Do you and your partner (or ex) seem to speak a different language—namely, when it comes to showing love toward each other? Words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch—these are the five “love languages” conceptualized and made popular by Dr. Gary Chapman, author of The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts. Dr. Chapman theorized that we all “speak” these five languages in our relationships, and that they are critical for compatibility.
Most of us tend to use just one or two of these love languages. For whatever reason, these languages are built into our innate communication style and make the most sense to us. But you can learn to speak all five with a little effort and practice.
So, if your partner doesn’t speak your love language, is the relationship doomed? Maybe—but only if they are unwilling to try your preferred love language or communication style.
When you and your partner “speak” different love languages, they need to do two things to avoid hurt feelings. First, understand your partner’s love language and what they need to feel loved. Second, make the effort to speak to them in the ways they need.
Effectively speaking your partner’s love language may not come naturally, but it should not feel forced, either. Relationships require effort and compromise, after all. If you dislike speaking their language you will feel resentful. Plus, your partner will likely pick up on the fact that you dread speaking their love language—this is where big intimacy issues can result.
So, what do incompatible love languages look like? Imagine you have an extremely trying day at work. You come home and vent to your partner, hoping to hear reassuring words. Instead, your partner mutters something and then starts puttering around with a home repair project. You might be furious, annoyed and hurt by your partner’s insensitivity… don’t they care?!
Here’s what’s happening: You’re fluent in the “Words of Affirmation” love language. You need to hear words of affirmation to feel loved. Little do you know, your partner is trying to make your day better by cleaning the garage. Why? Because “Acts of Service” is your partner’s love language. They (mistakenly) believe a clean garage is exactly what you need to feel better.
While scenarios like this might be easily remedied by telling your partner you need them to listen and offer encouragement, no one wants to have to ask for the emotional support they need all the time. So, might mismatched love languages be a prime reason for the breakdown of your relationship?
Which love language do you speak?
Let’s explore some characteristics of Dr. Chapman’s five love languages. Ask yourself which language sounds most like you. Do you lack fluency in a particular love language? Could this be causing problems in your relationship?
In that same vein, think about your partner or ex. Which love language(s) would you attribute to them? Is there a love language they’re not so good at? Can you think of times when your partner or ex may have misunderstood your love language… or times when you misunderstood theirs?
Words of Affirmation
Some people get incredibly buzzed by words of affirmation. Compliments like, “You look gorgeous” and “I love the way you are with our kids” are gifts of verbal gold to a person who values words of affirmation.
Unsurprisingly, people who speak this language can think of no better way to express their love or admiration than bestowing words of affirmation upon someone else. Words of affirmation aren’t always just compliments, either. They can also be words that reflect respect, empathy, and gratitude.
What to say to someone whose love language is Words of Affirmation:
- I love you.
- Thank you for doing that.
- That outfit looks great on you.
- I can tell you’ve had a rough day. Want to talk about it?
- I know you’re struggling, but I have confidence in you.
Words of Affirmation might be your primary love language if:
- You thrive on compliments from others, especially your partner.
- You feel yourself glowing when your partner says, “I’m proud of you.”
- The words “I love you” mean more to you than any gift.
- You love to hear the words, “I appreciate you.”
- It means the world when your partner takes time to listen and understand your feelings.
For people who speak the love language of Quality Time, there is no greater gift than time spent with someone they love.
“Quality time” isn’t simply time spent physically together. It’s time spent focusing on each other to the exclusion of other things. Often, it involves eye contact and active listening. If your love language is Quality Time and your partner often scrolls through their phone while you’re talking, this drives you up the wall.
Quality Time might look like any of the following:
- A date night
- A getaway vacation
- A leisurely walk or bike ride together
- Attending a sporting event, concert, or lecture together
- An hour of face-to-face conversation without checking your devices
Quality Time might be your primary love language if:
- You like making plans for special activities and shared experiences with your partner.
- You long to spend time alone with your partner.
- An unexpected day off at home with your partner is a welcome surprise.
- You love it when your partner shows an interest in things you care about.
- You crave intellectual conversation.
People fluent in the Receiving Gifts language place high value on tokens of affection large and small. This doesn’t mean they are superficial. Yes, material goods are involved, but the goods symbolize something deeper than items money can buy. They symbolize the worth of the relationship itself.
