You may have heard of the Five Love Languages before. And you may have initially felt some twinge of recognition and then had that followed up with a gut feeling (or gut screaming) that it wasn’t developed for someone like you. It could be the overt heteronormativity and sexist questions, or the Christian underpinnings. Seems like such a shame, since there is some goodness there.
The topic came up today in a group chat of amazing women I’m lucky enough to be a part of and a couple of us remarked that it really needed to be reworked to reflect more people’s experiences. One additional love language struck me and was met with the online equivalent of knowing nods so I thought maybe there was something to this. My friend C suggested I crowdsource other additional love languages which was an excellent suggestion.
One of the things that I think is sorely missing from Chapman’s understanding/definitions of love languages is an understanding of power, trauma, and emotional labour. Full disclosure: I have read his website, I haven’t read his books and so my analysis is of the Love Languages as I understand them and would like to suggest they be reworked rather than a deep dive of Chapman’s work.
The Original Five
Physical Touch is understood as things like holding hands, cuddling, etc. I’ve seen it both include and not include sex which, I think, is a great opportunity to expand the understanding of Physical Touch to include folks who are not interested in sex for any number of reasons (asexuality, low desire, trauma, illness, medications, body dysmorphia, gender dysphoria, hormonal shifts, etc). Some things to be mindful of for those whose primary love language is physical touch are the cultural expectations we have around physical intimacy, especially sexual intimacy, and how it may be difficult for people to verbalize if physical touch is either low on their list of priorities or downright unwelcome.
Quality Time is about giving the other person your undivided attention. At least, that’s what Chapman says. I think it’s bigger than that. How many people feel great comfort and contentment sitting quietly with their loved one as they each read or play video games or knit or whatever else? I think quality time is a place where expectations of–and inequitable performance of–emotional labour is a strong possibility and must be skillfully navigated and negotiated. For example, I am someone who will often run errands with people to keep them company. To me, I consider it to be both quality time and emotional labour, since I am essentially doing it to provide support and company during a boring and perhaps stressful situation–and because accompanying someone returning sheets at The Bay is no one’s idea of fun.
Words of Affirmation are the “I love yous,” the “you’re incredibles,” the “I’m so glad to have yous.” Mismatches here seem to especially cause friction and feelings of being loved inadequately. If you, for whatever reason (culture, family, personal wiring), feel loved by being told how loved you are, no amount of gifts or acts of service are going to make you feel loved in the way that “I love you” will. For people who don’t express (or receive) love through words of affirmation it seems hard to understand why others do. “Of course I love you–I’m here, aren’t I?” “Of course I love you, I went to Ikea with you on a Saturday!” “Of course I love you, that’s why I always give you back rubs.”
I have a gut feeling that words of affirmation may be somewhat gendered, regardless of the gender make-up of a coupling (or thrupling, polycule, etc). My sense is that women and femmes are allowed to express love and care verbally in a way that men and masc folks are often punished for. Additionally, while an equitable performance of emotional labour is no doubt the desired outcome, I think words of affirmation and recognition of emotional labour would be a real start–it’s not just the inequitable distribution of it, it’s the sense of entitlement that’s revealed by the failure to recognize it and express gratitude for it.
Receiving Gifts is sometimes derided. I’ve seen people say that it’s their primary love language and then promptly express guilt for that fact, fearing it makes them shallow or materialistic. In a consumeristic culture it makes a lot of sense to me that a lot of people feel loved by receiving gifts. But I don’t want that to seem like a criticism. There are a heck of a lot of reasons for receiving gifts to feel loving–it means the person was thinking of you; especially if it’s the perfect gift, it means they really know you; it’s a physical symbol of their care; if you are living anywhere on the spectrum from broke to poor it can feel (or be!) life-saving to receive certain kinds of gifts. Similarly, if they are financially strapped but still manage to get you something, or if they make something from scratch, those can feel like immense acts of love.
