Relationships are fragile, malleable, amorphous things that we too often take for granted and can always use more love and work. No matter how rock-solid a relationship with a partner, a friend or a sibling feels, consider how that same relationship looked two years ago and imagine what it would look like if you moved to another country and barely talked or if one of you fell ill.
We often shy away from the idea that relationships are fragile, taking comfort in the image of an indestructible connection. But doing this can lead to disappointment and take away the beauty that comes from impermanence. It can also lure us into a place of stagnation and laziness, where putting dedicated and intentional work into a relationship isn’t prioritized as it should be. A good place to begin when trying to improve or work on a relationship is to consider what each of you needs. The five love languages can help you start this process.
Gary Chapman wrote a book titled The Five Love Languages in 1992, primarily talking about how spouses can improve their marriages. Since then, Chapman’s documented “love languages” have been expanded on and applied to relationships other than marriage,to describe the ways a given person is most able to feel or communicate love, either through sharing or receiving it.
Square-one of working on a relationship is often acknowledging that you have one, that it is an entity between you and someone else that can change and be improved. Once you have done this, it becomes easier to conceptualize and establish the best ways to show love and support to one another, which is where the five love languages can come in.
One of the most common love languages is “words of affirmation:” simply telling a person that you love them, affirming your connection, and lifting them up or reaffirming their value as a human being with your words. "Words of affirmation" can include compliments, but this "love language" extends beyond mere compliments to encompass a more intentional and loving method of communication. Examples include, “I love you,” “You’re important to me" and “You are a wonderful human being” but of course should be catered to the person in question.
Another incredibly common love language, “physical touch” shows love through a communal agreement to share space. It is most effective when the act of “leaning” or “holding” transcends the physical so that a person feels they are being emotionally, mentally or spiritually "held" because of the physical touch. For some people this manifests as a desire to shake hands or hug people they meet, for others it is the opposite: they are not comfortable touching people unless they already have an established relationship, both are examples utilizing the love language. Examples include hugs, holding hands and putting an arm around someone.
Quality time demonstrates care through an act of prioritization. With a limited number of hours in a day, taking time to talk, sit or play with another person can be a powerful way to show love. This is easy to see in all types of relationships, from parents taking time to play with their children, to partners taking time to hear about one another's days. Examples include coffee dates, concentrated phone conversations and walks.
The most stereotypically maternal love language, acts of service are easy to overlook or take for granted. Like quality time, they show incredible love through the dedication of time. Acts of service also involve great foresight and thought, indicating a person is thinking about the other and their relationship, even when they are not together. Examples include packing someone a lunch, bringing someone coffee and sending a letter.
Similar to acts of service, gift-giving shows love through the materialization of thought. By giving a gift, someone is communicating that they were thinking about the other person and want them to have something physical that signifies some element, time or piece of their relationship. Examples include bringing back a thoughtful souvenir from a trip, giving a book that has some import and buying something spontaneously due to some shared significance.
"Words of affirmation" are an especially important and relevant love language when you are working on a relationship because they can be woven into all interactions. How many times have you heard that communication is the most important part of a relationship? Words of affirmation take this a step further by ensuring that your communication is not only present but intentional and effective for raising the other person up. There will always be times when vastly different types of communication will be important in a relationship — in silly enactments, serious disagreements or traumatic experiences — but words of affirmation can, and should, have a place in all of them. See below for a list of examples, broken into categories. The more time you spend intentionally weaving these phrases into your everyday vocabulary, the more natural it will become.
Go into every conversation or interaction with a person with whom you are building a relationship, remembering that the way the other person hears what you say, may not be the way you intended it to come across, and impressions stick more strongly than intentions. Remember, whatever you are trying to communicate, that your priority should be the other person’s well-being, overexpressing a certain opinion or getting the answer to a question as quickly as possible.
Different people take words of affirmation differently and need to shape and plan words of affirmation to make them effective. While being asked, “How are you doing?” may feel very good and affirming for one person, it may stress another out. If someone you are in a relationship with is putting effort into communicating with you, but the methods they are using aren’t affirming, it can be your turn to communicate in a conscious way that perhaps together, the two of you could come up with some different strategies. Like all the love languages, words of affirmation are only effective if used in an intentional way that is catered to each of your preferences.
The way you receive words of affirmation and communication about your communication (meta I know), is of utmost importance if you are building a relationship. This is not the same thing as unwanted compliments or advances by someone you don’t know or someone with whom you are not interested in building a relationship. We all have limited capacity and time in our lives and must be intentional about our relationships. This can be a difficult conversation to have, so be honest about your intentions (or lack thereof), communicating that perhaps you already don’t have enough time to work on the relationships you already have established in your life. Be clear if you are not interested in building a relationship with someone, and listen if someone communicates this with you. In both cases, move onto the relationships you do care about building.
Presumably, you are in a relationship with someone because you care about them, and you are dedicated to putting labor into your relationships because you are reading this article. In addition to the tenacity that is necessary to work on relationships, the most important element — and the linking force that brings all these love languages together — is kindness.
Cliché and unhelpful as it may seem, kindness and dedication build more strong relationships than anything else. Challenging one another, disagreeing with one another, making one another laugh, communicating with one another, having fun together, intellectually spurring one another on...all of these things are important, but if they aren’t accompanied by kindness, they won’t build a sustainable relationship of any kind.