If you’ve ever been in a relationship and encountered a problem that felt like you were fundamentally misunderstanding your partner (and who hasn’t?), your online search has probably led you to the “What is your love language?” question and/or quiz at some point. The phrase has been ubiquitous since Dr. Gary Chapman released his popular relationship book, The Five Love Languages, 10 years ago.
So, what is a “love language,” and how might understanding them help our relationships? It’s all about knowing what it takes for a person to feel loved, Chapman tells SheKnows.
After many years of counseling couples in crisis, Chapman says, “It became apparent to me that what makes one person feel loved isn’t always the same for their spouse or partner,” he explains. “I discovered every person understands and receives love in a specific language, one of five to be precise. The other four are just as important and offer [other] ways to express love to each other.”
The 5 Love Languages
Dr. Tina B. Tessina, a psychotherapist and author of Dr. Romance’s Guide to Finding Love Today, also sees the value of using these terms to demonstrate love. “Understanding your own ways of expressing love, and your partner’s, and understanding how your expressions of love are different or similar means you know when you’re loving your partner the way you want to and when you’re loving your partner in his or her favorite way,” she tells SheKnows. “You can understand better why some things work between you and others don’t. You can learn to recognize when your partner is sending you love, even if it’s not the way you’re used to.”
According to Chapman, taking the time to learn and really understand your partner’s primary love language, which is often different from your own, can improve communication and strengthen your bond.
But what are these five different love languages and what do they look like in practice? Here’s what you need to know.
Words of affirmation
According to Chapman, people with this love language need to hear their partner say, “I love you.” Even better is including the reasons behind the love through leaving them a voice message or a written note or talking to them directly with sincere words of kindness and affirmation.
Other examples from Tessina include saying things like: “Thank you,” “That was nice of you” and/or “I appreciate what you did.”
This language, says Chapman, is all about giving your partner your undivided attention. That means no TV, no chores, no cell phone — just giving each other your undivided attention. Take time every day to do this.
“Spending time with your partner is about being together, paying attention to each other, sharing something meaningful together and listening and communicating,” adds Tessina. Other examples include preparing dinner together and talking while preparing and eating it, sharing plans for the future, making love and/or creating something together.
The person who loves this language thrives on the love, thoughtfulness and effort behind the gift. In short, actions speak louder than words.
“The thing that works best is picking the right gift that shows you understand your partner and the effort you made to express love,” says Chapman. “Think about finding a gift that your partner has been asking for or would enjoy receiving and plan for a special way of giving it; make it a surprise.”
The act of giving a gift tells your partner you cared enough to think about him or her in advance and go out of your way to get something to make your partner smile, says Tessina.
Acts of service
This language includes anything you do to ease the burden of responsibility, like vacuuming the floors, going grocery shopping or sending thank-you notes. Stumped as to what your partner needs? Chapman suggests asking your partner to give ideas for things they’d like you to do that would make their life easier and make a schedule to get them done.
Simple things like making breakfast in bed or walking the dog demonstrate you care about your partner and your life together, says Tessina. “It says you want to make your home and relationship more livable and you want to ease your partner’s burden,” she adds.
People who speak this love language thrive on any type of physical touch: hand-holding, hugs and pats on the back. “Be intentional about finding ways to express your love using physical touch: giving hugs, touching their arm or hand during a conversation; offer to give a neck or back rub,” says Chapman.
According to Tessina, physical touch is the most direct way to communicate love. “As long as it’s done in an atmosphere which is loving and not oppressive, physical touch can be the most effective of the love languages. It calms, heals and reassures,” she explains.
The bottom line is that not everyone expresses their love in the same way, so being aware of the different love languages can help you understand your relationship better.
A version of this story was published January 2019.
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