Have you ever been asked “What’s your love language?”
Chances are, you have. Because the concept — first created by counselor and pastor Gary Chapman, unpacked in a series of books, and picked up by many others — has spread far and wide. The five love languages refer to the five simple ways that we want love to be shown to us and the ways that we show others love.
I’m a relationship researcher, and while I haven’t empirically studied the love languages concept, other academics have. Some of the published studies confirm the validity of love languages, revealing they can increase people’s relationship satisfaction and longevity.
What I find so helpful about love languages is that they express a basic truth. Implicit to the concept is a common-sense idea: We don’t feel or experience love in the same way. Some of us will only be content when we hear the words “I love you,” some prize quality time together, while some will feel most cared for when our partner scrubs the toilet.
In this way, love is a bit like a country’s currency: One coin or bill has great value in a particular country, less value in the countries that border it, and zero value in many other countries. In relationships, it’s essential to learn the emotional currency of the humans we hold dear and identifying their love language is part of it.
No matter your situation — whether you’re living alone, spending 24/7 with a partner or roommates, living with adult kids or steering younger kids through virtual school — the five love languages are a highly effective set of tools to have in your relational toolkit. When we know what another person’s love language is, we can choose the gestures that will most resonate with our partner, friend, parent or child. And when we know which actions speak to us and make us feel loved, we can ask other people for exactly what we need.
While there are plenty of online quizzes to tell you what your love language is, it’s easy to figure out yours and what your loved ones’ are by looking at what lights them up, what presents they give you (since many of us bestow on others what we would most like), and what their perfect day would look and feel like.
Here’s a look at the five languages and how they can be applied and optimized — even during a pandemic.
Love language #1: Words of affirmation
Those of us whose love language is words of affirmation prize verbal connection. They want to hear you say precisely what you appreciate or admire about them. For example: “I really loved it when you made dinner last night”; “Wow, it was so nice of you to organize that neighborhood bonfire”; or just “I love you.”
For the people in your life that you’re not seeing in person because of the pandemic, you could film a short video to send them. My kindergarten-aged goddaughter and I haven’t been together in 7+ months, but we text each other silly videos of us saying — or even singing — what we miss most about each other.
And for the people you are seeing all of the time these days, remember that even making tiny gestures matters. This is my primary love language, and my husband of 29 years knows it. I’ll often wake up and go into the kitchen to find a sweet post-it note next to a glass of ice water on the counter (which is another love language — an act of service).
Love language #2: Acts of service
Some of us feel most loved when others lend a helping hand or do something kind for us. A friend of mine is currently going through chemotherapy and radiation, putting her at high risk for COVID-19 and other infections. Knowing that her love language is acts of service, a group of neighbor friends snuck over under the cover of darkness in December and filled her flower pots in front of her house with holiday flowers and sprigs. Others have committed to shoveling her driveway all winter. (It’s Minnesota, so that’s big love.)
In your home, you could be proactive and do something that eases your person’s daily grind. Why not take on the chore that everyone avoids doing, whether that’s cleaning the oven, changing the litter box, scraping ice off the car, or filling and running the dishwasher? For anyone whose love tank is filled up by people pitching in, seeing someone intentionally scanning the environment to figure out what they can do to make their environment better sends a clear and loving message to them.
Love language #3: Gifts
Those of us whose love language is gifts aren’t necessarily materialistic. Instead, their tanks are filled when someone presents them with a specific thing, tangible or intangible, that helps them feel special. Yes, truly, it’s the thought that counts.
When you’re out grabbing groceries for your family, pick up your roommate’s favorite kombucha or seltzer and drop it by their door. Our daughter — whose love language is gifts — is a junior in college and we know she’ll adore what’s in the box soon to arrive in the mail: a small package covered in valentine stickers and containing her favorite chocolates, gift cards for coffee and a framed picture of our family dogs, Fred and George. It’s an act of love that will fill her mailbox and her emotional bank account.
Love language #4: Quality time
Having another person’s undivided, dedicated attention is precious currency for the people whose love language is quality time. In a time of COVID-19 and quarantining, spending quality time together can seem challenging. But thanks to technology, it’s actually one of the easiest to engage in.
Make an intentional effort to have Zoom coffee dates with the colleagues you’ve been missing, or go on distanced walks with your in-laws. Put a good old fashioned phone call each week on the calendar with your best friend, or schedule an in-house date night with your partner or spouse — no phones or “I’m just going to turn on the TV for a second” distractions allowed. Nothing says “I love you” in quality time language better than them being the only thing on your agenda.
Love language #5: Physical touch
Expressing the language of physical touch can be as platonic as giving a friend an enthusiastic fist-bump when she tells you about landing an interview for a dream job or as intimate as a kiss with your partner to mark the end of the workday.
I know that for some parents with young children, spending too much time in the same small space has created a rub — literally. They’d do anything to have fewer people touching them fewer hours of the day. At the same time, for those living alone or those self-isolating because of their exposure or health risks, they’re experiencing the painful opposite: a lack of touch.
While there are no easy solutions for either case, we can get creative. If you know someone who’s overwhelmed by the small hands reaching for them, you might offer to take the kids to a park so they can run off some of their energy. For loved ones who are touch-deprived, try emailing them an outline of your hand and instruct them to lay their hand on the image while imagining your hand on theirs. Even thinking about a warm embrace — something you can do by texting friends and family members with the hug or hugging face emoji and telling you wish you could be doing this in person — can cause their brain to produce some of the same endorphins as an actual hug would.
Love languages are a worthwhile concept to become fluent in during this pandemic time — and at this time in the world. Long before COVID arrived on the scene, we were already living through an epidemic of loneliness. Loneliness is not just about being alone; it’s about experiencing a lack of satisfying emotional connections. By taking the time to learn each other’s love languages and then using them, we can strengthen our relationships and our bonds to others.
Watch Carol Bruess’s TEDxMinneapolisSalon Talk here: