Your Love Language May Be Different Than You Think

Making a relationship work is never easy, and it's even harder when you and your partner don't have the same love language. As explained in the book "Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts" written by Gary Chapman, PhD, there are five love languages in total: words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, physical touch, and receiving gifts. According to Dr. Chapman's book, a love language is essentially the way in which a person prefers to give and receive love, says Chris Tompkins, AMFT, an associate therapist at Theara.

"[Love languages] can act as a guide, helping you to communicate more effectively with your partner by showing love in the way they are most comfortable with." But understanding your own love language, he adds, "can also help you direct your partner to demonstrate their love in a way which feels familiar and safe for you." Additionally, knowing your partner's love language can help you avoid misunderstandings and disconnection, he says, "where perhaps your way of expressing love is misaligned with their way of experiencing it."

So how do you figure out your love language in the first place? How do you find out your partner's? And is the relationship completely doomed if they aren't the same? Let's dive into it.

What Is My Love Language?

To find out your love language, you can start by taking the quiz online to get a basic idea. Then, you can compare your results by thinking about the moments when you feel most loved. Is it when you and your partner are cuddling on the couch? Sharing an experience together? When they make dinner for you? Whatever the answer is, you may discover that you have a few different love languages — and that's OK. Learning more about each individual love language can help you figure out which ones resonate most with you or your partner.

Since love languages are "a really helpful starting place in learning how to expand your ability to express love," says Angela Amias, LCSW, couples' therapist and cofounder of relationship training and communication resource Alchemy of Love, let's dive a little deeper into each love language so you can better understand the differences and how to love on your loved ones and yourself.

Love Language: Words of Affirmation

"Words of affirmation are verbal expressions of care, appreciation, and love," says Amias. This love language can consist of expressions of gratitude and love, she explains, but can also be as simple as giving a thoughtful compliment like, "That scarf really brings out your eyes."

"If a person speaks this emotional language, it means that what their partner has to say about them and to them speaks volumes," says Lauren Cook-McKay, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist who helps couples struggling in their marriage at Divorce Answers. This love language typically resonates with people who like "knowing their partner is paying attention to them, notices what makes them tick, and appreciates what makes them special," Cook-McKay adds. And no, people with this love language aren't fishing for compliments — "they just want to know that their partner genuinely appreciates them." Keep it "simple and genuine" when you're connecting with a partner through words of affirmation, she says.

Words of affirmation examples:

  • Compliment your partner with specific language. Tell them why you think they look good today, hype them up when they impress you, and if you mess up, make sure to tell them why you're sorry.
  • Pay attention to topics your partner is sensitive about, like work or a friend relationship, and proactively offer words of encouragement.
  • Avoid harsh language or a critical tone. If you have a complaint to share, make sure you make time to talk it through and have specifics.

Love Language: Quality Time

The love language of quality time is all about giving your partner your undivided attention, Cook-McKay says. If you speak this love language, she explains, you express your love and truly feel loved when you spend meaningful time with your partner. You feel important when your partner is truly present with you, allowing you to connect on a deeper level.

If you or your partner's love language is quality time, make sure you're setting aside time for each other and staying present in the moment. You can do this by scheduling a date night, watching a movie at home together, or sitting in each other's company without the distraction of a TV, cell phone, work emails, etc.

Quality time examples:

  • Make one-on-one time part of your routine. This could be as simple as walking around the block every week, having coffee together in the morning, or making a meal on Thursday night. It doesn't have to be extravagant or expensive – just make sure you're with each other and present.
  • Limit distractions during your quality time. Set aside your phone, turn off the TV, and tune into each other.

Love Language: Acts of Service

As the name implies, "acts of service are all about expressing love through actions that are helpful to your loved one," Amias says. That can be as simple as unloading the dishwasher for your partner after they've had a long day of work, cooking dinner if they're working late, or dropping the kids off at school in the morning. If you or your partner speak this love language, know that it can be easy to misread. "In my experience, acts of service are frequently overlooked by the receiver when they don't share this love language," Amias says. This could be because "acts of service are often misunderstood as their partner just taking care of business."

To avoid this, be observant and recognize if and when one of you is going out of your way to do something kind and helpful for the other. It's all about "doing basic deeds to make their partner's life a little easier," Cook-McKay says.

