Jason and Darnell seemed like a very happy couple. Darnell always returned from his weekly business trips with thoughtful, unique gifts and souvenirs for Jason. On special occasions like his birthday, their wedding anniversary, or Christmas, Darnell would buy extra expensive gifts to show his love to him.
In a similar way, Jason showed his love to Darnell by planning special activities where they could spend a lot of time just enjoying being together at restaurants or different events. He tried to spend as much time with him as he possibly could.
What a happy couple, right? Wrong. Actually, despite their good intentions, neither of them felt super close or loved by the other. But how could this be?
In reality, Jason wanted more quality time and connection, especially because Darnell was gone a lot on business trips. And actually, Jason felt like Darnell was trying to buy his love with gifts and, in the process, wasting money instead of truly showing love.
Darnell felt tired after his trips. He thought Jason loved the gifts because he always seemed so appreciative of them. What Darnell often really wanted was rest, and to be appreciated for his hard work.
So, what was the problem? They were assuming that they knew what the other person wanted. Darnell wrongly thought that gifts made Jason feel loved, and Jason projected (attributed, externalized) his own desire for quality time onto Darnell.
The five love languages
In 1992, Dr. Gary Chapman realized this type of pattern as he counseled married couples. He saw that different people had different ways of receiving and expressing love and that it often didn’t match with their partner. These observations morphed (evolved, developed) into five categories: words of affirmation (encouraging words, compliments), quality time, physical touch, acts of service, and receiving gifts.
One note before we continue talking about love is that the word “love” is a broad term that has many meanings depending on the relationship. But ultimately, it means some sort of positive connection.
Chapman’s hope was to help people identify their partner’s most preferred way or ways of receiving love. If each partner could understand the other partner’s top one or two preferred “languages of love” and actually express that “love language,” marriages would be healthier and happier.
The five love languages were originally used for couples, but the concept can be applied to any relationship. First let’s take a look at what the five love languages actually are, and then we can reflect on how they may or may not be relevant to various relationships and cultures.
Words of affirmation
Someone who prefers words of affirmation doesn’t necessarily only want to receive praise and compliments every day, all the time. That would feel awkward and inauthentic. What they need from their partner is to feel an authentic appreciation for who they are. They may sometimes need a boost (increase, help) in confidence, but oftentimes they just want to know that their efforts or accomplishments are valued and appreciated.
If your love language is spending quality time with your partner, it doesn’t mean you want to obsessively (excessively, in a controlling way) spend every waking moment with them or that you don’t appreciate words of affirmation. Quality time together could be focused on deeper conversation for some people, or it could just mean that they spend time doing an activity together without talking much. This person can sense a connection with their partner most strongly by knowing that the other person is present and connected in a shared space.
Physical touch is not referring to sex. Nearly everyone has a sexual drive (desire) with their partner, or so we can hope. People who prefer physical touch desire extra touch, like holding hands, snuggling while watching TV, or receiving frequent hugs or kisses throughout the day. Touch, for these people, is simply the most tangible (physical, real) symbol of close connection and acceptance.
Acts of service
Those who appreciate acts of service aren’t lazy or expecting their partner to serve them all the time. However, when their partner serves them, they feel cared for and loved. This can be everyday household chores, or a special gesture, like if the partner cooks a beautiful meal on the weekend.
People who love receiving gifts may seem a bit greedy, but like the other love languages, it’s the thought behind the gift that is so powerful. The gift is a physical representation of love that communicates care and the giving of one’s heart. It may not even have to be anything expensive. Even a small gift that is thoughtful and fitting to who that person is communicates love.
Love languages across different relationships & cultures
The love languages started with couples, but it can be applied to any relationship. If you want to understand your child, friend, parent, coworker, client, or boss, wouldn’t it be helpful to understand the psychology of what they really need from you in your specific relationship?
Perhaps so. However, culture and context matter a great deal. Family members are different from friends. A close coworker is different from a client. And your boss? Well, that also certainly depends!
Let’s finish by reflecting briefly on Japanese culture. The love language framework was developed in American culture, so it obviously is biased.
For example, physical touch is generally much less common in Japan than in the US. But what about words of affirmation? Well, perhaps Japanese embrace words of affirmation in a more nuanced sense that is very indirect. It also might completely depend on the hierarchical relationship. Maybe it’s focused less on the direct praise of an individual and focused more on politely appreciating or acknowledging the effort, sacrifice, or hospitality that one has experienced.
Giving gifts, acts of service, and quality time, on the other hand, seem to play a big role in Japanese culture. This can be seen with the gift exchange expectations and in the emphasis on team effort. And then again, it also depends a lot on whether the relationship is with a romantic partner, in a larger family context, among friends, coworkers, or other business settings.
The Five Love Languages framework is limited, but the concept boils down (comes down to, is summarized as) to this: If we want a relationship to be positive, we need empathy in order to recognize how the other person wants to receive love, which may be very different to how we feel loved and appreciated.
Regarding intimacy in our romantic relationships, it will be important to express to our partner what our own love language is so that they can know how to show love to us. Also, it will be vitally important to understand our partner’s love language so that we can also love them well.
Finally, if we want to expand this simple framework to the complexity of all our relationships in various contexts and cultures, we have the enormous challenge of figuring out the appropriate gesture within each environment: family, friends, workplace, and cross-cultural settings. Once we have understood the dynamics of a specific relationship in a particular context, we can freely adjust the framework however we see fit. But this won’t be an easy task.
Since this is such a tricky and complex topic, just start with yourself and start close to home.
What is your love language?
How will you discover the love languages of the most important people in your life?
For more information about this topic and original sources, or to take the online quiz to discover your love language, please visit https://www.5lovelanguages.com/.
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