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The 5 Love Languages and How They Can Help You Communicate

Do you prefer a sweet compliment, a thoughtful gift, or a big hug?

Communication is one of the trickiest aspects of any relationship. When you first start dating, you're navigating how the other person operates, but even several years into marriage, you are your partner may evolve in how you interact. However, one thing that is likely to stay consistent is your love language—and understanding which one you and your S.O. have is beneficial from the get-go.

As Beth Ribarksy, PhD, professor and director of the School of Communication and Media at the University of Illinois Springfield, notes, these love languages were first outlined in the bestselling book The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts by pastor Gary Chapman, PhD.

"In simple terms, a love language is the way someone makes you feel loved and cared for," Ribarsky explains.

The tricky part is understanding what each of the five love languages entails and how you can "speak" them.

"The five love languages—acts of service, gifts, words of affirmation, quality time, and touch—allow individuals to express to others how they best feel loved and seen in relationships," clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of The Joy of Imperfect Love, tells Best Life. "And, on the other hand, knowing another person's love language allows the giver to express love in a way that is meaningful to a recipient. Knowing your own love language and that of those dear to you greatly increases the effectiveness of loving gestures."

Manly notes, however, that couples often have different love languages, making it that much more important to recognize that you and your partner may have distinct needs.

"The goal in love languages is to tune into—and express love—to the partner in their preferred language," she says.

Wondering how to accomplish this in your relationship? Read on to learn more about the five love languages, and how they can help you communicate.

RELATED: These Are the 36 Questions That Lead to Love.

Words of Affirmation

man complimenting girlfriend
Dragon Images / Shutterstock

If your partner is all about talking things out and lights up when you pay them a compliment, odds are their primary love language is words of affirmation.

According to Ribarsky, these folks "feel most loved when it is verbally expressed."

"Although it can include the obvious 'I love you,' it also involves words of encouragement, appreciation, or flirtations," she says. "Beyond vocalizing these, you may make someone with this love language feel particularly loved by sending unexpected cards, notes, or texts—something that reminds them that you're thinking of them."

Manly also points out that in order for these words to "hold value to the recipient," they should feel sincere and targeted to their needs.

"For some, hearing 'I love you and all that you are' can be an incredibly rewarding phrase. Others may be more geared toward having their accomplishments affirmed, such as, 'You did a fabulous job; I so appreciate you!'" Manly explains.

There's also a flip side to words of affirmation, as speaking unkindly to people with this love language can be especially painful for them.

"When you use negative or critical words with this person, your words are like a dagger in their heart," Chapman told HuffPost in 2018. "Your critical words hurt them more deeply than they would hurt someone with a different love language."

Acts of Service

husband cooking dinner for wife
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Next up on the love language list is acts of service, which involves doing tasks for another person.

According to Manly, these are typically the chores or tasks that "someone may be unable or unwilling to do on their own."

"Examples of acts of service include taking out the garbage, doing home maintenance, cleaning the bathroom, or cooking dinner," she says.

Ribarsky notes that this is often a common way for men to show their love for a partner.

"Acts of service are actions that make your partner's life a little easier," she shares. "For example, you might take their car in to get the oil changed … or rake the leaves. These are actions that go out of the way to make someone's day easier."

RELATED: 156 Ways to Say "I Love You" (Without Actually Saying I Love You).

Quality Time

older couple riding bikes

Do you feel most content and at peace with your partner when you spend a day just the two of you? Chances are you might value quality time more than other love languages.

Manly highlights the need for "focused, connective time," which you can again cater to your loved one's preferences.

"Depending on a partner's personality, quality time can be as simple as reading as a duo, making dinner together, or sitting side by side on the couch," Manly says. "Others enjoy more physical activities such as taking walks, bicycling, or adventuring together. The key to quality time is avoiding distractions that diminish or detract from the connective energy of the shared time."

According to Ribarsky, some people with this love language may need quality time that goes beyond just being in each other's presence.

