You may express affection to your significant other regularly, but do you truly take the time to make sure you're communicating it the way your partner wants to receive it? Even love can sometimes get lost in translation when two partners speak different love languages.
What are the 5 love languages?
The five love languages are five different ways of expressing and receiving love: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. Not everyone communicates love in the same way, and likewise, people have different ways they prefer to receive love. The concept of love languages was developed by Gary Chapman, Ph.D., in his book The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts, where he describes these five unique styles of communicating love, categories he distilled from his experience in marriage counseling and linguistics.
"We all may relate to most of these languages, but each of us has one that speaks to us the most," marriage and family therapist Sunny Motamedi, Psy.D., tells mbg. "Discovering you and your partner's primary love language and speaking that language regularly may [create] a better understanding of each other's needs and support each other's growth."
Here's an overview of each of the five love languages Chapman describes:
Words of affirmation
People with words of affirmation as a love language value verbal acknowledgments of affection, including frequent "I love you's," compliments, words of appreciation, verbal encouragement, and often frequent digital communication like texting and social media engagement.
"Written and spoken shows of affection matter the most to these people," couples' psychotherapist Fariha Mahmud-Syed, MFT, CFLE, tells mbg. "These expressions make them feel understood and appreciated."
People whose love language is quality time feel the most adored when their partner actively wants to spend time with them and is always down to hang out. They particularly love when active listening, eye contact, and full presence are prioritized hallmarks in the relationship.
"This love language is all about giving your undivided attention to that one special person, without the distraction of television, phone screens, or any other outside interference. They have a strong desire to actively spend time with their significant other, having meaningful conversations or sharing recreational activities," Mahmud-Syed says.
Acts of services
If your love language is acts of service, you value when your partner goes out of their way to make your life easier. It's things like bringing you soup when you're sick, making your coffee for you in the morning, or picking up your dry cleaning for you when you've had a busy day at work.
"This love language is for people who believe that actions speak louder than words. Unlike those who prefer to hear how much they're cared for, people on this list like to be shown how they're appreciated. Doing the smaller and bigger chores to make their lives easier or more comfortable is highly cherished by these folx," shares Mahmud-Syed.
Gifts is a pretty straightforward love language: You feel loved when people give you "visual symbols of love," as Chapman calls it. It's not about the monetary value but the symbolic thought behind the item. People with this style recognize and value the gift-giving process: the careful reflection, the deliberate choosing of the object to represent the relationship, and the emotional benefits from receiving the present.
"People whose love language is receiving gifts enjoy being gifted something that is both physical and meaningful. The key is to give meaningful things that matter to them and reflect their values, not necessarily yours," says Mahmud-Syed.
People with physical touch as their love language feel loved when they receive physical signs of affection, including kissing, holding hands, cuddling on the couch, and sex. Physical intimacy and touch can be incredibly affirming and serve as a powerful emotional connector for people with this love language. The roots go back to our childhood, Motamedi notes, some people only felt deep affection and love by their parents when they were held, kissed, or touched.
"People who communicate their appreciation through this language, when they consent to it, feel appreciated when they are hugged, kissed, or cuddled. They value the feeling of warmth and comfort that comes with physical touch," says Mahmud-Syed.
Love language quiz: What is my love language?
To find your type, read the following statements and mark the ones that deeply resonate with you. Filter it through: How do you show love? What do you complain about in a relationship? What do you request or actively need from your partner on a day-to-day basis? The one with the most statements you resonate with is your primary love language. If two or more languages are tied for first place (which is common!), use the process of elimination and work your way down the list until you are left with one or two languages that you are not willing to part with.
Words of affirmation
- You really like hearing your partner say, "I love you." Those three words are particularly meaningful, special, and reassuring for you to hear. Again and again and again.
- You appreciate when you are being acknowledged and praised. It's nice to have your efforts recognized with kind words, no matter how small it is. It lets you know that you are valued. Extra points if it's out of the blue.
- The details matter, and it's important your partner remarks on things like if you changed your hair or actually put on work clothes instead of your pajamas for your Zoom work call. It shows they are paying attention, which helps you feel cherished.
- You feel valued when they take the time to thoughtfully reflect and comment on something positive they notice you doing.
- When you do something nice for your partner, they say, "Thank you," which makes you feel recognized and affirmed.
- You like to spend uninterrupted time with your partner. It's critical you have enough time to hang out and enjoy each other with undivided attention. No distractions, please.
- It's meaningful when they make time for you, prioritize you in their schedule, and don't cancel plans.
- Creating memories and special moments together is super important. Sharing new experiences means the world to you.
- Time is precious, and it's meaningful to soak in every second of your time together.
- You feel content and happy when you are around your partner, even if you aren't really doing anything. The important thing is you are spending focused time together.
Acts of services
- You feel taken care of when your partner supports you and helps ease your responsibilities when they do little chores or tasks for you. Domestic bliss unlocked.
- It means a lot when someone follows through on something, especially if they were paying attention and stepped in to help. When they do this, you trust your partner to pay attention to the little details.
- You think talk is cheap; action means everything. You need someone to come through and to know you can rely on them. Show, not tell.
- You love when your partner steps in to do little things for you to make your life easier.
- If you're feeling stressed or tired, it would be nice if your partner saw it as an opportunity to step up and alleviate your burden by taking something off your plate that's easy for them to do. That small act helps you feel taken care of.
- You feel loved when you receive a gift. The present itself is nice, but it's really the thought behind it that counts: The gift becomes an object that helps you remember they were thinking of you, which fills you with love.
