What's Your Partner's Love Language?

It's during my training as a peer counselor at the Berkeley Free Clinic in 2008 that I first learned about Gary Chapman's Five Love Languages.

What an Ah Ah moment I experienced on that day, as past relationship drama replayed in my mind!

Dr. Chapman identified five main "Love Languages" that we "speak" when we express our love to one another: Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Gifts, Acts of Service and Physical Touch.

Here are a few example of "dialects" for each type of Love Language:

1. Words of Affirmation:

  • Verbal compliments (truthful + specific)
  • Encouraging words
  • Humble words (requests rather than demands)

2. Quality Time:

  • Quality Conversation (active listening + self-revelation)
  • Quality Activities (focus on the partner rather than the activity)

3. Receiving Gifts:

  • Gift of self (in time of crisis, special event, etc.)
  • Gift of freedom (allowing the other to do what they want to do, including being alone)
  • Home-made gifts
  • Purchased gifts

4. Acts of Service:

  • Doing what is most helpful/supportive to one’s partner

5. Physical Touch:

  • Comforting touch in difficult times
  • Non-sexual touch
  • Sexual touch

The premise of Chapman's theory is that we have an "emotional love tank" that needs to be filled up and remain full in order to stay engaged and connected in a long-term intimate relationship. What complicates things is that each of us tends to favor one or two types of "fuels" - aka Love Languages - over the other ones, and it's only when we consistently express our love in our partner's favorite "Love Language" that they feel truly loved.

Because we have different "fuel requirements" for our love tank, using the wrong one does not work as well as using the best one. Sometimes, using the wrong one does not work at all and even can have an adverse effect. If our partner expresses their love in a language that we don't understand as being loving, we won't feel truly loved. Conversely, if we speak the "wrong" love language to our partner, they won't feel loved by us despite our best effort.

After reflecting on previous relationships, observing my own marriage as well as other relationships around me, and working with counseling and coaching clients, I have some additional thoughts to share with you on this topic:

1. Compromise is key:

Two partners with different love languages have to make compromises so that everyone gets their needs met. It's sometimes necessary to do something that we don't love doing in order to make our partner feel loved, as long as this does not conflict with our self-respect and personal values.

2. Size matters:

If I agree that our “Emotional Love Tank” needs to be regularly filled up by our partner, I find essential to keep the size of our tank in check. We must not allow it to become bigger and bigger over time and we must be mindful of what needs are reasonable to ask our partner to fulfill, and which ones we must fulfill ourselves. 

3. Avoiding assumptions:

Dr. Chapman says that we can figure out a person's Love Language by observing how they express their love to others because people usually express their love in the way they want to receive it. While I agree that it's true in some (maybe most) cases, it's not in plenty of others. Some people express their love in one language but prefer to receive love in another. Do not make assumptions!

4. Love is not enough, but it's the foundation of everything:

Making one another feel loved in a relationship is essential, yet your relationship needs more than love. Not all relationships problems are caused by a lack of feeling loved. However, if other issues need to be resolved, consistently speaking your partner's Love Language throughout the crisis creates a climate of security that will facilitate the resolution of other relationship problems. 

5. Emotional availability:

If we are not receptive to someone's love, receiving their loving words and actions will not touch us emotionally. If one partner is completely checked out of the relationship, abundantly speaking their preferred love language will not be sufficient to make them fall in love again. It still takes two to tango. 

Consistently expressing our love in our partner's favorite Love Language is a game changer for relationships, either by itself or as a foundation to facilitate the resolution of other conflicts.