Updated: May 29, 2020
The idea of “love languages,” or that some people express love in different ways than others, has in some form or another been around forever. however, if you’re hearing it mentioned today it probably refers to the 1992 book “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman. Chapman’s book is great at laying out the basic concepts of five love languages, although very much too religious and a little too heteronormative for my taste. Knowing your and your partners’ primary and secondary love languages can help you teach them to show you love in a way you ‘read’ easily, as well as recognizing when they’re trying to show love but not “translating” it for you- and vice versa.
The five love languages, as outlined in the theory, are:
Words of Affirmation
Acts of Service
Quality Time; and
I don’t think that’s the book order- it’s been a couple years since I read it- but those are the big concepts. Some examples of things that “do it” for words of affirmation folks (Like me) are:
Love notes (or even just notes at all) left around to find or mailed
Texts to say when they’re missed or you’re proud of them
Literal words of affirmation- saying out loud that you love them, that they did a good job on x, that y is wonderful about them.
Examples for acts of service:
Doing the dishes without being asked
Picking up their dry cleaning on your way over for date night
Doing anything that makes their day easier- those first two both work best if you live in the same place or preplan with them, but “the little things” that can be invisible or taken for granted are often biggest for this love language.
For physical touch, remember that it doesn’t innately mean sexual touch! It could, but it also sometimes means:
Touching legs sitting next to each other
Cuddling to watch a tv show
Ruffling their hair if they like that
Quality Time is mostly in the name, but a little bit in the interpretation: what does YOUR definition about quality time mean compared to theirs? Is family time quality time? Friend time? Or only alone time? Does it depend what the activity is? For some people, coworking is quality time where for others that feels like being ignored.
Receiving Gifts is also very much in the interpretation. As someone who a) doesn’t have this as a love language; and b) has guilt feelings around needing to reciprocate gifts, I have a really hard time when this is a partner’s love language. But a friend explained it to me this way: “Receiving Gifts as a love language means we think little physical tokens mean ‘I thought of you’ and that physical embodiment of the thought, no matter how small or grand it is, is how we reassure ourselves relationships are strong.” So ways to scratch that itch for someone whose love language is Receiving gifts include:
Grabbing their favorite foods or treats at the store, for your house or theirs
Knowing their brand of soap or shampoo and adding it to your shower once they sleep over or shower there often enough
Grabbing them something that made you think of them, whether it’s a trinket when you’re on a business trip or seaglass when you were on a beach walk with your kids
Buying something they’ll like if you see it on sale
Not missing a greeting card at least for “present holidays
Being gracious when they go all out for those
Now that we’ve got those basics out of the way, how that all applies to polyamory. Most of us are fluent in one or two of these love languages. If we’re really lucky our partners share fluency in those; we never have to wonder why they can’t just tell us we made a great dinner (or make us a great dinner; or hold our hand across the table during a great dinner; or know our comfort foods to make them as a great dinner for us)- but some of us are going to have to notice a disconnect (especially once NRE wears off) and have to figure out the ways we and our partners express these feelings and adjust.
If you search “love languages quiz” you’ll find a dozen, and I don’t know that any of them are more accurate than the others- but if you read those categories and actions and still aren’t sure, take a “longer” quiz it’ll give better and wider ranging examples- whereas if you’re pretty clear on yours but are having trouble figuring out a partner’s the length is probably not a big deal.
The place where polyamory becomes complicated for this is that every person you add to your personal network (and if you’re especially kitchen table polyamorous and trying to keep in mind the preferences of your metamours, too) you add the possibility of someone whose language you need to learn, or who might need some lessons on yours, and you might not be particularly good at that “translation.” I consider conversations about that “translation” or what gets lost in translation to be a make-or-break relationship conversation, where my partner doesn’t want to talk about the abstract of it at all. He wants a list of things you want (and if they’re vague he wants specific reminders when you actually want them), and he will deliver on every single one, ethusiastically, to the best of his ability. So he struggles with dating people with different love languages than him, because he perceives it as “requiring a lot of mind reading,” where I see it as needing a couple conversations and a couple “language lessons.” So, for him, things that match his style anyway and don’t need a lot of instruction work best, and for me, willingness to have more of those “language lessons” if it doesn’t match is what I need. Even if I’m not mother tongue fluent in my partners’ languages, I need to get conversant or the relationship builds a lot of resentment at my “lack of effort” or “lack of appreciation.” So far, I haven’t managed that with someone whose primary language is gift-giving and gift-receiving - I wrote you all a few extra tips up there because I’m trying to get my friends who have that as primary to help me get to “conversant” before I happen upon someone I really like, who I can’t meet expectations with when NRE wears off because I don’t “speak” gifts.
I’ve met a lot of people who have their own first and second love languages and “speak” a third pretty well, and this makes it feel totally manageable to be poly AF - they feel like the poly winners, Grade A examples of How To Polyamory, and then they fall in love (entirely, head over heels, ‘known you in every life soulmates’ within a couple months love) with someone who they realize they need to learn something entirely new for. Every little note and gesture you attempt, every gift tucked in a bag before they leave, that was joyful when things were new, is… background noise, now. And they don’t give the same things back. They say they love you, and there was a lot of passion to start, but you’re worried that maybe this wasn’t real. You can’t see that they make the bed up before they leave; that your coffee is left on the burner for you when they’ve got to go to work early; that they say in a dreamy voice how nice it was to just see you tonight. You’re giving gifts and words of affirmation, when all they need is quality time and the acts of service they’re giving back. Sometimes you learn a new language from that process, and sometimes both of you end up feeling underappreciated until someone decides to leave. The latter is sad, but very real.
Your own personal experiences will always vary, but consider learning what your love languages are so if that challenge comes up, you’re ready to talk about it and see if it was just hot-burning NRE and not much more, or a deeper connection held back by misunderstanding.