The Love Languages Are All Attention

a long-haired chihuahua sitting in a basket
Image by Yolanda / CC BY

I was teaching a class a while back on an unrelated topic when a student interjected with an observation. The Love Languages framework is arguably one of the most popular and widely understood relationship models these days (and I write about it myself from time to time), so it was no surprise when they brought it up.

They mentioned studying the framework and said that their love language was sex and that their partner’s was attention.

Now, neither Sex nor Attention are one of the 5 Love Languages per se, at least not going by the official framework, which are:

  1. Words of Affirmation – saying loving things, giving compliments, praising a partner for accomplishments or attributes
  2. Quality Time – spending time together, doing stuff and interacting, especially participating with your partner in activities that they personally enjoy
  3. Gifts – gift-giving, and not just on birthdays or holidays
  4. Acts of Service – being helpful to the person you love (could include cooking, doing chores, fixing things, etc.)
  5. Physical Touch – any form of physical contact, can span the entire gamut from a nonsexual hug or massage all the way up to sexual acts

So I quickly translated the student’s statement. Sex was rather straightforward to sort — because it’s really a subset of Physical Touch. And I’d had a lot of personal experience with it.

My primary love language is Words of Affirmation, but my secondary is Physical Touch. My husband has a different primary love language (Acts of Service) but shares the same secondary love language with me, Physical Touch.

However, we tend to differ in the way that we feel loved. My sense of feeling loved via Physical Touch seems to lean more sexual, where he can easily feel loved via cuddling.

So I instantly felt like I grasped what this student meant when they said that their Love Language was Sex. Physical Touch with a sexual bent.

The description of their partner was a bit more perplexing, however. I wanted to think of it as Quality Time, because it seemed the closest to that category. But it wasn’t quite right.

It didn’t really matter, however, since that part of their comment was actually pretty tangential, removed from the main point they were making. The question they were asking.

But over the next several weeks, I found myself thinking about Attention as a Love Language from time to time.

And one day it hit me, the reason I’ve having such a hard time saying exactly where Attention would fall in the Love Languages framework.

It’s because the Love Languages are all attention. Whether it’s via direct contact (touching someone, talking to someone, spending time with them) or more indirect evidence that you thought about them and their needs and took them into account (acts of service, gifts), at a basic level, it’s all bout attention.

Making Another Person Feel Loved Is About Paying Them the Right Kind of Attention

Making another person feel loved seems to be about paying them the right kind of attention in the right amounts at the right time.

The Love Languages framework is part of the first piece: The right kind of attention.

But as I mentioned in an earlier piece, it’s entirely easy to muck up even if you know your partner’s top love languages. Sometimes you’re bad at doing the things they like.

For example, I’ve dated plenty of people who weren’t naturally eloquent or good with words, so even knowing I was motivated by Words of Affirmation didn’t automatically make everything run smoothly.

Or, when it comes to my husband’s top love language Acts of Service, I’ve had to work very hard to learn a whole new set of cleaning skills because I’m not naturally tidy or good at housework (a result of being nomadic as a young person). Especially since I can’t do other things that might be helpful to him, like fixing cars or rewiring things around the house (don’t have the knowledge or experience to do that safely, although he’s taught me to do things like make shelves and fix a running toilet).

But I’m bad at Acts of Service. Well, other than being a good cook. I have that going for me at least.

Knowing Is Only Half the Battle

Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s extremely helpful to know other people’s love languages, as a jumping-off point towards figuring out the sorts of things you should be doing in order to help them be happy.

But does knowing someone’s love languages give you everything you need in order to really rock their world? No, not usually.

Even if you’re good at a person’s preferred Love Language, you’re still not in the clear. You have to give their preferred form of attention in the right amounts and at the right times, those final two requirements.

And you can make this mistake in either direction.

Underwhelming someone with a minimal effort simply just won’t do.

But there’s also a risk sometimes of doing something too much, to the point where you annoy someone or freak them out (especially if your efforts seem inauthentic or manipulative). And there’s also a risk of relying too much on the rare grand gesture and not properly maintaining a stream of smaller but more frequent gestures (or vice versa, some people need grand gestures).

How Do You Pay the Right Kind of Attention?

If this sounds tricky to you, there’s a reason: It really can be.

And while books and frameworks might provide helpful conversational starting points, there’s no formula that’s going to lead you to perfect execution.

Learning how to make your partners feel loved isn’t a cipher that’s cracked with a decoder ring. Instead, it’s a process. Of paying attention to them, reaching out, asking them what they like, what they crave, trying things, seeing how they react, and adjusting.

It involves trial and error, difficult conversations, respect, vulnerability, effort — and most importantly, attention. To your own actions, to your partners, to their reactions, to their actions, to their words, to their feelings, to their needs.

To pay the right kind of attention, you need to start simply by paying any attention at all. It might not be the right kind of attention at first. Few people have that sort of luck. But even the “wrong attention” can reveal lessons, if you’re open to them. If you can let what you notice guide you, even wrong attention can eventually lead you onto the right path.

The most important parts are staying curious and engaged — and paying attention.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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