Breaking Free of the Love Languages

It’s time to rethink one of our most beloved mental models.

If you love love, you’ve definitely heard about the 5 love languages.

If you haven’t (and you… hate love, I guess?), open a new tab and do some research. I won’t be explaining the concept here.

There are a bunch of quizzes out there that supposedly determine which love language you “speak,” and I’ve been in too many conversations to count where the opening line has been “So what’s your love language?”

I don’t mean to sound exasperated — I’ve taken those quizzes and I’ve started those conversations. I generally like talking about the 5 love languages, particularly because I believe we as a society don’t openly discuss our emotions enough. What’s more, it can be really helpful to know how someone likes expressing and receiving affection, so it’s a great topic for a first date.

But there are two important points I’d like to make about the mental model of the 5 love languages. The first point is that the concept has a harmful potential to put people in boxes, and the second point is that the model is incomplete.

Maybe this isn’t all there is.

Generally, we should raise an eyebrow at anything (or anyone) that categorizes us, since we run the risk of being labeled too broadly.

Consider the Myers-Briggs types or the Hogwarts houses: they affix labels to us based on certain traits and attributes. Personally, I’m an ENTJ and a Gryffindor, and I think there’s a degree of truth in those labels, since I’m definitely outgoing at social events and I look fabulous in red and gold.

But the labels also obfuscate as much as they reveal.

Yes, I’m an extrovert, but I also need my time alone, taking my absurdly long showers and practicing piano and playing video games for hours on end. I secluded myself from society for an entire month just to listen to 100 audiobooks — what extrovert you know would do that?!

Similarly, I worry that someone labeled as an introvert by a random test online will then decline invitations to social gatherings on the grounds that they’re “just not that type of person.” Worse is when we do that to others, imposing our beliefs of what they supposedly are onto what they actually say or do (“Of course you want to stay home and study — you’re such an introvert”).

In the end, the extrovert/introvert divide is more of an illusion than anything else, since we all manifest both characteristics to varying degrees at different times in our lives with different people. The realization that the binary is misleading has led people to adopt the term “ambivert,” a label I happily accept because of its ambiguity and meaninglessness.

Labels like these tend to put us in boxes, but those labels are inaccurate and the boxes are constraining.

(As an aside, astrology deserves particular derision here because #1, it’s completely bogus, and #2, it’s unchangeable. At least if I get labeled as a Slytherin, I can work on the negative aspects of my personality and seek to better myself, but I can’t change my birth date. I find that particularly damning: the unalterable nature of horoscopes may lead people to feel resigned to their fates based on beliefs that are utterly nonsensical. And if you have Co-Star on your phone and you’re defending yourself right now by saying “Yeah, I check it, but of course I don’t believe in it — it’s just fun and silly,” consider that your validation of the practice subconsciously gives others permission to do the same, and they may not be so immune to the seduction of pseudoscience. Please, uninstall the app and stop feeding the beast.)

Returning to love, the 5 love languages can be useful, just as personality quizzes can be a useful vehicle to examine ourselves and introspect, but we shouldn’t place too much stock in them. I do believe that there’s a place for genuine (and even critical) investigation into the modes by which we express and receive affection, but we should be hesitant to label ourselves too readily. When we say “Oh, I’m a quality time person,” it sounds as if it’s a pronouncement from on high, when in reality, we are all much more multidimensional and multifaceted than that.

Additionally, there’s a pernicious corollary to the love language boxes that has the potential to create serious rifts and ruin relationships. Let’s say Alice and Bob are dating and Alice believes she’s an acts of service person while Bob believes he’s a physical touch person; they may start expecting the other to conform to their preferred method of expressing affection. This is not a recipe for a successful relationship. If we demand that our partners “meet us where we’re at,” we deny them their right to authentic self-expression, which will invariably lead to resentment and bitterness. Instead, we should maintain a level of flexibility and open-mindedness, accepting that people express affection in diverse ways and delighting in the experience of discovering those unique modes of expression.