Acts of Service are, to me, the most tied up with emotional labour (not coincidentally it’s my primary love language both for expressing and receiving love). They are the things we do to lessen the burden of those we care about–picking up take-out when they’re sick, helping them move, making gf cookies when they find out they’re celiac, doing the dishes even though it’s their turn, etc. I have a dear friend (hi!) who promised herself that when she got a car she would be the kind of person who drives people home, no matter how out of the way. I am someone who primarily buses and bikes, so hopping on a bus is rarely ever a hardship for me. But it is such a clear way that she expresses care and love to those in her life that it turns getting home twenty minutes earlier into feeling loved.
The reason it’s so tied up with emotional labour, to me, is that it involves so much of the mental calculus that women and femmes are taught to do, and men and masc folks are taught to expect to have done for them. It’s not just the washing of the dishes on an off-night, it’s being aware of that person’s schedule for the week, their mood, their energy level, how their day went, that their favourite TV show is on tonight, and that they’re massively PMSing. It’s not “Yeah, tell me you need me to vacuum” it’s realizing that vacuuming needs to happen, that it’s something your roommate normally does, and deciding you’ll do it so they have one less thing on their plate.
So those are the initial Five Love Languages, expanded and made less heteronormative (seriously y’all, I just took the quiz again and it expressly talks about my male partner based solely on the fact that I inputted my gender as female–one of only two choices), with some added commentary but surely there are pieces I’m missing and I would love to hear your thoughts on the initial Five and how they can be expanded or understood in ways that more clearly reflect your experiences of the world.
Next are proposed additional languages. The first is my proposal, the following are from generous folks on my personal Facebook page who shared their thoughts.
Acts of Solidarity and Belief
In relationships of mixed levels of privilege and marginalization, this is the love language that I so often see mismatched. One person wants to be seen and believed and backed up, while the other is blithely oblivious to this language (and need). When one person is marginalized and the other is privileged, a fundamental part of feeling loved for that marginalized person is having their partner 100% on their side. This means, for men in relationship with women, believing without reservation their partner’s/loved ones’ experiences and understandings of misogyny and sexism and having their backs–calling out their friends’ sexist jokes; pointing out their brother’s tendency to mansplain; examining how they assert their male privilege in this most intimate relationship. For white people in relationship with people of colour, this means trusting and believing their partner’s/loved ones’ experiences and understandings of racism; not getting in their feelings or getting defensive when their privilege is pointed out; holding their family members and friends to account when they something overtly or covertly racist; debriefing their feelings about losing friendships with racist white people with other white people; and so on. This same responsibility occurs wherever mismatched levels of marginalization/privilege occur–with cis and trans folk, with monosexual (e.g. gay, lesbian) and bi/pansexual folks (a heck of a lot of erasure happens for bi folks regardless of the gender of their partner), with able-bodied and disabled folks/folks with disabilities, with wealthy and poor folks, and so on.
A big part of why this is so hard is the insidious nature of privilege–if I’m not directly impacted by it, it’s awfully easy to think it doesn’t exist, or it’s terribly exaggerated. There are entire systems (and billions of dollars) devoted to making sure that we don’t question the undeserved advantages we have. There are countries and cultures built on the foundation of patriarchy and colonization and white supremacy. It takes deliberate and concerted work to unlearn these things.
But all that unlearning starts with the simple decision to believe people when they tell you they have been harmed. We can all start there.
Acts of Emotional Labour
Acts of emotional labour was suggested by my friend V, who pointed out that it likely overlaps with other love languages but can also be understood as its own language. A quick and dirty definition of emotional labour, courtesy of Jess Zimmerman:
Emotional labor has followed the same path. We are told frequently that women are more intuitive, more empathetic, more innately willing and able to offer succor and advice. How convenient that this cultural construct gives men an excuse to be emotionally lazy. How convenient that it casts feelings-based work as “an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depths of our female character.”
I can tell you that, along with acts of service, the main way I show my care and love is through emotional labour. I can also tell you that unrecognized and unreciprocated emotional labour is the quickest way to poison a relationship with me (and I have heard similar from a lot of women).
