Any good therapist knows about Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages, and if you are really good, you have found a way to work it into your practice. When I was practicing, I was definitely one of those therapists but it wasn’t till I began working in my current job as a supervisor for a national crisis counseling hotline specializing in child abuse did I really develop an understanding of how the love languages really could heal the divides and miscommunications that occur in our family relationships.
I was on the phone with a teen who was having a really difficult time communicating with his parents. His parents were from the Philippines, strict, conservative, and emphasized God and school; everything else to them was frivolous according to him. He described their relationship as “their way or the highway” and felt invalidated whenever he would try to talk to them about his concerns. The kid felt unheard, unworthy, and unsure if his parents really loved him.
I related to this kid far more than I would like. Like this kid, I too was raised in a strict conservative Filipino Catholic household that also was heavy on the God and heavy on the education. Before I go forward, I need to note that this by no means is a diss on my parents or their parenting; I love my parents, and I truly do believe that because they were so strict, my sister and I turned out pretty well. But like this kid, I also spent a lot of my formative years not feeling understood, unheard, and unworthy. As a result, I spent a lot of time building this emotional wall around myself to protect myself from any rejection or criticism that I might get from my parents. I would often only tell my parents what I felt they needed to know; I never asked for help until I was really in trouble; and I would react defensively to anything my parents would say. I always knew my parents loved me but I didn’t understand their love, and for a long time, I thought it was their responsibility to make me feel loved the way I thought I should be and that their way of loving me was wrong. It never occurred to me that I was the one who was in the wrong and that this perceived distance between myself and my parents was just as much my responsibility as it was theirs.
It wasn’t until graduate school when I learned about Chapman’s Five Love Languages in which he breaks down the five ways individuals interpret, give, and receive love. Those five love languages are words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, physical touch, and receiving gifts. While most of the time the love languages are meant to facilitate miscommunications between couples, it can be applied towards any relationship, and in my case, it helped me break down my misunderstanding of my relationship with my parents.
What I realized from the love languages in regards to my parents is that how my parents interpret and give love was vastly different from how I did. My parents are products of a different generation, a different culture, and different experiences because they are immigrants; they are a product of their environment as am I. I grew up as a product of the millenial generation (which I only admit begrudgingly), a product of the integration of both Filipino and American culture but not ever fully feeling a sense of belonging to either, and a product of my experiences growing up a child of immigrants which looked so different from my American peers or what I saw a family was supposed to look and love like in American media.
My parents’ love language (if I had to guess) more aligns with acts of service while my love languages are quality time and words of affirmation. I will be the first to admit now that my parents do a lot for me and have sacrificed a lot of the more lavish things in life so that my sister and I wanted for nothing. However, growing up, I couldn’t understand the love language that they were speaking and why; I couldn’t understand why they didn’t seem to understand the love language I was speaking or the perceived inability to give me what I felt I needed. As a grown woman with the knowledge of the love languages and all the counseling skills of a seasoned therapist, I see there was never a lack of love. We were and are just different, and that’s okay.
I realize now that I cannot control how my parents show their love but I can be aware of how I interpret and understand their love. It isn’t their responsibility to love me through my love languages; nor is it my responsibility to love them through theirs. Our only responsibility to one another is to love each other the best way we know how and to give that love to each other the best way we can. That’s it. The love languages provided me that bridge to understand them better so I can reciprocate their love in my own way. And while we may not always agree and we may drive each other nuts the way family does, I think that understanding the love languages healed my understanding of what family really means.
Mom and Dad, I love you.
To find out what your love language is: