Reflecting on Valentine’s Day is a good opportunity to think about how we express love…and how we might be missing the mark. Modeling for our children how to effectively communicate love can be one of the most important gifts we give them. It also may not be as straightforward as you might think.
A pop quiz: Which of the following gestures by your child will most communicate love to his grandfather?
a. Giving him a kiss on the cheek
b. Saying thank you unsolicited
c. Asking to spend special time alone together with him
d. Clearing the table without being asked
e. Making him a valentine
Answer: it entirely depends on the grandpa. During a recent visit with family I discovered how poorly I had interpreted this in my own extended family, but in doing so was given an opportunity to improve. While any of the items in the list above will probably be well received, there will be dramatic differences in the strength of that reaction between people. Simply put, we each have our preferences as to how love is expressed. While you as a parent may have put tremendous effort into making a special visit with grandparents across the country happen, it may be that this effort is barely noticed, while the hurt from a missed “thank you” from your child lingers. Understandably, we make assumptions about what matters to others based on what matters to us, sometimes with damaging results.
These different ways of expressing love are called “The Five Love Languages” by Dr. Gary Chapman who identified five distinct ways that individuals receive love, as a way of helping us communicate better with those around us. As parents, we express love to our children, and also teach our children how to express love. It is one of the most important social skills any individual can learn. Thus, we need to be careful about making assumptions. Recognizing differences are an important first step. The five categories identified by Dr. Chapman are, in no particular order, and with my own jargon and twist:
- Physical affection: This is love expressed through touch, in all its loving and most appropriate forms. The touch honors what the receiver enjoys, and so depending on the person can include hugs, foot rubs, snuggling, brushing hair, etc. Between spouses it can have a sexual component. It communicates, “Your physical being is loved and accepted by me. You matter enough to me that I want to bring you pleasure.”
- Words of affirmation: This includes “I love you”s, “thank you”’s, and complements from the heart, including both spoken and written. They communicate “You matter enough to me that I will speak my truth to you even if it makes me vulnerable. I am willing be explicit in my love for you.”
- Quality time: This is love expressed by showing up and being fully present for a person. It includes really listening, making eye contact, and prioritizing time spent together. It communicates, “You are worth my time, the most precious thing there is. I want to be with you.”
- Acts of service: This love language is expressed when we do things for each other that are particularly helpful or needed, especially when they are not enjoyable tasks. They communicate, “I see what you need. You matter enough to me to be worth my best effort.”
- Symbolic objects and gestures: these include thoughtful gifts (even found objects, if truly meaningful), and acts that have meaning such as showing up for a funeral or wedding, cooking a delicious meal, or throwing a surprise party. The thing all of these have in common is that they communicate, “I see you. You matter enough to me that I notice what you like and what is important to you.”
Love languages and children
Dr. Chapman points out that we don’t know how our children will best receive love, and when they are babies we do it all: we hug and kiss them, we do things for them, we give them things, we spend time with them, and we tell them how special they are. As they get older, we generally emphasize one or another, based on our own love language preferences. This can cause serious misunderstandings in the parent-child relationship. Imagine the following:
“My dad never says he loves me. I wonder if he cares about me at all.” (words of affirmation) Co-occurring with: “I work like a dog for that kid, and make sure he has absolutely everything he could ever want. How could he possibly wonder if I love him?” (acts of service, symbolic objects and gestures)
“My mom used to rub my back as I went to sleep. I guess I’m not so important to her these days.” (physical affection) Co-occurring with: “I come to every one of her games and no one cheers louder than me. How could she wonder if she’s important to me?” (quality time, words of affirmation)
What do we do? As with many conflicts in life, communication is the key. In this case, the communication will not all be verbal; notice how your child reacts to the things you do to express love, and how they may be asking for it. Does you child want to wrestle when he gets home from school? This may be a request for physical affection. Does he easily get jealous of attention paid to his sibling? Maybe he needs more quality time. Does she draw you lots of pictures? Symbolic objects and gestures are likely important to her.
Love languages and your spouse
One can easily see how misunderstandings about expressions of love can have serious consequences within a marriage. Even if there are other sources of stress or conflict, simply making sure that your spouse is feeling loved will go a long way toward creating peace and harmony in the home. Dr. Chapman recommends an exercise in which spouses take turns checking in with each other regarding their “love tank”; if it is not full, the other spouse does something from a pre-written list the other has prepared. Keep in mind that this is an emotional, rather than logical exercise. Only the recipient gets to determine how their love tank is doing. Further, any of the above languages offered in a resentful or begrudging spirit are not likely to have the desired effect.
On the other extreme, the more a love expression is offered without solicitation (e.g. doing a dreaded chore without being asked, an unexpected gift of a bouquet of flowers, a well-timed complement, etc.), the more powerful it is likely to be. Most of Dr. Chapman’s book and website is on the topic of marriage, and I strongly recommend both to anyone who suspects that the root of their marital discord lies in not feeling loved or not feeling “seen”. In my own experience, at the root of all of these ways of communicating love, as I have illustrated above, is that the recipient’s needs are being recognized and honored, whether they be physical, material, or psychological. Each can contribute to emotional well-being.
Final message I thought I had understood what mattered most to my father-in-law (quality time), but in putting effort there I had unwittingly neglected another (words of affirmation). Hugs are also important to him- know that most people appreciate all the love languages, but one or two may be paramount. My mistake was based on the fact that he never made a big deal of saying “you’re welcome” after being thanked, sometimes just mumbling a response. What this reminded me was that when you are dealing with an adult, it is always best to ask, rather than make assumptions. And if there is enough love and trust already there, you might be lucky enough that the other person is willing to say what they need. If there is a history of hurt, this may be the most difficult obstacle of all, given how painful it is to not have a need met after such a disclosure. Not providing love out of ignorance is very different than knowingly withholding or neglecting. In my case, I was lucky enough that my father-in-law told me that I hadn’t been thanking him enough (and having our son thank him enough) and that it hurt his feelings. It made him feel like he was being taken for granted. Further, he wanted me to talk to him on the phone more often. As with most love languages, the fix is simple but does take mindfulness and effort. But the deepening of relationship is certainly worth it, whether it be with an in-law, a parent, a child or a spouse.
Some may worry that their own needs or that of their loved-one or relative may be too vast to ever be satisfied; in fact, if there has
been a shortage of love in the right language there may be a certain level of neediness. But it is possible to fill the tank, especially if you have the right fuel. Consider the person who has been starved of food- they are much more likely to binge than someone fed consistently. Similarly, someone given vast amounts of celery may still feel hunger. That is, no amount of gifts will satiate a child who wants you to stop looking at your phone and really listen to them. He doesn’t need your attention 100% of the time, he just needs it regularly.
Once it is discovered which variety of love is desired by the heart and that love is made readily available, satiation at a reasonable level will be possible. For example, your physical affection-craving spouse will be unlikely to need a three-hour backrub to feel loved if they know that you will regularly offer a variety of forms of physical affection. The bottom line: Expression of love matters, in all its forms. May you be empowered to offer and receive without judgement.