By Malika Noor Mehta
Artwork by Devika Menon
Perhaps the most complex and beautiful aspect about human beings is the way in which we give and receive love. Why? Because each of us understands the concept of love differently. What one person perceives as an act of affection may simply not mean as much to someone else. Love is multivariable. And its expression, multifaceted.
In all types of relationships – familial, romantic, platonic, professional – people often struggle to find the right way to show someone they care. In order to demystify the complexities of expressing affection, a counsellor and author named Dr Gary Chapman coined The 5 Languages of Love, a concept that he eventually turned into a book in 1992.
Dr Chapman wrote this book after years of counselling couples and recognizing common trends in (mis) communication styles. He realized that the inability to communicate affection effectively led to misunderstandings about individual needs and desires. In turn, the relationships came under immense strain and occasionally broke apart.
In his analysis of his clients, he noticed that five key ‘languages’ emerged. These languages, he hypothesized, form the backbone of a relationship. He also realized that it was highly unlikely that any two people would share exactly the same love languages. Therefore, each person had to spend effort and time understanding their own language of love and then considering the language of their partner. While Dr Chapman focused on romantic partners, the framework he developed around love languages is easily applied to any relationship and is incredibly useful in bridging the gaps in communication styles. The first step, of course, is to understand ourselves better and think about languages that we use to give and receive love.
What are the Five Languages of Love?
Words of Affirmation:
“I love you.”
“You’re so wonderful.”
“I am so proud of all that you do.”
Words that affirm your sense of self, that make you feel seen and acknowledged, that demonstrate to you that your partner or friend or family member really appreciates you. That is the power of words of affirmation. Some people know how to express their love eloquently and effusively. They give their words to others in a free-flowing and meaningful way. And the receiver of these words feels the love inherent in them. This language of love is spoken or written. It is heard or read. It is not merely about compliments. Rather, it is about using the power of words to describe your affection, and in doing so, making the other person feel cherished.
Of course, it is important to remember that as you say or text or write loving words, the person on the receiving end needs to have the wherewithal and capacity to understand your language. They have to be able to appreciate your form of expression. Otherwise, those loving words might fall on deaf ears and blind eyes. In order to ensure that the other person understands your language of love, have a conversation with them about what words mean to you. Tell them that you show your affection through verbal expression and that you appreciate the same form of expression in return. Allow the other person space to digest this information and time to develop the mechanisms to show you love in return.
You spend your Saturdays playing scrabble with your partner; you take a long walk on Marine Drive with your sibling; you sit down at the dinner table with your parents and discuss the trials and tribulations of your day. Whatever the relationship, whatever the activity, the time you spend in each other’s company is meaningful because it is uninterrupted by phone calls, unfettered by distractions, unmarred by the possibility of the other person being yanked away from you. You know they are there. With you. All yours. Even if the time is limited, even if you only have their attention for a quick fifteen minutes, in that given time, their attention is focused on you. That is what makes it so meaningful. That is what makes it quality time.
When someone shows that they love you with this language of love – unencumbered quality time – they are telling you that you are worth their time and attention. It is a magical feeling to feel so seen and so heard. Of course, each individual has a different definition of quality time. While one person might simply want to sit on the couch next to their partner and watch a movie, another person might need the active exchange of ideas to deem the time spent together as “quality.” Therefore, even if two people share this language, their definition of what qualifies as “quality” may vary. Once again, the act of communication –direct and honest conversation – is the only way to figure out the nuances of each individual’s language of love.
Acts of Service:
When your partner does the laundry even though he absolutely despises it. When you spend hours brainstorming with her about her History essay even though you have so much other homework to complete. When you try to cook a delicious meal for them even though you have absolutely no clue how to boil rice. These little acts demonstrate how much a person cares for a certain loved one. These acts are done in the service of love. In an effort to express love. Acts of Service are gestures that require time and effort and thought. Sometimes, they require sacrifice (small or large). They are actions, sometimes coupled with words, that elucidate the meaning of love.
As usual, however, an Act of Service needs to be recognized by the receiver. In order to feel loved, the receiver of the act must understand the gravity and importance of it. Once again, some explanation may be required. They must understand that in performing this action, the doer is demonstrating the extent of their love. The recognition of this act goes a long way in making the doer also feel appreciated and seen. One must never forget - reciprocity in love is critical.
A kiss. A hug. A touch on the shoulder. A graze of a thigh. Touch. Physical touch. It can indicate affection and closeness. Sometimes, it can demonstrate love in a way that words simply cannot. The electricity. The gentleness. The protectiveness. Touch conveys so many messages.
A kiss is so complex. Shared between a parent and child- it connotes safety, protection, undying love. Shared between two romantic partners- it connotes lust, desire, beautiful intimacy. Shared between friends, it connotes comfort, closeness, ease. There is so much linked to, and hidden within, such a simple gesture.
Yet, of course, touch is complex. It sits starkly and importantly within the realm of consent. The reason why touch – when done right – connotes so many wonderful aspects of human relationships is that not everyone gets to touch you. You do not give permission to the stranger on the street to hold your hand, touch your cheek, kiss your lips. Touch is reserved for those in your most intimate circle. Therefore, the violation of this love language can be quite devastating.
The meaning behind a gift lies in the thought that accompanies it. Someone who believes that love is expressed through gifts views the item being presented within a larger context. What does this gift mean? How long did it take the person to find this gift? What was the acquisition process? Why is he or she giving this gift to me? The physicality of a gift is secondary. It may be beautiful or monetarily valuable, but ultimately the gift-receiver is actually assessing the gift-giver through the lens of the item presented. For this reason, it is critical to completely demystify the gift so that the receiver truly understands the affection with which it is being given.
Like all the other languages, gift-giving is complex. It is often mistaken as superficial. Disregarded as materialistic. But these are misnomers. A gift can be something small - a pebble, a piece of paper, a handkerchief. It does not have to be something expensive to have value. If that pebble or piece of paper or handkerchief contains memories, emotions, and thoughts, they will mean more to the receiver than a diamond. Of that, I am sure.
In the end…
The beauty of Dr Chapman’s framework on the Languages of Love is that it considers the individual. Each person has their own language. And in order to foster true connections, spending time understanding the other person’s language, and explaining your own, is critical. Finally, it is important to remember that understanding the language of love requires a certain amount of self-awareness and self-care. In order to give to others, you have to give to yourself first. Understanding what you need to feel calm, collected, and certain of yourself is, in fact, the first step in understanding your own language of love. Only then can you work towards understanding another person’s language.
About the author
Malika Noor Mehta is a mental health entrepreneur. Before the pandemic, she was engaged in creating a fellowship program that placed mental health counsellors in low-cost schools in Mumbai. Her interest in mental health stems from her teaching experience at Teach for India and her time in Jordan and Greece, creating trauma-sensitive education programs for Syrian refugees. She holds a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. In her free time, she loves to write and take photographs.