Imagine a woman up to her elbows in soapy dishwater after she’s mopped the kitchen floor, vacuumed the living room, and changed the litter box. Her partner comes home from work — then promptly complains that he doesn’t feel loved or appreciated by her. Incredulous, she yells, “What are you talking about?” and lists the tasks she’s just completed. She voices the same complaint: She doesn’t feel affirmed for her hard work. Many unnecessary and damaging arguments begin this way. Two people who love each other might nonetheless clash frequently because they’re speaking a different language. Just as a conversation between one person speaking Mandarin and another speaking Czech would almost certainly result in confusion and conflict, differences in how those in a relationship express their basic human need to love and be loved can create tension.
Ways We Say “I Love You”
In 2009, Gary Chapman, PhD, published The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. The anthropologist, therapist, theologian, author and speaker has observed, both in his own marriage and others’ relationships, that these partnerships are more likely to thrive among people who understand each other’s primary needs, as well as their ways of demonstrating these needs. Dr. Chapman outlines five distinct ways in which people express love to significant others, including partners, parents, children, and friends. While each of these methods is an important aspect of mating, dating and relating, each person values these love languages differently. They are:
- Word of affirmation: These could include praise and compliments on appearance, achievements or kind actions.
- Acts of service: These could include running errands or doing tasks that make the loved one’s day easier.
- Receiving gifts: These could include presents of any size. Because these gifts require planning, they help the receiver feel as if the giver is thinking of him or her even when they’re not together.
- Quality time: This could include being in each other’s presence with undivided attention.
- Physical touch: This could include nurturing contact, sitting close by each other, holding hands, hugging and massage. This touch might involve sexual interaction, but it doesn’t have to.
Finding a Common Language
When we’re aware of the ways we and those around us express love, we’re better able to increase closeness and minimize conflict. Even before taking Chapman’s test, considering how you give love can help you determine how you prefer to receive it: We often dish it out the way we’d want to take it. Another way to gain insight is to consider what you or the other person complains most about when you feel your needs aren’t being met. It’s easy to feel depleted in our relationships instead of being fulfilled. Taking another for granted, being defensive, and allowing addictive behaviors to take precedence over the union can strain connections. But giving and accepting each other’s offers of love — in each other’s particular languages — can help replenish those depleted stores.
Translating the Love Languages in Recovery
This concept can especially empower those who are choosing sobriety. Figuring out the key to what motivates you personally will help you and loved ones direct your energy to the most effective motivation. Let’s say your primary love language is affirmation. You may be encouraged by hearing someone praise you for refraining from drinking while attending a party. If your primary love language is touch, your partner may be more inclined to be sexually intimate with you when there isn’t a substance interfering. If gifts are important, then receiving a coin at a 12-step meeting might drive you to stay the course. If acts of service matter most to you, then having someone take you to a meeting might help you feel important. If you crave quality time, then having your children enjoy being around you when you’re sober would likely encourage you. Before you and your loved ones can get on the same page, you have to be sure you all understand the words on that page. Being fluent in the love languages of those who matter most to you — including yourself — can create and sustain healthy, fulfilling, long-lasting relationships in which everyone involved feels valued. By Edie Weinstein, LSW Follow Edie on Twitter at @EdieWeinstein1