How do you give love and how do you feel loved? It turns out that for personality type-obsessed folks (me, essentially), affectionate gestures can be summed up in a few key categories. In his book The Five Love Languages, relationship therapist Gary Chapman says that there are five primary ways we express love in relationships:
- Words of Affirmation – Saying things like “I love you”, “I appreciate what you did”, and “I’m so happy when you’re around”.
- Acts of Service – Actions that you know your partner will appreciate, like cooking them a meal or walking the dog.
- Receiving and Giving Gifts – Tokens of love that have thoughtfulness and effort behind them.
- Quality Time – Time is valuable, and it’s best spent with your partner’s undivided attention.
- Physical Touch – Hand-holding, hugs, kisses, and all the other intimate touches that express love.
The theory is mostly a helpful way to explain the basics of communication—though ideally, you and your partner should be fluent in the love languages you both most want to receive to really thrive.
So what happens if you have a “gifts” love language, but your partner tends to express adoration through long gooey text messages, instead of through really cool birthday presents? Or what if your partner loves PDA, but the thought of kissing in public makes you want to yack? When your partner just isn’t picking up what you’re putting down or when there’s friction or fighting in your relationship, it might be because the love languages you’re speaking are drastically different.
SheKnows talked to a few pros about how people who show and give affection differently can make sense of one another — and how it really all boils down to communication.
Get on the same page about love languages.
Before we begin to troubleshoot, let’s not skip the obvious question: Do you really know each other’s love language? According to relationship expert and dating coach Dr. Maryanne Comaroto, both people need to buy in for this to work optimally.
“If both partners have a vague understanding of their own and each other’s love language, they will only have a vague understanding of what to do when they are not getting their needs met,” explains Dr. Comaroto. “Or if one partner knows a lot about both partners’ love languages, whereas the other partner clearly does not, the burden is put on the one partner who knows to manage this part of the relationship through this filter.”
Though love languages can feel a little woo-woo at times, everyone needs to completely subscribe to the idea for them to serve you. If you don’t know your love language, this online quiz (online quizzes are always the best part) will help you discern your primary one. Grab your computer and some snacks, and make a date night out of taking the test together!
It’s your responsibility to let them know what you need.
Even if you don’t want to tell your partner to surprise you with flowers, because that ruins the thoughtfulness of the gesture, you should. The “do something cute without me asking” mindset makes it seem like your partner sucks at romance, and it can leave you feeling misunderstood and let down. Too, if you’re constantly sharing sweet romantic gestures and your partner isn’t getting the message, it can feel like your effort is going unnoticed. But really, this all comes back to issues in communication.
Since your partner probably can’t read minds, it’s your responsibility to tell them, in words, what you need to feel nurtured.
According to Dr. Kristie Overstreet, a clinical sexologist and psychotherapist, you need to get those lines of communication wiiiide open, because the best way couples can cope with having contrasting love languages is by speaking up for their needs. “If you like to receive love through quality time and theirs are words of affirmation, let them know you want to schedule a time to spend with them,” says Dr. Kristie. “It’s normal to have different languages, but the key is to be clear with your partner about what you are needing versus assuming that since they know, they ‘should’ be delivering on it.”
A tip to keep couples on track to giving and receiving love is to ask one another throughout the day “Do you need anything?”
“This is a quick way to check-in with your partner and to show them that you’re there for them. Also, by asking them if they need anything, you’re modeling to them what you want them to do for you as well,” she notes. “If you’re asking what they need, the hope is they will also ask you what you need, so that you both are getting your needs met.”
Be extra specific.
If your partner still isn’t speaking your love language, it’s your responsibility to be the translator. By now they probably know that you love spending time together, but you might need to tell them that you specifically crave watching movie marathons on the couch all weekend.
“As you’re learning each other’s love language, have open communication describing your efforts while providing specifics about what feels great for you,” recommends Faith Dulin, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Dulin suggests practicing this by saying something like: “I loved cuddling while we watched the movie last night. Since my love language is physical touch, that really connected with me in a special way.” Or try: “I know you appreciate acts of service so when I made the nice dinner for us beforehand, was that something you enjoyed or would something different feel good for you?”
Dulin also notes that you should express gratitude for the behaviors that “speak your language” so your partner knows what resonates with you the most. It may feel contrived at first, sure, but eventually your partner will recognize gestures that feel best to you.
You can’t always fit circles into triangles, and sometimes that’s the case where two love languages just don’t mix. But there’s also a lot of other shapes out there, and honestly, having different love languages is NBD.
It all comes down to this: taking the time to understand your partner’s love language, which is probably different than your own, can improve your bond. Just because you and your partner or spouse have contrasting love languages, doesn’t mean all bets are off when it comes to having an incredible relationship. There are so many other components to love — and ultimately, you just need to be willing to give a little on your end, as much as they need to on theirs.
A version of this story was published June 2020.