The Language of Love and Grief


Several years ago, I heard a theory that people give love in different ways and it is important to learn to speak each other’s language of love so that your loved ones perceive and appreciate your tokens of affection and so that you can see when others are giving love in return. It is when we misinterpret or don’t even see each other’s efforts that feelings of hurt and under-appreciation arise.

According to this theory, there are five languages of love: quality time, words of appreciation, expensive gifts, acts of service, and physical intimacy. We all engage in all or most of these actions to greater or lesser extent, but we usually tend towards one or two predominant ones. We give love and expect love back in those terms (or at least recognize it most easily). Quality time people relish most the time spent in their loved one’s company. The act of being together, even if not really doing anything, often is more meaningful than the finest diamonds in the world. Words of appreciation people love to lavish praise and verbal affection, and it is warm words that mean the most to them. Meanwhile, for others, words are not as important as other gifts. For some, love is measured in extravagance. These people love to spoil and pamper, and the cost of the gift is proportional to the act of love. For others, love is measured in gifts of devotion. Cooking special dinners, helping with various and sundry tasks, and otherwise doing for others becomes a demonstration of love and affection. And finally, physical intimacy and the need and desire to embrace, hold hands, or just be in touch with someone (literally) becomes a manner of expressing love and affection.

I would say my language of love is primarily acts of service, with quality time and physical intimacy as secondary traits. I do engage in the other two, but to a much lesser extent. My husband, however, I would say is primarily and “expensive gifts” person, with quality time and physical intimacy as secondary traits. I used to expect more acts of service from him, and felt slighted and undervalued when I didn’t always receive them. It wasn’t until I began to see all the little and big tokens of affection – anywhere from buying groceries, to taking me to dinner, to the fabulous, expensive coats – as all the ways he shows me he loves me that I could truly see and appreciate his devotion on the level it deserved recognition. But with quality time and physical intimacy as both our secondary traits, we speak easily in those domains.

However, I think what might be true of love, might also be true of stress and grief. I’ve been listening to various family dramas lately and it occurs to me that people deal with grief differently too, and if we don’t understand and respect each other’s way of dealing with grief, increased conflict and hurt feelings could result.

From what I have seen in my limited experience, I think there might be four languages of grief: sympathizers, bottlers, imploders and exploders. Sympathizers (of whom I would be one) reach out to others for empathy in their grief. They love to console and be consoled, and this constitutes a major part of the grieving process for them, as well as a way to bond with others. They see empathy in times of need as another way to deepen a relationship. Bottlers, on the other hand, shut people out. They may even act passive-aggressively in dealing with their grief, but they keep it close to their chest and much prefer to deal with grief and anger on their own terms. Imploders are similar to bottlers in their sense that they are better left to themselves when upset. They grumble in anger, they may even be spectacularly violent in their fury and perhaps destroy a few inanimate objects, but if left to their own devices, their pain is usually short-lived. Finally, exploders are those who deal with anger and grief outwardly. In more positive ways, they may insist upon dealing with problems and hashing out concerns with the targets of their frustration, working at a problem until it is resolved. In more negative manifestations, they may engage in accusations, argumentation and blame.

I think these categories may even fall along two dimensions: intimacy and time to deal, where intimacy refers to how inwardly or outwardly grief manifests itself in relation to other people. Time to deal refers to how long it takes to manage and resolve the grief.

While I’m a sympathizer, I would say my husband is an imploder. But I quickly learned to give him space and he learned that a warm embrace and a few sweet words go a long way towards me finding me inner peace again. Thankfully in doing so, both of us help each other deal with grief more efficiently so the bad times don’t last any longer than they have to.

But this is just a theory based on my own personal observations. I would be very interested to know if this theory holds true in other lives. Also, being a sympathizer and married to an imploder, I feel I might understand these perspectives a little more clearly – and may have given short shrift to the other two personality types. If anyone feels they can elucidate those two perspectives better, I would be most willing to amend my little theory here. It’s a work in progress. Please pardon my dust.

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8 thoughts on “The Language of Love and Grief

  1. Okay I JUST read the book on the 5 love languages. I thought it was really interesting and a must read for anyone in a relationship. I'm the odd one, of course, who wants quality time and physical touch, but am more of an acts of service when showing my affection. Great book though.

  2. That's a funny coincidence. I actually first heard about it through Katie when she was dating that one girl…who I think was Persian? Indian, maybe? I don't remember her name anymore. But I guess she had heard the author speak or something and told us about it. But yeah, I thought it was a great insight…helped me understand ALL my relationships, parents, etc.

  3. You are such a scholar behind all of your fiction writing and blogging. A two by two grid! I love it!

  4. {snort} Yeah I thought to myself "I'm such an academic (read: dork)" when I made that. I'm glad someone appreciates it! :)

  5. I love this post! My guy is an imploder too. I'm an exploder so we both stand at polar opposites of the spectrum. Me, "Let's talk it out!" Him, "Just leave me alone." He eventually comes around.

  6. Thanks Wuthering! Yeah, it can be difficult when people deal in ways that are so opposite of the how you want them to, but I guess the key is finding a system that works, which it sounds like you have.

  7. Really interesting. I would say Sean and I both use physical intimacy most to express our love. We don't mate like bunnies or anything, but snuggling/cuddling is a really big part of our relationship. It's what we request of the other when we are stressed, happy, sad, tired, you name it. It's at least an hour of our day together every day. Quality time and acts of service would be secondary traits. While our language of love is the same, the way we deal with stress and grief is definitely not. I don't even know exactly how to describe it, I would say I'm a mixture of exploder and bottler, depending on the situation and who I'm dealing with. I also like to bitch about stuff to other people so I guess I'm a sympathizer too. Sean is probably an imploder, maybe sometimes a bottler.