"Although most people see quality time as any time spent together, a person whose love language is quality time is looking for time that is focused on providing opportunities for conversation," Ribarsky says. "So, although watching television together can be a form of quality time, a much better expression of quality time may be having dinner together one-on-one or going for a walk."

Receiving Gifts

Romantic Man giving flower and gift box to woman for valentines day
adriaticfoto / Shutterstock

We all appreciate a thoughtful present when the holidays or birthdays roll around. But for some people, this goes a bit deeper, and the gifts symbolize love.

"Gifts tend to be material items—whether purchased or handmade—that hold meaning and value for the receiver," Manly says.

According to both Manly and Ribarsky, you don't need to be intimidated by this love language, even though it may seem like it's an investment.

"A gift does not need to be costly to hold importance for the recipient; examples of meaningful, low-cost gifts include a bouquet of handpicked flowers, a batch of homemade cookies, or a heartfelt poem," Manly offers.

Ribarsky points out that the purpose is to show your partner that you're thinking of them, so it could also just be as simple as picking up their favorite candy bar when you stop to get gas. Speaking to this, Chapman also told HuffPost that the gift recipient is often less interested in the item itself and more interested in the thought behind it.

So, if your partner's love language is receiving gifts and you pick something up—be it large or small—they'll probably recognize the meaning behind it.

"The wife who gives her husband a vacuum cleaner for his birthday is likely thinking more about how the gift might benefit her rather than him," Chapman said, also stressing the need to pay attention to these people. According to Chapman, whether they realize it or not, those whose love language is receiving gifts tend to drop hints about what they want.

"They often verbalize what they would like," Chapman said. "Make a note of it. They are giving you valuable information."

RELATED: What Your Love Language Says About Your Finances, According to a Therapist.

Physical Touch

Two romantic female lovers smiling cheerfully while embracing each other.
JLco – Julia Amaral / iStock

Rounding out the five love languages is physical touch.

"This sounds just like what it is—feeling loved when someone provides physical affection, such as hugging, kissing, cuddling, and holding hands," Ribarsky says.

But while sex and intimacy "fit into this category," smaller touches can be just as beneficial, she adds.

Ribarsky explains, "If your partner has physical touch as a love language, you might be sure to cuddle with them or offer a massage."

How do I know what my love language is?

mature person journaling with pen
fizkes / Shutterstock

If you're unsure what your love language is, there's no shortage of online quizzes that can help you puzzle it out. But Manly notes that it may be more rewarding to try journaling about "what makes you feel loved," and not limiting yourself to just one language.

"While many people think that a person has only one love language, many people have more than one key love language," she shares. Ribarsky also stresses that the language in which we like to receive love can certainly differ from the language in which we give love.

"For me, I didn't realize how important a particular love language was for me until I was in a relationship where I didn't receive it," Ribarsky says. "Sometimes the absence of it can make us better understand what is truly important to us."

RELATED: 5 Romantic Gestures to Make If You Need to Apologize, Therapists Say.

How can love languages help my relationship?

Now that you have a better understanding of the five different types of love languages, it's important to know what they mean for your relationship. Here are some ways that knowing your and your partner's love language can make a meaningful difference.

They can help you identify and work out problem areas.

young couple fighting
iStock / PeopleImages

If you're not giving love in the way that your partner needs, it can create problems.

"Couples often do not share the same love language and tend to 'give love' to their partner in their own language. No matter how well-intended, giving in a love language that does not correspond to a partner's needs often creates a sense of disconnection and even resentment because each partner's core needs are not met," Manly says. "When love languages are mismatched and not attuned to the recipient's needs, the giver tends to feel unappreciated, and the receiver tends to feel unseen and even unloved."

So, working to "speak" your partner's love language can help avoid this.

"When partners have different love languages, it's important for each partner to understand their partner's love language and then meet the partner's need in corresponding ways," Manly explains.

