“My father only calls me if he has some logistic to settle,” my friend recently complained; this didn’t feel affectionate or loving to her. Meanwhile, her efforts to call just to say hi were just as baffling to her father. We’ve all experienced some version of this–some small misalignment with people we’re close to. Maybe you don’t understand why your partner won’t just offer to make dinner if he knows you’re running late, or why your brother doesn’t appreciate the thoughtful gift you sent him.
I recognized my friend’s father right away, though: he is an Acts of Service person. Excited for a chance to explain, I immediately exclaimed, “Do you know about the five language of love?!” I then proceeded into a lengthy explanation, enumerating the languages on my fingers.
These languages come from Gary Chapman’s book: “The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts.” I first read the book over ten years ago, actually, during the fall of my junior year in college. At the time, it interested me but did not have much immediate impact. In the years since, however, I have become an evangelist.
The book names five “love languages” that we use, consciously or not, to express affection: gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and physical touch. Everyone has preferred ways that they naturally give and accept affection. (You can– and should– take the book’s online quiz to find your own love languages.)
Here’s an excerpt from Chapman’s website to describe each language:
- Gifts: Don’t mistake this love language for materialism; the receiver of giftsthrives on the love, thoughtfulness, and effort behind the gift.
- Quality Time: Nothing says “I love you” like full, undivided attention… Whether it’s spending uninterrupted time talking with someone else or doing activities together, you deepen your connection with others through sharing time.
- Words of Affirmation: If this is your love language, unsolicited compliments mean the world to you… You thrive on hearing kind and encouraging words.
- Acts of Service: Anything you do to ease the burden of responsibilities weighing on an “Acts of Service” person will speak volumes… when others serve you out of love (and not obligation), you feel truly valued and loved.
- Physical Affection: A person whose primary language is Physical Touch is, not surprisingly, very touchy. Hugs, pats on the back, and thoughtful touches on the arm—they can all be ways to show excitement, concern, care, and love.
Chapman describes how we all have a “love tank” — akin to a car’s gas tank — that requires constant refilling. While the book primarily focuses on refilling your spouse’s tank, the idea applies equally to relationships with friends and family. I’ve found it particularly helpful to explain parental behavior. Certain behaviors from each of my parents that used to baffle me I can now see as their unique love languages.
For example, my mom loves to buy me things, but not necessarily things I want. She likes to pick up trinkets and shower me and my sister with presents. When she came for the holidays last year, we had, I thought, agreed to give one small gift per person. Yet she arrived with an extra suitcase of presents: soap, a mug, lotion, a frog-shaped neck warmer that you heat up in the microwave, a book, earrings, tights, bookmarks shaped like sprouting plants (I actually really love these), and the suitcase itself. I’ve learned that this is her way of expressing her affection, yet the shower of gifts made me uncomfortable. I don’t like her to spend a lot of money on me, and I don’t like to own a lot of stuff so the barrage of presents felt somewhat like an act of disservice. With Chapman in mind, I tried hard to see them as the tokens of affection that the gifts are meant to be.
My dad’s love language is completely different from my mom’s. Growing up, we used to rollerblade together, which always included a break on a park bench. We would just sit there together, soaking up the sun (one of his favorite activities) and not talking. To my dad, this was perfect quality time: being with someone he loved and sharing a favorite activity. I always found it a bit boring (and indulged him as an act of service). As I got older, I recognized that we just have different ideas of quality time. He is happy to simply have company, while I want meaningful conversation. Chapman refers to this as a dialect; a common dialect of quality time is quality conversation. I sometimes get frustrated since family visits involve a lot of sitting around, but like the gifts, I’ve learned to see it as love, especially since my dad makes such an effort to travel a long way to see me, and be together.
Just like any language, the love languages are ripe with potential for miscommunication and misinterpretation. Chapman argues that we should use the languages that our loved ones prefer to receive, rather than using the love languages that come most naturally to us, to make sure that we are communicating clearly. I agree with the value of this, though it’s incredibly difficult to do (I think we all tend to default to using the love language that comes the most naturally to us).
I think it’s equally important to try to understand what other people’s love languages are so that we can recognize their actions as affection, as annoying, perplexing, or obtuse as they might sometimes seem to us.
Since we only have the power to change ourselves, we can make the effort on both ends — to try to express our love in ways that our loved ones can accept, and to see their attempts at affection as just that.
Image: “American Gothic” by Grant Wood (1930, Oil on Beaverboard)