The Five Love Languages

 By Shamus Aug 23, 2006 11 comments

Observing that men and women are different is so appalingly obvious that when someone puts out a book to document this point it sets my teeth on edge. Books like Men are from Mars, Women are from Vesus are so tiresome to me that I want to hunt down the author and punch him in his smug Martian face until my arms go numb. The fact that different human beings have different priorities and perceptions of the world is, in fact, a good thing and helps to made our lives more robust. The fact that these differences make for a vast, rich source of sitcom fodder is just a bonus. Unless you hate sitcoms. Which I do.

However, I did find a book along these lines that turned out to be useful. It had practical application. The book was The Five Love Languages, and it outlines a simple set of ideas that could probably be articulated on a single page, but which was stretched out into an entire book because nobody is going to pay $29.95 for a hardcover edition of a two-page document where page one is the table of contents. I didn’t read the book, but my wife did and gave me the basic premise. It sounded like another attempt to smooth things out between men and women (and to a lesser extent, people in general) by over-simplifying the problem. However, the thing stuck in my head and I’m often surprised at how useful the idea is. The stuff the book has to say has actual utility, and so I want to put these ideas up here and see what happens.

The thrust of it is this: There are a lot of ways of expressing love, affection, or appreciation. They can be roughly divided into five types:

  1. Gifts (giving someone a thing)
  2. Physical contact (This includes huggy-kissy-touchy-feely, but also lesser, non-romantic touching like a slap on the back, high-five, and other encraochments on personal space)
  3. Service (Doing a thing for someone. Pull some strings on their behalf. Mow their lawn. Fix their computer.)
  4. Words (Telling someone “I love you”, “You’re awesome”, or “nice job”)
  5. Spending Time (Spend some of your precious allotment of time with the person in question)

I had several nitpicks with this list, since I dislike any attempt to distill and catergorize human interactions into neat lists, but it works well enough and makes things easier to discuss.

The idea is that everyone has one or two ways in which they express and recieve love. These are very often asymetrical, so one guy might express love by buying stuff for people, but doesn’t feel particularly appreciated when others do the same for him. Instead, it is far more meaningful to him (makes him feel you really value him) if you (for example) spend time with him. While most of the things on the list are nice, there is at least one that each of us craves, and that makes us feel loved. Lots of friction in relationships between people rises from the fact that the people involved are expressing affection in a way the other person doesn’t find gratifying, and at the same time feeling neglected because they are not recognizing the other person’s attempt to do the same.

My first impulse when I heard this was to denounce it as horsehockey. But then I thought about it, and instead denounced it as interesting horsehockey. Then the thing grew on me as I started thinking about the many ways in which it applied to a lot of relationships – romantic and otherwise – that have been difficult for me over the years.

This setup leads to the classic situation where the husband can’t figure out what his wife’s problem is: He slaves away all day to put food on the table and that ungrateful woman can’t do anything but complain. And she’s stingy with sex. At the same time the wife is feeling unloved because he never says “I Love You”. And would it kill him to get her something nice once in a while, maybe some flowers? He’s doing #3 and craving #2, while she is craving #1 and probably giving #4. Each of them is expressing love (albeit in a way that is meaningless to the other person) while feeling frustrated that the other person never seems to reciprocate.

As cliché as this is, I think there is a reason it is a cliché. I think it is, for the most part, a pretty handy way of looking at various misunderstandings. When you boil things down, you realize this is not a problem between men and women per se, but a problem between any two people in a relationship. It’s just that romantic relationships between men and women are the kind most of us are familiar with.

Gifts don’t mean much to me. Sure, I am grateful when someone buys me something, but it doesn’t have any deep personal significance. I like to have things, but if I want something I usually just go out and get it. My wife, on the other hand, loves to get and give gifts. I remember once she mentioned she was really in the mood for pickles. I knew she was out. (This was before we were married. We lived about a half hour from each other.) So, I picked some up on the way the next time I visited her. She was ecstatic in a way that made no sense to me. I got the woman a jar of ordinary pickles and she acted like I’d bought her a new car. For her, it wasn’t about the expense of the gift, but the fact that I was thinking of her and got her something she really wanted. I’m still rubbish at this sort of thing, but I’m better now than I was ten years ago.

And now I’m finding all sorts of ways to apply this to my relationship with my kids and even coworkers. I’m so amazed by this discovery that I even considered reading the book once. Amazing.

11Just 11 comments.


  1. Ubu Roi says:

    I did read the book once. And I recommended it to a cousin and his wife who I could tell were beginning to have problems, but it didn’t save their marriage. Not the fault of the book but a fundamental problem: He was a #3, slaving away at a refinery’s shift work to give her and the 3 kids a roof and food on the table. She was a #5 that resented his absence and inability to fit her 9 to 5 world.

    If I might borrow and paraphrase from another saying: “If it’s horsehocky and it works, it ain’t horsehocky.” Despite my cousin’s failure there, he’s kept wife #2, I think the book is a very real and accurate look at how people display their affection for each other.

    As for stretching it into a book, another reason is because some people don’t absorb info without a lot of repeition. Anyone ever had this conversation?

    “Is Bob in? He’s the only one who can help me with this problem.”
    “Sorry, Bob’s out to lunch. Is there a message?”

