Last November my friend came to stay with me for a couple of days, a short stopover on her trip halfway across the planet to see her family. I adore this woman, and have missed her greatly since she moved fifteen time zones away from Los Angeles last year.
To prepare, I cleaned my house, prepared my bedroom with all the snacks and things one needs when dealing with massive jet lag, and got ready to sleep on the couch for a couple of nights. When she was here, I took off a day from work to drive her a hundred miles to hunt around a (scary!) storage unit, searching for a critical item she left behind. Though none of these tasks are things I relish on their own, I did them all joyfully because they would help make my friend’s life a little easier and I love her.
She, meanwhile, showed up with a suitcase full of gifts. I know she is not rolling in money at the moment, but she took such care to bring something for everyone in her life, each joyfully handpicked and perfect for the recipient. She brought out several things for me, including this absolutely stunning necklace that completely fits my personality and matches 95% of my wardrobe. After I dropped her off at the airport, I came home and found she had left me with another surprise gift that delighted me and made me laugh. She didn’t have to do any of this (her presence is the best gift ever), but she did because she knew I would enjoy the gifts and she loves me.
Gifts don’t matter very much to me. Not that I don’t enjoy them – I do, and if you want to send me one, please feel free. But I can live my whole life not receiving a gift from a loved one and still be fine. What mattered to me the most was getting to spend the time with her, sitting across from each other in my living room (or in the car, or in a restaurant) talking about all the things both important and trivial that we’d missed in each other’s lives over the last months.
My driving her out to the most inconveniently located storage unit in Southern California didn’t really matter to her either. She’s perfectly capable of driving herself; in fact, she often manages more logistical details in a week than I can handle in a year. Not that she didn’t appreciate it, but it’s not the most important thing to her.
What we were doing was communicating very clearly in different love languages. The idea of love languages was introduced by Gary Chapman in his book, The Five Love Languages, How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. (He’s since written several more flavors – the languages at work, for singles, etc.)
While I don’t love Chapman’s presentation, I do love the fundamentals of his work. He proposes that we each have one of five primary ways of expressing love and feeling loved, which he calls a love language. Much suffering experienced between people who love each other is caused by not understanding that there are multiple love languages, and not everyone speaks as we do.
Chapman outlines the five love languages as follows:
Words of Affirmation
Chapman defines this as verbal compliments, but also extends it to include words of encouragement, speaking with a kind tone, and making requests instead of demands.
Quality time is defined as giving someone your undivided attention. For someone with quality time as their primary love language, being out with someone who is engaged with a cell phone half the time is not satisfying. Though you are together, one party is not fully present.
Acts of Service
With this as your primary love language, you express your love by doing things that you know the other person would like you to do. When you think of the stereotype of a wife nagging a husband to take out the trash, you may be hearing a woman with a primary love language of acts of service who feels unloved.
Someone with physical touch as a primary love language needs loving touch in order to feel loved. Hugs, backrubs, holding hands, a touch on the arm; all of these things convey love deeply to someone with this primary love language.
Chapman makes an important point about sex and physical touch – that sometimes the need for sex will make someone think physical touch is their primary love language. However, someone with this love language will crave nonsexual physical touch too. If you need loving touch in nonsexual relationships, this might be your love language.
If receiving gifts is your love language, physical tokens and representations of someone’s love are critical for you. They don’t have to be expensive or elaborate, but it’s important to receive something physical
Sometimes it’s easiest to see the love languages in action in an example. Say you have a friend who is upset because she longs to return to painting but is having a hard time because she is a mom of a toddler and she expresses to you that she feels like she is losing a part of herself in order to care for her little boy. You could support her in her love language by:
Words of Affirmation: encourage her to continue to find ways to paint, affirming that she can be a good mother and have her own interests, and affirming that painting is an important expression of herself and it is worth finding creative ways to be both a painter and a great mom.
Quality Time:engage with her and ask her more about the deeper struggle she is facing and listen with great presence to what she says.
Acts of Service: volunteer to take care of her son one Saturday so she has uninterrupted painting time.
Physical Touch: give her a big hug to let her know you’ve heard her pain and are there for her.
Receiving Gifts:order a starter painting kit (or canvas or a brush, depending on budget) and surprise her with it.
Most people are not going to be upset receiving love in a language that is not primary to them as long as they are getting what they need in their own language. If our upset mother’s languages are physical touch and gifts, she’s not going to object to you offering to take care of her son on Saturday and listen deeply to her pain. She just might not feel as supported, heard, and loved as she would if you could express love in her language.
Determine Your Primary & Secondary Love Languages
You might already know your primary love language just from reading the descriptions, but I encourage you to try this process anyway. Until I was writing this process, I didn’t even realize I was mistaken about my primary and secondary love languages.
- Pick your top three languages. (If you have no idea, choose all five and just repeat steps as needed.) I’ll walk you through my example: acts of service, quality time, words of affirmation.
- Pick a positive and negative example expression of each love language. For me, it looks like this:
|Acts of Service||Helps me clean out my storage shed.||Doesn’t help me set up for a group event that we have both planned.|
|Quality Time||Sits with me and listens, asks questions that show curiosity and care.||Sits with me and often checks phone, doesn’t make eye contact, keeps topics shallow.|
|Words of Affirmation||Offers encouragement when I discuss a struggle, expresses appreciation for who I am and our connection.||Offers criticism and ways to improve when I discuss a struggle, never says anything about my value or the value of our connection.|
- Check in to see which of the positive column examples you easily love to give. For me, its quality time and words of appreciation. These things come naturally to me and I love doing them. Acts of service are things I am willing to do because I love you, but they bring me little joy.
- Check learned models for authenticity. Until writing this exercise, I would have said my primary love language is acts of service. In my mind, this has always been the pinnacle of expressing love because it’s one my mother does with profound ease and grace. I can’t walk through the halls of her apartment complex without encountering someone she has helped in some very meaningful way; she performs acts of service naturally as an expression of her care. If your dad was an incredible gift-giver, you might associate this with profound love even if it is not truly your language. Check in to see what is easy for you to give, even if it doesn’t match your ideal model.
- For whatever is left, try picking the positive from one language and the negative from another, and see how you react to that combination. Then see which combo makes you feel more loved. From my example:
- Someone who sits with me and listens, asks questions that show curiosity and care yet offers criticism and ways to improve when I discuss a struggle, and never says anything about my value or the value of our connection.
- Someone who offers encouragement when I discuss a struggle, expresses appreciation for who I am and our connection and yet often checks her phone when sitting with me, doesn’t make eye contact, and keeps topics shallow.
My preference would be to spend time with person A – I would feel more loved, seen and heard than with person B. Ideally, though, I would thrive with someone who offers both quality time and words of affirmation.
Living the Love Languages
Now that you know your own love language, see if you can determine your loved ones’ love languages. Of course the most direct way is to talk with them about it and going through this process with them if they are willing. It can also be fun to try to guess and offer love in all five languages and see how each person reacts.
What is critical is to look through your relationships for areas of strain and see if different love languages might be playing a role. I had a client with words of affirmation as her love language who was struggling terribly with her job – she never felt appreciated at work because her bosses never offered any verbal appreciation. When she started looking for ways they valued her work, she was able to see that they did appreciate her, they just spoke a completely different language.
When you don’t know about the love languages (and even when you do!), it can be incredibly hard to understand someone with a language completely foreign to you. If you have someone in your life with a radically different language, ask them about it. See what it is like to live in their language.
Want to share with us? Leave a comment with your primary language and what it’s like to live without it.