The concept of the “five love languages,” though probably a bit simplistic, has become fully embedded in popular culture at this point, and it’s an idea with enough merit (in my uninformed opinion, based purely on experience and intuition) to warrant some reflection on just what my “love languages” might be.
I’ve read the book in the past, and given some thought to this over time, but I’ve always had trouble figuring out what my love languages are. It’s a deceptively complex question to get at what sorts of things make you “feel loved” over time, particularly if you’re someone who’s always felt a bit starved for love.
But I’m going to go over these here, in public, to try to get a handle on this for myself once and for all. Uh, for the moment.
So the love languages, presented in the order in which they appear on the Wikipedia page, are:
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(1) Gifts. This one is difficult for me to assess. From the time I was a small child until now, I can honestly say that I’ve received very few gifts that felt as though people were actually taking me, as me, into account when buying them. So I don’t have much of a sample size to think about when I try to remember how I feel when people give me (i.e. the real me, with thought and affection) gifts.
The vast majority of the gifts I’ve received over the course of my life caused me to immediately think either “this person doesn’t know me at all” or “they had to buy a gift for this occasion, and now it’s my job to thank them for the gift.” Two gifts stand out, after all this time. Both from my wife.
First, an inscripted copy of a vintage Hemmwingay hardcover. I remember every last thing about the moment that she gave this to me, because it meant so much to me. It was a very special gift. Second, a tiny bell, made out of wood, metal, and string, which I also loved. After forty years of gifts, these are the two that I remember.
It’s not that I didn’t appreciate other gifts that people have given me as such, or that it didn’t mean something to me that someone took the time and spent the effort and resources to give me a gift. It’s just that these two felt as though they were for me, first and foremost, rather than for the particular occasion first, and only afterward for me.
And in both cases, they made me feel very loved and very special. So it’s hard for me to evaluate this one. Does the paucity of memorable moments mean that this isn’t a love language for me, or does it mean, in fact, that it is, and that therefore I am highly discerning about the gifts that I receive because in fact I am evaluating them for what meausre of love they might carry?
I’ll have to come back to this one.
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(2) Quality time. This one is colored by early family life for me, I think. I’m fairly sure this is not one of my love languages as a result.
I come from a family of enforced “quality time.” A sort of “we’re going to spent time together today for three hours and you’re all going to bask in the glow of family love and happines, dammit, so quit your whining and I don’t care what else you’ve go to do” arrangement
As a result, all of that together time precisely lost its specialness. While I respect the importance of quality time, and I’m coming to value it more and more as I get older and try to navigate the very important waters of my own family as a father, it has traditionally been hard for me to feel that time together carries a particular message.
The enforced quality time of my childhood essentially seaparated time from feeling for me, caused me to disassociate the two, because here we were spending “quality time together” frequently, yet my feelings about the time and the people I was with at the moment were always totally irrelevant to the activity.
So quality time became in the end not reflective of love, but reflective of nothing in particular. In fact, for many years it felt like a burdensome responsibility, as though it was even possible that quality time is what you do try to have when you don’t feel love but are trying to pretend (or convince yourself) that you do. A kind of inadequate mask for insecurities, regrets, and wish-it-were-otherwises.
As I said, I’m coming around, particularly because I think this one matters a great deal to my wife; it may be one of her love languages, and this is one of the disconnects that existed between us for a long time. But there is still a ways for me to go.
And certainly it is not one of my love languages, traditionally. I love to spend time with my loved ones, and I am sad when I can’t, but it doesn’t “make me feel loved” that someone wants to spend time with me, in itself. It’s far more important what they do and say during that time. Spending six hours together during which nobody says an “I love you” is at least as likely to make me feel unloved (all that opporunity to express love, yet it didn’t happen, what’s the matter?!) as it is to make me feel loved.
Which brings us to…
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(3) Words of affirmation. This one is also fraught for me as a matter of childhood. I received endless words of affirmation as a child, but these were often contradicted by endless and intermixed words of criticism and reproach, and often all of these felt rote.
So I do have a tendency to be dismissive of words. It may not affect me all that much if someone tells me that they love me or that I’m doing a fabulous job if it feels as though they have to say it, or if it feels as though there is some ulterior motive, or if it feels as though it wasn’t a well-considered statement.
At the same time, apropos of what I said above, and keeping in mind that I am also highly vulnerble to criticism from people that I love (yet not at all from strangers, from whom I take take both harsh criticism and constructive criticism without any particular injury), it’s clear that words can and do have a deep connection to my emotional well being, particularly words from significant figures in my life.
