Ever had an argument with your partner and wished they could just read your mind? If they only knew how you were feeling, they'd stop putting up a fight. That's sort of the idea behind the concept of love languages: they let you in on what makes your partner tick. The idea is: we all express and feel love differently, and understanding those differences can seriously help your relationship. In fact, it's one of the simplest ways to improve it.
Image by Tara Jacoby
This term was coined by longtime relationship counselor Gary Chapman. His book, Five Love Languages, is admittedly full of cheesy truisms ("keep your love tank full"), and it sounds like a bad quiz you'd take in Cosmo. It's a pretty fluffy read overall (and some notions are kind of antiquated), but there's a reason this whole love language thing has taken off: it makes a lot of sense, and it works. In fact, you don't really need to read the book to understand the concept. It's fairly simple, and by the end of this post, you'll understand most of what you need to know.
The Five Love Languages, in a Nutshell
In his own words, here's how Chapman breaks down the five love languages in his book:
My conclusion after thirty years of marriage counseling is that there are basically five emotional love languages — five ways that people speak and understand emotional love. In the field of linguistics a language may have numerous dialects or variations. Similarly, within the five basic emotional love languages, there are many dialects....The important thing is to speak the love language of your spouse.
The five languages are pretty straightforward, but here's a brief description of what each of them mean:
- Words of Affirmation: Expressing affection through spoken affection, praise, or appreciation.
- Acts of Service: Actions, rather than words, are used to show and receive love.
- Receiving Gifts: Gifting is symbolic of love and affection.
- Quality Time: Expressing affection with undivided, undistracted attention.
- Physical Touch: It can be sex or holding hands. With this love language, the speaker feels affection through physical touch.
Chances are, you can relate to a few of these. Maybe you relate to all of them. But most of us have one or two that are much more important to us than the others, and it's different for everyone. There's really no scientific research behind Chapman's theory; it just makes sense because it's relatable. It's obvious that we all show affection in different ways. These "languages" simply label those ways so you can understand people a little better.
When you know what your partner does and doesn't care about, it's a pretty big eye opener. For example, for years, I've been giving my significant other small gifts to show that I care. I put a lot of thought into those gifts, and I loved surprising him. It would piss me off when he'd receive them and just say, "Oh cool, thanks," and then set it aside. That was not the reaction I wanted. By giving him a gift, I was saying, "I care about you," and "oh cool, thanks," is not a good reply to that.
When I realised "gifting" wasn't his love language at all, everything suddenly made a lot of sense, and I learned to show that I care in ways that speak to him. And conversely, when I do give gifts, he now understands that's my way of saying I love you, and it means more to him now.
What Matters Most to You?
You can probably figure out what your language is by simply giving it a little thought, but Chapman offers a 30-question quiz on his website. Which is helpful because, if you identify with more than one language, the quiz tells you which ones stand out most. It will feel silly as you take it, but seriously, do it. The results will break down how high you rank for each language, as you can see in the example below. (If you don't feel like taking it online, you can also download the PDF version of the quiz here).
As Chapman points out, there are different "dialects" for each language, too. For example, my primary language is Quality Time, but I also express and feel affection through Words of Affirmation and Physical Touch to some degree.
On the flip side, it's useful to know how you don't express affection. I ranked low on Acts of Service, and it helps to understand this as a blind spot. Let's say a friend does me a favour: they give me a ride to the airport. This isn't a big deal to me, so I might brush it off too quickly. Similarly, I might be terrible at doing favours for friends, because favours don't matter much to me, so I assume they don't matter to anyone else, either.
In short, knowing what makes you tick and what doesn't can help you empathise with people a little better.
How This Concept Can Change Your Relationship
When you realise what your partner does and doesn't care about, you can empathise better. Your reasons for fighting make a little more sense. When you understand why you're fighting, you're in a better position to come up with a solution.
Beyond fighting less (or at least more productively), the concept of love languages is a great for maintaining the relationship, too. For example, I know both of us feel affection by spending quality time together, so I know it's important to schedule this time to keeping our relationship strong. If we ever had a long distance relationship, we'd probably struggle quite a bit with it, and we'd need to put in more effort than people who don't speak the language of "Quality Time." When you've been in a relationship for a long time, it's easy to get complacent and let things get stale. When you know your partner's love language, it's incredibly easy to recharge. It's like a cheat code for your relationship.
Of course, the concept is also helpful in simply expressing your love in the best possible way. For my fiancé's birthdays, I'd always put a huge amount of thought into his physical gift. Now that I know quality time is more important to him, I cater to that instead. I put more energy into planning birthday trips together rather than whatever physical gift I'm going to buy him.
You Can Use Love Languages for Other Relationships, Too
I've found that the concept of love languages helps pretty much any relationship, not just romantic ones. It's useful to understand what matters to people.
For example, I used to get angry at my brother for being terrible at keeping in touch. He rarely calls, and it hurt my feelings. But then, we'd get together at family events and have long, meaningful conversations, and everything was great. He'd tell me how much I mean to him, and I'd feel reassured. But then he'd go back to being terrible at keeping in touch, and I'd get my feelings hurt all over again.
It took time to realise that his "love language" is 100% Words of Affirmation and 0% Quality Time or Acts of Service. It seems strange to me, but that's him, and that's how he expresses (or doesn't express) affection. Once I got that, his lack of calling stopped hurting my feelings. And it works the other way, too. Recently, he complained that my Dad and I always want to talk to him on the phone and he doesn't understand why.
"I hate talking on the phone," he said. "So I don't do it. I don't know why that hurts people's feelings."
I joked, "Because when you don't keep in touch, we think you don't love us anymore." "Oh shit," he laughed, and since then, he's been better at reaching out.
It's worth noting that your love language might vary depending on the person, too. My brother might speak a different language in a romantic relationship than he does with family. And while I need quality time with my partner and family, I don't necessarily need quality time with friends to feel like they care or vice versa.
It can help in business, too. Business Strategist Marie Forleo says the love languages concept is her "secret weapon" in maintaining a happy team. As a leader, she finds out how each person on her team feels appreciated, and she can then motivate them accordingly.
Chapman even wrote a follow-up book specifically aimed at the workplace: The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace. They're pretty much the same, but his explainers are translated for professional relationships rather than romantic ones. However, you can probably translate pretty easily on your own by simply taking a look at their behaviour and how they respond to things.
Overall, it all comes down to knowing what's important to people so you can understand, empathise, and work with them a little better. Everyone is different. We all have different life experiences; we come from different backgrounds. It makes sense that we communicate differently, too.
Love languages can't fix everything, of course. They're not going to solve your joint money problems, for example. They're not going to make your in-laws more tolerable or get your partner to help out more around the house. But the concept does go a long way in communicating better, and we all know how much that matters in a relationship.