Here’s how understanding the 5 love languages strengthened my friendship

I’m a firm believer that we should think of our friendships as love stories. Unlike in the movies, our friends aren’t just side characters who help us find and fall in love with that one special person. Our friends—the really good ones, anyways—help us find ourselves. (They also help us find really good lighting, great music, the perfect outfit, the right words for that risque text—and those are all forms of love in my book.) So when I first started learning about the five love languages—words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch—I wasn’t only thinking of them in the context of romantic relationships, I was also thinking about them in a friendship context.

Thinking about love languages became really important for my friend Helen and me. We became really close really fast the summer before our senior year of college. We had both felt a bit stifled in the environment where we were living and going to school. But as friends, we made space (even when there didn’t appear to be any) for both of us to fully be ourselves, whether that meant talking over episodes of Broad City, spending hours getting ready to go out together, and then ultimately, showing up late and overdressed.

Our friendship has always just made sense. She loves to cook for friends, I love to eat family-style meals. Her favorite artist is Beyonce, mine is Solange.

So when things started feeling off toward the end of our senior year, it was hard to figure out exactly what was going on. I was busier with school than I had ever been and Helen was grappling with the stress and anxiety of picturing life after graduation. We started getting more argumentative and short with each other. And we stopped supporting each other’s projects as much as we did before. I thought Helen and I were spending plenty of time together, but she felt I wasn’t making time for her. We just weren’t speaking the same language anymore, and our needs as friends weren’t being met.

So we talked about it. According to Nicole Sbordone, therapist and author of Surviving Female Friendships: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, that’s the most important thing to do.

“This is where I think a lot of friendships break down, especially as we get older and you’ve gone through transitions and moving and basically [experience big] life events, relationships breakdown because we’re not talking about these needs,” Sbordone says.

Though quality time is usually what matters most to me, words of affirmation had taken priority because my free time was so restricted. Not hearing the words, “Congrats,” or “I’m proud of you” from Helen on big days was hurtful to me, even if we hung out later that night. And for Helen, who is also a quality time kind of girl, it wasn’t as much about the amount of time we spent together as it was about how intentional that time was. I wasn’t being as present when we spent time together and that was hurtful to her as someone who really values the time that we do have together.

Talking about our respective needs and the areas where we weren’t feeling the love helped Helen and me understand how to be better friends to one another.

I spoke with Sbordone to better understand all five love languages, why they matter, and what they look like in the context of friendship. Learn more about how to navigate love languages and how they might apply to your friendships below.

How do you learn your friend’s love language?

Communication—and I can’t stress this enough—is key. Sbordone, LCSW, says she gets some eye rolls when she tells her clients the importance of communication in friendships, but she stands by it. “If you’re not getting your needs met or you’re not sure what the needs are that your friend wants, talk about it,” Sbordone says.

You don’t have to speak the same love language as your friend, you just have to make space for each of you to be heard and understood. Avoiding these conversations can end up causing tension in your friendships.

If in-your-feelings convos aren’t your thing, there’s a quiz for that. You can take the 5 Love Languages Quiz, and pass the link along to your friend to get a better idea of what matters most to each of you.

Why is it important to understand our friend’s love language?

“Just like in a romantic relationship, it’s helpful to understand and know what makes our friends feel happy and loved,” Sbordone says. “So when we honor our friend’s love language, we make them feel cared for and vice versa…[it’s about] making sure we understand our needs, as well as our friends’ needs, so we can honor them and deepen the friendship.”

Understanding the ways our friends express love differently can help us know which friends to go to for different life moments. Sbordone says it’s common to want that “one-size-fits-all” friend, but that might not foster a healthy relationship.

“It’s healthy to have a few different people to kind of go to just because they [have] different personalities and [can] offer different insights and qualities to that friendship,” Sbordone says.

We have different friends for different things, and that’s okay. “We kind of figure out, okay, this friend is really good to go to if I’m sad, this friend’s really good to go to if I need to be cheered up, this one’s really fun to have a good time with, this one is really deep, we have deep conversations.

How do you talk to your best friend about a problem?

If you made it here, you’re already headed in the right direction. Sbordone always comes back to the importance of communication in friendships when we chatted, she offered advice on how to open up the conversation in a compassionate way.

“I always like to start it with, ‘I really care about this friendship. I care about you, and I’m wanting to share some feelings about it,’” Sbordone says, “When you say that, it kind of helps the friend understand this is going to be a serious conversation, but you’re not going to yell at them or attack them or make them feel bad.”

