If you spend any time around couples, you might have heard the phrase “love language” come up. “Their love language is acts of service,” they might say of their partner when they talk about their partner’s help around the house. It might sound like general couples talk, but it’s actually from a popular relationship book, The Five Love Languages by Dr. Gary Chapman.
The idea is simple: Break down and decode the different ways in which people communicate with their partners, so we can finally take the mystery out of what our significant other really wants and expects from us.
So, what exactly are these languages he speaks of? According to Dr. Chapman, there are five universal ways that all people express and interpret love. Through his more than 30 years of couples counseling, Dr. Chapman has noticed specific patterns in the way partners communicate — and it turns out that most of the population express and interpret love in the same five ways, according to his observations.
These expressions and interpretations are his famous five love languages.
Dr. Chapman firmly believes that each person has one primary and one secondary love language (you can take a quiz on his website to determine what your personal love languages are), and he theorizes people tend to give love in the way they prefer to receive love. Since we don’t all have the same preferences as our partners when it comes to giving and receiving love, this is how relationships can start to get sticky. But by understanding our partners’ inherent love language, we can start to tear down walls in our romantic lives.
Let’s finally learn what the love languages are.
1. Words of affirmation
According to Dr. Chapman, this language uses words to affirm other people. For those who prefer the words of affirmation language, hearing “I love you” and other compliments are what they value the most. Words hold real value within this language. Furthermore, negative or insulting comments cut deep — and won’t be easily forgiven.
2. Quality time
This language is all about giving the other person your undivided attention. Unlike the words of affirmation language, talk is cheap and being a loved one’s main focus leaves quality timers feeling satisfied and comforted. Distractions, postponed dates, or the failure to listen can be especially hurtful to these individuals. Being there for them is crucial.
3. Receiving gifts
Dr. Chapman says for some people, what makes them feel most loved is to receive a tangible gift. This doesn’t necessarily mean the person is materialistic, but a meaningful or thoughtful present it was makes them feel appreciated.
4. Acts of service
For these people, actions speak louder than words. People who speak the language of service want their partner to recognize that their life is rough and help them out in any way possible. Lending a helping hand shows you really care. People who thrive on this language do not deal well with broken promises — or perceived laziness — and have very little tolerance for people who make more work for them. Basically, if you’re not willing to show your appreciation by doing them a favor, you’re saying you don’t value them.
5. Physical touch
To this person, nothing speaks more deeply than appropriate touch. That doesn’t mean only in the bedroom — everyday physical connections, like hand-holding, kissing, or any type of re-affirming physical contact is greatly appreciated. A person who speaks the language of physical touch isn’t necessarily an over-the-top PDA’er, but getting a little touchy-feely does make them feel safe and loved. Any instance of physical abuse is a total deal breaker.
One more thing…
Just because you or your partner favor a particular love language, doesn’t mean you should stop expressing the other love languages. According to Chapman, even though we tend to favor one language more than the others we still enjoy traits of the others as well.
And Dr. Chapman doesn’t think his Love Languages only apply to romantic relationships, either. His other books The Five Love Languages of Children, The Five Love Languages for Singles, and The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace (co-authored with Dr. Paul White) illustrate how the Love Languages can pretty much be applied to any type of relationship.
Learn more about all of Dr. Chapman’s books here.
A version of this article was originally published in September 2010.