Acts of service examples:

  • Go the extra mile when there's nothing in it for you. Fold their laundry, give them a ride home from the bar when they're out with friends, or fill up the gas tank when you know they need the car tomorrow.
  • Do things without being asked. For people who speak this love language, there's nothing like coming home to a clean kitchen or being surprised with breakfast in bed. When you see an opportunity to do something nice without any prompting, take advantage of it and show your partner you care.
  • Volunteer to take on tasks you know they hate, like washing the sheets, taking out the trash, or drying the dishes. Making their day-to-day life a little easier is a sweet gesture that means a lot for someone with this love language.

Love Language: Physical Touch

"A person whose love language is physical touch feels loved when they're physically touched by their partners," says Cook-McKay. It doesn't necessarily have to be in a sexual way, either. Physical touch can be as simple and casual as sitting close to your partner, giving them a hug, holding hands, cuddling, kissing, or brushing their back or shoulder as you walk by. If this is your love language, you'll feel cherished and adored when a partner goes out of their way to touch you. "Physical touch is frequently misunderstood as only relating to sexual expressions of love, but in reality people who have physical touch as their primary love language thrive when there's frequent closeness and caring touch," Amias explains.

Physical touch examples:

  • Make non-intimate, skin-to-skin contact as part of your daily life. Give your partner a simple kiss when you walk in the door, snuggle on the couch when you're watching a movie, or hold hands when you're out for a walk together.
  • Hug, cuddle, or give your partner a back rub when they're having a bad day – or just because.
  • Make an effort to get intimate, especially if your partner is making a move. If you're not in the mood for anything sexual, try cuddling instead.

Love Language: Receiving Gifts

People whose love language is receiving gifts need a "visual representation of love," Cook-McKay says, "which comes in the form of gifts." This love language is often misunderstood as being materialistic, she adds, but it's not. The extravagance of the gift isn't what matters — it's the sentiment behind it. "They will cherish the gift no matter how simple it is because it reminds them that they are loved." People with this love language are often great gift-givers themselves, Amias adds, giving "exceptionally thoughtful gifts because they're tangible tokens of love and connection.

Receiving gifts examples:

  • Plan ahead for birthdays, anniversaries, gift-giving holidays, and Valentine's Day. Don't let these gifting days sneak up on you! Keep a list of gift ideas as they come to you.
  • Give meaningful, thoughtful gifts. With this love language, it really is the thought that counts. Get your partner gifts that speak to their passions, shared experiences, or inside jokes.
  • Surprise them with small tokens of love. Send your partner flowers on a whim, get them their favorite snack, or have food delivered when they're busy.

How to Navigate a Relationship If You and Your Partner Have Different Love Languages

First of all, it's "absolutely normal" to have a different love language than your partner, Tompkins says. The key, he explains, is communication. "Problems usually arise when individuals are trying to show love in the way which is suited to them, rather than their partner," Tompkins says.

For example, let's say your love language is words of affirmation, but your partner's is physical touch. A night of cuddling and kissing on the couch might be their idea of bonding and intimacy, but it might make you feel uncomfortable and smothered. On the other hand, when you seek words of affirmation from your partner by asking them what they love most about you or what attracts them to you, they might feel awkward and put on the spot. They might even try to avoid the question by giving you a hug or kiss instead — responding to your love language with a different one. It can leave both of you confused, unsatisfied, and unsure of the relationship.

But that doesn't mean all relationships fail on that basis. It just requires you to actively work on showing your partner love in the way they want to receive it — not in the way you would want to receive it yourself.

So here's what you can do: take a love language quiz to find out what love language(s) resonate with you, and ask your partner to do the same. Talk about what you've learned and bring up moments when you've felt the most loved — you can say something like, "It made me feel so good when we spent the whole weekend together." Then, get comfortable asking for more of that, while offering to do the same for them. You can say, "What can I do to make you feel more loved?"

Have fun with it, Tompkins says. "Get curious and enjoy learning more about each other and finding new ways to express your love." And don't be afraid to speak up anytime you're feeling like you aren't quite connecting. A loving partner will adapt to show you love in the ways that feel best for you, just like you would do for them.

Are Love Languages Only For Couples?

Love languages are not exclusive to people in relationships. Trust me, knowing your love language is also helpful if you're single, too. You can show love to yourself in your preferred way, such as by buying yourself a gift or saying a positive affirmation in the mirror. Intentionally loving yourself in this way "is a way to reinforce your self-esteem," Tompkins explains, "by demonstrating to yourself that you are worthy of love, care, and respect."

But on another note, "love isn't only romantic," says Tompkins. Even if you aren't coupled up, you can use love languages to connect with friends and family, too. Anything which increases insight, awareness, and understanding of one another can help to foster healthy relationships," Tompkins says.