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When I first found out about the 5 Love Languages, I felt like I had just discovered a superpower, a universal translator that would allow me to better relate to everyone in my life. Had I possessed this veritable communication potion early on, I could have avoided many a newlywed night spent flitting around our apartment, washing dishes, tidying countertops, and cleaning the bathroom, only to find a crestfallen husband who had just been made to feel like I would rather spend time with a mop than with him. I thought that once my eyes were open to the way my husband needed to be loved, loving him would be easy.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

For those who aren’t familiar, Dr. Gary Chapman’s theory is that we all give and receive love in different ways. His years of experience counseling couples revealed that people often feel unloved even though their partners are working hard to express love and appreciation. In his book, Chapman explains that what is usually happening when people are struggling in their relationships is a breakdown of communication styles. That is, one person might be trying to say “I love you” by buying the other person gifts and diligently cleaning the house, whereas what their partner really needs are more hugs and to simply hear the words “I love you.” Love is being shown, but it’s not being received.

The love languages theory forces you to ask yourself, “What makes them feel loved?” when you’re relating to others, rather than just assuming that your own preferences are universal. As Dr. Chapman explained, “[If] you understand that [people] speak a different language, then you can learn to speak that language.” After my own love language discovery, I became positively evangelical about it—figuring out the love languages of all my friends and family. “This would be a magical cure for every relationship problem,” I thought.

I started to transform the way that I approached communicating with others. For example, when my sister’s boyfriend fixed a tire for me, my natural inclination was to thank him profusely, but I got the impression that my words just embarrassed him. So I decided to give him his favorite fudge to show my gratitude. Instead of feeling awkward, the gesture felt right. The love languages helped break down other barriers for me, too. Like how I discovered that snail mail was the best way to connect with one of my old friends who cherished words of affirmation. And why my acts of service mother-in-law lit up when I did the vacuuming for her.

But just because you know what makes someone else feel loved doesn’t mean that you’ll immediately feel comfortable fulfilling that need for them. If their language is different from your own, expressing love in the most vital way for them likely won’t come naturally to you.

In my own case, words of affirmation, gift giving, and acts of service make total sense. I struggle though with quality time and physical touch. Of course, as fate would have it, these are the love languages that speak the most to my husband. 

A couple of my closest friends, as well as my husband and my father-in-law, are all physical touch people. On some level I believed that rather than needing to make more of an effort to give these loved ones more physical affection, they needed to stop needing it so much. I mean, come on, I give plenty of hugs, and if I’m not comfortable giving more, why should I?

I found myself stuck. I knew what my husband needed, but I wasn’t giving it to him. And what’s worse, he knew it. When he came to me and said that he felt I recognized his language but wasn’t acting on it, I realized I had to dig deeper. Up until now, I had treated the love language theory like a fad diet—something that was exciting and new but with no real longevity. For the connection to really happen, I knew I had to do more. 

Love isn’t supposed to always feel comfortable or easy. Genuine love requires the humility of spirit that allows us to look outside of ourselves. True love can be a terrifying, vulnerable, and painful process. In fact, it often hurts like hell. Loving each other in deeply personal ways requires that we train ourselves, just as an athlete trains her muscles for a race. We have to expect our emotional muscles to ache if we’re truly exercising empathy and self-sacrificial love on a regular basis.

All of this isn’t to say that when love comes naturally, it is wrong. Nor does it mean that just because you have to work a little harder to forge a connection that you aren’t a good fit with someone. The love languages simply remind us that everyone is unique and that the most loving thing we can do is to care for someone in a way that will make them feel most understood. And by doing this, they will hopefully be able to do the same for us.

Realizing that I knew my husband’s love language but still wasn’t speaking it properly was an uncomfortable but much-needed discovery. It was the motivation I needed to take the fact that real love takes hard work seriously. I had to confront my deeper issue of feeling like I didn’t have enough alone time and acknowledge that being physically present isn’t enough when you’re mentally somewhere else. I had to admit that spending a lot of time with a toddler who doesn’t respect my personal space (not that I would expect—or want—her to!) has impacted the way I show physical affection toward others. I haven’t figured it all out yet, but acknowledging these facts and admitting that they’ll take some work is the first step to working through them.

At a certain point, love always takes us out of our comfort zone and requires us to put the other person first, whether or not we speak the same love language. In many ways, marrying a person who needs exactly what I find hardest to give is a blessing—it is the perfect training ground for empathy and selfless love. As a great line from my favorite Joni Mitchell song goes, “I love you when I forget about me.”

Photo Credit: The Kitcheners