The idea of love languages pops up in conversations frequently enough that I feel it has entered the zeitgeist of my little world. I remember when I first encountered it; so novel, so useful! Look at these purported manifestations of love declared and categorized so clearly. Let’s recap the purported 5 love languages briefly:
- Words of Affirmation
- Acts of Service
- Gift Giving
- Quality Time
- Physical Touch
Those all sound nice, don’t they? Some more than others, perhaps, depending on what you like.
Me? Well, I can tell you what I wasn’t so sure about, originally. For years I gave gift giving the stink eye. I gave it a wide berth when I saw it coming down the street, especially at certain times of year. I left my wallet at home and went for a walk in the woods instead.
Early days: I do not want a gift
I became wary of receiving and giving gifts when I first started to critically examine living in a hyper-capitalist culture. I thought in extremes — that all gifts were a crutch, that people were buying their way out of expressing a more natural form of love. Capitalism was corrupting something pure, and other dramatic ramblings.
Around that same time, a confluence of events pushed my spotlight on what felt like the inverse of buying a gift: quality time. I wanted quality time, not things from my loved ones. I still do, and in that, I haven’t changed entirely. Earlier though, I saw that I had landed on a love language that resonated, and while I was letting that be known would you, please also know that I am a hipster minimalist who likes thrift shopping and has a great disdain for this material world.
I have (somewhat) outgrown some of the angst. I have made some progress. Over time, I have turned down the dial a bit. Just because I am receiving a physical gift does not mean the gift is rooted in (hyper)capitalism and we’re all cogs in a twisted socio-exploitive machine. Maybe in some capacities gifts and gift-giving do point to such a world, but for the most part, I had built out something of an unhealthy metonym.
And all the while I was thinking about this? I was receiving lovely gifts, from loving people. Things that the gift-giver certainly found inherently delightful, fascinating, interesting, fun, silly, and, heaven-forbid wanted to share that with me. I read this book and I thought you would love it.. I’ve been making these cross-stitches and I made you one!. These things are now lasting reminders of the beloved people I’ve had the privilege to know.
This did not click for me right away. As if to make myself feel a bit sillier, I never really stopped and wondered if humans gave gifts to each other before rampant capitalism existed. Of course they did, you goon. And if I hadn’t been spending that time being mad at complex institutions I can hardly hope to grasp, I might have better appreciated and noticed these examples of love being shared with me.
But I continued to wrestle with these early convictions of anti-thingness long before realizing that my aversion to receiving gifts was making me unavailable to receive other people’s choice of expression. Just as quality time (and other love languages) resonated more strongly for me, by placing gift-giving as problematically embedded in a destructive culture, I was closing myself off from seeing expressions of love.
Now, I’m not being so hard on myself—and that’s because there is a balance to be had here.
Objects: easier than words?
I have heard tell of previous (and current) generations struggling with the ability to say I love you. In the last few decades, gift-giving may have been an easier stand-in as a love language because it was not as normalized to express love either verbally or in some of the other love languages in previous eras. This is not to say that the utterance of the phrase I love you is the ultimate expression of love (although, I would argue that the culture I was raised in made saying I love you into a _Big Deal_™️—the violent slangification of this utterance as Dropping the L-Bomb speaks volumes), and yet, I sometimes sense an implicit ranking of the love languages in their appropriateness and accessibility. Gift-giving was maybe a little easier to do (and traditions like Christmas didn’t hurt the cause).
So sure, couple a predisposition to buying gifts with the hyper-capitalism of the last 50 or 60 years (at least), and, well, it was a match made in love-language heaven. When you throw in a dose of toxic masculinity and the fear men often have to express emotion—well, it all seems to fit together like a present with a little bow on top. It’s almost as if the whole situation is a sort of vulnerability that has been exploited by late-state capitalism.
Oops, there I go again.
It can be difficult to receive gifts when it is not the love language you naturally jump to express. The principle of reciprocity can make you feel like you need to give a gift back. I’m here to tell you that you don’t (well, hypothetically. You get to decide if you want to take the risk in your relationships). I’m not referring to gift exchanging like on various holidays. I’m referring to the gift that comes from a beloved out of seemingly nowhere, on no particularly important date. These acts catch me off guard and I often have feelings of guilt. In these moments I have more than once said "I’m sorry, I don’t have anything for you!"
This immediate reaction of feeling like you need to return the act of giving a gift is to some degree, I think, normal. But conversely, I also think the guilt around it comes from a culture versed in consumerism.
With that said, I have slowly learned how to accept gifts with grace and gratitude. Feelings may still swell up—momentary panic: shit, should I have something for you?—and instead are replaced by seeing a genuine act of love happening before my eyes. Just as I would like to see my gestures of love affirmed and accepted, I can do the same thing.
But the above doesn’t happen without work, without intentionality in communicating our preferences for expression.
Of course, it’s not always so easy. I know this because of all the times I’ve felt vaguely awful at Christmas (I’m not saying it’s all due to gift giving. Christmas is a hard time of year for many people, for many reasons). These past few years I have thought about asking to not be given gifts from certain family events. To do so is an act of swimming upstream against tradition and struggling with whether I would be shutting down other people’s attempts to show love. In the end, I never put it out there.
It seems I have made peace with receiving gifts. The struggle has been a me "problem". At the root of it, I see a discourse on asking ourselves and others how we want to receive love. For me, at least at this time in my life, I've had to accept that I generally don’t express myself through gift-giving. I know that this is harder at Christmas than any other time of year. But what I see is a choice to accept that I often do not so easily mirror back to someone else the way they express their love. While it is scary to do that, it is an act of accepting yourself for who you are, of putting yourself and your expression of love out there to be received as it is.
As I stumble through another autumn, disappearing quickly on the road into winter, I am thinking about a holiday season where the people I am surrounded by feel their most natural selves to express their love as they see fit; the cost to do so, just courage and vulnerability. And if they love to give gifts—a couple of bucks, max.