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If you want to know why you do the things you do, you might look to your zodiac sign. For intel about your social tendencies, maybe your Myers-Briggs personality. But for understanding what makes you feel special in a relationship? Well, that's one for love languages.
If you've read up on anything related to relationships and romance, like, ever, there's a good chance you've come across Gary Chapman's 5 Love Languages at some point in your research (or, okay, at girls night).
A quick rundown: Chapman argues that there are five general ways that people may give or receive love, a.k.a. the five love languages. These languages are: words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, acts of service, and gifts. If compliments make you melt, your love language is probably words of affirmation. If you thrive on the thoughtfulness behind a present, receiving/giving gifts is most likely yours. Look forward to dinners for two all weeklong? That's quality time. And if you're all about holding hands or you feel most connected during sex, you probably speak the language of physical touch.
The language that tends to get a bad rap (aside from receiving gifts, which isn't about materialism, btw), however, is acts of service. It describes people whose hearts swell at the thought of coming home to dinner on the table with the promise of an empty sink or a foot rub for dessert. If this sounds like you, you feel most loved when people do things for you, not just with you or to you.
But here's the thing: The acts of service love language doesn't make you a high-maintenance or lazy nag. All it means is that, for you, actions truly speak louder than words.
What does it mean if 'acts of service' is my love language?
At its core, this language is about demonstrations of love.
Since saying "I love you" doesn't actually guarantee that the speaker means it, some people respond better to seeing someone show their feelings, says Beverly Palmer, PhD, a clinical psychologist, professor emeritus at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and author of Love Demystified.
That's exactly what makes you respond to this language: If someone can recognize all that you do on your own and wants to step in to help make your life a little easier, that, to you, is real love. It's actually less about the deed itself and more about your S.O. showing you that they're on your team.
All the different love languages basically explain how you prefer your partner to show their love for you and vice versa. So through doing acts of service, your partner is showing you that they care about you, they appreciate you, and they want to connect with you, says Jennifer Seip, LMFT, a couples and sex therapist based in Philadelphia and the founder of Be Well Therapy Group.
For example, if your partner goes out of their way to pick your sister up from the airport, or calls the realtor so you don't have to, you hear "I care about you enough to sacrifice my own time for your benefit." And that's not something you find every day.
How do I know if acts of service is my love language?
If you feel most loved and cared for when your S.O. takes on a task so you have one less thing on your plate, then there’s a good chance that acts of service is your love language.
Another way to figure out your love language is by paying attention to how you show love to others. You can actually suss out someone’s love language by looking at what they do for you, explains Seip. If you notice that your partner often picks up the trash or refills your water glass when they see it’s empty, that could be their way of showing you that they feel most cared for when people do little things like that for them, and they would like you to reciprocate those small, but meaningful, actions.
Another way to tell if acts of service is your love language is by thinking back to how your parents showed you love as a child. Often, your love language translates to what your major attachment figures did for you, says Seip. For example, if your parents would always have your favorite breakfast ready for you in the morning or would fold your laundry for you so you didn’t have to, you might have learned to show love through acts of service, which, in turn, became your love language.
What are some examples of acts of service?
If you or your S.O.'s love language is acts of service, here are a few examples of ways to show your love, according to experts:
Refill their glass when empty.
Let them sleep in while you get the kids ready for school or walk the dog, so they can get a few extra minutes of rest.
Prepare them a nice meal or randomly take them out to a nice restaurant, so they don’t have to cook when they get home.
Do the dishes and/or help with other household chores without them asking.
Unpack their suitcase after a long work trip so it’s one less thing they have to worry about.
Nurse them back to health when they’re feeling sick.
Offer to give them a massage when they’re feeling stressed or sore.
Run errands for them.
Figure out the logistics of a vacation so they don’t have to.
Plan a get-together with their closest friends and family to celebrate a birthday or other achievement.
Which love languages are most compatible with acts of service?
You've established that your love language is acts of service, and now, you want to know which of the five love languages you’re most compatible with. Well, no surprise here: Acts of service is compatible with acts of service (obvi).
But another love language that is compatible with acts of service is gifts—giving or receiving. Gift-giving is similar to acts of service in its thoughtfulness. With both gifts and acts of service, you have to really think about what the other person might like or what they might want you to do or get for them, says Seip.
And although it’s often believed that people can only have one love language, most actually have one or two main ones, says Seip. Think of the five love languages as existing on a spectrum. Acts of service might be your primary love language, but you may also like to give or receive love through another language, like quality time.
"The love languages are great because they are essentially guides for how to become close with a partner," explains Seip. As guides, they’re a great foundation for connecting with an S.O., but they also offer some wiggle room for showing love in other ways if you and your partner aren’t exactly "compatible."
Is acts of service ever a bad thing?
