“Perfect love is rare indeed – for to be a lover will require that you continually have the subtlety of the very wise, the flexibility of the child, the sensitivity of the artist, the understanding of the philosopher, the acceptance of the saint, the tolerance of the scholar and the fortitude of the certain.” – Leo Buscaglia
*note: This is the third part in my love series of: What Love Is; When Love Begins; What Love Does; When Love Ends. I’ve been reading these three books about love since last summer, and I’ll be sharing their insights for four weeks. In a brief overview, The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman, a marriage counselor for over 40 years, is about the different ways we receive and show our love. Why We Love? by prominent anthropologist Helen Fisher, Ph.D examines love from a biological and chemical level, and focuses a lot on what’s happening in our brain. Lastly, The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm, renowned psychoanalyst and social philosopher, is a classic that explores the deep complexities of love.
I think the best explanation of love is in the Bible, 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 (NIV):
“4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails.”
It’s a beautiful and perfect description of love because it both describes what love is and what it does. The biggest misconception we have about love is that it is an emotion, or a feeling. The truth is, you can love without feeling in love. Fromm explains that this is because, “Love is an activity, not a passive affect; it is a "standing in," not a "falling for”” (pg. 21). Chapman explains something similar when he says, “We can recognize the in-love experience for what it was – a temporary emotional high – and now pursue “real love”…” (pg. 33).
Chapman has explained the difference between the beginning stages of love, and then the real work of love. He explains, “At the heart of humankind's existence is the desire to be intimate and to be loved by another,” and “the euphoria of the “in-love” state gives us the illusion that we have an intimate relationship” (pg. 22 & 32). While we are first falling in love, we become so obsessed with our partner, and especially with wanting to do anything to make him or her happy. It makes us feel like a new person, a better person, even saintlike, because we are willing to sacrifice almost anything for him or her. “Such obsession gives us the false sense that our egocentric attitudes have been eradicated and we have become sort of a Mother Teresa, willing to give anything for the benefit of our lover,” says Chapman (pg. 32). It’s true that being in love can change us, and we also see the other through rose colored glasses. But this selfless sainthood feeling eventually fades (unless you’re actually saintlike). I once heard it takes six months to see the real person you’re with, because whether they intend to or not, they put their best foot forward at the beginning. Beginnings are temporary and not often true.
Chapman says, “Little by little, the illusion of intimacy evaporates, and the individual desires, emotions, thoughts, and behavior patterns assert themselves” (pg. 32). When this happens, either the relationship will end, or will become stronger and so much more real. “In fact, true love cannot begin until the “in-love” experience has run its course,” says Chapman (pg. 34). This is where choice comes in. While in love, you are being carried along by all the dopamine rushing through your head, to the point where you can’t even think straight and your actions don’t even seem like your own. But once the high fades, you can choose how you will love. You can even choose to do these things during the craziness of that emotional high, but it’s not real love unless you continue to act loving even when you don’t feel like it, even when you don’t feel like you love your partner.
Fromm explains, “the active character of love can be described by stating that love is primarily giving, not receiving” (pg. 21). He says that there is big misconception on the concept of giving. People think that giving means ““giving up” something, being deprived of, sacrificing.” Fromm says the best thing that we can give to others is part of ourselves and of our lives: “he gives him of that which is alive in him; he gives him of his joy, of his interest, of his understanding, of his knowledge, of his humor, of his sadness – of all expressions and manifestations of that which is alive in him” (pg. 23). If you are afraid to give of yourself in this way, then you are afraid to love. When you are giving as an act of love, you are revealing something intimate and personal about yourself, and you are allowing another soul to see it. That’s what love must be like.
You are giving of yourself for the benefit of both yourself and another person. It should enhance both your lives, such as when a teacher teaches a student, and is rewarded by the outcome. If you love someone, you are willing to put in the work to help them grow, and to make them feel loved. “The essence of love is to "labor" for something and "to make something grow," that love and labor are inseparable. One loves that for which one labors, and one labors for that which one loves,” explains Fromm (pg. 26).