- After a date or a trip, it's special to take a memento home with you. Seeing the item reminds you of those sentimental moments.
- The best gifts are the meaningful ones. If it's a surprise gift, even better. It strengthens the bond and builds a deeper connection for you.
- During holidays, birthdays, or anniversaries, you want to commemorate it with a present of some kind. Those days are extra special, and you love using those days as a reminder of your commitment.
- The gesture of receiving a gift demonstrates that you are seen, cared for, and prized. You really thrive on the thoughtfulness behind the gesture and treasure nostalgic items.
- You look forward to hugs, cuddles, and kissing. Nothing beats tactile, physical intimacy.
- You feel grounded in a relationship when physical affection is accessible and often cultivated. Holding hands, long embraces, and kisses are common and welcome occurrences.
- You're game for public displays of affection. It helps you feel wanted and desired.
- If your partner is sitting next to you, you would rather sit side-to-side and cuddle up. The closer, the better. If they are nearby, it's almost automatic you reach out to them to touch their leg, play with their hair, or give them a back rub.
- Sexual intimacy makes you feel loved and closer to your partner.
The most common love language.
Chapman analyzed the results of 10,000 people who took his online quiz in 2010 and found words of affirmation was the most popular language but by a thin margin. In 2018, dating app Hinge analyzed their app and found the most common love language was quality time, by far.
"I personally believe it also depends on gender, culture, customs, and values," Mahmud-Syed notes. "Certain love languages which are prevalent in the West are much less common in non-Western cultures. For example, in my South Asian culture, directly praising someone is very uncomfortable and often not well received. Instead, praising that person to a third party is more highly valued when they hear about what you said about them through the grapevine. Also, public display of affection between spouses or romantic partners is also a major taboo."
Dating with each type of love language.
Love languages are a deceptively simple concept, and understanding them can be transformative if you put in the practical work. It invites curiosity, not mind-reading, into the relationship.
For example, you might love words of affirmation, but your partner places a premium on quality time and touch. As a bid for connection, you might text him sweet nothings all day and think you're great at expressing love; meanwhile, he might be wondering why you're never interested in spending time cuddling on the couch together at night and may actually be feeling unloved because of that. See how it's easy for disconnection and resentment to enter the picture? By determining our primary and secondary love language preferences, it can be easier to give each other what we innately crave.
Here are some tips for dating people with each type of love language:
- Words of affirmation: Words mean everything, so choose them wisely. Err on the side of positivity, and communications will flourish. When you notice the good things, say it and say it often. Try not to engage in nonconstructive criticism—words have an impact and leave a lasting impression.
- Quality time: Carve out intentional space in your schedule for time together. It could be as simple as going for a walk together outside (an exciting pandemic activity) and having a good in-depth conversation about your day. Leave the phones at home.
- Acts of service: Go above and beyond with your actions to show your love. Don't always make it about chores—people have different interpretations of what this love language means to them, so ask them directly what they need. Display vigilance by anticipating how you could make their life easier. Those little acts add up and can make all of the difference.
- Gifts: They will remember the special occasions, so make sure to mark it on the calendar and honor the day and your partner with a thoughtful gift. Win extra Brownie points with a "just because" gift. It could be as simple as a hand-picked flower from the garden or getting them a cute keychain from a favorite travel destination. Those small gestures can celebrate the relationship in a big way.
- Touch: Tender caresses and physical affection are everything. This love language is refreshingly straightforward, easy to satisfy, and doesn't involve a lot of planning, exertion, or money. It's as easy as reaching out for connection by squeezing their arm while you're watching a movie or tapping their butt when you walk by them. Simple.
Criticisms of the love language theory.
Fast-forward to the present day, almost 30 years from the book's publication. As popular as the concept is, many people have since pointed out problems with the love languages. Some people can use the love languages theory as a sort of personality test, despite the fact that Chapman's whole point is that we're supposed to adapt ourselves to our partner's love language, not demand they use ours.
Indeed, recent research revealed couples being aligned with each other's love language wavelength doesn't exactly mean it makes a successful and happy relationship. Couples who shared the same love language weren't happier than the couples who had differing styles, suggesting mastering fluency over the love language system and adapting it based on what the partner needs at the moment is more valuable than solely relying on a dominant love language type.
"It promotes codependency and prevents partners from developing autonomy and authenticity," Motamedi adds. "A relationship is a place for transformation and growth. When we limit each other with a specific love language, we do not allow room for change."
The broad concepts, which lean on its practical simplicity, can also feel too simplistic since it's not completely inclusive of sexuality, culture, trauma, and intergenerational differences in nuanced communities. There needs to be an understanding that human relationships are a complicated reflection of their childhood wounds and attachment style, Motamedi points out: "I believe that once the person heals the wounds of their past relationships and develops a healthy attachment style, their love language also changes."
In general, it's important not to use love languages as a universal salve to remedy issues. It's clear we need more skill sets than those in our tool kit to face problems that may exist below the surface of our relationship.
The bottom line.
Love languages are a useful tool to improve how we communicate and express ourselves to each other, but they shouldn't be the be-all-and-end-all solution for happiness. Instead, it should function as a starting point that sets couples on a journey to meet each other in a more profound way and self-regulate better. But the work shouldn't stop there.
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Julie Nguyen is a writer, certified relationship coach, Enneagram educator, and former matchmaker based in Brooklyn, New York. She has a degree in Communication and Public Relations from Purdue University. She previously worked as a matchmaker at LastFirst Matchmaking and the Modern Love Club, and she is currently training with the Family Constellations and Somatic Healing Institute in trauma-informed facilitation.