Understanding The Love Languages as a tool for becoming a better lover (and citizen).
I once dated a man as generous with his compliments as a sailor is with his swear words. Granted, he was English, which made every word sound as though he were channeling James Bond. Regardless of the dubiousness of his proclamations, (“You have the ass of a fourteen year old boy.”) every adulation made my heart glow. Another man I came to adore wrote letters (with a pen!) and left little notes of endearment in my medicine cabinet and underwear drawer. I fell hard for that one, which led to a full-on face plant when those words slowed to a trickle and eventually dried up all together.
Now that I think of it, all the men I’ve felt most enamoured with were the ones who delivered a steady supply of sweet nothings. The complimentary men seemed to connect with me at a level I understood instinctively. I like to use words as well to connect with people. However, all these word maestros were short-lived companions. Our incompatibilities showed up in other ways and I eventually accepted that words of affirmation from my companion were simply a big bonus, like a big bank account or a big…you know, not really that important to the long-term success of a relationship.
I only discovered The Five Love Languages a few years ago, but learning them helped me understand why I light up with word men. Now, by date three, I quiz a man on his own love language so I can find ways to make him feel good, besides that thing I do with my mouth. But I had a more selfish motive: I wanted him to know mine and speak it. Turns out that’s not what the love languages creator had in mind.
Sales of The Five Love Languages have been astronomical, with nearly 13 million copies sold; pretty spectacular given it was written by a Southern Baptist pastor named Gary Chapman and published by a small, ecumenical press marketing to married, Christian couples. Chapman believes we have the capacity to exhibit all the love languages but that one of the following will dominate: Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Receiving Gifts, Acts of Service or Physical Touch. To learn your own, your lover's or even your child’s, take the simple quiz on Chapman’s website.
Chapman formed his theory of love languages after years of pastoral care sessions with parishioner couples. And the concept is quite simple: one should show love for a partner in a way they understand, not in the way which comes easiest to you. Knowing your own love language only tells you how you best feel loved but, according to Chapman, this isn’t the best way to express love towards others. A person whose primary love language is Quality Time might think it disingenuous of you to bring flowers after canceling a date. Just because Receiving Gifts makes up for a transgression in your mind, won’t mean much to the person who really wanted your undistracted attention. Chapman writes, “If we want them to feel the love we are trying to communicate, we must express it in their primary love language.”
Ever on the hunt for data, I wanted to know if love languages had been formally studied. Though Chapman does hold a PhD in adult education, he has never claimed to be a psychotherapist or research scientist, testing his theories in any sort of love lab. Some psychological professionals waver on their support of the love languages as an effective tool in couple’s counseling.
“I don’t consider [love languages] to be an evidence-based practice, but I do find it to be a very useful tool and use it in all of my work with couples,” says Stefani Goerlich, a Detroit-based psychotherapist. “I have found that 8 times out of 10, whatever the issues are that my client-couples bring to the table, they are rooted in a fundamental misalignment in how each partner gives and receives love.” Goerlich, in fact, uses the five love languages as a framework for helping couples learn to communicate better about their needs.
A 2000 study found that the five love languages can be a more effective framework than other approaches to helping couples communicate. But research conducted in a 2017 study suggests that the five love languages only work when “both [partners] exhibit appropriate self-regulatory behaviors.” In other words, the love language concept works if both partners are able to control (and change) their own behavior. “People are only incompatible when they are unwilling to learn and respond to their partners needs,” Goerlich says. “Where there is willingness to adapt and grow, there is always the potential for long-term happiness.” No truer words exist.
Julie Gottman, co-creator with her husband John Gottman of The Gottman Method, a research-based approach to disarming verbal conflict and creating intimacy, is obliquely supportive of the love languages. But she warns they shouldn’t be used to express affection in only one way or recognize only one kind of act as an act of love. She points out that some elements framed as “love languages” have always been considered necessary ingredients in a successful relationship, such as quality time.
Touch is one of the stickier love languages. The spirit of understanding attentiveness in love should be separated from our drive to have sex with our partners. That’s not what the love language of touch is about. Chapman is pretty clear, “If forms of touch, which are loving but not sexual in nature, don’t make you feel loved—then physical touch is not your love language!”
Avi Klein, a psychotherapist in Brooklyn says in a Vice interview, “I do think people would be so much better off if there were ‘sexual love languages.’ [They’d learn] about themselves and their sexuality, and how much better would people’s sex lives be if they could like, name a way that they wanted to be related to sexually?” This is an especially important subtopic to explore when trying to love someone who has experienced sexual trauma.
Conversely, using a person’s love language malevolently is likely to hurt them the most. I’ve had a man say things to me that were so horrible not even my potty mouth will repeat them. Whether deserved or not, having vicious words thrown my way hurt like hell. This is what Cody Kommers calls The Violation of Love Languages. The source of our deepest connections also reveals our greatest vulnerabilities. He writes, “Knowing someone’s love language is like learning their true name, a motif in many of the world’s folklore traditions. It may give you insight into who they are deep down. But it also gives you power over them, which can be used for better or for worse.”
This is why I’d like to be less attached to my love language. I don’t want to associate my love language with my value as much as what I value. If I peg my self-worth on how many compliments I get (or feel crushed by the criticisms) I’d stop writing tomorrow and date only sycophants. If you’re breaking your budget to give gifts or consumed with getting your acts-of-service to-do list completed because otherwise you’ll feel like a shitty person, that’s where these love languages might have too big a grip on our sense of self. And if we’re thinking poorly of other people because they don’t speak our love language I think we risk under-appreciating all their other excellent qualities.
So, what if a man I like doesn’t speak my love language very well? Will he fail to hold my interest even if he’s lighting up my receptors in many other ways? I don’t know. I still haven’t decided if I will align better with a man who effortlessly feeds me a steady stream of affirmations – making each day a bit more buoyant – or one who gets me into the wilderness, where I love to be. Both would be lovely. But it shouldn’t be a deal breaker if he’s not a man to sing my praises, as long as he’s still invested in a shared adventure. And my orgasm.
I care less about love languages than the things I feel really count as loving: consistency, kindness, openness to influence, good listening skills, and a willingness to work through sticky issues. As Alain de Botton has written, “Compatibility is an achievement of love; it shouldn’t be its precondition.” What is more important to me than finding a partner who speaks my love language is calibrating with a man who is as curious about me as I am about him and, in a sense, creating our shared love language. This means more to me than hearing my ass looks great.
To learn a person’s love language gives us an important tool with which to strengthen our relationships. But it’s also really easy to simply ask, “How can I make you feel loved?” That’s the primary point of Chapman’s work. Though love language alignment might promote satisfaction, an ability to self-regulate, and self-soothe will likely contribute more to my contentment, as the research shows. It’s best I challenge myself, not my partner, to be the one who delivers daily words of affirmation. But then, it’s possible I might never feel deeply connected to a person who can’t or won’t speak my language.
My newsletter banner this month pays tribute to yet another unarmed black man, George Floyd, recently killed at the hands of law enforcement. This struggle continues; against racism and police brutality, towards justice, equality and upholding the fragile tenets of democracy. These issues cannot be ignored and I encourage all of us, as big-loving people, to explore our feelings around racism and listen closely to our black allies. Here is just one excellent list of resources; books, articles and films. Please read, share, listen, and act. Even if you can’t be out on the streets expressing solidarity, do something to be a force for good. It’s as simple as having a conversation.