Learning the Languages of Love

UW Health Services

Health Psychology

Dr. Shilagh Mirgain offers tips to help you get out of your comfort zone.

Relationships are hard. Anyone who has had an argument with their spouse or partner over something like dirty dishes or the laundry knows that love isn't all red roses and chocolate.


Along with the good, we can find ourselves feeling hurt, frustrated or maybe even like the other person just doesn't care. Part of the issue may be due to the way we feel and express love.


Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, explains that in order to build healthy relationships, we need to regularly let people know we care about them and are grateful they are in our life. The problem is that we're often not very skilled at it. And we're not just talking romantic relationships. Whether the relationship is with a spouse, sibling, child, coworker or friend, it takes practice to develop the skill set that enables us to maintain healthy relationships of all kinds.

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"Gary Chapman developed the concept of 'love language,' which refers to the unique way that each of us feels that sense of being loved and appreciated," says Mirgain. "We each have a primary type and when we recognize our own, and that of those around us, we can more effectively connect with people."


The 5 Types of Love Languages


Chapman identified five types of "languages" and, like any language, with practice we can all learn to communicate within the different types.


Verbal Appreciation


Mirgain explains that people whose primary love language is "Verbal Appreciation" are those who feel and express love through words.


"These people light up when they hear words of affirmation, encouragement and appreciation. They want to hear regularly that they matter to you," notes Mirgain.


Whether it is a coworker or a spouse, if someone's primary language is Verbal Appreciation, share with them verbally and in writing what makes them special, both in who they are also what they do.


Some suggestions for interacting with these types of people include:

  • Encouraging them when they are struggling
  • Praising them for what they are doing well
  • Offering kind wishes for their well-being

Quality Time


Perhaps you've experienced the situation - you're talking to a friend and they seem distracted by texts or updates on their phone. It's easy to feel like they'd rather be somewhere else or that they just don't care. And for someone whose primary language is "Quality Time," that's exactly how it feels.


"The gift of your time and undivided attention are what make this person feel cared for. Choosing to spend time connecting means more than you ever can say or do to this person," says Mirgain.


Some reminders for interacting with this type of person include:

  • Regularly schedule time together
  • Participate in shared activities that explore their interests
  • When you're together, minimize distractions so your attention is focused on your time together

Shilagh on NBC-15

Dr. Mirgain was recently on NBC-15 to talk about love languages. Watch the interview

Meaningful Gifts


There's the phrase, "It's the thought that counts," and while that can sometimes be reserved for a gift that has missed its mark, for other people it's the only thing that matters.


"Those who fall within the "Meaningful Gifts" group thrive on the thoughtfulness and effort behind giving gifts and they view the gifts as tangible proof of your connection and care. Gifts are love made visible to this type of person," explains Mirgain.


Gifts can cost little or be hand-made because it isn't about the gift itself. Some ways you can be supportive of someone within this group include:

  • Listening to what they talk about, when you do, you will pick up on clues of what would be meaningful to the other person
  • Picking gifts that say "I care about you and I hope this gift enriches your life."



This category is best described as "Actions Speak Louder Than Words."


"Actions speak volumes for this group," comments Mirgain. "And when you break commitments or don't offer to help on tasks that can be a sign that you don't care about their needs."


Ways to be supportive of someone for whom Actions are his or her primary love language include:

  • Figuring out which chores or tasks the other person does not enjoy, finds overwhelming or needs help with and offer to do those things
  • Offering to "lighten the load" for the person

Physical Affection


The "Physical Affection" category is most often associated with love and intimate relationships, but it's not limited to just those connections.


"This is a group that feels loved and supported through physical contact with others," says Mirgain. "It creates a powerful sense of trust with others."


Dr. Mirgain at the DreamBank: March 3

When was the last time you laughed so hard your sides ached? If you can't remember, it's been too long. Laughter helps your physical and emotional well-being, but as adults we often take ourselves too seriously. Join Dr. Mirgain for a free talk: Laughter Really is the Best Medicine. Register online

While kissing or holding hands are obvious signs of affection, for friends within this category other ways to be supportive include:

  • Touching on the arm to show that you're engaged in the conversation and listening
  • Hugging

How to Communicate in Different "Languages"


When we're not speaking the same "language," it can often lead to hurt feelings. If one person demonstrates their affection by taking care of things, while the other person thrives on verbal appreciation there can be a significant disconnect.


"Often we make the mistake of giving to others in a way that we would actually like to receive, and it is not effective as it is not meaningful to the other person as it is not their love language," says Mirgain.


But, she suggests that we can become more fluent in expressing our caring in a way that the other person can receive. Like learning any language, it just takes a little bit of practice and self-awareness. If you're not sure of your own language, ask yourself a few questions.


"The language we often speak is the manner in which we would like to be loved," explains Mirgain. "Ask yourself, 'how do I typically express love and appreciation to others?'"


To try and discover the languages of those around you, pay attention to how they behave – does he often give gifts? Is she a 'touchy-feely' type person? You might also experiment with giving to others in all five different ways to discover their type.


"You will know you are onto something when the other person lights up and may even be more appreciative than normal," Mirgain says. "And when you take the time to discover the unique ways others express themselves and what they need to feel connected, your relationships will flourish and this makes for a very good and healthy life."


Read More by Dr. Mirgain

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Date Published: 02/12/2016

News tag(s):  wellnesswell-beingshilagh a mirgainhealthy minds

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