I think the key here is that they do in fact have to be words of affirmation, i.e. affirming my importance to them, affirming their regard for me, affirming the value that they place on the relationship. Simple “positive words” do not make me feel loved.
But if the underlying motivation that I read is to affirm, then they do, in fact, make me loved as almost nothing else can (and, more ominously, words of repudiation can be more destructive of my feelings and regard for someone and for our relationship together than almost anything else; repudiate me or a relationship with me verbally and I take it to be more or less final because the hurt is rather complete).
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(4) Acts of service. This one is almost hard to evaluate because it seems too clear, so clear that I am suspicious of the conclusion. But it seems to me that this is the farthest from my love languages.
Again, my childhood nuclear family—and mandatory “service” of others in the home. The problem, of course, was that this was required whether anyone was feeling particularly loving or not, and that the service rendered was culturally normative, rather than personalized.
I’d say that I am almost allergic to acts of service. I have a tendency to view them with suspicion and to presume that the service being rendered will actually be unwelcome—with be carried out without any particular regard for my preferences and needs in life, and will thus be something that I have to work around and accept with a cheery face despite the fact that it may even be unhelpful.
I am unsure how I feel about acts of service that are, in fact, well considered and carried out with a deep understanding of myself and my needs. In fact, I can’t think of any instances of this in the past. What I can come up with are memories of what could be considered “verbal acts of service”. In fact, these positive memories of being heard and communicated with fall more properly under the heading of “words of affirmation.”
So I’ll stick to the initial impulse and say that I struggle not to find acts of service to be an imposition, and to accept them in the spirit in which they were intended (I’m getting better at this). But they are certainly not a “love language” for me.
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(5) Physical touch. This one is the reason I’m writing this post today. Because, in fact, I’ve always considered this to be distinctly not a love language for me, and yet last night—last night I realized that I may have been wrong about it all along.
I came from a family that was both fairly enmeshed and fairly controlling of childrens’ feelings and emotions. There was a lot of touch (none of it inappropriate per se), but much of it was unwelcome. Demanded hugs and kisses. Fixed clothing and hair. Orders to sit on relatives’ laps to make them feel loved. And so on.
I’ve carred into adulthood a distinct revulsion at many kinds of physical touch. For example, a massage does nothing for me, and others’ insistence that I accept one from them (something of a cultural invariant) has always bordered on irritating and annoying to me. I want them to leave me alone and particuarly and especially not give me a massage.
The same goes for physical touch in public places, for entirely different reasons that have previously been unclear (but that are now becoming clear) to me.
But to cut to the chase, what I realized last night is that physical touch is absolutely important to me. Without it, I’m not sure that I can feel loved, no matter what else is going on. But it has to be given spontaneously, and not as a well-defined genre of touch, and it has to be initiated by them, an expression of their loving impulses toward me, not an acceptance of mine toward them.
Someone taking my hand absent-mindedly. Putting their arm around me as we talk. Leaning against me. Simple intimate bodily contact of this kind. When everything is going wrong for me in a relationship, when I am doubting it as much as I can possibly doubt it, when I am seeking an exit, a spontaneous and unconscious gesture like taking my hand or leaning against me and putting an arm around me can repair every bit of difficulty almost instantly.
But it can’t be a massage. Or a hand taken with the intent to communicate. It can’t be a task or a gesture. It has to be a momentary compulsion on their part, a little touch that they unconsciously want and need to make.
When I feel as though someone else can’t help but reach out and touch me—even the smallest of touches, when they are compulsions of love and feeling—real, authentic touches—that is probably the only time that I really genuinely feel their love for me and feel sure that it is real and present.
There is a paradox here in that touch in public often causes me to pull away—even loving touch. I am coming to realize this is because the level of vulnerability and intimacy that I tend to feel as the result of such touch is incompatible with public propriety. It feels weird to me to be that emotional in a public place, in other words.
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A ridiculously long, navel-gazing post of this kind deserves a good, concise summary. So here it is:
– Gifts? Actually, yes, to some extent. But they must reflect real understanding of me and a real desire to reach me and be open to me, not merely the occasion at hand.
– Quality time? No, not really.
– Words of affirmation? Yes, very much so.
– Acts of service? Definitely, definitely not.
– Physical touch? Yes. So very yes! But with key caveats.
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Yes, I realize that I’ve posted this in a public place. And if you read this far and aren’t quite satisfied with the experience, well—you have no one to blame but yourself.