Chapman gives us really good practical ways to “labor” for our love. He explains that we all have love tanks, which are filled and fueled by love. When you feel loved, your love tank is full, which means you can also give love out. Like putting gas in a car so that it can drive. When your love tank is empty or low, you don’t feel loved and it’s a lot harder to keep the car running smoothly. You’ll probably experience more breakdowns and other problems. The key to understanding love languages is that they all about what makes someone feel loved. You can love the heck out of someone and do everything you can to show it, but unless it’s in their love languages, they will still feel unloved. Love tanks run on feeling loved. You can spend all day at a gas station, but unless it’s filling you with the right fuel, you’ll still be empty.
The five love languages are: words of affirmation, quality time, gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. If you would like to discover your love language, or your partner’s, you can take the test by clicking here.
Words of Affirmation
Words of affirmation has to do with using your words to compliment, show kindness, encouragement, and helping your significant other feel appreciated. As a word person, one of my favorite things is to hear compliments. I could live off of them and never get tired of hearing nice things. That’s why I loved living with my roommates in college, because every day they would tell me I was intelligent, sexy, funny, awesome, etc. A real big ego booster, and I loved them for it. Hearing nice things like that every day made me so happy, and feel very loved. It was part of the reason I loved coming home to them, because they were never negative toward me with their words.
Compliments aren’t the only way you can use words to make someone feel loved. Chapman says the word encourage means "to inspire courage." When you are trying to encourage someone with your words, it requires empathy and seeing the other person’s perspective. You have to understand why they need the courage, what they feel they are lacking, or what they are afraid of. Chapman says, “With verbal encouragement, we are trying to communicate, "I know. I care. I am with you. How can I help?" We are trying to show that we believe in him and in his abilities. We are giving credit and praise” (pg. 43).
Love also uses kind words. Chapman references the Bible when he says, “Love doesn't keep a score of wrongs. Love doesn't bring up past failures” (pg. 44). You can use your words to be hostile, or you can use your words to be kind. If you are with someone whose love language is words of affirmation, your unkind words can hurt more than you know. Using unkind words involves placing blame and bring up past faults. Chapman says that when you forgive, your words should show it. He gives this example, “I love you. I care about you, and I choose to forgive you… I hope that we can learn from this experience. You are not a failure because you have failed… together we will go on from here” (pg. 45).
The most important thing you can do with your words is make requests, not demands. Chapman explains that we demand things of children because they don’t know how to make adult decisions yet, but our partners are not children or beneath us in any way. Chapman says, “When you make a request of your spouse, you are affirming his or her worth and abilities. You are in essence indicating that she has something or can do something that is meaningful and worthwhile to you.” When you make a demand, your partner will feel belittled, because you have eliminated their choice to show you their love. A partner who is responding to demands is not expressing love, because it is an act of fear or guilt.
One of our deepest human needs is the need to feel appreciated, according to psychologist William James, and our words are one way to enact that. Writing down compliments and words of encouragement and kindness will also be incredibly meaningful to someone with this love language. Whenever my friends or family write nice things to me in cards, or texts, I save them so that I can look back at them later whenever I feel like I need to hear something nice. It reminds me that I’m loved even when I’m not being told in the moment.
Though words of affirmation are important to me, my primary love language is actually quality time. Nothing is more important to me than someone making the effort to spend time with me, andgiving me their undivided attention. Likewise, the worst thing someone can do to me is blow me off, or simply never make me a priority in their life. Quality time can be divided in different “dialects” as Chapman calls them, and every love language has them. No matter the dialect, at the core of this love language is giving someone your undivided attention.
Focused attention is a key ingredient for quality time. My friend was telling me about how she wished her boyfriend would spend more time with her. Even though he would help out her family, and chill with her on the couch when they had free time, she still felt like she needed something from him. Throughout our talk, she kept repeating that she couldn’t stand the stupid game he would always play on his phone whenever they had moments alone together. We discovered that what really got her mad was that he was paying attention to it and not her. He thought they were spending time together, but she wanted his undivided and focused attention.
