Marriage counselor Gary Chapman, PhD, coined five love languages that we use to express and receive love. These are: words of affirmation, acts of service, gift-giving, physical touch, and quality time.
While learning about the five love languages can be a valuable way to better understand expressions of love in relationships, it is worth exploring how narcissistic individuals can use love languages differently to influence and exploit others. For the narcissist, love languages are often misused in subversive and sinister ways, tainted by manipulation and mistreatment. Research indicates that relationship partners with narcissistic traits can engage in distinct patterns of manipulation, devaluation, envy, and aggressiveness and that these types of relationships can even result in PTSD.
If you are in a relationship with a narcissist, it is important to consider that many of the love languages become “hate” languages – ways for narcissists to exercise their excessive sense of entitlement, lack of empathy, cruelty, and contempt toward their loved ones.
Here is a summary of what the five love languages can look like when the narcissist is the one employing them in a toxic relationship, followed by more in-depth explanations:
Words of affirmation are usually transformed into inauthentic words of love bombing (excessive praise, flattery, and attention to ensnare you into the fantasy of an ideal relationship) or words of degradation used to belittle you and demean you throughout the relationship.
Acts of service and gift-giving become acts of disservice inducing a sense of fear, obligation, guilt, and indebtedness in you. There is no such thing as a “free gift” with a narcissistic individual. They will expect you to repay them with your trauma and pain. There will be an automatic expectation of reciprocity and narcissistic rage when gift-giving and generosity are not immediately “compensated” with whatever the narcissist is seeking to obtain from you.
The love language of physical touch becomes sexual exploitation when narcissists want to use you for their own satisfaction or coerce you into acts you’re not comfortable with, violating consent, intimacy and trust. It becomes sudden sexual withdrawal and withholding when they feel the need to punish you and demean you.
Finally, quality time with a narcissist becomes a space for endless mind games and psychological torture tactics.
Let’s explore how each love language is subverted and how this presents itself more in-depth in a relationship with a narcissist:
1. Words of affirmation.
In healthy relationships, words of affirmation are used to give healthy praise and affection. Healthy, empathic partners use words of affirmation to verbally acknowledge and honor our strengths and positive traits, giving us encouragement and appreciation.
Unhealthy partners, such as narcissists or otherwise toxic people, use words of affirmation with an agenda. They may use them to pour on affection in inauthentic, excessive ways during the early stages of the relationship to “hook” their partners into investing in the relationship, only to abruptly shift into devaluation and callousness.
During the devaluation phase of a relationship with a narcissist, words of degradation tend to replace words of affirmation. The narcissist belittles their partner and tries to make their partner feel less than so that their partners feel more entrenched in the relationship and bend over backwards trying to please the narcissist. Narcissists begin to replace healthy praise with hypercriticism, outlandish accusations and generalizations, unwarranted comparisons, and nitpicking. This form of degradation is used to further control their partners and make them believe they do not deserve better.
2/3. Acts of Service and Gift Giving.
In healthy partnerships, acts of service communicate that loving actions match words. Your partner shows love for you by engaging in the actions that make you more comfortable, secure and at ease. For example, they might run you a soothing bubble bath when you get home, cook dinner, bring you nourishing food when you’re sick, run errands or clean the house while you’re at work so that you have less labor to do when you get home. These acts of service communicate to your partner that they care about your needs and prioritize your pleasure, safety, health, and happiness.
Gift giving is another love language that communicates to your partner that you prioritize their needs and desires. Healthy partners who engage in gift giving as a love language tend to be thoughtful about the gifts they select for their partners, using meaningful gifts as a way to let their partners know they are important to them.
Although acts of service and gift-giving may be used early on by narcissists to love bomb their partners, with the narcissist, acts of service and gift-giving always come with a price. They will often punish you for their own generosity by holding their gifts and what they’ve done for you against you. They may remind you of “everything they’ve done for you” during arguments as a guilt-tripping tactic even though they were the ones who voluntarily went out of their way to do so, demand immediate reciprocity, or make you feel entitled for expecting gifts or acts of service at all – even if you’ve shown them a great deal of appreciation.
Rather than acts of service, narcissists deliberately do you a disservice by abandoning you when you are sick, refusing to help out around the house during times of need, or failing to be thoughtful about your health and comfort. They might engage in complaints about doing any work or giving gifts at all during holidays, birthdays and special occasions – times where healthy partners enjoy being especially generous. Or, they may even use gift-giving as a sabotage tactic during holidays, purposely choosing inappropriate and offensive gifts that are the opposite of what they know you want as a way to sadistically harm you.
4. Physical touch.
Healthy partners who use physical touch as a love language do so to connect through physical signs of affection and appreciation such as hugging, cuddling, holding hands, kissing, and sex.
While healthy partners often use physical touch to deepen intimacy, further a connection, and tenderly solidify a relationship, narcissistic individuals use physical touch to punish, control, and sometimes even degrade and abuse their partners.
During the love bombing stages of the relationship, you may experience a mind-blowing physical connection with the narcissist. They may appear affectionate and comforting during physical intimacy. However, as they engage in incidents of emotional abuse along with intermittent reinforcement of positive moments, they will use sex as a control tactic to keep you biochemically addicted to the relationship and bonded to them. They may also use sex as a “reset” button after incidents of abuse, causing you to crave their presence even after they’ve mistreated you.
Narcissists can also purposely withhold sex and sexual affection suddenly after initially showing you affection, punishing you for perceived slights or using sexual withholding as a tool to devalue you and make you work harder for their attention and approval. Tenderness will then be replaced with callousness and cruelty. You may also be subjected to crude remarks about your sexual stamina or performance to make you feel less than, even though initially the narcissist may have made you feel like they couldn’t get enough of you.
Narcissists can also attempt to coerce you into sexual acts you are not comfortable with. Whereas with healthy partners physical touch as a love language is used with safety, consent and pleasure in mind, narcissists use it as a playground to practice their entitlement, and research indicates they are prone to sexually coercive tactics and victim-blaming beliefs. They may demand sex even when you are not comfortable, especially after you’ve been traumatized by their abuse.
5. Quality Time.
Quality time is a love language focused on spending meaningful time together where both partners can give each other undivided attention. Unfortunately, in a relationship with a narcissist, quality time such as dinners, holiday events, date nights, and vacations turn romantic evenings out into crazymaking nightmares and dream destinations into diversionary trips to hell.
With a narcissist, quality time may be used excessively as a way to connect early on in the relationship. The narcissist may take you out on long, frequent and lavish dates to create a strong bond early on. However, as the relationship goes on, they will begin to sabotage quality time spent together by manufacturing chaos. They may engage in outlandish accusations and projections, instigate arguments out of thin air, deprive you of sleep, or deliberately deflate what would otherwise be pleasurable moments. They might also attempt to sabotage the celebration of your accomplishments out of envy.
If you are dealing with a narcissistic partner, you are not alone, and help is out there. It is important to keep yourself safe by processing your traumas with a validating mental health professional and begin detaching from any toxic relationship that may be harming you.