Against Love Languages

by Ben Pace 2 min read29th Dec 20179 comments


The other day, a friend on facebook shared a post on love languages and asked their friends what their's were. I said that this did not fit my ontology for affection in a deep romantic relationship, and when someone asked me what ontoloy I used, I gave this short response (copied here so I can link people to it in the future).

Background: the notion of love languages is that there's five main ways humans express affection, and they are

  • gift giving,
  • quality time
  • words of affirmation
  • acts of service (devotion)
  • and physical touch

The reason this is useful to think about (according to the wikipedia summary of the book) is that

[P]eople tend to naturally give love in the way that they prefer to receive love, and better communication between couples can be accomplished when one can demonstrate caring to the other person in the love language the recipient understands. An example would be if a husband's love language is acts of service, he may be confused when he does the laundry for his wife and she doesn't perceive that as an act of love, viewing it as simply performing household duties, because the love language she comprehends is words of affirmation (verbal affirmation that he loves her). She may try to use what she values, words of affirmation, to express her love to him, which he would not value as much as she does. If she understands his love language and mows the lawn for him, he perceives it in his love language as an act of expressing her love for him; likewise, if he tells her he loves her, she values that as an act of love.

My comment is below.

It often seems to me like the seemingly important things people say in relationships, even good relationships, are the sorts of things you could say in any relationship. "It was really great to see you" "Let's do this again sometime" "Tell me about your day" "I love you".

Alternatively, the compliments I most enjoy giving and receiving, are the ones that could only be said to that person. To pull an example from my recent life, I'd moved into a place for ~3 months, and was leaving to return to university. I gave someone the following goodbye (I'll pretend their name is John):

"Hey John, when I found out I'd be living with you for 3 months, I was initially disappointed. I remembered you from meeting you during my CFAR workshop as someone who had a chipper act all the time, and had a faux enthusiasm for trying out new ideas for better epistemology and productivity. However, for the past 3 months, you've been that person day-in-day-out, and I realise it's not an act at all - you're genuinely enthusiastic about new ideas and are a really fun guy to be around. I'm looking forward to coming back and seeing you in a couple of months."

I think they said it was one of the favourite goodbye's they'd had.

At other times in my life, I've seen people disagree for hours before coming to understand each other. Getting an accurate model of how someone thinks and really feeling what it's like to be them from the inside, is a difficult and time-intensive task, but one of the things I want most in a close relationship is to be understood.

This summer just gone, I was hanging out with a different person, and they said to me "Huh, I've just noticed Ben that I feel safe and happy talking to you right now, yet you've totally disagreed with everything I've said. That's really cool, I don't find this experience with many other people." This made me feel very seen, because on gut, S1 level it's definitely something I optimise for, but I'd never really put it into words before, and nobody else had noticed (or at least told me) either. I felt a *strong* affection for the friend.

The reason the ontology feels wrong is that the example I gave above was, I suppose, 'words of affirmation', but if someone gave me a wordless gift/act of service, I might feel it too, if I felt understood and seen in a way that rarely happens. Relatively, the other things don't matter too much to me. Being seen and understood is my love language, and are the things that cause the most natural affection for me.