People with this love language may often crave quality conversation, which is "a sympathetic dialogue where two individuals are sharing their experiences, thoughts, feelings, and desires in a friendly, uninterrupted context” (pg. 60). “Words of affirmation focus on what we are saying, whereas quality conversation focuses on what we are hearing,” Chapman adds (pg. 61). The important part of this dialect is that you are asking questions, being sympathetic, and trying to understand the other’s thoughts, feelings, and desires. Truly listening to your partner can be the most effective way of letting him or her know that you care. Your main goal is to understand and sympathize, not give advice or criticize. As important as listening is, it’s equally important to contribute your own thoughts and feelings, or else it ceases to be a conversation, and your partner can still feel uncared for.
Quality activities are also important, where “the emphasis is on being together, doing things together, giving each other undivided attention” (pg. 69). The activity can be anything that one or both of you have an interest in. Chapman says the essential ingredients are, “(1) at least one of you wants to do it, (2) the other is willing to do it, (3) both of you know why you are doing it – to express love by being together” (pg. 69). An important aspect of quality activities is having a positive attitude about what you two are doing together, whether it’s something you want to do or not.
“Gifts are visual symbols of love,” and can be the easiest love language to learn, according to Chapman. For people with this love language, it doesn’t matter how expensive the gift is, but just knowing that you were thinking about them. The fact that you thought about them enough to actually get a gift and give it is what means so much. Even if this love language isn’t primary for you or your partner, you may be surprised to discover how important it’s been throughout your relationship. For example, there could be something someone has given you that you’ve saved for a very long time. Though gifts aren’t important to me, I still like to keep all of the stuff my little sister has made for me throughout the years. I show her that I still have them as she gets older, so that she knows I thought her gift was important to me.
Chapman says, “Almost everything ever written on the subject of love indicates that at the heart of love is the spirit of giving” (pg. 83). For some people, it may be hard to give gifts because of money. If your partner truly has this love language, the cost of the gift won’t matter. You can make it, or pick a flower, or write a song, or doing anything creative and thoughtful. It’s also important to remember that if you have the money to spend, but would rather spend it on more important things, or save it, understand that buying a gift for your loved in is an investment in them. You are making them feel loved, which is more important than a few extra dollars in the bank. You don’t have to spoil or overindulge, just show that you understand gifts are important to them.
You can also give the gift of yourself, your physical presence. This love language is all about having something tangible, whether it’s something you can hold, or someone you can touch. Chapman explains, “Physical presence in the time of crisis is the most powerful gift you can give if your [partner’s] primary love language is receiving gifts. Your body becomes the symbol of your love” (pg. 82).
Acts of Service
Chapman explains acts of service as doing things you know your loved one would like you to do. Your goal is to love your partner by doing things for them. But just as I mentioned earlier, love cannot be demanded only requested, because love is freely given. If your partner is not showing their love by acts of service, criticizing and demanding it will only drive a wedge. It will create guilt, bitterness, and resentment.
From my own experience, I lived with someone who had this love language, and his constant badgering and my constant failure to do simple tasks only made me feel like a horrible person. If I hadn’t done a chore, I would avoid him for the whole day feeling guilty, and like he would think less of me. In a contrasting experience, my mom has learned to be an expert requester. She uses words like, “It would be really helpful if you did this for me.” She doesn’t say it condescendingly, but instead makes me feel like she would be very appreciative. I still don’t like doing chores, and don’t always do them, but when I do a chore for my mom, I am happy to do it because I know she will be thankful. And she always lets me know that she is.
I think this love language is particularly tricky, but the most important thing is to listen to what your loved one is requesting. Chapman points out that you can do many things for your loved one, but it’s possible that they can be all the wrong things and their love tank will not be filled. Paying attention to what your loved one particularly needs, no matter how simple or difficult, is the key to filling their love tank. Just as a side note, broken promises can be the most hurtful to people with this love language, because if you promise to do something, they are really expecting you to do it.
