By far, the trickiest question I received last year in my psychiatric office was… “What’s love?” followed by… “How do I know if I love or not?” A psychiatrist is not usually prepared for this kind of psychological, spiritual, even philosophical questions, but nevertheless I had to answer something. Being presented with one of the toughest questions of humanity, I was challenged in a way that was both surprising and difficult; people have struggled with the answer and there are many opinions available, depending on the perspective one uses. So, thoroughly answering to this question is impossible.
First, I would say that love has an emotional quality. And emotions are hard or impossible to explain, both orally and in written words. You feel something or you don’t feel something, but you can’t say exactly why you feel it, how you feel it or what you feel. Emotions are notoriously difficult to express with words. They can be better conveyed through art – music, painting, sculpture, dance, etc. I can create images using words (by playing with your imagination), but a better image is created by drawing or by music composition, for instance. So, I was powerless to explain what love is; each description using words is like an indirect glimpse into something that can’t be directly experienced (at least for me, as a predominantly rational being). So, love can be attested only indirectly, by looking at the behavior generated by it, just like you see in the image of this article: I know that there is love only by looking at my behavior or other people’s behavior, just like looking back through the mirror of my car. Maybe other people can experience love directly and can explain it better or through metaphors, but I can’t and I doubt I will ever be able to explain it better in the future.
The second question is much easier to answer, and in fact someone did it fairly well before me – Gary Chapman in its book, The Five Love Languages. This author explains very well how can one recognize love or, to be precise, what are those ways through which love is expressed in behavior (we can’t know what a person feels, because we aren’t in her head, but we can see what that person does, namely her behavior). Those ways are called by the author “languages of love”, and each of us often speaks one or two languages. I read the book some years ago and it’s an accessible book for the general public, widely translated in many countries. Later, the same author has published more books about the languages of children and of excuses, but I admit I read only the original book. Below I will speak about the five languages of love, but be aware that there are several “dialects” and reading the original book could be a good idea.
The first language of love is the language of time. I personally speak this language. My time – the time of my life – or my life itself – is offered to the ones I love. To put it more precisely, it’s the language of the time spent. If I don’t care about you, I ignore you and I don’t spend my life with you. “Being with” is the keyword. “Being with” is not something theoretical, like being in the same room while I watch TV or play video games. “Being with” is something active, when I actively listen to you, when “I am there for you”, when “you have my entire attention”. Not only attention, but also my feedback; this means that I’m not only passively listening to you, but while doing this I also actively search for a solution, for an encouraging word or I support you in other ways through my very presence. The language of time is less spoken, as far as I could see during my lifetime. I remember I used to come to Cluj-Napoca from France and, during the 3 days of psychotherapy training (I was returning back to Romania during weekends for that training), I was also seeing as many friends as possible (often 8 or 9), sleeping only a couple of hours per night. I did that because online chat was impersonal and I cared a lot about my friends and wanted to see them… in person. That is, to spend time with them…
The second language of love is the language of services. This is the language of my family. It’s about what I do for others, it’s about the things I create or make happen for you. I solve problems, I pay for you, I talk to others so as to help you, I even come and do physical work for you, I bring stuff, I do gardening, I repair stuff, etc. Love is expressed through action, concrete action. This is a rather common language but many people can’t recognize it as a language of love. I rarely tell others that I love them, I don’t like to make or receive gifts, but I do stuff for them. People who work together silently for their families obviously speak this language.
The third language of love is the language of touch. It is a language I didn’t speak initially and it is still a mystery for me. It is the language of tactile sense, of physical touch, of sexual contact or of fondness commonly expressed through hugs or kisses. It involves touching others. In time, I learned to hug and kiss the people I love, so as to speak this language with those who understand it, although this is not really necessary for me, as I can express love in other ways.
The forth language of love is the language of declarations. It’s a language I dislike a lot. It involves telling to the other person that you love her, making declarations or affirmations, writing poems of love, etc. A huge number of persons believe what they are being told. That is why politicians are being elected… “I promise you eternal love!” “You are the love of my heart!” “You are the most beautiful!” “Mirror, mirror, am I the most beautiful of all? Yes, you are, my love, my sweetheart!” “You are forever my queen and I am forever your humble servant!” I guess you get the picture… It doesn’t really matter if you say the same thing at the same time to your wife/husband and to your secret lover… it must be love… certainly love it is… Personally, I distrust this language of love because I was betrayed several times early in my childhood by family members and later by lovers, so I heavily distrust declarations. But, if someone needs to be told “I love you”, I will straightforwardly do it now (after several years of psychotherapy).
The last language of love is the language of gifts. It is a wide spoken language. It involves giving flowers, material gifts like… you name it… regardless of their value. A true speaker of gifts language can value a simple origami made by me out of a simple piece of paper. The language of gifts is quite peculiar for me personally. Why on earth do I need to give someone something material so as to communicate a subtle emotion?! Well, many people need this as a sign of love. With an amount of effort, one can learn this language and speak it… if needed be. As a particular situation, some people can give as a gift their own presence. This is however different from the gift of time; it’s not about “being with” but about “just being (t)here”. A gift language speaker will value the pure presence of someone under the same roof (“oh, they came to visit us!”) as opposed to a time language speaker who values human interaction (“He came, he stayed 3 days, and we didn’t really have the time to speak about important things, about those things that matter to me. I felt so lonely and so little understood…”).
I could have made a simple lecture about languages of love but I preferred to make a rather personal article… with personal preferences and examples. It would have been boring otherwise (language of time), not really helpful without examples (language of services).
The languages of love have little implications in psychiatry, but it’s a good start for any patient (or person) who wants to know more about emotions and behavior. It’s also rather benign as therapeutic approach. So I recommended it several times in the past and I still presently suggest it. On a personal side now, working as a psychiatrist helps me a lot, as I have the opportunity to speak my main languages with my patients. Psychiatry means providing services (language of services) for my patients (guidance, medication, education), while psychotherapy and counseling (and partially psychiatry) deals with what I internally call “the time when souls touch each other” or “the encounter with both the other and myself”, this being an opportunity to use the language of time. The language of touch is dangerous in medicine in general, but in psychotherapy there are “psychotherapeutic hugs” with intelligent persons who understand the difference between a healing touch and a sexual offense. The language of gifts is widely spoken in a country where bribery (corruption) is the norm (and normality), but I take pleasure into menacing with police everyone willing to give me something I don’t need or want. However, while being personal development trainer for a short while, I gave small symbolical gifts to the participants, as ways to anchor their decisions or insights. In my current practice, giving an appointment paper card written by my own hand is sometimes seen as a gift, especially when it is me and not some other person who writes that. On the other hand, the language of declarations is something I need to constantly perfect, as I am not naturally inspiring for other people. Psychiatry and psychotherapy is a lot about charisma, about giving almost hypnotic suggestions aimed at healing, is about inspiring trust in medication and in my competence, is about being able to retain patients in a therapeutic relationship. I am still being notoriously bad at surrounding myself with people, especially because I am unskilled at flattering and praising others in the wide-spoken language of declarations.
“How do I know if I love someone?” Identify the language or languages of love you currently speak! Then, you will probably know how to tell if you love someone or not (or if that person loves you or not). And more, you’ll not only know that you love that person, but also know how to love her. Or how to let her know you love her.