The most meaningful gifts have a great deal of thought behind them. For example, if your partner loves dogs, receiving a framed photo of their dog for their birthday would likely mean more to them than a bouquet of flowers—no matter how grand.
Ideas for showing love to a person fluent in the Receiving Gifts love language:
- A letter, handwritten note, or illustrated card
- A home-cooked meal or treats made from scratch
- Birthday gifts, anniversary gifts, holiday gifts, and cards
- Experiential gifts (tickets to a show, vacation reservations)
- A gift from a store
Receiving Gifts might be your primary love language if:
- You love surprise gifts.
- You feel giddy when your lover brings you flowers or other tokens.
- Your feelings get hurt if someone forgets to acknowledge your birthday.
- You feel cared for when someone gives you a present.
- You notice and appreciate it when someone gives you a gift that required extra thought.
Acts of Service
For some people, Acts of Service resonate more deeply than any other expression of love—especially if it appears that the other party has gone out of their way to perform the service act.
These people find deep meaning in the actions others take for their benefit. In that same vein, they often attempt to show others how they feel by performing service acts. For example, a person may go out of their way to get their partner’s car serviced. Or clean their garage.
Any of the following could be an Act of Service:
- Cooking a meal for your loved one
- Paying for something (a bill, a meal) so your partner doesn’t have to
- Allowing your partner to sleep in while you walk the dog or watch the kids
- Calling or texting to see how your partner’s day is going (and offering support as needed)
- Volunteering to help with a home improvement project (doing it because you “want to” and not because you “have to”)
Acts of Service might be your primary love language if:
- Breakfast in bed is one of the most exquisite gifts you could receive.
- You love it when your partner helps knock items off your to-do list.
- You appreciate it when your partner notices how stressed you are and tries to help.
- It hurts you deeply when people break their commitments to you.
- You’re over the moon when your partner does practical things for you like clean the garage.
For some people, the best way to show love and feel love is physical touch. We’re not just talking about sex here. We’re talking about hugs, kisses, cuddles, shoulder rubs … basically any positive physical contact.
Note that each person is likely to have their own preferred amount of physical touch. For some people, one hug or hand squeeze per day is plenty. For others, physical touch may be needed hourly.
Ways to express your affection through the love language of Physical Touch:
- Sit close to each other (so your legs and arms are touching) on the couch.
- Give long hugs (as opposed to short, mindless embraces).
- Cuddle or spoon in bed.
- Hold hands.
- Offer to massage your partner when they have sore muscles (or just while you’re watching TV).
Physical Touch might be your primary love language if:
- A hug means more to you than a conversation.
- You love PDA.
- You wish your partner would give you a back rub every day.
- Intimacy with your partner is a daily requirement; you don’t feel right without it.
- You appreciate it when your partner shows concern for your well-being through physical touch.
Do your love languages need to be compatible?
While you and your partner do not need to share the same love language, it does make it easier to express and receive love from each other. However, it is just as easy to express love toward your partner if you understand their love language and enjoy speaking it. But problems can arise when one person’s love language does not make sense to another, or if one of you dislikes “speaking” their partner’s love language.
When you think about a past failed relationship, you might notice that differing love languages—and the resultant misunderstandings—contributed to its demise. However, there’s a big difference between the partner who is willing to try, or just needs friendly reminders of what you need (this can be a very healthy relationship) versus the partner who refuses to do the things your love language needs or detests them (this can be a big red flag).
Thriving in a world of multiple love languages
If you’ve ever been to couples counseling, your therapist likely tried to get you both to make better appeals to each other’s love language(s), even if they didn’t call them that. If you’re struggling with your spouse right now or are already divorced, you can learn a lot about how to try and improve your romantic relationship(s) going forward. What can you do to survive and thrive in this world of multiple love languages?
If you have a partner, know that their love language might differ from yours. That’s okay, but it could mean a little more “work” is required of each of you.
Once you know the love languages of the people you care about, learn to speak them. What are these people most likely to do or say to communicate love to you? What are they most likely to appreciate receiving from you?
Finally, communicate what you need to feel loved by others. Maybe they don’t speak your love language, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t willing to learn. Share your wants and needs with them, and try to (gently) teach your love language to them.
Chances are they’ll appreciate it if you try to learn their love language, too.