A love language is the way you express affection for people you love and the way you want them to express affection for you.

Here’s how you can figure out what your love language is and how to use it to level up in relationships (even with yourself!).

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Illustration by Wenzdai Figueroa

Marriage counselor Gary Chapman defined the concept of love languages in his 1992 book, The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts.

People usually have one primary love language (the thing that will make them feel special most of the time). And many people have one or two secondary love languages that are less intense, but still important to be aware of.

Here’s a breakdown of the five key love languages, how they’re “spoken,” “heard,” and how someone can easily miss the mark.

1. Words of affirmation

  • What this love language means: You appreciate compliments, encouragement, and supportive words.
  • Communication hit: When your partner says things like, “I appreciate how much effort you put into planning this trip for us;” “You look adorable today;” or “I love how compassionate you are.”
  • Communication miss: When your partner gives insincere or disinterested compliments, assume you know that they love, appreciate, or are attracted to you without showing it.

2. Quality time

  • What this love language means: You feel loved when someone sets time aside to give you their undivided attention.
  • Communication hit: The person you’re with silences their phone during meals or important conversations and engages in activities you enjoy just to spend more time together.
  • Communication miss: The person you’re with would often rather leave the room than watch a TV show or movie with you, or they fail to plan dates with your interests in mind.

3. Receiving gifts

  • What this love language means: You feel most loved when someone is thoughtful enough to gift you with something, whether big or small.
  • Communication hit: Keeping an eye out for little things that will make you feel special on any random day. Your friend or S.O. might leave you little notes, pick up your favorite muffin from the bakery, surprise you with a new book on a Tuesday afternoon, etc.
  • Communication miss: When someone grabs a last-minute gift that doesn’t take much thought, or they fail to even put the time into finding out what you like.

4. Acts of service

  • What this love language means: You feel loved when someone offers to help you with something they know you need help with or takes things off your plate in general, out of kindness.
  • Communication hit: Your partner sees that you’re swamped and offers take one thing off your plate (washing dishes, stopping by the post office, calling the plumber) without you asking them.
  • Communication miss: You ask for help with something and your partner either refuses, forgets, or begrudgingly complies.

5. Physical touch

  • What this love language means: Cuddles, kisses, hugs, and all that touchy-feely stuff makes you happy.
  • Communication hit: You start and end the day with a kiss, you get a random hug for no particular reason, your partner holds your hand or rubs your neck while you watch TV.
  • Communication miss: Your partner either pulls away from affection or doesn’t seem interested, even though they know you are.

If you need a little help identifying your love language, picking up Chapman’s book or talking with a counselor could help. But online quizzes are a popular and easy way to identify what love languages you and your partner speak. Try one of these:

The good thing about finding out your love language is you can move forward into any future relationship with the knowledge.

While you may shift between responding to your primary and secondary love languages at times, they’re part of your personality, which means they won’t change dramatically once you’ve matured.

Love language awareness is useful for uncoupled folks too. If you know what you need to feel loved, you can practice your “love talk” on yourself.

Pick yourself a flower on your morning walk, try a weighted blanket or massager for the feeling of human touch, or outsource a dreaded chore to give yourself a break.

Try putting a positive spin on your internal dialog, talking to yourself as you would to a dear friend or partner. While you’re single, you can also be proactive at fighting loneliness.

When you do get involved with someone, you’ll be an expert at communicating your love language and needs. Another bonus: Understanding love languages and practicing them solo will make you an awesome partner for the next person you date.

How do you apply your knowledge of love languages to taking good care of your partner? Maybe they already know their love language and will make it easy for you by telling you how to speak it. If not, start with a quiz and a conversation. You’ll learn a lot about each other by figuring it out together.

If you have different love languages, don’t launch into your breakup speech just yet! People don’t have to be alike to be compatible. Being in a relationship is about compromise and making the effort to be a good partner.

Let your love know how they can speak your language so you feel appreciated and show them you care enough to speak their love language as well. Maybe it’s not your favorite thing to watch climate change documentaries on date night, but if she’s into that and her love language is quality time, it might be worth the effort.

During the honeymoon phase of relationships, couples are likely hitting all of the love languages (putting your best foot forward), but over time, you settle into expressing your primary one. If you and your partner don’t match, the relationship may start to feel unsatisfying.

That doesn’t mean you scrap it and log onto Tinder! Take time to refresh each other on your love languages to keep the romance alive. Even if your primary love language isn’t words of affirmation, verbal communication is key to helping your partner know what you need.

And, be willing to adapt your own behavior to help your partner feel loved as well. Love is just as much about choice as it is a feeling.

Anna Lee Beyer writes about mental health, parenting, and books. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.