The Five Love Languages can help you zero in on your relationship needs. They can also help you understand yourself better.
Gary Chapman’s book, The Five Love Languages, came out in 1992. It outlines five general ways that romantic partners express and experience love, which Chapman calls "love languages”:
Words of affirmation - when your partner uses encouraging, positive words and compliments you feel loved.
Physical touch - you feel loved when your partner makes physical contact, whether it’s holding hands, spooning, or a surprise massage.
Receiving gifts - thoughtful or extravagant gifts tell you your partner is thinking of you, which feels great.
Quality time - you feel more bonded and secure when you and your partner share meaningful conversation, undivided attention, or a special date night for just the two of you.
Acts of service - you feel loved and appreciated when your partner reduces your burden or eases your stress - whether it’s a chore, running an errand, or just taking care of something without having to be asked.
According to Chapman, our “love language” is the way we want to be loved - but what if the way we want to receive love is exactly the same way we deny ourselves love? And, what if our primary love language is exactly what we wanted (and didn’t get) when we were kids?
I’ll use myself as an example: my primary love language is acts of service. When I was married, nothing made me feel more seen and loved than when my then-husband would do little things around the house so I didn't have to - stuff like vacuuming or having dinner ready for me when I got home from work. Gender stereotypes aside, I felt responsible for doing everything around the house, and when he would take tasks off my mental to-do list, I felt this huge sense of relief.
As a child, I also felt responsible for doing everything myself. As the oldest of four kids, my childhood was short - I remember when each subsequent sibling came along, my list of responsibilities grew longer. Eventually I was like a third parent, picking up slack around the house, babysitting, changing diapers, helping out with homework, even being the de facto chauffeur as soon as I got my driver’s license.
Speaking up for myself or asking for help usually ended badly, in the form of a verbal dressing down that included some shaming around my “selfishness” and invariably being redirected to some additional chore that I could have avoided if I had just kept my mouth shut.
This isn’t about blaming my parents - they were objectively busy with four kids, and they did the best they could. Parenting is way more than a one- or two-person job, and I could do another 1,500 words on how crazy it is that we expect parents to somehow know what they’re doing when everyone is learning on the job.
Nevertheless, my childhood experience translated into these limiting beliefs:
My needs are less important than the needs of others
Asking for help usually ends in rejection and at least a little shaming
I need to figure out everything myself
Cut to adulthood, where I feel responsible for taking care of others before myself, I feel shame around asking for help, and I am so conditioned to figure everything out by myself that when I get stuck, I go into a procrastination spiral of task avoidance and negative self-talk.
And I’m not alone. Everyone I’ve mentioned this to has had some version of the same “a-ha” moment - childhood experience informs limiting beliefs which inform adult behaviors and desires.
So here’s what I’ve come up with in my non-scientific, very casual survey of people I know:
If your love language is Words of Affirmation:
You probably had a critical parent or parents who didn’t praise your achievements, but rather focused on where you fell short.
As an adult, you are prone to critical self-talk, negative thinking or catastrophizing, avoiding vulnerability, self-blame, or “perfection paralysis” as your coping mechanism.
If your love language is Physical Touch:
You didn’t get the hugs and cuddles you wanted as a child, and there may have even been “bad touch” like corporal punishment or non-consensual touching of any kind.
As an adult, you may avoid connection and intimacy, numb with substances, self-harm, and self-isolate as a coping mechanism.
If your love language is Receiving Gifts:
You may not have received a lot of gifts as a child, or the ones you got either weren’t what you wanted or they weren’t thoughtful and specific to you.
As an adult, you may tend toward impulse shopping, compulsive spending, or hoarding as a coping mechanism.
If your love language is Quality Time:
You probably spent a lot of time alone as a child, either because you’re an only child, or your caretakers were emotionally absent, or you had to compete for parental time in a large family.
As an adult, you may tend toward self-isolation, emotional avoidance, disconnection or social withdrawal as a coping mechanism.
If your love language is Acts of Service:
You likely had to do things by yourself as a child, including caring for younger siblings or yourself while your parents were busy.
As an adult, you probably tend toward neglecting yourself and self-care, refusing to ask for or accept help, procrastination, and task-avoidance as a coping mechanism.
Do these correlations match your experience?
Connecting the dots between our childhood experiences and the coping mechanisms we use as adults is an important part of the self-discovery process. More important is what we do with this knowledge.
If you can see yourself in the list above, one of the best things to do with this information is to journal about it. Writing things down helps us see patterns, and once we can identify the patterns, we can start doing something about them. Journaling and forgiveness work have helped me move through the lingering resentments I had from childhood and release limiting beliefs, making room for growth, peace, and self-acceptance.