They can help you show you care.

male couple talking
Zinkevych / iStock

According to Ribarsky, if you and your partner take the time to communicate about your love languages, it will likely become a bit easier to meet each other's needs and show them you care.

"Although their love language may not be the same as yours, this is where the platinum rule really comes into play—treat others how they'd like to be treated. By making the effort to fulfill your partner's desired love language, it can show your partner you are willing to step outside your comfort zone to make them feel cared for," Ribarsky says.

RELATED: What Are Soul Ties? Understanding a New Romantic Connection.

They can help you feel connected.

man smiling as his girlfriend expresses love messages for him
pink panda / Shutterstock

If you and your partner seem to feel "off," recognizing your love languages is one way to reestablish a connection. Manly illustrates this using an anecdote from one of her clients.

According to Manly, the client realized that they need quality time, words of affirmation, and physical touch "in equal measure." Once this was communicated to their husband, he was able to "tune in" and recognize their needs.

On the flip side, upon recognizing their husband's love language, Manly's client was able to "put efforts into areas that translate into him feeling loved." As a result, Manly says the pair felt more "connected and appreciated" by one another.

They can help you with other relationships.

two teenage girls listening to music together

While your romantic relationship is likely to blossom with an understanding of the five love languages, Ribarsky points out that they can also help you in other areas of your life.

"Although we most often think about love languages when it comes to romantic partners, this is something that applies to all our relationships," she shares. "For example, knowing how your friends feel most loved or cared for can help provide effective social support for them."

RELATED: 5 Romantic Gestures They'll Never Forget, Relationship Experts Say.

What is the most common love language?

man holding his friends hand at a restaurant giving her compliments
Shutterstock / hedgehog94

According to Ribarsky, research varies on which love language is the most popular.

In 2010, Chapman actually conducted an analysis to address this question, using the responses from 10,000 people who took the online quiz on the official love languages website, HuffPost reported. It was a close race, but words of affirmation beat out quality time by 3 percent (23 percent versus 20 percent, respectively), followed by acts of service (20 percent), physical touch (19 percent), and receiving gifts (18 percent).

However, research conducted by the dating site Hinge in 2018 found different results, with quality time ranking as the most common love language among its users. As Elite Daily reported, quality time was popular among both men and women—and it was selected twice as often as words of affirmation, which was the runner-up.

What kinds of criticisms exist about the five love languages?

Romantic moment: Happy couple in love in the bed - Stock image

As with many things, not everyone is a huge proponent of love languages. In fact, experts have a few critiques of Chapman's approach.

"First, Chapman used little empirical evidence to come up with these love languages," Ribarsky says, referring to scientific evidence gathered from "systematic observations."

For his part, Chapman hasn't claimed that his approach was steeped in science, having developed the love languages concept while counseling couples at his Baptist church, Vox reported earlier this year.

Other researchers believe that Chapman's approach is "too simplistic," Ribarsky says, essentially "putting people into boxes." Vox actually equated the categories to the simplicity of Harry Potter "Hogwarts houses."

Manly adds that researchers also haven't found a correlation between integrating love languages and higher relationship satisfaction either—and some can't feel as if it is "steeped in misogyny and exclusionary concepts."

As Vox elaborated, the couples that Chapman counseled on the '80s and '90s were largely white, heterosexual Christian couples in which the wife stayed home while the husband went out to work and provide. While this doesn't mean love languages cannot be applied to same-sex or other relationships, critics take issue with the fact that the book doesn't address them.

It's also important to consider any underlying traumas or other issues that exist in relationships that could render love languages unable to "foster long-term shifts," Manly says.

Still, when used correctly, both Manly and Ribarksy feel the five love languages can be a helpful tool.

"The wise use of this concept—as an adjunct to fostering overall healthy relationship dynamics—can help couples feel more attuned to each other," Manly concludes.

Abby Reinhard
Abby Reinhard is a Senior Editor at Best Life, covering daily news and keeping readers up to date on the latest style advice, travel destinations, and Hollywood happenings. Read more