Why Do We Treat ‘Gift Giving’ as a Selfish Love Language?

Published on 5/9/2024

A few years ago, when the subject of love languages started gaining traction once more and was first introduced to me by a friend, I was in a long-term relationship. I eagerly filled out an online quiz and then asked my partner to do the same. He begrudgingly paused Zelda to fill it in and then handed his phone over with the results, so that he could return to his game. I was dismayed to discover that our love languages were polar opposites. They couldn’t have been more different if we had intentionally tried.

I remember panicking and thinking this was a sign that we wouldn’t work out. As you may be deciphering, we weren’t a very secure attachment couple, and I’m a child of divorce. I expressed my fears to him and with a sigh, he paused his game again to look at the results.

“Gift giving is one of your love languages?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“I didn't think you were such a materialistic person.”

There it was. Even though the sentence was framing it as something I wasn’t, we both knew the truth, we were both staring down at the results of this little quiz that had sealed our fates in my eyes.

Soon after, my friends brought up the quiz over coffee, as it was that summer where literally no one would talk of anything else, and every situationship was viewed through the lens of love languages – “he doesn’t text because he prefers quality time.” They excitedly shared that they had gotten physical touch or quality time as their top results. Those were the ‘best’ results. Then they asked me what my love languages were, and it seemed too pathetic to lie, so I told the truth. My highest-scoring love languages were acts of service and gift-giving. They had similar reactions to my partner, claiming that it didn’t seem accurate based on what I was like and whether I should fill it in again.

But I could see myself in those two love languages. It made sense to me, I just didn’t realise that other people hadn't been feeling the same way. Why was I suddenly a terrible person for prioritising gift-giving and acts of service?

The 5 Love Languages

In case you missed the craze of love languages, they were created by Dr Gary Chapman through his years of working as a marriage counsellor. The concept behind them is that we all give and receive love in 5 different ways:

  • Words of affirmation (verbal acknowledgements of affection, words of appreciation, frequent digital communication)
  • Acts of service (bringing soup when you’re sick, making coffee in the morning, handling dinner if you’ve had a busy day)
  • Receiving gifts (visual symbols of love, receiving something meaningful)
  • Quality time (active listening, eye contact, full presence)
  • Physical touch (kissing, holding hands, sex)

In recent years, we’ve started looking more critically at this concept. Information has come to light revealing that Dr Gary was more focused on keeping women at home pleasing their husbands rather than actually understanding how we give and receive love. But nonetheless, we’re going to take this example without allowing it to be concrete information that changes how we live our lives.

Aside from quizzes, a great way to spot your love languages is to see what you do for others. We often give what we want to receive. How do you show appreciation to friends? How do you do something special for your partner? What characteristics do you value in a romantic interest?

My love languages

My top two were gift-giving and acts of service, followed by words of affirmation. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy sex or spending time with a loved one, but those just aren’t how I show affection. I can see how I use these love languages with friends and romantic interests.

For example, after that relationship ended, I moved in with one of my best friends. I loved making her a coffee in the morning, as she would be rushing to get to the office while I worked from home in sweatpants, so I had the time. This small gesture, this act of service, was something I took pride in every day. Similarly, when she was doing a load of laundry, she’d check if I had anything to add, and it was a small gesture that meant a lot to me.

A more prominent example of acts of service occurred over a year ago when I was struggling heavily with my depression and in the process of going on antidepressants. I was trying to keep my life in one piece, and I was managing everywhere except my bedroom, it had become the symbol of my chaotic mind. There was a pile of dirty clothes, a pile of washed clothes, sheets that needed a good scrub, and empty cups of tea. My housemate one day offered to help me clean my room, so I could start fresh. I immediately felt so embarrassed and tried to decline. She stopped me and said that she knew I was struggling and maybe this was how she could help me. She was offering an act of service, as like me, she isn’t one for physical touch or words of affirmation. She shows by doing.

We also implemented gift giving, and it’s not that we spent a lot of money, but rather that we recognised the value in small things. I knew that she didn’t have much of a sweet tooth except for cinnamon rolls, so if I was near a bakery, I’d pick one up for her. When I was struck down with COVID-19, she got me painkillers and my favourite candy. Some weekends, I’d go for a long walk and then bring her back an iced coffee, as I knew it would be a nice way to start her day. None of these are expensive things or what you’d traditionally consider gifts, but they’re those small signs that you see someone, that you appreciate them.

My sister will always bring me peppermint tea when she visits from the UK, as she knows how much I love it and struggle to find a good one in the Netherlands. For one of my friends, I always give her a book for her birthday, as reading is a passion of mine and I love picking something I know she’ll like. All of these tiny moments are a way of showing your love when you can’t hold hands or don’t always have the words — even as a writer.

Why do I prefer these love languages?

Sometimes we just are the way we are. I studied psychology and love the subject, but even I recognise that some things are just preferences, not hidden childhood trauma. In this case, though, Freud would have a good point.

I mentioned that my parents are divorced: they weren’t very happy in all the years I can remember, and have both expressed how they stayed together for me and my sisters. That’s a whole other discussion I don’t plan to have. As a result, my house wasn’t really a place with pretty words. I was more likely to see my parents arguing than holding hands. What I did see is that my mum prided herself on running the household next to her job. She loved a tidy home, and I think doing the laundry and ironing was her way of expressing her love to us. My dad would often buy a Snickers at the petrol station for my mum, as he knew it was her favourite chocolate. My dad travelled a lot for work, but he’d often ask me what book I wanted and pick it up at the airport, as he knew how much I loved reading. My parents both worked a lot, but they made sure I had what I needed, even if that involved a lot of time alone.

I don’t rely on quality time as I’m very comfortable on my own, and I’m proud to be. I understand that people can’t always be there in person, and so I don’t hold them to it. I don’t like physical touch as it feels easy to fake and less natural to me. I’m all for a steamy makeout, but that isn’t how I see love. Words of affirmation are lovely but I’ve heard a lot of promises, and almost as many promises broken. I don’t want to take you at your word, I want to take you at your action.

Someone can say that they love me, but they can show it through handling household errands so I can focus on my writing. They can say they support my ambitions, or they can offer to read my work. The small act of buying my favourite cookies at the supermarket isn’t just so I have something good to snack on, it’s a sign that they stopped and thought of me, that I was close to mind. I see gifts as a way of showing that I know you. I enjoy buying something that I know you want but don’t feel like you deserve.

We’ve come to resent these action-based love languages and conflict them with selfishness. But I give in these languages as much as I receive, and they’re not about how much is spent, but rather the thought of them. Maybe they’re another sign of greedy capitalism overtaking society, or maybe they’re something physical to hold onto when words fail.



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