Acts of Solidarity: love languages, reimagined
I first heard about the Five Love Languages at a “Healthy Relationships” workshop at a trans leadership training in Los Angeles—and my mind was blown. It was 2013, Biff and I had been dating for two years, and I didn’t feel like he really cared about me because he never held my hand or kissed me in public. He never really told me he loved me in a way that felt specific or certain. Whenever I brought this up, he would always respond that he kept our house clean, cooked food for us every night, and let me sleep in on the weekends. Wasn’t that proof enough of his love?
In short, the Five Love Languages was a tool invented by fundamentalist Christian Gary Chapman in the 1990s to understand the different ways that each person gives and receives love. The tool suggests that there are five general categories in which people best show and accept love:
Gifts. If you’re someone who enjoys receiving a meaningful gift from a partner, or who enjoys carefully selecting presents for others, this one describes you. The first gift I ever got Biff was a small jewelry box with tickets to a Lady Gaga concert nestled inside. While I truly don’t care if I ever receive gifts from others, I love giving gifts. This is definitely one of the ways I show love to those around me.
Quality time. If you’re someone who feels distant from your partner when you don’t get to spend one-on-one time with them, this is probably your love language. Planning date nights, romantic getaways, and “Netflix and chill,” might mean more to you than getting a bunch of flowers, and you might get frustrated when your partner seems to spend more time on their phone than focusing on them. (High quantities of time laying in bed together while scrolling social media is not the same as high quality time together.)
Words of affirmation. If giving or receiving positive words makes you light up more than a moonlit dinner for two does, this is probably your love language. As someone who places words of affirmation high up on my list of love languages, I know for me these praises need to be specific. “I love the way you lead this family,” or “This dinner is so flavorful! How did you know to use this spice?!” packs so much more meaning than “I love you” or “Great dinner, hun!”
Acts of service. Do you show your love by doing a chore that makes your partner’s life easier? Do you feel loved when your partner does this in return? Cleaning a partner’s apartment while they’re out of town, walking their dog while they’re at work, or getting up early to feed the kids so they can sleep in are all practical examples of acts of service. I also put emotional labor into this category-- listening to your partner when they need it, getting the oil changed and handling the dental appointments-- these are all underappreciated acts of service that should be brought into the open.
Physical touch. Perhaps this is the most obvious love language, but physical touch isn’t just about sex and physical intimacy. It also means holding hands, hugging for no reason at all, or gently leaning on one another while waiting in line at the grocery store. For people who see physical touch as their primary love language, these simple physical connections can help carry them through hard conversations or make them feel more seen.
At the trans leadership event, I took the “What’s Your Love Language?” quiz alongside the other program participants and then rushed home that evening to share the results with Biff. We learned that Biff’s love languages were quality time and acts of service, and mine were physical touch and words of affirmation.This gave us a path forward: We spent the next few years learning to accept the ways in which we were naturally showing love to each other, while also trying to be more flexible in the ways we offered love to each other, so we were more in alignment with each other’s “languages.” I planned date nights instead of getting him a gift to mark special occasions, and I began to see that him cleaning our kitchen was like him gently squeezing my hand.
In other words, this tool gave us the language we needed to navigate and carry our relationship forward—but when I was hired by Agnes Scott University to run a “healthy relationships” workshop for their queer student union, the sexist, conservative, and heteronormative history of this tool gave me pause.
See, if you are queer, feminist, leftist, liberal, or even remotely critical of heteronormative, biblical definitions of relationships, you need to balance this helpful tool with the fact that Chapman’s writings are steeped in troubling assumptions about the (submissive) role of women and the (dominant) role of men in romantic relationships—which isn’t an easy feat.
I wasn’t sure what to do. On the one hand, I wanted to bring these students this tool that had helped me so much. On the other hand, the foundation of the love languages was far from anything relevant to their lives. The solution? Research. Which lead me to the discovery of this beautiful article that adds to a few critical additions to the original five.
The article makes a number of fantastic points, and I encourage you to take the time to read it. Specifically, it introduced me to the idea that the five love languages were always open to more inclusive, thoughtful reinterpretations.
Queering the Love Languages
The blogger from that article added acts of solidarity to the original list of five—based on the idea that “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.”
Where there is a mismatch of privilege and marginalization in a relationship, this language becomes particularly important. For example, I’m trans. Biff is not. He’s femme. I’m not. In our relationship, my idea of engaging in acts of solidarity meant engaging in proactive, meaningful methods of protecting and welcoming trans identities. Before Biff and I even met, he was a homeless services caseworker in Hollywood, writing a trans-inclusive policy that would go on to become the first statewide model for all shelters in California—not because he was forced to, or because he wanted to impress me (he didn’t even know me then!), but because it was the right thing to do.
Similarly, when I see sexism in our lives or our home, I step up and address it before he ever has to. And if I don’t notice, but he does, I believe him right away and back him up. Every time.
Acts of solidarity means husbands attending the women’s march. It means non-survivors working to pass laws to protect against sexual violence. It means white partners creating anti-racism working groups. It means able-bodied partners petitioning to get ramps installed in community buildings. It means taking on the responsibility to work through your own discomfort, defenses, or biases for the sake of making the world a better place for your partner.
In my relationship, the idea of acts of solidarity as a language led me to create my own seventh love language: self-work. How can working on yourself translate to expressing love for your partner? On an Instagram post, I wrote:
“...As Riley becomes a man, I hope he learns that you can love your body without needing to possess others’. You can appreciate the beauty in the world and find it in yourself. You can seek to be nurtured and show gentleness in return. You can love yourself and take care of yourself and nourish yourself, and in so doing, become someone others don’t have to fix. You can be a whole, complete person eager to make others’ lives easier—to lessen their burdens and lean on them when needed.”
By committing to fixing ourselves—going to therapy to deal with our anger issues, doing yoga so we’re more comfortable recognizing and voicing our bodies’ wants and needs, listening when our partner says something isn’t working and then actively trying to fix the issues they raised—we’re taking the responsibility off of our partners’ shoulders and putting it back where it belongs. On us.
Anyone who has heard me tell any stories about my relationship with Biff has heard the story about the root canal. In a nutshell: I got a root canal early in our relationship, and I was snippy with Biff on the phone when he called me right after. That evening, he told me that I couldn’t lose my temper with him. Ever. I could be frustrated and have a bad day, but I needed to learn how to communicate that without being mean—and if I couldn’t do that, we were done.
Biff grew up in a home saturated by fights, physical and emotional abuse, drugs, and alcohol. He vowed to never replicate those dynamics in his own home when he became an adult, and while that made sense to me, I still protested. Wasn’t I allowed to have a bad day? Couldn’t he just be patient with me and try to help me figure out why I was so upset?
No, he said. Go to a therapist for that.
So I did.
I listened. I accommodated his needs.
Self-work as a love language means healing our wounds so we’re not bleeding on people who didn’t cut us.
Throwing out the baby with the bathwater
Good ideas can come from problematic places. Gary Chapman isn’t a friend to the LGBTQ+ community. But his idea has helped me grow and develop my queer relationship into a loving, accepting, supportive LGBTQ+ family—and by learning how to balance the love languages’ problematic start with new, inclusive perspectives, I’ve been able to expand my understanding of how this tool can be incorporated into my own life (and the lives of the people I train).
Like we do with other imperfect things, you have to renovate. Dig deeper, do research, reflect, explore, and eventually create something that fits exactly what you didn’t know you needed.