Okay, brace yourself: The acts of service love language can be a little problematic if you're not super self-aware.
While every relationship should be about balance, where both partners get their needs equally met, having this particular love language could make you more susceptible to letting expectations get in the way of an otherwise happy and healthy situation. In other words, if you think your partner should be doing X or Y for you, rather than letting them choose how to show their support, you could self-sabotage your bond.
"Unbalanced relationships where one person expects too much and thinks their partner must meet those expectations to prove that they love them" is when things get tricky, Palmer says. No one wants a relationship that comes with a list of chores.
Think about it: At work, you'd be put off by a new employee who feels like they're entitled to certain things before they've even shown their commitment to the company. Similarly, your partner should feel like their demonstrations of love are reciprocated and their choice, at their will—not your demand.
Watch this to learn more about the five love languages:
So if this is my love language, how do I make a relationship work?
Communication, communication, oh, and um, some more communication.
When acts of service are involved, there’s no room for assumptions, says Palmer. Assuming your S.O. knows which acts of service you value most and expecting them to perform them at all is a surefire way to make your partner feel taken advantage of.
So here's how to be straightforward without demanding anything in return:
Clearly tell your partner which acts of service you value. This way they can prioritize those actions, Palmer says. Frame it in a way that explains why their help means something to you, like: "I haven't been getting much sleep lately—would you mind walking the dog in the morning so I can sleep in a little longer?"
If you have a hard time expressing your needs, talking to a therapist can help you feel more comfortable doing so. Either way, if you prefer to be more subtle, try telling your partner about a time a friend or family member did something for you that meant a lot to you, suggests Palmer.
Acknowledge what your partner's doing—say thank you. It sounds duh, but especially in if you've been together for a while, you may not notice some of the things they're doing to show you you're their number one. So to ensure they never feel taken for granted, after you talk through which acts of service are major for you, keep an eye out for when they actually do them (or something similar). Say: "Hey, I noticed you picked up the dry-cleaning today while I was stuck at work. I'm going to need those pants this week, so thank you so much for doing that."
Expect your partner to read your mind. While, yeah, it’s the thought that counts, if certain actions will make you feel especially warm and fuzzy inside, speak up.
Scoff at no. Remember, acts of service really lose their meaning if they're not at your partner's will. So be okay with hearing "Sorry, I can't right now," and trust that if they could, they would. If you feel like they're always turning down your needs, it may be a good opportunity to visit a couples counselor. Communication is everything, after all.
Fully rely on your partner to pick up your slack. Even if your partner has your back, keep up with your own responsibilities so they can live their life, too. Dumping your daily tasks on them, Palmer says, is a one-way ticket to Splitsville.
What if acts of service is my partner's love language?
Similarly to how you would make the relationship work if this were your love language, here are some tips if it’s your S.O.’s language:
Ask them which acts of service they value. Don’t try to read their mind (exhausting!). Instead, simply ask your partner in what areas of their life they would like some assistance and how you can help them with these tasks or needs, says Seip.
Show up for them, whenever possible. Try to be one step ahead of your partner when it comes to noticing their needs. If you sense that they’re having a long day at work and you had the day off, maybe prepare their favorite meal and set the table for a romantic dinner date—this way, they have a sweet treat to come home to and can decompress with their favorite person, a.k.a. you.
Pick up their slack. You’re their S.O., not their caretaker. Avoid picking up your partner’s slack because otherwise you can get burnt out quickly. By doing too much, you can also fall into a trap of scorekeeping (which is when you try to balance the relationship out by doing the same amount of service as the other person, says Seip), and this can be a harmful dynamic.
You should never feel obligated to do an act of service for your partner. Again, acts of service are your way of showing them love; they still need to keep up with their own responsibilities and not dump their workload onto you.
What if my partner and I don’t have the same love language? Is our relationship doomed?
Short answer: No.
Yes, there’s a chance they "speak" a different love language than you (they might need touch or feel extra special when you tell them how impressed you are by their brain), so do what you can to suss out their love language. Straight-up talk about it (Palmer promises the convo won’t be awkward as long as you keep things positive), or tune in to what makes them light up day-to-day.
Once you figure it out, keep that info top of mind and create opportunities to speak their language (surprise them with a massage, bring home their favorite cookie...you get the idea).
Also, remember that you can have more than one love language, so just because their primary love language isn’t the same as yours, that doesn’t mean you don't share another one in which you both like to receive and give love.
Bottom line: Love languages aren’t the most important part of maintaining a relationship. (Sorry, not sorry.) When it comes to keeping a partnership together, there are more necessary elements of note other than the love languages, such as receiving your partner openly and compassionately and making space for their emotions and needs, Seip affirms. "You don’t always have to have the same things in common to make the relationship work, you just have to be willing to make a safe space for them and vice versa," she adds.
And that's an act of service always worth doing.
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