    “But I’ve got to have this project finished by this afternoon!”
    “You just missed him, maybe you should have come by earlier. Can I–”

    “So is he going to be back soon?”
    “Since he just left, I guess about an hour. Would you like to l–”

    “Crap. What am I going to do?”
    (Sigh.) “Do you want to wait or leave a message?”

    “I’ve got to talk to him immediately when he gets back! Wait, what are you–”
    BANG! THUD. “I wasn’t repeating myself again, mother#&@#er!”

  2. David V.S. says:

    After hearing a sermon about this book several years ago, my wife and I discussed it’s basic theory and decided that (for us at least) it was focusing on something useful but in the wrong manner.

    Both my wife and I appreciate all five kinds of communicated affection. If either of use were, for any notable length of time, to not care for the other in any of those five ways then things would be perceived as noticably worse.

    The practical application pointed out by the sermon (I have no idea if this agrees with the book’s conclusion) was to identify how someone wants to receive communicated affection and focus on this “most efficient” for making them feel valued.

    Instead, we decided better practical applications were:
    (a) be sure you appropriately offer all these things to people (how this happens is obviously different for friends, co-workers, children, your spouse, etc.)
    (b) be sure to ask appropriately if you feel like you are missing out on one of these and it’s causing sadness, resentment, etc. (again this is obviously different in practice for different relationships).

    In other words, neither my wife nor I felt like we as individuals had a single “reservoir” of feeling valued or loved that needed filling, and the goal was to efficiently refill the other person’s “reservoir”. Rather, the relationship between us had several kinds of possible strengthening, each of which could become a weakest link if neglected.

    After all, much of what makes communicated appreciation special is that it is NOT about efficiency or carefully made plans.

    As a minister this is important for the congregants whose volunteering keeps the synagogue running. I can thank people for helping. I can give them gifts to show I appreciate them. I can serve them (whether this be ministerial stuff, driving a distnace to see them, sometimes babysitting, etc.). I can spend time with them just for the sake of spending time with them. And I can be appropriately touchy-feely as each person wants (some congregants hug me hello or really value shaking hands, others like having a hand put on their back when they are prayed for, in theory someone could want no contact at all). If I only did one or two of these for any congregant then things would suffer.

  3. Patrick says:

    Does this mean you don’t like the salt water taffy I bought you?

    unappreciative bastard…..

    And would it kill you to give a brother a hug?!?!

    ….sniff:((

  4. Shamus says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. I hadn’t thought of these ideas in that context (perhaps I might have if I’d read the book) and it is interesting to see how much use you can get out of this idea. What made me write the post was that there are heaps of “relationship” books out there, 99% of which seem to be obvious or useless. The fact that this book is not only useful in its intended contex (husbands and wives) but has been extended in so many ways is pretty impressive. The fact that the idea is still useful on the congregation level shows that the book isn’t a gimmick, but has real merit.

  5. Shamus says:

    Ubu: You have hit on a subject that is very close to my heart. I have that conversation all the time, where I say 2 things and the other person will turn around and ask me one of them. Makes me nuts.

    So did you read the book?

  6. BeckoningChasm says:

    Sounds like an interesting book, one that will spark thought and make people re-examine a relationship. Thanks for the review.

  7. Ubu Roi says:

    Shamus: yes, I read it, but it’s been a while (8-9 years?). Can’t say as I remember much detail, and I have no idea where it is now. May have loaned it out again and lost it.

  8. Shamus says:

    I was messing with you. The very first thing you said was “I did read the book once.” And then about people not listening. So I thought…

    Bah nevermind. :)

  9. David V.S. says:

    I should add that my wife and I also thought of yet more styles of communicating affection beyond the book’s five. I’ll leave such brainstorming as an excerise to others (and their loved ones) since the brainstorming might be more productive than if I simply shared our insights.

    Actually, I’ll mention just one: obviously acting on the other person’s priorities. This could be as simple as preparing a meal they like and you aren’t thrilled with, or as complex as judging it’s appropriate to be supportive with something they want to do but you know won’t end well. In a way it’s a gift, but it’s much more about affirming what the other person is like than granting them something new. More than the other five “love languages” it communicates that you value your relationship with that person more than your own comfort, and are willing to be always loving instead of always right or always negotiating.

  10. Heather says:

    I should mention here that I agree with David. Shamus and I actually sat down and figured out all kinds of extensions on any of the above, like acting on what the other person likes, which for me is how gifts turns into service. I love gifts IF they are suited to me and obviously thought out. I do not appreciate gifts as “I had to buy you a gift so here.” Some people do. If it isnt thought out I would rather spend time with or have someone do somethng thoughtful in my direction. There are all types of ways you could take these five and adjust them but I think they kept it to five since most people can’t store more than five of a list easily in their heads.

  11. -Chipper says:

    My age is showing – I can’t now remember if I read that book, or just discussed it with someone else long ago. I think it offers a useful way to see relationships in a new light & make small adjustments that can go a long way.

    Another book that I associate with that one (probably because I came across both around the same time & both have great applicability in relationships) is “The Blessing” by Smalley & Trent. It is a small book that starts with the blessings bestowed on sons in the Old Testament – Issac blessing Jacob, Jacob blessing his sons – and shows practical insight on how lacking a blessing from your parents is likely to affect you, and how to pass on a healthy blessing to your children. Very powerful.

    Cheers

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