A big pitfall for this love language is becoming a doormat for your loved one, working relentlessly for them, and resenting them afterward. If you are a doormat, your acts of service are not done out of love, but out of fear, guilt, and resentment. “A doormat is an inanimate object... it can be your servant but not your lover,” says Chapman (pg. 101). It is wrong to treat your partner as an object, to manipulate by guilt, or coerce them by fear into doing things for you. That is not love, and if your partner obeys, they are not acting out of love either. Likewise, “Allowing oneself to be used or manipulated by another is not an act of love” (pg. 102). Instead, love says, “I love you too much to let you treat me this way. It’s not good for you or me” (pg. 102).
Chapman explains, “Only one thing is certain about our behavior: It will not be the same behavior we exhibited when we were caught up in being "in love”” (pg. 100). So, though it may have come easy to do acts of service and go the extra mile while in love, it will not be so easy once the feeling has faded. Then it becomes your choice to continue to make your partner feel loved. Chapman says, “Each of us must decide daily to love or not to love our [partners]” (pg. 100).
For physical touch, “Holding hands, kissing, embracing, and sexual intercourse are all ways of communicating emotional love...” (pg. 107). Like all other languages, it requires paying attention to what your partner needs and wants. There are touches your partner will like, and ways to be touched that they won’t like. Chapman explains that someone with this love language thinks this: “Whatever there is of me resides in my body. To touch my body is to touch me. To withdraw from my body is to distance yourself from me emotionally” (pg. 110). The worst thing you can do to someone with this love language is withhold your touch, or never be the first to reach out to them.
People may confuse sexual desire as the need for physical touch. Though sexual intercourse is a sexual activity both partners can enjoy, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s your love language. If you don’t enjoy physical touch at other times in nonsexual ways, it probably isn’t your love language.
Chapman explains that there are explicit and implicit forms of touch. Explicit touch demands “your full attention, such as in a back rub or sexual foreplay.” This kind of touching takes more time, “not only in actual touching but in developing your understanding of how to communicate love” (pg. 109). Implicit touches take only a moment, and can involve putting your hand on their shoulder, a quick passing kiss on the cheek, or placing a hand on the other’s leg while sitting together. Even though implicit touching doesn’t involve a lot of time, it involves a lot of thought, because you should find any opportune moment to touch your partner.
Though everyone has a primary and secondary love language that is most important to them, all five pertain to everyone. For example, gifts is the least important to me, but that doesn’t mean I never want gifts. I love receiving flowers, chocolate, and thoughtful presents. Once you figure out your partner’s love language, you may find that it is not your own and could be difficult for you to enact. To that, Chapman says, “when an action doesn't come naturally to you, it is a greater expression of love… [because] love is something you do for someone else, not something you do for yourself” (pg. 138). It easy to express love in your language, but real love asks that you express it in your partner’s language.
Whatever your love language, it is important to practice being loving. As Chapman says, when the “in love” feeling fades, then actual effort and work are required to keep the love alive. This is why Fromm says that love is like an art, something to be practiced and mastered. Like anything we are trying to learn and master, Fromm says we need discipline, concentration, patience, and to make love our supreme concern. Above all, practicing love requires faith and courage. It takes a courageous person to step outside of their comfort zone in order to make someone feel loved in the right way. Fromm says, “What matters in relation to love is the faith in one's own love; in its ability to produce love in others, and in its reliability” (pg. 114)
If you are to gather anything from this post, it’s that love is an activity done for others. It requires a lot of work. Fromm says it’s “a constant challenge; it is not a resting place, but a moving, growing, working together” (pg. 96). There are many ways to show your love and to practice it. If you are loving the right way, it should produce more love. The love you give will fuel love in others, but the love you withhold will also leave them empty. Chapman says, when “we choose to be kind and generous, that is real love” (pg. 34).
The 5 Love Languages the secret to love that lasts by Gary Chapman
Why We Love? by Helen Fisher
The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm
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