Sbordone also explains that love languages can change, as our lives do, over time. She encourages people to check in on their friendships from time to time and ask how the friendship is doing. “You can talk about it by asking, ‘How can we make sure that we’re meeting both of our needs and what does that look like?'” Sbordone says.

We sometimes expect friendships to be the easy relationships in our lives, but they require work and effort just as much as romantic relationships do. When we take the time to have some of those uncomfortable conversations, the payoff can be so rewarding.

“If you can resolve conflict in your friendships, it’s amazing how much deeper the friendship becomes,” Sbordone says.

What do the 5 love languages look like in friendships?

1Words of affirmation

Some people are all about saying, “I love you” to their friends while others may use those three little words a bit more sparingly. But don’t stress; you don’t have to be the ultra-sappy type to honor this love language. A simple “I’m thinking about you” text can go a long way. Sbordone says she does this often with her friends. “Having that line of open connection is helpful,” Sbordone says. “I know when I get those texts, it always puts a smile on my face.”

Here are a few other things you can say (IRL or over text) to honor this love language:

“Hi, just checking in.”

“I hope you have a good day.”

“Hey, I just wanted to say I’m thankful for you.”

“I’m so proud of you.”

“You’re doing a great job.”

Some friends just need a little “Yep, you’re still my friend” reminder every now and then. If you don’t speak this love language, these check-ins may seem trivial. But when friends with this love language are feeling stressed or struggling with mental health, affirming words and validation from a bestie they trust can do a lot to counter some of those negative or overwhelming thoughts.

2Acts of service

Actions speak louder than words for these friends with this love language. Though this will look different in every friendship, Sbordone categorizes acts of service as moments when friends “show up for you.” So this friend may not care as much if you say “I support you,” and instead it may hold more weight if you show up to a production they’re in or drive them to the airport when they need a ride. “People can say a lot of things,” Sbordone says. “[Acts of service] is when we follow through and do these things.”

When your friend is going through a particularly rough or stressful time, acts of service can also be a great way to help take the weight off their shoulders. That could mean bringing over a tub of ice cream after a tough breakup or helping out with one of their chores when their schedule is extra busy. If you’re not sure exactly what your friend wants or needs, just ask. Sbordone says sometimes it’s just about being there and saying, “What can I do?”

3Receiving gifts

Even though this love language revolves around receiving gifts, it’s not about materialism. It’s still the thought that counts here, too. It’s like one of those “I’m thinking about you” texts but instead, it’s one of those “I saw this and I thought of you” gifts. Giving a thoughtful present is a way of showing not only that you care about someone, but that you know and understand them, too.

You don’t have to be a master gift-giver to honor this love language—it’s just about paying attention and “knowing a lot about your friends and knowing what your friends might like,” Sbordone says.

4Quality time

Whether you and your friend go out to eat, take a walk, or grab a coffee, Sbordone says this love language is more about the “connecting” than about the activity itself. So it doesn’t matter exactly what you do, just that you’re present in the moment. It’s about being there—like really being there with your phone put away. But of course, there are exceptions (like when quality time in your friendship consists of sharing memes on your phones or watching a marathon of Broad City).

If you only ever hang out in big groups or you often cancel or postpone plans, your friend may not be feeling the love from you. For this friend, affirming words or thoughtful gifts can’t cancel out their need for some quality time with you. To show this friend they have a place in your heart, give them a slot on your calendar.

5Physical touch

Surprisingly, physical affection as a platonic love language isn’t as different from a romantic relationship as you may think. There are plenty of non-romantic forms of touch that can show you care, you’re there, and you’re listening. This can be something as small as a touch on the arm or it can be a full-on embrace. Sbordone says it’s usually pretty easy to identify who does and doesn’t like to express love through touch. Maybe you have a friend who asks you to play with their hair or someone who is extra-cuddly when they’re either feeling down or happy—they probably speak this love language. “The people who don’t like touch…they’ll tell you pretty quickly,” Sbordone says.

Even in the context of friendship, consent matters when it comes to touch. You should always ask before going in for a hug or going into someone’s personal space. “What I’ll say is, ‘I’m a hugger, is it okay if I hug you?'” Sbordone says. On the other end, you shouldn’t have to compromise your comfort in order to provide physical affection for someone else. It all comes back to Sbordone’s golden rule: Talk about it.

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