Becoming fluent in love languages

“Don’t give her any attention. That’s all she wants.”

“He’s such an attention hound. Just ignore him.”

I’ve heard countless variations on the same theme my whole life, especially during my teenage years. There’s something in us that wants to withhold things from people who crave them too much — at least, what we consider to be too much.

But then I came across the concept of love languages, and it occurred to me that I (and others) have been trying to starve people of the thing they craved most: love. By avoiding their love languages, I was withholding love as they experience it.

There was the kid that was always hanging around that we’d ditch whenever we could. His love language was time and we were doing our best to starve him of it.

There was the friend who was always offering part of his lunch and the other who shared things and never asked for them back. Their love language was gift-giving. But did I offer anything back to them? You guessed it. I felt the strings that were attached: I’ve given something to you, so you should give something to me.

And that incredibly helpful friend who never asked for help himself? His love language was service. But did I ever pitch in to help him out? Nope.

One of my sons is always leaning against me. Or at least it feels like he’s always doing it. I’ll be sitting in a chair and he’ll come behind me and lean against my back and neck. It’s not comfortable, so I’ll shrug him off. Or at least, I used to. Now that I’ve become aware that touch is his love language, I have him come around the chair and sit on my lap. It doesn’t matter that he’s 13 and right in the thick of middle school, he gladly sits on my lap. He’s also the only one of my four kids who will hold my hand — even in public.

But there is this thing in us that senses the love languages of others and tries to foil them instead of feed them. Why is that?

I think it’s this. For our whole lives, we have wanted certain expressions of love — gifts, service, time, recognition, touch — but we haven’t gotten what we wanted. So, we do what we can to get it. If we’re hungry enough, we’ll steal in order to eat. So, we manipulate to get what we want if others don’t give it to us freely. We give gifts in order to get gifts. We serve in order to be served. We take all the time anyone will ever spend with us. We applaud others in hopes of being applauded ourselves. We become aggressive huggers and arm touchers and greedy lovers to get the touch we want.

The problem, of course, is that we become takers and manipulators, trying to get others into giving us what we think we want. But what we really want is love, not the expressions of love we try to get from others. The problem is that we’ve gotten mixed up the expression of love and love itself. And we’ve gotten grabby in the process, setting up situations to give us what we crave.

When my wife and I realized that the son I mentioned before is touch-oriented, all sorts of things started falling into place. He’s the one who offers back rubs. When sitting next to me in church, he’ll lean close and run my bald head (which is pretty wonderful, since I’m a touch guy, too). And on it goes. And we realized, too, how often we’d both shrugged him off when we’d felt suffocated by him. That hurt, discovering that we’d been avoiding giving him the very thing that spoke love to him. So, we started making a conscious effort to recognize and fulfill his unspoken requests for love through touch.

When he has a bad day at school — he’s in middle school, so there are a lot of them — he does the kick-the-dog thing with his younger brother, treating his brother like the kids at school had treated him. For years, we’d gotten mad at him and punished him. But when we realized what his love language is, we started asking him to come and snuggle on the sofa or having him sit down for a back rub. Something touch oriented. And amazingly, it works! He settles down so quickly. After a day of not feeling very loved, we’re giving him the love he craves in the way he receives it best.

It’s brought me to the conclusion that we all should become experts at the love languages of those closest to us. Our immediate family. Our friends. Even our neighbors. (OK. The touch thing may sound creepy with a neighbor, but there are all kinds of non-creepy ways to share a touch.)

The first thing is simply taking the time to figure out what each other’s love languages are. There are plenty of books and quizzes to help out with that. Gary Chapman, who well deserves the mint he’s made on his The 5 Love Languages book, has a good test on his website. You can take it for yourself or for your child. It’s free, so what’s stopping you?

Once you know what your loved ones’ love languages are, try speaking it on a regular basis through small expressions. Don’t shoot for the moon. You don’t want to burn yourself out on this. You want to grow into it, increasing your awareness of the things that speak love and becoming more fluent in communicating it.

And, finally, communicate with those closest to you what your love languages are. It’ll give them the chance to speak love to you in the ways you best receive it. And that means you won’t have to do so much grabbing for love yourself.

Wouldn’t it be great if you and those you love were experts in each other’s love languages?