Love is patient and it is kind. But the way in which it is best expressed varies from person to person. We all respond to different types of affection, different love languages. 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 it, Dr. Chapman explains that the ways in which we express and experience love can be broken down to five “love languages”: receiving gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service (devotion), and physical touch. It sounds cliché, almost sickly sweet. But since its release, The Five Love Languages has gone on to become one of the most purchased relationship advice books, remaining on the New York Times Best Seller List since 2009. Now, the phrase “love languages” is an unavoidable part of modern vernacular. There’s a reason for that: It works.
Some might roll their eyes at the concept of “love languages,” or dismiss it as being too trite or touchy-feely. But the simple fact is that dialing into our partners’ specific wavelength and examining the ways in which we express love to them can have limitless benefits to relationships.
Why? Well, it’s important to not only interrogate how we express love to those closest to us, but also understand what forms of love our significant others prefer. If we don’t, 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 Dr. 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.”
Dr. Chapman says that his understanding of the five love languages stemmed from years meeting with couples and listening to 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 can be difficult sometimes, Chapman says, because the everyday busyness of life, work, family, and responsibility stand in the way of focusing on a marriage or other relationship, and things tend to go on autopilot. In this scenario, 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 love language is words of affirmation, for example, will respond better to compliments and positive statements. If their love language is quality time, then its about making sure to give them time away from phones, TVs, and other distractions. It orients couples.
Finding out a 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 their partner.
When he meets with couples for counseling, or even one partner, Chapman 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 the love language a partner speaks is identified, there are many opportunities to get creative in how one chooses to express it. 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 five love languages aren’t just for couples, Chapman notes. They can be used to relate to children, teenagers, even your in-laws, or any close relationship.
Chapman was speaking at a prison, and during the question and answer session, a man expressed thanks to him for coming. He told Chapman he realized his love language is physical touch, and that his mother never hugged them.
“The only hug I ever remember getting from my mother was the day I left for prison,” he told him. “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.” By the time the man had finished speaking, Chapman says he was actually crying, saying, ‘My mama loves me.’ ”
The beauty of the five love languages is in its simplicity and the fact that it’s never too late for someone to start learning a partner’s language as long as they’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,” he says. “You’ve got to be rowing.”