We are all taught the Golden Rule as children, that we should treat others the way that we want to be treated. When we start new relationships, we often take this lesson with us, showing our partners love in the way that we want to be loved. However, each person is different, seeing the world through unique eyes and having their own individual needs, wants, and ways of giving and receiving love. How do we apply the Golden Rule when our partners don’t want to be treated the way we do? Enter the idea of love languages.
The idea of love languages first became part of relationship conversations in 1992, when Dr. Gary Chapman published his bestselling book The Five Love Languages. Drawing on his experiences counseling couples in his church, Chapman found patterns in how these couples attempted, and often failed, to connect. He condensed these patterns into five love languages, each illustrating a different method of seeking connection from our partners.
As love languages have become a common point in discussing relationships, the idea took on a life of its own. Soon, memes of “avocado toast is my love language” and the like filled the internet, and even Dr. Chapman himself wrote several spinoff books, targeting parents, military members, singles, and others. Through this game of telephone, one of the central ideas of love languages got lost: while knowing our own love languages is useful, the original purpose was to learn our partners’ love languages. The real revolution of love languages is recognizing that we all receive love differently, and that, in order for our partners to feel loved and appreciated, we have to learn to speak their language.
Of course, Dr. Chapman did not originally design love languages to be applied to ENM folks. Then again, very few relationship counselors have intended their theories to be applied to non-monogamous relationships, and a few (looking at you, Sue Johnson) have even specifically rejected the application of their perspectives to ENM relationships. Fortunately for us, there are plenty of lessons that can be learned, and adapted, from monocentric relationship models, and the five love languages is no exception. While I have no idea what Dr. Chapman would think of this column, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence, including my own relationships, where love languages have had a positive and long-lasting effect on communication and connection.
Physical touch is a love language that many in the ENM community are highly familiar with. From the lightest brush of fingers against skin to the most intense erotic encounters, making a physical connection with our partners is usually high on the list of love languages for non-monogamous folks. For some, a gentle, sensual touch communicates that their partner loves and appreciates them; for others, the strike of a paddle sends the same message. For those with physical touch as a love language, it isn’t enough to just touch them; it has to be the right touch.
For long distance partners, meeting physical touch needs can be challenging. As I talked about in my first column a few months ago, physical touch releases serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, all of which reduce stress and increase happiness. Distance (and social distancing) can prevent us from having regular physical contact with our partners, thus denying us these happy chemicals; fortunately, there are other means of getting the benefits of touch, including warm baths, masturbation, etc. If your long-distance (or socially distanced) partner needs physical touch, encourage them to engage in these activities, or set up a Zoom date to share the experience together!
For those whose primary love language is words of affirmation, distance is not an obstacle. Whether in person, by phone, or by text, we can all share with our partners the happy thoughts, praise, and recognition they crave. However, communication by distance has its own set of pitfalls that in-person communication rarely suffers from. Dropped conversations and long pauses can reinforce fears that someone isn’t interested in talking to them, and unclear or vague messages can be red flags for uncertainty in the relationship. Instead, keep your partner updated on your day and make sure you stay updated on theirs.
Acts of service is all about being supportive, in specific, tangible ways. Whether you are helping to wash the dishes, cooking your partner their favorite meal, or simply opening the door for them, showing love to someone who values acts of service is about putting forth the effort. Service can be another difficult love language to speak over distance, but there are ways to accomplish this, such as ordering a meal to be delivered to a busy partner or planning a surprise trip to visit them when travel is safe. No matter what, partners who value acts of service want to know that, whatever life throws at them, you will be right there with them.
Receiving gifts, as a love language, can seem pretty self-explanatory. However, there is a lot more to it than simply dispensing things to your partners. Because desiring gifts can sometimes be interpreted as selfish, many people who have receiving gifts as their love language may downplay or hide this fact. However, receiving of gifts isn’t about greed or monetary value; it is, in fact, the thought that counts. Small momentos, flowers, and other reminders that you are thinking of your partner are the most important things to share.
Quality time is often one of the hardest needs to satisfy in ENM relationships, not only because of having to coordinate schedules, but because the deepest fear of those who value quality time is that their partner would rather be somewhere else. Quality time isn’t just about being in the same room (although this can help); it’s about being present. Showing love to someone who values quality time is about making time for each other, shutting out distractions, and actively doing things together. I said making time, not finding time, for a reason: if your partner has quality time as their love language, spending time together has to be intentional and without excuses. If you can’t be there in person, set a Zoom meeting. If you have to cut a date short, reschedule it. Whatever you do, show your partner that you value time with them.
It’s very likely that your partners will not all have the same love languages as you, or each other, meaning each relationship connects in different ways. Likewise, your metamours will likely have different love languages from you, meaning your partners won’t connect with metamours in the same way they connect with you. These differences can often be the source of jealousy and conflict, but they can also be sources of mutual support and compersion. An example I like to give is one of my partners having receiving gifts as her love language, a language that I have always struggled to speak. One of her other partners, however, is quite fluent in giving meaningful, thoughtful gifts. Over time, I went from feeling uncomfortable that he spoke so much more fluently in that language than I did to recognizing that my partner’s life was enhanced through having that connection, even if it wasn’t with me.
No matter what love language(s) you personally speak, there are real benefits in learning to communicate in all of them. While each of us has one or two love languages that we most easily receive love and care from others in, every relationship is ultimately happiest when all five love languages are being spoken to some degree. Being fluent in the love languages helps us to communicate our own needs and desires, show our love and affection to all of our partners, and connect with new partners more readily. We all want to be loved and appreciated in our own ways, and this is how we should treat our partners. (See? The Golden Rule still applies.)