful time together in this way sends a message to a loved one that they truly matter.
Be aware though… Too much time together feels controlling for others, or doesn’t allow them the headspace they need to reflect and regroup. It can be intense for people who need time to slow down or to process their own feelings.
Getting a gift in this instance isn’t about materialism, but about the love, thought and effort behind it. It’s an example of actions speaking louder than words, especially when a gift has considerable thought behind it or shows how well another person knows you, or has concentrated on what matters to you.
The value of gift-giving shows the careful choosing of the right object to represent the relationship and the gesture of giving reinforces the idea that you are valued and seen.
Be aware though… People who don’t value this love language will not see these things – and giving them a gift might bring up worries about financials, or a feeling that they lack something, or a fear of clutter and being overwhelmed. It might even speak to a clash of taste and style.
This love language thrives on physical touch – from hand-holding, hugs and pats on the back to more regular physical intimacy. People who value this feel loved when they receive physical signs of affection, which can be both affirming and serve as an important connection back to childhood, when they felt safe and held by their parents. You will feel more grounded and connected when physical affection happens often, at home – and in public, which helps you feel wanted and desired.
Be aware though… Excessive physical touch can be confronting and overwhelming, making people feel crowded or pressured. It can also seem to represent possessiveness or a need for control.
FINDING A BALANCE
We can use love languages to connect, and to deepen our intimacy. But we must use them wisely and we must do the work to know ourselves better, not just others.
Often, in the beginning, there is often a tendency to keep score – making note of who did what for whom. ‘All the beauty that comes with learning to speak each other’s love languages gets erased when we get competitive about it,’ says marriage therapist Linda Carroll.
Followed too closely, love languages also don’t leave space for the natural change and evolution of ourselves that happens over time. We should grow in a relationship, not be forced into a box of behaviour from which we cannot grow. Plus, it can’t change toxic behaviours – sometimes you need to do the work on yourself or together to unpick bigger issues.
If we rely too heavily on love languages, they can promote codependency and prevent us developing our autonomy. Learning our partner’s love language helps us meet their needs better, but learning our own language also helps us meet our own needs better too.
So make sure you use these examples on yourself as well. Love doesn’t only come from others. ‘We know that to be truly fulfilled, we need first to fill our own tank,’ says Carroll. ‘Do you use words of affirmation, gifts, touch and quality time with yourself?’