A framework meant to help people become more attuned to their partners now gets treated like a personality test.Ashley Fetters
The idea that there are five distinct “love languages” may be as familiar to some people today as the idea that there are seven continents, four seasons, or three Stooges—which is a pretty spectacular showing, all told, for a concept that was introduced in a 1992 book by a Southern Baptist pastor that was aimed mostly at married Christian couples. The author, Gary Chapman, based his theory that everyone has a primary love language (that is, a category of behaviors that they most immediately associate with affection) on his own observations as a counselor. Enumerated in the book and now well known to millions, the five love languages are quality time, physical touch, acts of service, giving and receiving gifts, and words of affirmation.
Clearly, the theory resonated: If you were to search for the phrase love language on Twitter, perhaps late on a Wednesday morning, you’d likely find more than 50 tweets from the past hour containing the phrase. Some would be jokes: Brunch is my love language. Downtempo experimental bass is my love language. Listening to Dave Ramsey’s podcast together is my love language. Weed, music, avocado tzatziki—all have been cited as at least one person’s self-described love language. Other tweets would be earnest and self-appraising: Hanging out on the couch with him this weekend made me so happy—guess my love language is quality time. Almost all of them would also identify or explain the person’s own love language.
Elsewhere on the internet, such as on Reddit’s popular relationship-advice forum, r/relationships, the concept of love languages is equally ubiquitous, though taken a little more seriously. Advice-seekers frequently write in with dilemmas that are variations on a small handful of themes: “My partner and I don’t share the same love language,” “I’m failing to ‘speak’ my partner’s love language,” and “My partner is failing to speak mine.” Over the years, the idea has gotten high-profile exposure from celebrities like the “Millionaire Matchmaker” Patti Stanger and been discussed on TV shows like The Real Housewives of Orange County.
Today, people often trot out their self-identified love languages as shorthand to indicate how they behave in relationships, in the same casual and convenient way they might refer to their astrological sign or Myers-Briggs type (or Enneagram type, or Hogwarts house). In a recent Vice story about how the love-languages theory got so popular, for example, the author used zodiac terminology to talk about her love language, identifying herself as “an ‘acts of service,’ with a ‘words of affirmation’ rising.”
This self-focused way of discussing love languages is very different from what the concept’s inventor seems to have intended. As the idea has grown ever more ingrained in the popular consciousness (and ever more disconnected from the text that introduced it), Chapman’s consistent urging toward learning other people’s love languages and modifying one’s own behavior accordingly has been de-emphasized. In its place has emerged a notion that the point of knowing your love language is to find a partner with the same one, or to request that others learn to “speak” it. And as a result, at least according to some researchers, the real value of love languages as a relationship tool may be getting lost in a large-scale cultural game of telephone.
In 1992, Moody Publishers had “high hopes” for its release of Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages. A pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Chapman had been counseling couples for years, and he had recently been teaching the love-languages theory to seminars full of husbands and wives. Now he was putting his ideas into print.
Moody ordered about 8,000 copies of The Five Love Languages in its first run, according to Janis Todd, a publicity manager for the publishing house who has been working with Chapman’s book for 20 years. It enjoyed robust sales for a few years, she told me—and then sometime around 1999 or 2000, “the trajectory for sales began to almost just go straight up.” The book, a long-standing New York Times best seller, has now sold more than 12 million copies and been printed in 50 languages. Chapman’s The Five Love Languages has also spawned five special editions (for parents of small children, parents of teenagers, singles, men, and members of the military), an app called Love Nudge for couples, and a popular website launched in 2010, where more than 30 million people have taken a quiz designed to help individuals identify their own love languages.
Todd is well aware that the idea—that there are five love languages and everyone has a primary one—has eclipsed in popularity the book that introduced it. “People are using the phraseology of ‘love languages,’ and not even realizing it’s coming from this book,” she told me. At this point, she added, “it sort of has a life of its own.” (Indeed, as the Vice story noted, some therapists even impart the idea of love languages to their couples-therapy clients without having read the book: One therapist told the author she knew enough to know it was “a vehicle for people to communicate about yourself to someone else. It’s a way to ask for what you need.”)
But people who become familiar with the concept without reading the book often think, Todd noted, that people should simply express love in the way that feels natural to them and then explain to their partners that that’s their love language—or that the point is to know your own love language solely for the purpose of telling your partner what you want. Certainly, Todd emphasized, it’s good to know your own love language, and it’s healthy to communicate to your partner what makes you feel appreciated and what doesn’t do much for you. But Chapman’s advice, she pointed out, doesn’t stop there so much as it starts there.
If you sit down and read Chapman’s book, it’s clear that the love language you’re meant to think about isn’t your own, but your partner’s. The first chapter concludes by hammering home that the pathway to a more fulfilling relationship is to tailor your own expressions of love to what makes your partner feel loved: “We cannot rely on our native tongue if our spouse does not understand it,” Chapman writes. “If we want them to feel the love we are trying to communicate, we must express it in their primary love language.”