One general rule of thumb I’ve found in love is that we are always more fluid than we think, and I believe that applies here. Yes, you may be a words of affirmation kinda gal, but I bet you love the feeling on your birthday when someone hands you a present with a big ribbon on it. Yes, you may not think you’re a words of affirmation kinda guy, but I’m sure you feel good when someone genuinely says that they like your smile.

Rather than labeling yourself with one or two love languages, acknowledge that all 5 are important and that you can inhabit them at different times with different people with different shades of intensity.

Treat your love languages not as hues that tint your world in one color, but as a palette you can choose from at will to create a kaleidoscopic portrait of your affection.

The issue of labels and their accompanying shift in expectation is dwarfed by the main issue I have with the 5 love languages:

THERE ARE MORE THAN JUST 5!

The model is woefully incomplete. We need to acknowledge that the 5 love languages aren’t robust enough for an earnest and precise conversation about the modes of demonstrating our love. There are ways of expressing affection that fall under none of the categories, and there are acts that defy categorization completely.

Let’s look at some hypothetical examples:

  • My partner makes me an origami crane. She comes to my place one year later and sees it on the mantelpiece.
  • I offhandedly mention that I love the book “All the Light We Cannot See.” A week later, I notice it on my partner’s Kindle.
  • I get a text from my partner that says “Thinking of you! 😄”
  • I get a text from my partner that says “Can’t wait to **** you later tonight! 😉”
  • I give my partner a $100 gift card to Massage Envy for her birthday.
  • I go on jogs with my partner, even though I hate jogging.
  • I’m playing Settlers of Catan with my partner and two other friends. I place the robber on a hex adjacent to all my opponents, but I don’t steal from my partner, even though I know she has the sheep I want. 🐑

In all of these cases, the affection expressed and received either crosses boundaries between the hallowed 5 or cannot be classified altogether. Consider the example of the sexy text: it combines words of affirmation with the arousal of touch; or the example of finding the book on the Kindle: it doesn’t fit neatly into any category, but taking an interest in our partner’s interests is clearly an act of care. Maybe the model should be updated to include 6, 7, or 100 languages — there are so many ways to love!

In some respects, though, these examples are all very similar. After spending more time reflecting on the love languages, I’ve come to the conclusion that seeking to add to the number of love languages is the wrong approach. Instead, I’ve tried to identify a quality that transcends (and perhaps even unites) the love languages — a characteristic that forms the basis of all acts of affection — and I’ve settled on a good contender: thoughtfulness.

Thoughtfulness is on display when we give a present to our partners that they didn’t even realize they wanted, but it’s also on display when we send our partners interesting TED talks that we think they would like.

Thoughtfulness is apparent when we cuddle with our partners until 3 in the morning, but it’s also apparent when we share our fantasies for what we want to do with one another the next night.

Thoughtfulness is evident when your partner leaves you alone so that you can write your Medium post, but it’s also evident when they read the post and strike up a conversation about it over dinner.

It seems to me that thoughtfulness is a necessary ingredient in all acts of love. Rather than being separate modes of affection, the 5 love languages are merely manifestations of an ethos of thoughtfulness. Instead of labeling ourselves as “fluent” in one love language above all others, we should focus on the universal grammar that is at the core of all 5, and indeed extends beyond the acts of affection that are easily characterized. In every instance of love that I can think of, it’s clear to me that being empathetic, compassionate, sensitive, and observant are fundamental qualities that contribute to an ethos of thoughtfulness, which in turn motivates all acts of affection.

Maybe it’s time to ditch the 5 love languages in favor of a broader, more inclusive approach to the different dimensions of thoughtfulness. After all, there are 7.8 billion people on this planet, so is it really likely that 5 languages will be sufficient to accurately reflect the innumerable ways in which we demonstrate our love? Each individual expresses thoughtfulness in a language as complex and unique as their own fingerprint, and we ought to celebrate the multitudinous ways in which we can share our love together!

Ultimately, there aren’t 5 love languages, there are 7.8 billion.

I’m approachable!