Kind words mean the world to you — getting a compliment will boost your mood all day — so you return the favor by heaping praise on your spouse at every turn. She will feel so loved! you think.
Your better half, however, experiences love in a whole different light. She feels truly cared for when her spouse lends a helping hand — feeding the dog, taking out the garbage, paying the bills. So while you’re lavishing her with verbal encouragement, she’s silently stewing about the unmowed lawn.
Or you’re eager to hear your mom praise your accomplishments, but Mom is busy buying gifts and other assorted items for your new house — and she is completely flummoxed when the pile of presents she gives you don’t seem to relieve your angst.
According to therapist Gary Chapman, PhD, these are examples of people speaking different “love languages.” It is a simple but transformative concept: We all give and receive love in unique ways, explains the author of The 5 Love Languages (Northfield, 2009). But when our way of “speaking” love is different from that of our family and friends, we are like ships passing in the night — our expressions of affection sail right past each other without registering. The husband’s compliments are sweet, and the mom’s presents are thoughtful, but because the intended recipient doesn’t send and receive love in the same primary way, the gestures fall flat.
Chapman’s book identifies five primary ways we express love. He then establishes how much our relationships can benefit when we’re able to understand and speak all these languages fluently. “It’s a very simple idea,” says Chapman. “But when you apply it, it really does change the climate between two people.”
The idea came to the author after spending 15 years listening to married couples voice different versions of the same complaint.
“One partner would say, ‘I feel like my spouse doesn’t love me,’” Chapman remembers.
Eventually he realized what they were really expressing was a frustrated desire. “So I asked myself a question: When someone says ‘my spouse doesn’t love me,’ what does he or she want?”
Chapman theorized that each of these unhappy people had a dominant mode for experiencing love and wanted to experience it in that particular way. He also realized that those modes of emotional expression fell into five categories:
1. Words of Affirmation (To be verbally acknowledged)
2. Quality Time (To enjoy companionship)
3. Receiving Gifts (To be given tokens of love)
4. Acts of Service (To have their partners do tasks for them)
5. Physical Touch (To be in contact via the body)
For anyone who has had a “lost in translation” moment when it comes to love, the concept is almost instantly clarifying. Aha, you think to yourself, I finally get why he’s always digging for compliments, why I just want to hang out together, and why neither of us ever feels understood.
Initially, the challenge is determining the other person’s chief love language, and perhaps identifying a strong secondary preference. (After all, who doesn’t like all five on some level: praise, companionship, getting presents, getting help with tasks, and a nice hug?)
Finding the dominant language is key, though, and worth a bit of trial and error. If your main love language is Quality Time and your partner neither spends much time with you nor touches you much, you’ll miss the companionship a lot more than the touch. And if your partner simply begins to happily hang out with you, you’ll feel like the whole relationship is back on the rails, even without more hugging.
To figure out another person’s primary emotional language, Chapman suggests, try a three-step approach: First, look at how your partner most often expresses love to you and others. By volunteering for tasks? Speaking kind words? Finding or making thoughtful presents?
Second, what does he or she complain about most often? “You’re always telling that story that makes me sound dumb!” — affirmation trouble. “Why can’t you feed the cat once in a while?” — service complaint.
Third, what does he or she request most often? “Couldn’t we get away for a while, just the two of us?” “Would you give me a back rub?”
The same goes for discovering your own major love language: how you mainly express love, what you complain about, what you request. You can also use the process of elimination. Ask yourself, “If I had to give up one, which would it be?” and go down the list until you’re left with the last one you’re willing to relinquish.
One’s primary language seems to remain roughly the same through life, notes Chapman, first appearing around age 3 via love-me-this-way signals like “Look at what I can do, Mommy!” (a request for Words of Affirmation) or a delight in making and giving small gifts. In the big transition of the teenage years, however, the way a parent speaks the love language of a son or daughter may have to change, from hugs and trips to the ice-cream parlor to pats on the back and attendance at soccer games.
Of course, if receiving gifts means little to you, it may be difficult for you to shower another person with presents. But Chapman reminds us that speaking a partner’s love language is an act of — what else? — love, which is an escape from selfishness and calculation of cost-benefit. And love freely given prompts love in return.
Speaking Love: The Five Languages
First published in 1992, The 5 Love Languages has sold more than 8 million copies, with stronger sales each successive year as it continues to resonate with new generations of readers. The book has also been translated into 49 languages. Chapman followed up with The 5 Love Languages: Men’s Edition (Northfield, 2009) and other versions that adapt the principles to the needs of parents, single people, children, and workplace colleagues, as well as a volume on how to adapt the love-languages method in making apologies. Here’s what the five languages look like in practice:
1. Words of Affirmation
Chapman emphasizes that Words of Affirmation are not flattery designed to manipulate the other person. “The object of love is not getting something you want but doing something for the well-being of the one you love,” he notes. Words of Affirmation are true statements that you speak from the heart.
2. Quality Time
Chapman defines this love language precisely. “By ‘quality time’ I mean giving someone your undivided attention,” he writes. “I don’t mean sitting on the couch and watching television together.” Quality Time is time spent in real connection with the other person, making eye contact, and practicing attentive listening to what he or she is saying.
“When I sit with my wife and give her 20 minutes of my undivided attention, and she does the same for me,” he continues, “we are giving each other 20 minutes of life. We will never have those 20 minutes again; we are giving our lives to each other. It is a powerful emotional communicator of love.”
3. Receiving Gifts
Chapman calls gifts “visual symbols of love,” and he emphasizes that the monetary value of the present is rarely an issue. You can buy, find, or make something for your loved one; it’s the thoughtfulness, and the intention behind the gesture, that means the most.
4. Acts of Service
This love language is based in the nitty-gritty routines of daily life. Making beds, changing diapers, taking out the trash — they’re not the glamorous gestures of romantic love, but for the person whose primary language is Acts of Service, they’re the bedrock of committed, mature love.
In learning to speak this love language, stereotypes can get in the way. For heterosexual couples, either party may tacitly believe that domestic chores are “women’s work,” depriving male partners of the opportunity to show love by helping with those tasks. Similarly, fixing the furnace may fall into the (anachronistically) off-limits category for women. Same-sex couples can run into a version of this scenario: Those chores are your responsibility and these are mine. Keep these stereotypes in mind, since helping out, no matter the task at hand, speaks volumes to the Acts of Service person.
5. Physical Touch
“A lot of men think their main love language is Physical Touch because of their desire for sex,” says Jennifer Thomas, PhD, a clinical psychologist in North Carolina who collaborated with Chapman to write The Five Languages of Apology (Northfield, 2008). “But that could just be their testosterone talking. Sexual contact is an important part of Physical Touch, but touch probably isn’t [men’s] main love language unless they also like back rubs, holding hands, and being hugged as an affirmation.” And that’s the keynote here: Nonsexual touch is the prime conveyor of love for “native speakers” of this language, and its absence can almost feel like abandonment.
Learning a New Language
Once we learn the main love language of our partners, lovers, friends, or children, we may be faced with resistance to “speaking” it for any number of reasons rooted in childhood traumas, buried resentments, or simple aversion. Chapman counsels patience and a step-by-step approach. Start with a simple and limited list of tasks you can do or help with. Make the most basic kind of card to give — maybe just a folded piece of paper with a heart on it and a simple declaration of love. Spend five minutes of quality time together and work up from there. Hold your partner’s hand on your evening walk. Sweep the kitchen floor.
“Love is a decision, not a feeling,” says Chapman. Making that decision daily, come what may, and supporting it imperfectly but sincerely, will help your relationships flourish.
To learn more about the love languages and to take a quiz to determine your own dominant mode of emotional expression, visit www.5lovelanguages.com.
This article originally appeared as “The Five Languages of Love” in the December 2013 issue of Experience Life.