So far, we have learned some basic social skills to balance your relationships. For example, you have learned to be assertive, which is the middle path between passive and aggressive. You have also learned to use the Adult Voice, which is the middle path between the Parent Voice and Child Voice. In addition to learning to assert your own perspective, you have also learned to appreciate the perspective of others, and to apologize when you have caused hurt or harm to someone else. In short, you have learned to seek balance in relationships by adopting a win / win attitude (my perspective matters, and so does yours). In this blog post, you will learn a simple yet profound tool that will help you balance—and bolster—your relationships even further.
In the 1990’s, a psychologist named Gary Chapman (2015) studied married couples. After years of research, what Dr. Chapman noticed was that people tend to both express and perceive affection in very predictable patterns. For example, some people feel more appreciated if you spend time with them or do a favor for them, while other people feel more appreciated if you give them something or say encouraging words, such as a compliment or praise. In addition, some people feel more appreciated with some sort of physical touch, such as a hug or tap on the shoulder. Dr. Chapman called these different ways to communicate affection the “five love languages,” which include the following:
Dr. Chapman found that most people tend to have one or two preferred love languages. While our love languages may evolve over time or we may feel appreciated in several different ways at once, most of us feel the most appreciated in only certain ways.
Dr. Chapman also noticed that problems can occur in relationships when two people do not share the same love languages. For example, let’s assume a father tries to shower affection on his teenage son by doing things for him, such as a changing the oil in his car. However, the son feels controlled whenever his father does things like this. Meanwhile, the father wonders why the son doesn’t do more around the house. The son in turn tries really hard to do well in school and in sports, hoping for some modicum of praise from his father. However, instead of complimenting his son on his achievements, the father just complains that the son works hard everywhere except at his own house.
Do you see what’s going on here? The father and son have different love languages! The father communicates affection through acts of service, while the son needs praise in order to feel appreciated. As a consequence of mismatched love languages, both the father and the son feel unappreciated—even though both are trying hard to express their appreciation!
As you can see, figuring out your own love language—not to mention the love language of others—can do wonders to help just about anyone improve their relationships. But this tool is especially important for people who have experienced trauma. Remember at the beginning of this chapter, I made the following statement: “Research shows that trauma which is caused by people causes much more long-term damage than trauma caused by natural disasters. That’s because as people we need people. And when people hurt us…it really, really hurts.” Well, just like it is possible to demonstrate appreciation for people in terms of their love language, it is also possible to hurt people in terms of their love languages.
Let’s assume that five year-old Jacki’s love language is touch. For example, Jacki loves to have her hair combed, loves to be hugged, and loves to be tucked into bed at night. The only problem is this: No one does this for her. Not surprisingly, Jacki does not feel loved. But now let’s take this scenario one step further. Let’s assume that Jacki’s mother physically abuses her whenever she gets drunk. In addition, let’s assume that Jacki’s father touches her inappropriately whenever he gets drunk. Of course, it goes without saying that both physical and sexual abuse are already damaging enough. But can you imagine how damaging these forms of abuse would be to someone whose love language is touch?
Now let’s take this scenario one step further. Let’s assume that Jacki’s babysitter, Uncle Jim, has really taken a liking to Jacki. And Jacki LOVES the attention. Uncle Jim strokes her hair, rubs her back, and even tucks her into bed at night with goodnight kisses. As time goes on, however, Uncle Jim also starts to touch Jacki inappropriately.
Of all the forms of abuse mentioned so far, this one will probably cause Jacki the most long-term damage. Why? Eventually Jacki will learn that her mother and her father were both abusive, because she hated the forms of touch she received from both of them. However, there is little that will tear up a psyche more than the confusion which results when people actually do meet someone’s love language—and then proceed to abuse their victim in terms of that very same love language! This is exactly how predators are able to “groom” their victims for ongoing abuse.
Let’s fast-forward a few years: Jacki is now a teenager. Even though she resents the abusive touch of her mother, her father, and even her uncle, touch is (after all) still her love language. And since no one has adequately met this need in her life, she still craves it as much as she ever did. But so far in life, she has learned that the main way to get touch is through sexual activity. Therefore, Jacki learns to behave provocatively in order to elicit sexual touch from her peers (not to mention older guys). In fact, Jacki now feels much more in control of this process than she did before, when she was being abused by her parents or uncle. But now Jacki has another set of problems: She has only learned one way to meet her love language. And to make matters worse, promiscuity comes at a very high social and emotional price—and in the end, still does not meet her needs very well.
So as you can see, there is a dark side to this concept love languages. While love languages can explain how humans can meet each other’s needs, they also explain one of the most despicable ways that people can also take advantage of other people. Our love languages not only give us the capacity to feel cherished and appreciated, but they also set us for exploitation. And of course, no one likes to get hurt in any form; but when we are hurt in terms of our love language, it hurts even more.
So how do we use the concept of love languages to improve the quality of our current relationships? Let’s go back to the mindfulness formula we learned at the beginning: Applied Mindfulness = Awareness + Acceptance + Action.
First we need to become more aware of our love languages (both yours and others). Not only do you need to figure out your own love languages, but you also need to figure out the love languages of the people who are most important to you. In addition, you need to become more aware of when your love languages are either mutual or mismatched. You also need to become more aware of how your love languages make you vulnerable to exploitation, and how you have been hurt in terms of love languages. Finally, you also need to become more aware of your own behaviors. Sometimes people excessively lavish a certain love language on other people, as an attempt to get other people to respond in kind. Have you ever met someone that constantly hugs other people, or is constantly complimenting everyone, or is constantly doing things for other people? It is generally not a good idea to try to meet your own needs through others!
Once we have become more aware of our love languages, we now need to accept them. Maybe you don’t like your love language. Maybe you wish you had a different one. Maybe you feel needy for needing to feel loved in the first place. Maybe you feel like this whole “love language” spiel is a load of malarkey…or only for wimps. Or maybe you find someone else’s love language to be annoying, or too high maintenance. Regardless of which glitches you face, the reality is that love is in one of greatest needs we have as humans, and relationships do not work very well if both parties involved cannot learn to mutually communicate appreciation. In short, love languages aren’t going away anytime soon just because you do not like them!
Once we have increased both awareness and acceptance, it’s now time to take action. Intentionally explain to other people how you feel appreciated. Intentionally ask other people how they feel appreciated. (In other words, do not try to read other people’s minds, and do not expect them to read yours.) And then intentionally interact with other people in terms of their love languages…not yours! However, you will also need to intentionally distance yourself from people who seem to be exploiting your love language. (Remember from the beginning of this chapter that assertive people know how to “move away” from people when appropriate). And finally, you will also need to intentionally communicate affection to yourself, so that you are not always dependent on other people to meet all of your needs. For example, if you crave verbal encouragement, learn to provide yourself with positive affirmations. If you feel appreciated by gifts, spoil yourself once in awhile with a special purchase. If you need physical touch, treat yourself to a massage. In short, show yourself some love! It’s okay, really. In fact, here in DBT land, we even have a term for that: self-care.