Translating Love Languages to Love Signals
During a sunny drive down a windy mountain pass laced with half-burnt pine trees, my best friend gently prodded a moment of reflection, "What's your primary love language?"
I hemmed and hawed a non-answer. "You mean to give or to receive? Also, it really depends on where I'm at with my wife at any given moment ..." From the phoenix's fire of the underbrush, seeds of a whole new love model began to sprout.
There is an intuitive resonance to the concept of "Love Languages" - the idea that every person has a native tongue for expressing and hearing (receiving) affection. The idea was first developed by Gary Chapman, a Southern Baptist pastor and marriage counselor, and published in his now famous book The Five Love Languages.
Based on his decades of couples counseling experience, Chapman suggested there are 5 love languages:
- Words of Affirmation
- Quality Time
- Acts of Service
- Physical Touch
Love Languages are a compelling idea - clearly, it's a now ubiquitous term in modern American discourse - but I also find there are significant drawbacks to this model of relating.
This innocuous conversation starter from my best friend turned into a 3 day deep dive on the contours and mechanics of each love language. We covered a lot of ground together and this writeup is where I’ve landed (for now).
Why the metaphor of love "language"?
Now that I see the world through the lens of metaphor magic, I start my inquiry at the foundational framing of "language" because that informs how we relate to every downstream concept.
The purpose of language is to transmit personal meaning in a societally shared, structured format. In the worst case, my meaning doesn't make sense and that can (but doesn't have to) result in frustration and disconnect. In the best case, my personal meaning is bridged by understanding then cascades into personal meaning for you. When we speak the same language, understanding and connection are easier and more accessible. When we speak completely different languages, this becomes much harder.
In that sense, the `Love as a Language` metaphor of highlights that people speak different languages with varying degrees of fluency. It can be hard to generate understanding and shared meaning when two people don't speak the same language. This metaphor also focuses on our "first language" native propensity as well as our ability to learn new languages.
Languages also have vocabulary, grammar, syntax, dialects, prose, poetry, and a variety of other concepts that can conceivably be extended from the `Love as a Language` metaphor. It's been a while since I read Chapman's book, but I don't remember much expansion of the metaphor beyond "Learn to speak each other's languages".
For whatever it's worth, Chapman also offers a secondary metaphor of `Love as a Container`, the "Love Tank", which can be emptied or filled. I find this metaphor to be much more problematic but that's a post for another time.
Where the language metaphor breaks
To have another language is to have another soul. - Charlemagne
I love the beauty and majesty of language, so on a very basic level the idea of Love Languages has a compelling resonance to me.
To serve Chapman's purpose of bridging marital conflict, the metaphor `Love as a Language` is useful - learn your partner's language and you stand a better chance of understanding and connecting with them. Presumably, this improves the chances of staying together.
Since publishing, however, Love Languages has proven useful in many more contexts. Beyond bridging conflict, the framing of language has some notable downsides. First and foremost, I can only speak one language at any given moment in time. Perhaps I can splice languages - Spanglish was a staple where I grew up - but any given word transmits meaning on one language at a time.
When thinking of love, it's valuable to transmit care and affection on multiple channels at once. In my relationship, quality time often happens at the exact same time as physical touch. How can I be "speaking" two love languages simultaneously?
Another downside of the language framing is that most people only speak 1 or 2 languages. Learning new languages can be perceived as difficult or cumbersome and can cause friction.
Yet another limitation is the concept of languages locks us into a static assessment of our capacity and function of transmitting care. In the best-case scenario, I'm on a never-ending journey of exploring ever more nuanced and rich ways of expressing my care and devotion. Do most people feel similarly about exploring the depth of their expressive capacity in language? Aspirational writers, perhaps, but that feels too exclusive for the vast majority.
Most concerning of all is that transmitting care and affection feels much more dynamic than the reductive love languages. When quality time isn't sufficiently expressed, physical intimacy and gifts can take on a very different flavor. And the same could be true for other combinations. It seems the various categories of expressing love need to co-exist in a balanced portfolio, but the concept of "balancing languages" doesn't make any sense whatsoever.
For me, the upside of `Love as a Language` doesn't hold up to the downsides that are subtly implied with the language metaphor.
For now, I'm noodling on `Love as a Signal` as a new expression of this metaphor. Each "love language" could be a "love signal". Instead of "speaking different languages" we could be "on different channels" or "missing the other's signals". This also opens up valuable extensions to
- turning the dial to someone's channel (easier and less friction than learning a language)
- multi-channel signaling
- signal vs. noise
- signal volume
- exploring new signals by layering existing ones
- deconstructing signals into constituent compositions
- transcending signal to music (with all the extensions of tonic notes, harmonies, and so much more)
I haven't done a full deep dive on this metaphor design yet, and I warmly welcome your reflections on `Love as a Signal` or any other metaphor for transmitting love that works well for you.
Acts of Service are a type of Gift
Acts of Service are often defined as something that makes life easier or eases stress for our partners. Think paying the bills, changing the car oil, or making a loved one's favorite beverage in the morning.
Gifts are often thought of as physical items, and I believe that's the angle Chapman takes with his "visual symbols of love". The problem is that this definition creates artificial boundaries that do not serve.
For example, if I cook a lovely dinner for my partner as a date night, is that an act of service or a gift? Technically, the meal is a physical item that is an expression of love, but it also makes life easier because my partner doesn't have to prepare a meal that evening. There are elements of quality time mixed in there as well.
