Can Love Languages Actually Sabotage Your Relationship?
A couple’s therapist unwraps the real problem with love languages like gift-giving.
It started before Valentine’s Day: I began dropping hints to my husband — who’d recently deprived me of a push present — that my “love language” was gift-giving. While he initially responded quizzically, sure enough, after dinner on Valentine’s Day, he asked me to close my eyes and hold out my wrist.
Immediately, panic struck.
It’s not that jewelry doesn’t make me feel loved. (When my husband proposed some eight years ago on bended knee with bling in hand, my response wasn’t “Yes!” It was “You love me that much?!”) The thing is, I can count on one hand (one finger, even) how many gifts from him that I’ve actually liked, bless his resilient heart! After so many years of disappointment (his) and guilt (mine), we exchange gifts even less frequently unless I explicitly point out what I want.
And that’s not exactly romantic. So, what’s up with this love language thing, anyway? And once you’re fluent, does it actually make you feel more satisfied in your relationship (or at least during birthdays and holidays!)? I reached out to Indigo Stray Conger, licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex therapist based in Denver, Colorado, to get a grip on this whole love language thing.
Love Language 101
Turns out “love languages” date back to 1992 when radio show host Gary Chapman published the book, The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. The tome, Conger explains, suggests that different people give and receive love in different ways. The languages include physical touch, gift giving, words of affirmation, acts of service, and/or quality time, at least according to the book.
Although love languages can be rooted in how your parents expressed love to one another, it’s not like you’re born with them. “They aren’t blood types, and they aren’t set in stone,” Conger tells me. I think about how I used to feel really good when my husband said, “I love you,” but now the words feel like a standard phone call sign-off, and how now, I feel loved when I come back from drinks with friends to see my kids’ toys put away and the laundry both folded and put away. I wonder if my husband will be surprised when he reads that sentence — have I ever expressed this to him?
“Love languages are a way to start talking about how to meet each other’s needs when there’s no lack of love, but a lack of understanding on how to give and receive it,” Conger says. And who doesn’t need that kind of prompt?
Potential Pitfalls of Using Love Languages
Because love languages are just one way of communicating your needs to your partner and won’t take the place of, say, couple’s therapy, Congers doesn’t seem particularly worried that attempting to communicate using love languages sets you up for failure or disappointment. The biggest risks come from misunderstanding the love languages, laziness, and of course, excuses, excuses, excuses.
For instance, let’s say you have the love language conversation, and it turns out what you need from your partner is more quality time. The key word here, Conger explains, isn’t “more” (so all you moms of minis and multiples can stop laughing!). It’s “quality”— figuring out how to make even the five minutes you spend together before bed more meaningful. Phones down, everyone!
Even when time is tight, she says, we all have a little bit more to give. The same goes for budgets: “For many people whose love language is gift-giving, it’s more about getting a tangible representation of love and about the time you took to figure it out, not about spending a bunch of money,” Conger says.
That rings true for me (and many couples with joint funds, I’m sure). But what happens when your partner tries! — and tries! and tries! — and still happens to fall short? Conger chalks it up to failure to communicate: See, if you don’t like the gifts your partner gives you, and getting the “wrong” gifts makes you feel unfulfilled or less-than-loved, you need to tell them that you don’t like their gifts *and* exactly what you’d prefer to receive, even if that means dropping your own gift options into a shared Amazon cart and letting them make the final choice. This way, they don’t think they’re checking off the box of gift-giving while, in fact, they’re leaving you high and dry.
Speaking of high and dry: “Physical touch as a love language is NOT sex and should never be used as a justification that one partner ‘needs’ sex,” Conger says. Partners who use the love language framework to demand, say, daily blow jobs, are seriously missing the memo here: “[It’s] a quick way to eliminate genuine intimacy and destroy a relationship,” she says, referring such couples to masturbation and sex therapy to understand what’s going on.
And on the topic of physical touch, a love language for many of us: Let’s agree to agree that bringing kids into the picture changes the playing field. It’s science: Kids provide much of the physical touch — and resulting oxytocin and dopamine — that we previously received from our partners, leaving us less needy and willing to express and receive affection, Conger explains.
“Young children can make a mom feel like their body doesn’t belong to them,” she points out. “So touch that used to feel really good coming from your partner, like an impromptu hug or butt squeeze — might not feel that great anymore.”
This doesn’t mean your ability to accept affection will be curbed until your kids go to college. It’s just that couples who communicate their love using physical touch might need to revisit how to fulfill each other’s needs in a way that feels more intentional and consensual than having another human randomly grab onto your body. (#Relatable.)
Whether you’re in that space or flashing back to it, it should be pretty clear by now that love languages can change and may be worth revisiting. While I used to wish for a small box on birthdays and holidays, lately, a heartfelt card (words of affirmation) actually makes me feel the most loved. (Even though I genuinely loved my Valentine’s Day bracelet. One point for husband!)
The Biggest Problem With Love Languages
At the end of the day, love languages seem helpful at best, benign at worst. They do tend to become problematic, Conger warns, when couples try to use love languages as their only tool: “Try to build a house with a hammer, and you can’t complain that the hammer didn’t do it all,” she says. (Another thing: That tool won’t work so well when it’s used for scorekeeping... so I’ll take that bracelet point back.)
While love languages have become part of the modern vernacular, browse any self-help aisle of any bookstore and you’ll see a number of other approaches — some of which may be more inclusive than Chapman’s Christian, mono-normative, and heteronormative approach, Conger points out.
It’s also worth noting that the love languages aren’t rooted in any therapeutic model. And therapy is something that Conger recommends above all else. “Lots of people think you should only go if you’re headed for divorce, but often it’s too late if you’re not going to couples’ therapy before then,” Conger says. “Life shifts might make it feel like you don’t have time or money or energy to give to it, but this is the time to prioritize. It’s more important than date night to set aside time to curate conversations with a professional to get to the heart of what’s important to nourish your relationship.”
So: Will love languages fix, destroy, or otherwise maim your relationship? Not on their own. But can they help you get a little more of what you need (and less of what you don’t)? As long as they prompt a conversation on the topic among partners who love one another, they certainly can’t hurt.
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