I could talk about emotional labour for days but instead you should check out the condensed version of the Metafilter thread that emerged in response to Zimmerman’s above-linked article. It’s incredible.
But some quick examples of ways that emotional labour play out in relationships, especially mixed gender relationships: meal planning, chore-planning, maintaining relationships on your partner’s behalf (e.g. checking in with and planning get togethers with their mother, sister, cousins, etc), sending birthday cards, making dentist/doctor/therapist appointments, being their main–or only–outlet for processing feelings, soothing them, reassuring them, doing the bulk of domestic chores, doing the bulk of child-raising, taking the lead on parent-teacher issues, and on and on and on.
There is often a high requirement for emotional labour when someone is trying to develop their Acts of Solidarity and Belief love language–helping them understand and process something that has been your lived experience; dealing with their cognitive dissonance and lashing out in response to said cognitive dissonance; holding space for their anguish as they recognize their complicity; soothing their guilt at past actions and current failures of allyship; swallowing your own rage/heartbreak/trauma in the face of these things. This swallowing of rage/heartbreak/trauma is often not just an attempt to not make your loved one defensive, but also a response to toxic stereotypes (for example, tamping your emotions down lest you be a “hysterical” woman or, for black women specifically, an “angry black woman”)–that have either been internalized or have such a toxic effect that you contort yourself to avoid the fallout of others’ failure to see past them.
Here’s an invoice I mocked up in jest (I mean, mostly in just) after spending literally hours performing education and emotional labour for a friend of a friend who purports to be an ally.
It’s also the inequity of ranting about your day/life for two hours then, as you’re parting/going to bed/arriving at your destination saying “and how are you?”
Commitment to Personal Healing and Growth
This one comes from my friend, K, who ties it to imbalanced emotional intelligence. Self-help/personal development is notably a feminine/feminized pursuit. It is expected that women and femmes will better ourselves–whether we’re talking about useful things like therapy or harmful things like attempting to diet ourselves to oblivion–and thus, I guess, relationships improve because women get their shit together. Or figure out how to cope with the fact that their relationships are inequitable. That’s what we need! Just more coping strategies, not equal commitment to healing from a toxic culture and growing into our potential! It is also expected that other marginalized folks will contort themselves around their loved ones’ inabilities to unlearn and be better–how often are people of colour expected to patiently wait while their white loved ones slowly, slowly, slowly start to recognize the white supremacist threads embedded in the fabric of everything? How often are queer folks expected to let their humanity be questioned in the face of their parents’ religiously-based intolerance?
The fact of life is that our culture is toxic and oppressive. It takes real work to unlearn the foundational beliefs of this culture–and to take that unlearning beyond theory and into our intimate relationships. This means learning how to healthily experience difficult emotions, how to respectfully navigate conflict, how to become comfortable with discomfort because that is where we grow and learn. It also means getting the support and doing the hard work of healing whatever wounds your past has caused–whether that is therapy, strengthening boundaries, removing toxic people from your life, healing the attachment wounds from childhood, therapy, finding healthier coping strategies, challenging the messages about gender you received growing up, therapy, did I mention therapy?
Now, there are undoubtedly other potential love languages and ways to understand the initial five, but those are my suggestions (gratefully made with the input of friends). I welcome suggestions and thoughts from anyone who has them.
Before I sign off, I want to highlight an important distinction where mismatched marginalization/privilege is concerned.
There is a substantial, harmful, and potentially relationship-ending difference between mismatched love languages that result in feeling not-loved-enough or inadequately-loved (e.g. I need words of affirmation, you give physical touch) and the betrayal of unattended-to power differentials. This is the betrayal of your partner/friend/family member not acting in solidarity and belief where your lived experiences of oppression are concerned. This is the betrayal of unrecognized and highly unequal performance of emotional labour. This is the betrayal of stagnation while your partner goes to therapy, reads self-help books, ups their self-care game, all in the hopes of salvaging your relationship.
These acts of betrayal are nearly impossible to get over and require immense work on the part of the betrayer to not only profoundly change their behaviour, but to understand why it was a betrayal in the first place.