Editor’s Note: Psychologist John Duffy, author of “Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety,” practices in Chicago. He specializes in work with teens, parents, couples and families.
Married and intimate couples are often looking for ways to maximize satisfaction and compatibility. Countless self-help books, seminars and relationship experts have weighed in on what they feel are the keys to a couple’s happiness and longevity. The ideas have varied quite a bit, including the amount of time spent together, shared interests and similar levels of intelligence, not to mention degrees of fondness and admiration for one another.
It’s often said that longtime partners develop their own language, a shorthand from building a strong bond. In the same vein, consider the five love languages, which are acts of service, gift-giving, physical touch, quality time and words of affirmation.
Thirty years ago, author, speaker and marriage counselor Gary Chapman wrote “The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate.” If you learn which language your partner favors and act in accordance with that language, the theory goes, you will find more satisfaction and longevity in your relationship. Conversely, you waste time and energy if you exert effort in other areas. This energy, Chapman argued, can even be counterproductive, as your partner may feel neither heard nor understood.
Being attuned to a partner’s love language was associated with both relationship and sexual satisfaction for heterosexual couples, found a June study published by the journal PLOS One. In particular, people who expressed their affection in the way their partner preferred to receive it experienced greater satisfaction with the relationship and were more sexually satisfied compared with those who met their partner’s needs to a lesser extent.
I interviewed relationship experts on how they use this concept in their work and how it might be useful in enhancing relationship satisfaction.
Do you use the 5 love languages in your work, and do you find them helpful?
Bela Gandhi, founder of the Chicago-based Smart Dating Academy, uses the love languages regularly, but she pointed out there are some misunderstandings about how they are best used in relationships. She suggested that most people want all five, but their preferences vary depending on the day and the context. A continuous single preference is a myth, she said.
“I find that these love languages are not absolute,” Gandhi said. “We may favor one at a point in time, but that may well vary over time as well.”
Laura Berman, a love, sex and relationship therapist in Los Angeles and author of “Quantum Love: Use Your Body’s Atomic Energy to Create the Relationship You Desire,” takes a slightly different approach.
Berman finds the love languages to be a helpful jumping-off point to educate her clients. The love languages allow people to realize, she suggested, that love on its own is not enough. It needs to be acted upon in a way that makes a partner feel loved and seen.
“What I like about the love languages is that they are great prompts to talk about with your partner,” Gandhi added. “We tend to understand our own love languages. But in my work and my own relationship, people often don’t go out of their way to do the same for their partner.”
Gandhi and Berman agreed that love languages are helpful because they allow an individual or couple to gauge where they stand in a relationship. “I encourage my clients to ask themselves whether they are doing a pretty good job across all five languages,” Gandhi said, “even if one or two of them are favored by your partner.”
Is it important that couples have the same love language?
“No, not at all. Love languages are as varied as can be,” Berman said via email. She indicated there are actually many more than the traditional five languages.
She said she feels finding a partner with the exact same language could be impossible, but more importantly, love languages aren’t about people learning to love the exact same way as their partners. Rather, the theory of love languages is about learning that we all experience reality differently and have unique and sometimes mysterious internal lives.
The way to achieve longevity and satisfaction is not by speaking the same love language as your partner, Berman said, but honoring that your partner may experience the world differently than you and making a commitment to seek out ways to make your partner feel loved. It’s about bringing the energy you want to experience into your relationship, rather than waiting for a happy ending to be handed to you, she said.
Is it important to know and respond to your partner’s love language?
Gandhi agreed that it’s important to respond to a partner’s preferred love language but also to recognize there isn’t just one playbook. One day, your partner might need quality time from you. But on their birthday, for instance, they might want a gift. They may need physical affection on another day.
And along with the five love languages, other needs may arise in relationships, including good listening skills or knowing when to provide your partner some space, either physically or emotionally.
Instead of following a love language playbook, Berman said, partners need to be curious about how to satisfy one another. Vulnerability is a necessity, so focus on learning what barriers you may have erected to prevent you from being seen or heard.
Can it be problematic not to know your partner’s love language?
It’s problematic to have a relationship that isn’t built on communication, consistency and shared intentions to protect and nourish your bonds, Berman said.
“Love languages are just one resource you can use to help deepen your bond, but for many people, they just take the online love language quiz and sort of forget about it shortly thereafter. If you actually use the information to actively make choices to celebrate your love and nourish your relationship, then it can be very helpful,” she said via email.
Gandhi agreed but placed an emphasis on the utility of discussing the five languages. She suggested couples talk about the five languages and understand what each partner feels like is their most consistently important one or maybe two.
A discussion might start with, “Hey, I know quality time is really important to you. Do you feel like we’ve shared enough quality time together?”
Overall, it’s helpful for couples to talk about the love languages and make sure they’re happy with the love they’re receiving. And to maximize satisfaction and longevity, open communication around relationship needs is critical.
After all, as I know from my own practice, couples want their partner to feel loved the way they want to be loved. Talking through the love languages may not be the sole answer, but it’s a start.
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