In his book The 5 Love Languages, psychologist Gary Chapman writes about his theory that just as we have a native or first language, we also have a primary ‘love’ language – the way we most naturally communicate and understand love. For my husband Richard and I, learning about this was a light bulb moment in our marriage. Like many couples, we discovered that our love languages are very different. So, despite our best intentions, we hadn’t been communicating our love in a way that we both understood. My messages of affection were water off a duck’s back to him, and I wouldn’t even notice when he’d spent hours demonstrating his undying love for me by cleaning the kitchen.
The good news is that learning and speaking our partner’s love language has the potential to transform our relationship. So what are the five love languages, and how can we implement them more fully?
1. Words of affirmation
An ancient proverb says, “Our words have the power of life” and, if words are important to us, affirming and encouraging words from our partner can positively impact our marriage more than we’d ever imagine. One of the things I love about Richard is that he often says kind and encouraging things to and about me. But not always…
We were celebrating my birthday with friends and on my card they had written a list of wonderful things about me. It was completely over the top, I admit, but it made me feel a million dollars and I thanked them profusely. At that moment, Richard leant across, read what they’d written, looked up and said, “Guys, it’s only Katharine!” He meant it as a joke, but my birthday balloon burst immediately. At home later we sorted it out (ha!), but it was a valuable lesson on the importance to me of the power of words in our relationship to build up or to tear down. If our partner’s love language is words, we’ll need to take extra care with what we may think are funny comments – they will feel them deeply.
Be imaginative about showing love through encouraging words: say them, send them by text or snail mail, put a note on the dashboard or keyboard. “You look great tonight”, “Your lasagne is the best”, “I’m proud of you”, “I love you” – the possibilities are endless.
2. Quality time
After Carol and Duncan bought a new house, Duncan set about redecorating it completely. Weekends and evenings passed in a blur as he worked to get everything finished. He’d imagined that Carol would be delighted, but surprisingly she seemed to become distant. The problem was that Carol’s love language was ‘time’. She was grateful for Duncan’s hard work, but they hadn’t had any quality time together for months and she ended up feeling unloved. When they eventually talked about it, the news was a relief to Duncan. Finishing the house could wait.
If our partner’s primary love language is quality time, they will feel loved simply when we spend time with them. It could be going for a walk, having a coffee or chatting round the kitchen table, but the activity itself is incidental. What matters is that you find time when you can simply be together.
3. Acts of service
One of Richard’s main ways of feeling loved is acts of service. He’s brilliant at DIY and a much better cook than me, but when I do something practical thing for him, like sorting out the washing, or sweeping up the leaves, it says to him: “I love you.”
I remember coming downstairs on the evening of my thirtieth birthday and being greeted by a room full of people – Richard had arranged a surprise party. He’d worked so hard – I couldn’t bear to tell him that it was the last thing I wanted. That was a mistake, as ten years later history was re-enacted for my fortieth birthday. If I didn’t want a repeat performance for my fiftieth, I realised I needed to let him know that I don’t really like surprises.
As we had that conversation, it dawned on me that if doing something practical was Richard’s way of showing love, I needed to show my love for him in the same way. Making complex negotiations rivalling Brexit, I sorted out childcare and took him out to a place he’d always wanted to visit. The result was amazing – he felt so loved.
If our partner’s primary love language is acts of service, here’s a little word of warning: if we forget to do something they’ve asked us to do it will have an especially negative impact on them. Showing love in practical ways is not about being a doormat; it’s about spotting things we know our partner would love us to do. The challenge is to remember to do them, but when we do, our partner will feel truly loved. For them, actions really do speak louder than words.
Gifts can communicate love strongly on an emotional level – it’s my other love language. The first Christmas after we married, I carefully planned what present to give Richard and presented it to him with a flourish on Christmas Day. I felt so disappointed when he ripped the paper off, said a quick thank you, and put it to one side. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the gift – it simply didn’t carry the same significance for him as it did for me.
The love language of gifts is about the thought behind the gift rather than how expensive it is. So missing their birthday, forgetting an anniversary or that last-minute dash to Boots on Christmas Eve will be especially disappointing for our partner. Whether it’s a magazine, a packet of wine gums, a T-shirt or a bunch of flowers, giving a present of some kind – and not just on special occasions – will speak volumes to a partner whose love language is gifts.
For some people, touch communicates love more powerfully than words. It’s Richard’s other way of feeling loved and, early in our marriage, he’d genuinely feel I didn’t love him if I didn’t hold his hand when we were out walking. So giving him a kiss on the way out of the door and a hug rather than sympathetic words if he’s had a bad day all communicate love to him.
The love language of touch covers everything from a hand on the knee, a kiss, a hug, right through to sexual foreplay and making love. When withheld, it can communicate a sense of rejection, so if this is our partner’s love language it will be important to find opportunities to express love in this way – not just as a prelude to making love. For our partner, a touch makes all the difference.
It’s so easy to express our love in the same way that we want it to be shown to us, but when we do that we risk our partner not feeling loved. Take time to discover each other’s love language today – it can transform your relationship.
Katharine Hill is UK Director of Care for the Family. She is a well-known speaker, broadcaster and author. Her latest book If You Forget Everything Else, Remember This: Building a Great Marriage is available from www.muddypearl.com. She is married to Richard and they have four grown-up children.