by Dana, a loveisrespect advocate
“Love” can be one of those words that is used often, and in a variety of ways. I love my pet, I love pizza, I love my grandmother, I love that shirt I bought on clearance. Some people fear that a liberal use of the word love can take away from its meaning as it applies to interpersonal relationships. Others believe that you should tell someone that you love them as often as you feel it. The idea of “love” can carry a lot of weight in romantic relationships, and sometimes people feel anxiety about expressing feelings of love to their intimate partners. It is easy to assume that we all have the same definition of love, or that our partners know what we mean when we say, “I love you.” Different people can have different ideas about what romantic love means, and how it is or should be expressed. So, what does it mean to be in love, and how can we make sure that we are on the same page with our partners even after we have gotten to the stage where “I love you” feels like second nature to say?
Dr. Gary Chapman, a marriage counselor, developed a framework to help couples address some of these questions, and strengthen their ability to communicate effectively in his book, The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts. While Chapman’s book focuses on the relationships of heterosexual married couples, the idea of love languages can be applied to any intimate relationship. In his book, Chapman states, “My conclusion after many years of marriage counseling is that there are five emotional love languages—five ways that people speak and understand emotional love.” He goes on to say, “Seldom do [intimate partners] have the same primary emotional love language. We tend to speak our primary love language, and we become confused when our [partner] does not understand what we are communicating. We are expressing love, but the message does not come through because we are speaking what, to them, is a foreign language.” Chapman argues that speaking the primary love language of your partner can help increase relationship satisfaction, foster an environment in which it is easier to resolve conflict, and help couples bring out the best in one another.
So, what are the five love languages, and how do you know what your primary love language is? Chapman developed a love language quiz, which can be taken on his website to help people identify and understand their primary love language. The five love languages are: Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Receiving Gifts, Acts of Service, and Physical Touch. Each love language exists on a spectrum, and it is possible to learn to “speak” all five love languages. It is likely that your primary love language will be connected to how love was expressed in your family of origin. Being able to express to your partner how you prefer to be shown love can increase your ability to feel loved and appreciated in your relationship. Also, knowing more about the five love languages can help you to notice the ways that your partner is showing their love for you, even if they are not speaking your primary love language.
When using the love languages framework, it is important to maintain healthy boundaries between you and your partner. It is not okay to use the idea of love languages as an attempt to control your partner’s behavior. Each love language can be expressed in a variety of different ways. If your primary love language is physical touch, for example, that does not necessarily mean you’ll always and only want love to be expressed via sex. Consent is an important part of a healthy relationship, and telling your partner, “If you loved me, you would….” is never acceptable. Physical touch could mean holding hands, giving a hug hello or goodbye, sitting in close to each other when watching TV, or sitting side-by-side when eating in a restaurant. Part of learning to speak the love language of your partner is communicating about ways to express love that feels good for both of you. If your partner is demanding that you engage in behaviors that you are uncomfortable with in order to “prove” your love for them, or if they’re making you feel guilty for how you are attempting to show your love to them, that could be a red flag of emotional abuse.
Once you have an idea of what your primary love language is, you can start to correlate that to your relationship. You might start by thinking about issues or complaints that have come up regularly in your relationship, which could be sign that someone’s love language is not being met. Often, love languages can show up in the form of unspoken expectations that we have for our partners, and can cause conflict, or feelings of frustration or sadness. The framework of love languages can be useful precisely because it provides a way for you to self-reflect on your wants and needs, and then talk with your partner about these issues in a healthy way. For example, if you feel upset when your partner does not text you goodnight, that could be a sign your primary love language is words of affirmation; or, if you struggle in long distance relationships, that might indicate your primary love language is quality time or physical touch, and the distance part of the relationship is resulting in your relationship wants and needs not being met.
Another way to discover your primary love language is to make a list of times you have felt loved and appreciated by your partner and notice any patterns that emerge. Only talking about what is lacking can make your partner feel their attempts at love are not being seen or appreciated, and that can feel frustrating. It may be that they just have a different love language from you, and they’re expressing love the way they like to be loved- which is not wrong, but it is not as impactful to you (we’ll talk more about this later). As you and your partner are talking through this, be sure to tell them what you value about the ways they have expressed love to you, and what behaviors you would be excited to see more often. One of the most important realizations that can come from learning about the five love languages is the ability to more fully see all the ways your partner is showing their love to you, and to then have the opportunity to share what expressions of love are most meaningful to you.
As we mentioned before, sometimes the way that someone tries to show love to their partner can be an indication of that person’s primary love language. Often, we give things to others that we want to receive ourselves. However, people can have two primary love languages – one for showing love to others, and one for how we prefer to receive love. When the efforts you are making to express your love do not seem to be reciprocated by your partner, that may result in confusion that leads you to question if your partner returns those feelings of love. Sometimes, it might be that you and your partner truly are incompatible and that the feelings of love you have for your partner are not enough to sustain the relationship. Other times, there is simply a lack of healthy communication, and being open about your wants and needs can improve your ability to feel satisfied in your relationship. Learning more about each other’s love languages could be one way to determine if you can make positive changes that will help you both to continue to benefit from the relationship.
It is also important to note that your primary love language could shift over time, as your relationship grows and your goals and priorities change. Life or relationship transitions can cause shifts in how you prefer to be shown love. An increase in your hours at work, for example, might cause Acts of Service to take a new priority in your relationship because you do not have the time to do all the chores around the house that you used to do. Pregnancy and the bodily changes that accompany it might cause Physical Touch to take a back burner for some time. A promotion or increase in income might cause Receiving Gifts to become a new love language for you and your partner to explore. A healthy relationship is able to be flexible and adapt as the people within it grow and change. As with any healthy relationship, communication is key! Talking about love languages and priority shifts shouldn’t be a one-time conversation, but rather an on-going discussion that each person feels comfortable bringing up with their partner.
In his book, Chapman states, “We each come to [relationships] with a different personality and history. We bring emotional baggage into our [intimate] relationship. We come with different expectations, different ways of approaching things, and different opinions about what matters in life. In a healthy [relationship], that variety of perspectives must be processed. We need not agree on everything, but we must find a way to handle our differences so that they do not become divisive.” The idea of love languages is one possible way to address conflicts or emotional distance in a relationship, but like any communication tool, it only works in a healthy relationship. Love languages can be something that helps bring you closer together and learn to understand each other more, not something that leaves you feeling drained or exhausted. If you find that no matter what you say or do, your partner is not satisfied, or they are critical or dismissive of your attempts to show love in the relationship, those could be red flags that your relationship is abusive. Learning your partners love language should not be a chore, and if it feels bad or overly difficult, that could be a sign there are some underlying issues in your relationship that need to be addressed.
If you have any questions or concerns about problems you are having in your relationship, or you want to know more about how you can express love in a healthy way, reach out to one of our advocates! You can call our hotline (1-866-331-9474), chat online, or text LOVEIS to 22522. We are here to support you 24/7!