Or what if I gift my partner an experience, such as a weekend getaway, a massage, or a coaching session with a cherished teacher? Or what about the gift of taking the kids away for a day so mom can have some quiet time? There is no physical item or visual symbol per se, but these still feel decidedly like gifts.
Merriam Webster defines gift as "something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation". With this definition we can imagine gifting much more expansively to include transferring time, energy, space, calm, physical items, experiences, and so much more.
Seen from this angle, an act of service is truly a gift in that it is a voluntary transfer of effort, attention, tasks, and sometimes money from one person to another. Sure, it's a gift with a particular flavor, but that doesn't make it any less of a gift.
Quality Time and Physical Touch are types of Connection
Similar to the collapsing of Acts of Service into Gifts, I find Quality Time and Physical Touch to be different flavors of Connection.
Quality Time is oriented around realtime connection in shared space with presence. My partner has my complete and undivided focus and attention.
Physical Touch is oriented around connecting through one specific sensory experience. This includes, but is far from limited to, physical intimacy.
But there are so many more flavors of connection that are not bound to time or touch. Just a few examples:
- Asynchronous intellectual stimulation (like reading a partner's newsletter)
- Adventures (like camping or traveling)
- Sharing new experiences (like taking a cooking class or a hot air balloon ride)
- Spiritual inquiry (like attending a ritual or ceremony together)
- Creative collaborations (like making music together)
- Mission-driven efforts (like volunteering or donating)
- Athletic activities (like running, biking, swimming, or team sports)
- Caretaking (for children, aging parents, pets, or any other life forms)
- Stewardship (of land or lineages)
This is a quick list and I'm sure there are dozens more I haven't even thought of yet. I understand that Connection feels more amorphous, but I think much is gained by having a more expansive and inclusive concept.
The shadow of Words of Affirmation is too dark
Every love language has a shadow side, but I find the darkness of Words of Affirmation to be too destructive to even include as such in the list.
When we seek words of affirmation from others, we are externalizing our sense of self-worth. If I don't feel complete without you telling me I'm doing a good job or I'm handsome, then on some basic level I am granting you control of defining my quality or my level of attraction. This is a festering breeding ground for negative self-talk in boundless dimensions, and I don't associate that with love at all.
Put even more bluntly, if I have a partner that needs me to tell her that she's beautiful, I am actively doing her a disservice by feeding into that need. Instead, I would be a much more caring and loving partner if I could support her journey to realize that she is beautiful on her own terms so that no one could ever convince her otherwise (with or without affirmations).
Don't get me wrong, I like getting genuine compliments - but I don't need them. In the best case scenario, I have fully internalized my sense of self-worth and any lack of positive messaging (or even actively negative messaging) does not make me feel any lesser than.
There is absolutely something beautiful in the experience of being appreciated, seen, and fully understood. But that's decidedly different from being affirmed.
Also, we can be appreciated with much more than just words. A warm embrace, a beaming smile, a flirty wink - each of these can express a greater depth of beauty lurking behind "affirmation" than ever possible with words alone.
So without "words" or "affirmation", this love language dissolves for me.
What's missing from love languages
If a language is meant to transmit meaning and understanding, there are three dimensions I find very lacking: trust, safety, and vulnerability.
For me to receive any signal of love, I have to trust you. Of course, trust is a spectrum - I can somewhat trust you - and it is a multi-dimensional - I can trust you with the finances, but not with my emotions.
That said, a lack of trust is a poison in the well of love that will taint any signal. If I am questioning your motives, gifts may feel more ugly than loving. If I don't trust you with my body, as is often the case with victims of physical violence, physical touch is not loving at all. If I don't trust you to be present, promises of quality time can breed more resentment than love.
And even if I mostly trusted my partner in most dimensions, I could still feel unsafe in one or more directions. If we lack financial security and that stresses me out, a lavish gift could feel more insulting than loving. If I have PTSD from a car crash, quality time spent at go kart racing could be more excruciating than connecting.
For my and my partner's love to reach its fullest and most beautiful expression, we must both be vulnerable with each other. Feeling trust and safety are necessary but insufficient conditions for vulnerability - I can have both, and it's much more possible for me to open up, but still feel incapable of vulnerability (for a multitude of rational and irrational reasons).
I'm not sure if these are love languages as such, but any discussion of communicating love that doesn't bring up trust, safety, or vulnerability is lacking critical dimensions that will limit the usefulness of the model.
A humble Love Language translation to Love Signals
From my current vantage point, I offer the following reframe of the Love Language framework.
The 4 Love Signals
- Connection - an expression of resonant relating
- Gifts - an expression of thoughtful generosity
- Understanding - an expression of considerate appreciation
- Safety - an expression of vulnerable trust
Each Love Signal has multiple dimensions to explore internally, and even more to explore in limitless combinations with the other Love Signals.
Each Love Signal can have a clean or dirty transmission. Even when transmitted clearly, it can be transmitted on a different channel than our partner is currently tuned in to.
Each Love Signal is complete in its own way and is also part of a larger whole.
When our Love Signal equalizer board is balanced for the current concert of life, we experience harmonious love of untold beauty.
Ultimately, love is such an abstract and complex concept that no one metaphor or framework will ever cover all the necessary ground.
Does the concept of “Love Signals” resonate with you? What fits or doesn’t fit how you experience offering and receiving love?
And to answer my dear friend's question:
- The Love Signal I've explored and mapped the most is Connection, both offering and receiving.
- The Love Signal I am clumsiest with is Understanding, especially outside my default channel.
- The Love Signal I've been focused on most recently is Safety, especially for offering