Chapman then devotes five chapters to identifying each of the love languages in a partner, just one to identifying your own love language, and the better part of six chapters—essentially the rest of the book—to specific strategies for adapting your behavior to your partner’s love language. In other words, what often gets lost in the discourse is that The Five Love Languages encourages attentiveness and behavioral self-regulation above all else.
Which, if you ask some relationship researchers, is a shame—because that’s the part that holds the most promise.
When the love-languages concept entered the cultural lexicon, it soon attracted the interest of a handful of relationship and marriage researchers who wanted to test Chapman’s claims as scientific hypotheses. Their findings have been mixed, but some researchers have found its attentiveness-plus-behavioral-change formula worthwhile. One study determined, for instance, that Chapman’s advice was likely to produce certain established “relational maintenance” behaviors that research had previously linked to higher rates of love, satisfaction, commitment, and equity in relationships. So in theory, it was certainly possible that a couple who applied the principles of The Five Love Languages to their day-to-day lives could end up with higher levels of relationship satisfaction. Another study found that love-language alignment (or two halves of a couple identifying as having the same love language) was a somewhat weak predictor of relationship satisfaction, especially when compared with self-regulating one’s behavior according to a partner’s wants and needs.
Julie Gottman—who co-founded the Gottman Institute for marriage and relationship research and therapy with her husband, the love and relationship researcher John Gottman, in 1996—told me she started getting questions about the love-languages idea about a decade ago. Often, the questions came from attendees at the couples workshops she hosts with her husband. Usually they were about whether they endorsed Chapman’s philosophy, and came from couples who had found the advice helpful.
“In workshops like that, you don’t want to invalidate somebody’s liking of a particular theory,” Gottman said.
Like other researchers in her field, Gottman harbors some doubts about the notion of love languages. For one thing, she’s not so sure about the idea that everyone has one primary language of affection; rather, she says, expressions of affection can vary in significance according to context. In some situations, an act of service or a word of affirmation will be especially meaningful to people even if they don’t believe their love language to be either of those things, for example, and “gifts” folks can encounter moments in which a well-intentioned gesture feels inadequate. Identifying a primary love language can also have a pigeonholing effect, she noted: Partners may begin to express affection in only one way, regardless of context, or recognize only one kind of act as an act of love. Plus, Gottman told me, some elements of a relationship that are framed as “love languages” in Chapman’s theory should be considered necessary ingredients in any healthy relationship—like quality time.
And when partners use the concept of love languages only as a way to talk about how they themselves instinctively express affection or what makes them personally feel loved, Gottman noted, the idea can actively cause trouble in relationships. Some survivors of combat or sexual-abuse trauma, or some people with autism-spectrum disorders, for example, won’t respond well to partners who insist on physical touch as the way they want to give and receive affection. (“Occasionally, I have encountered a researcher who doesn’t agree with my findings, and I’m okay with that. I welcome the results they discover in their own research,” Chapman said. He added that he likes to learn about other researchers’ models and sample sizes and learn how they arrived at the conclusion that the love-languages theory doesn’t apply.)
When I told Gottman, though, about the research that linked the self-regulating piece of Chapman’s original love-languages idea to actual improvements in relationship satisfaction, I believe her response can fairly be paraphrased as, Well, yeah. Is it any wonder that paying attention to a partner’s needs and wants and acting accordingly results in a better relationship?
In more than two decades of working together, Julie and John Gottman have developed their own model for building successful relationships. Called the Sound Relationship House Theory, the Gottmans’ model imagines a house with seven levels, and the base level of the house—the foundation, if you will—is labeled on the Gottmans’ diagram as “Build Love Maps.” To build a love map of any particular partner, Gottman told me, is to ask yourself, “How well do you know your partner’s internal world? How well do you know what their needs are? Their values, their preferences, their childhood experiences, their history and other relationships, what their current stresses are? What their hopes and aspirations are? How well do you know the person that you’re relating to—how well do you really know them, all the way down?”
If there’s any room at all for the concept of love languages inside the Gottmans’ theory, it’s here—at the base level that’s about “knowing who this person is, and knowing them really well.” Learning your partner’s love language—that is, paying attention to what gestures of affection he or she appreciates and responding accordingly—could be one small part of that. Only after that foundation is laid, Gottman noted, can couples move on to building the next six levels of the house, which include things such as developing the habit of affirming a partner’s bids for your attention and learning how to effectively manage conflict.
The real value of the love-languages theory, then, seems to be that when applied as Chapman advised, it encourages people to simply be more attentive to their partners: to ask questions about how they like to be treated, to consciously express affection and support, to check in about what, as Chapman likes to say, “makes their love tank feel full.” Perhaps what people misunderstand about the love-languages theory is similar to what they often misunderstand about love itself: that considering the needs and wants of the other person first and then adjusting your own behavior—and not expecting it to work the other way around—is what makes the whole thing work.
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Ashley Fetters is a staff writer at The Atlantic.