The Violation of Love Languages
Why our deepest point of connection is also our deepest vulnerability.
Posted Apr 01, 2019
There is a famous book in the relationship self-help genre called The Five Love Languages, by Gary Chapman. The Five Love Languages is a perennial seller, and has made its way around the internet as a quiz. The book is based on what psychologists call a "model." It's a way of categorizing things that seems useful, whether or not those categories represent real things.
There are two mainstays of Chapman's model. The first is that there are different love languages: touch, words of affirmation, quality time, gifts, and acts of service. The second is that each person has a primary love language—the means through which they most directly feel loved. One person might care a lot about hearing that they're doing a good job (words of affirmation), where another person might care a lot about knowing someone carved time out of their busy day to spend together (quality time). While everyone is going to appreciate any positive act directed their way to some extent, love languages are a good way to put to your finger on what's going to matter most.
One misconception about love language is that they're about how a person expresses love. While you can certainly think about them in that way, Chapman goes to pains in his book to stress that they're about the way a person feels loved. The point is not to figure how out you most conveniently and effortless express love, but how to make your partner feel most valued. If such a mismatch between love languages that goes unidentified, it can be a major source of tension in a relationship. When what makes your partner feel most valued doesn't come naturally to you, simply having a label to put on that discrepancy can make an improvement.
But there's another thing, which has gone under-appreciated about love languages. It's a sort of corollary to Chapman's model. Your primary love language is not only the most direct way to make you feel loved. It is also your biggest vulnerability. It's where you are most exposed for someone to hurt you.
Take touch, for instance. Touch is relatively low on my personal ranking of love languages. That means that touch simply does not matter all that much to me. If someone I love expresses their feelings through touch, then I'm unlikely to be as sensitive to it as if they did so through quality time (my primary love language). But the flip side is that it's difficult to make me uncomfortable through touch. If someone I don't know gets overly touchy, it's not especially unpleasant for me. It isn't something that I'm going to be circling back to throughout the day and marinating in the uneasiness of that social interaction. That's not true for the people I know who touch is their primary language. Unwanted touch makes them really disconcerted.
I'm much more sensitive to quality time. The most efficient way to hurt my feelings is to plan to spend time together and then bail last minute. Planning to spend time with someone is something I take seriously. For me, committing a spot in my calendar to someone is a demonstration that I care enough to give them the one thing I can't get back: time. But not everyone is as sensitive to quality time as I am, just as I'm not sensitive to touch. Chapman's five love languages aren't just useful because they describe a strategy for making people feel good. They are outlines of the qualities we're most sensitive to in social interactions. And as such they can go both ways: they can make us feel deeply loved, or they can make us feel despised.
One of the reasons that Chapman's model has been so successful is that it gives us something to aim for. And not just a single target, but five of them. Instead of getting bogged down in the abstract dictum to make your partner "feel appreciated," love languages are something more concrete that we can put into practice. More than that, they allow us to be tuned in to our partner's unique sensitivities. Love languages sketch an answer to why they may feel undervalued, even when we perceive that we're expressing their worth. But we also need to be cognizant of the opposite effect. Knowing someone's love language is like learning their true name, a motif in many of the world's folklore traditions. It may give you insight into who they are deep down. But it also gives you power over them, which can be used for better or for worse.
Chapman, G. (2009). The five love languages: How to express heartfelt commitment to your mate. Moody Publishers.