Readers’ Forum: Testing the theory of love languages

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“Warning: understanding the five love languages and learning to speak the primary love language of your spouse may radically affect his or her behavior.” 

So writes Gary Chapman in the opening pages of his pop-psychology phenomenon, “The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Communication to Your Mate.” The book was first published in 1992 and has since been translated into dozens of languages. 

Chapman’s concepts are part of our cultural lexicon now: videos on TikTok tagged with “love language” amass billions of cumulative views, posts on Instagram with the same tag number more than half a million. Chances are good you’ve taken the quiz and already know what your love language is. But what started as a Southern Baptist minister’s earnest effort to help couples in marital distress has become just another way we label ourselves. 

Chapman’s premise is easy enough to wrap your head around; we all have an “emotional love tank” that, when full, gives us the energy we need to sustain a healthy and stable relationship. We fill our partner’s tank when we express love to them, and vice versa. We do that in five ways, according to Chapman: words of affirmation, quality time, gift giving, acts of service, and physical touch. 

The catch? Our efforts are only tank-filling when we’re speaking in our partner’s primary love language. Anything else is as pointless as speaking English with someone who only understands Mandarin. “The Five Love Languages” is an invitation for us to become emotionally bilingual. And yet, the five love languages stand with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Enneagram as immensely popular but pseudo-scientific ways to position ourselves at the center of the universe. Or, at least the center of a relationship. 

To be fair, though, Chapman’s claims have always been a little pseudo-scientific. The original edition of the book is dated, rife with gender stereotypes. And scholarly attempts to corroborate Chapman’s theory – that there are, indeed, five love languages and speaking the right one to your partner is “the key to a long-lasting, loving, marriage” — haven’t quite hit that mark. 

Nichole Egbert and Denise Polk, for example, compared Chapman’s love languages against what psychologists call relationship maintenance behaviors – or RMBs for short. RMBs are the things partners do for one another that lead to more equity, satisfaction, love, and commitment. The study, titled “Speaking the Language of Relational Maintenance,” was published in 2006 in the journal Communication Research Reports. Egbert and Polk found that there wasn’t much evidence for five distinct love languages, though people who reported using RMBs were also likely to express love in Chapman’s five languages. The authors posit that the five love languages might be a “vehicle” by which RMBs are delivered to a partner. A means, perhaps, but a crude one. 

Jennifer Hughes and Abigail Camden studied Chapman’s love languages too. Their paper from 2020 called, “Using Chapman’s Five Love Languages Theory to Predict Love and Relationship Satisfaction” concluded that people who thought their partners successfully spoke their primary love language were more likely to express satisfaction in the relationship. But people, when given the option, tend to check more than one box on the list of five. Thus, even the most promising studies offered little more insight than people who like getting gifts … like getting gifts. 

Still, I couldn’t help but feel like there was a hard rock of truth at the center of this book. And I think it’s this: that love is work. 

For Chapman, love — real love — is synonymous with choice. It’s not the ineffable spark that pulls two people together. It’s the work two people put into the relationship once the spark fades. This is a view I’m drawn to; love defined by agency, love that’s not transactional. I know that my relationships tend to fall apart when I’m hyper-focused on what’s in it for me. The five love languages are Chapman’s antidote to that kind of selfish thinking. 

So I was relieved to see that scholars haven’t debunked this part of Chapman’s thinking: “Whether or not there is science in this particular theory might not matter so much,” wrote psychologist Martin Graff in “The Conversation.” “There is little doubt there’s value to be found in expressing your love for your partner in a thoughtful way.” 

In fact, some relationship scientists think Chapman didn’t take this idea far enough — that the five love languages are just too narrow a lens. Psychologists from the University of Toronto and York University say that Chapman’s five leave out other important behaviors — things like involving a partner in one’s social circles or developing strategies to manage conflict. They wrote a paper about it too — it’s called “Popular Psychology Through a Scientific Lens,” published last year in the journal of Current Directions in Psychological Science. 

The love languages “oversimplify relationship processes and categorize people in rigid, limited ways,” write authors Emily Impett, Haeyoung Park, and Amy Muise. The Toronto researchers offer an alternative metaphor. Instead of a full tank, we need a full belly. Instead of languages of love, we need a balanced diet of love. 

“People need multiple essential nutrients to maintain satisfying relationships,” they continue. “Although popular lay theories might have people believe that there is a simple formula for cultivating lasting love, empirical research shows that successful relationships require that partners have a comprehensive understanding of one another’s needs.” 

The research is clear on this point: that couples who can see things from one another’s perspective are more stable. This is sometimes called “perspective taking,” and it happens to be true outside of romantic partnerships as much as it’s true within them. 

Maybe the five love languages are a way to practice perspective taking. Or an imperfect first step towards perspective taking. But what this all seems to indicate to me is that any thinking that takes us outside of ourselves can be good for us, for the people around us, and for the social web we’re weaving. 

Of course, for the five love languages to be of any use at all, there are a few hurdles to clear first. We not only have to remember their original vocation, but move beyond that. 

Chapman never intended “The Five Love Languages” to be added to the scientific literature, (though he did hope it’d be used in sociology and psychology classes to teach about marriage). “I have not written this book as an academic thesis to be stored in libraries of colleges and universities. (I write) to those who are married,” he wrote. 

Understood. But I think it’s worth interrogating the boxes we put ourselves into, in taking a second look at the interesting edges we sand off ourselves and each other in the name of simplicity. Taking a love language quiz is fun, sure, but the world is a whole lot more complex. The first step to building stronger relationships might be recognizing that.

James Hoopes

Cottage Grove, Minnesota

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