I stared at Question 21, my green highlighter hovering over the answers. “He doesn’t check his phone while we’re talking,” read option B, while option D was “He goes out of his way to do something that relieves pressure on me.” I had to pick one that I preferred — I reluctantly circled D.
I was taking the Five Love Languages quiz (in the back of the book, The Five Love Languages, on the topic), to find out what my primary “love language” could be — but this wasn’t the first time I’ve struggled to identify the principal way that I want to give and receive love.
“Gary Chapman created the original five love languages,” dating and relationship consultant Dr Kathrine Bejanyan tells Refinery29. “The theory explains that people receive and give love in five different distinct ways in a relationship with differing levels of priority to each.”
What are the five love languages?
The five love languages are: words of affirmation; quality time; physical touch; acts of service; and receiving gifts. “[Chapman] explains that, usually, we have one primary love language, although we can also benefit from the others,” Bejanyan explains.
I can see the pragmatism and beauty in the theory. “The five love languages are an easily understood tool for improving relationships,” says licensed psychotherapist Jack Worthy, also an associate faculty member at Gestalt Associates for Psychotherapy. “Chapman made the observation that we misunderstand one another’s expressions of love, as we’re often speaking different love languages,” he says. “So it’s important to know how your partner [or friend, or family member] wants to be loved, and give [them] love in [their] language, not in yours (as tends to be our habit).”
To say the five love languages are popular is an understatement. I very rarely come across someone (in my 30s age bracket, at least) who doesn’t swear by one of the five love languages as their “primary” — but I’ve never been able to unswervingly assert that I identify with one more than others.
Can you identify with multiple love languages?
My quiz results were: “quality time” in top spot, with eight counts; “receiving gifts” had seven, “words of affirmation” had six, “physical touch” had five and “acts of service” had four. Safe to say, there wasn’t much in it. Interestingly, I took the online quiz a few days later and quality time came out on top again — but I’m not sold by the idea that quality time is my primary way of expressing love. It’s not that it’s unimportant to me — it’s hugely important. But then so are all the other love languages. I feel these quizzes are much less about the answers, and much more about how easily you can fill in the questions. I had to put something each time, so I did — but I was torn between the two options for nearly every question. It never felt right to elevate one mode of showing love above another. I want to give equal weight to all of them.
Sophia, 26, identifies with this. “I think I am actually very active with all five love languages but it varies depending on who [I’m] with,” she tells me. “I would say ‘words of affirmation’ and ‘gift giving’ are my strongest with people I care about. When it comes to romantic love languages, I am someone who really benefits from giving physical touch and quality time. In all honesty though, I think we all do all of them so often it’s hard to give a concrete answer.”
“We are all built differently,” says Bejanyan. “For some, there might be less of a preference for one love language over the others or they might value more than one love language equally and have a harder time making a hierarchical list of preferences for the love languages.”
I was excited to read Chapman’s book, The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts as research for this article — but I was left underwhelmed and with a bad taste in my mouth.
Rather than an inclusive, insightful sociological exploration of the ways in which humans give and receive love, the book reads like a heteronormative marriage manual that aims to uphold archaic gender roles and to ensure married couples stay married no matter what. As one Goodreads reviewer put it, “it’s quite apparent that this book is meant for hetero-white-Christian-monogamous couples.” The love language theory makes sense — as Bejanyan says, it’s “a really sound and clear way of explaining our differing needs and experiences of love in a relationship” — but the source material is pretty appalling.
The book was originally published in 1992 — over 30 years ago — and that shows. It’s vital that we continue to interrogate decades-old relationship theories and trends as our society progresses, like attachment theory or compatibility tests, and that we adapt these theories if needed, and where we can. We don’t have to accept the five love languages theory as unswerving, unchangeable emotional genius that can’t be altered or adapted in any way. If the love languages theory helps you as it stands, great! But the love languages don’t necessarily need to be limited to five, and we don’t necessarily need to box ourselves into one primary love language for the rest of our — often evolving — lives.
Liv, 24, loves the concept of the five love languages — “mainly because it gets people talking! Anything to provoke more conversations about intimacy and emotional health is a win in my book,” she says — but emphasises that she sees the theory as a good start, “not the only way you should be finding out about yourself and your emotional needs.”
Liv’s primary love language is “words of affirmation”, but she doesn’t believe there’s a primary love language for everyone. “We’re all multifaceted human beings who can’t be reduced to a certain box,” she says. “For me, I wouldn’t care about words of affirmation if I rarely got to spend quality time with my partner — one doesn’t make up for the other.”
“I think where the theory can be improved on is not to take it so rigidly,” Bejanyan agrees. “Not everyone falls perfectly into a category, a person is more complex than that. It also doesn’t explain all the problems in a relationship. This is a tool to be applied and used to explore more underlying aspects of ourselves and our relationship, not just as a means of categorising ourselves into neat little boxes.”
Not to mention, our preferred love languages could swap in and out over time. “As individuals we are always changing and as a result our needs in a relationship can also shift,” Bejanyan explains. “What we might experience as a loving act can change with age and circumstance. At 20, we might find words of affirmation appealing, while at 40 with potential kids, a full-time job and busy schedule, acts of service might be a lot more appealing.”
It might be, of course, that you want to know what your primary love language is, but just haven’t figured it out yet. “Temperament refers to the parts of our personality that we inherit genetically,” says Worthy. “Temperament doesn’t change over time — rather, it tends to wield a stronger and stronger influence over our behaviour as we age. I suspect that our preferred love languages are the result of temperament. So I expect we become more deeply identified with certain love languages as we age, as we know ourselves more and more.”
If you’re keen to know which love language might be your number one, Worthy suggests a process of elimination. “If you’re feeling strongly identified with two or three of the languages, perhaps what’s useful is knowing what to rule out,” he says (Chapman says this in the book, too). “It could be just as important for your partner to know that you don’t find gifts meaningful as it would be to know that you love to be touched and complimented.”
Ultimately, if you identify equally with all five love languages, that is more than okay — but it’s worth acknowledging that this might leave those around you with more questions than answers in terms of how they can best make you feel loved. “It’s not greedy but it also requires taking the other person into consideration if you are in a relationship,” says Bejanyan. “How capable are they with fulfilling those emotional needs? If you have more than one love language, talk to your partner [or friend or family member] about which ones come more easily for them to give and you’ll both be happier for it.”
Don’t let anyone make you feel emotionally gluttonous for prioritising all five love languages, both when giving and receiving. “Don’t struggle to make yourself fit into a format that you don’t fit into,” Bejanyan concludes. “Use the love languages as a starting point of exploration about yourself and your partner’s experience of love, don’t just focus on fitting into a category. We’re more than that.”
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