In 1992, Gary Chapman, a senior associate pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, published The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. In the book, Dr. Chapman says that the ways in which we express and experience love can be broken down to five “languages”: receiving gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service (devotion), and physical touch. It sounds cliché, doesn’t it? But since its release, The Five Love Languages has gone on to become a best-seller, remained on the New York Times Best Seller List since 2009, and love language is a pretty ubiquitous term. And there’s a reason for that: It works.
Some people might roll their eyes at the concept of “love languages,” or dismiss the concept as being too trite or touchy-feely. But the simple fact is that dialing into your partner’s specific wavelength, and examining the ways in which we express love to our significant others, can have limitless benefits to relationships.
Why? For the simple reason that it’s important to discover how we express love to those closest to us, and to figure out what forms of love our significant others might prefer. Because we may not be acting in the way that’s most advantageous.
“Many times we are expressing love to the other person, but we’re doing it in a way that would make us feel loved if they expressed it to us,” says Chapman. “We’re not expressing in a way that would make them feel loved. So I think understanding that we do have different love languages, that there are different ways in which we perceive love emotionally, [is important]. So if I really want to be effective, then I’ll choose to speak the love language of the other person.”
Chapman says that his understanding of the love languages stemmed from his years meeting with couples and hearing their problems. “When someone would sit in my office and say, ‘I feel like my spouse doesn’t love me,’ I would ask, ‘What did they want? What were they complaining about?’ And their answers would fall into these five categories.”
Learning how to speak these love languages becomes difficult sometimes, Chapman says, because the everyday busyness of life, work, family and responsibility gets in the way of focusing on the relationship, and things tend to go on autopilot. When that happens, however, resentment and unresolved conflicts remain below the surface and can keep us from using the love languages when they’re needed. When someone is feeling angry or neglected, or is just coming off a disagreement, the last thing they want to think about is speaking anything resembling love to their partner.
“People often will fail to speak the love language of the other person because they’re not really feeling love,” Chapman says. “They’re feeling hurt, they’re feeling put down. And if those things are unresolved, then you get a string of unresolved conflicts. And that’s when people begin to think, ‘Oh, we’re not compatible.’ ”
For each person, their love language might be different, and it’s important to find out what it is. Someone whose language is words of affirmation, for example, will respond better to compliments and positive statements. If they value quality time, then you need to make sure you’re giving them time away from phones, TVs, and other distractions.
Finding out your partner’s love language, Chapman says, simply comes down to listening to what they want and dialing into what it is they complain about the most or what they most often ask of you.
When he meets with couples for counseling, or even one partner, Chapman says he asks them to conduct a six-month experiment.
“I say, ‘If you can discover your spouse’s primary love language, would you be willing to try for the next six months to speak their love language at least once a week?’”
When they do, it works. It doesn’t happen overnight, he says. It might be three months down the road. Eventually, however, the other person begins to reciprocate. “Because what you’re doing is speaking to their primary language,” he says. “You’re connecting with them emotionally in a way you haven’t been.”
Once you’ve identified the language your partner speaks, there are many opportunities to get creative in how you choose to express it to them. Chapman recalled one couple where the husband was in the military and his spouse knew that his primary love language was physical touch.
“You would think that physical touch would be impossible when you’re half a world away,” he says, “But she said, ‘When he was deployed, I put my hand a sheet of paper and traced it, and then I mailed it to him with a note that said, ‘Put your hand on my hand.’ When he came home, he said, ‘Gary, every time I put my hand on that paper, I felt her.’”
The love languages aren’t just for couples, Chapman notes. They can be used to relate to children, teenagers, even your in-laws. “They can be used in any close relationship.”
“In fact, I was speaking at a prison, and during the Q&A, someone said, ‘I want to thank you for coming. I realized my love language is physical touch. My mother never hugged me. The only hug I ever remember getting from my mother was the day I left for prison. But you gave those other languages and I realized that my mother spoke acts of service. She was a single mom. She worked two jobs, she kept our clothes clean, she kept food on the table.’ And by this time, he was actually crying, saying, ‘My mama loves me.’ ”
The beauty of Chapman’s method is in its simplicity and the fact that it’s never too late to start learning your partner’s language as long as you’re willing to do the work.
“If you understand how important it is, then you want to find a way to keep it on the front burner,” he says. “If that means putting a Post-It on your mirror reminding you, then so be it. But you want to keep it on the front burner so that you don’t just drift. If we drift in a relationship, we drift apart. We don’t ever drift together. You’ve got to put the oars in the water. You’ve got to be rowing.”