Many years ago, when I was in major survival mode in the thick of raising my children, one of my friends with an interest in family life education found out that I had a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy and asked if I had read the “Love Languages,” book by Gary Chapman which had recently been released. I had not. She lent it to me and I thought it was an interesting way to conceptualize expressions of love by categorizing behavioral types. The book inspired a fun conversation. I joked with my husband that I did not see my main current love language in the book, which was “sleep,” but I did see his love language, which also started with an “s,” and happened primarily in the bedroom, but was not “sleep.”
If you’re not familiar with Gary Chapman’s book, he is an educated pastoral counselor who has identified 5 categories of love languages: words of affirmation, quality time, gifts, acts of service and physical touch. The book is enormously popular and has grown into a branded enterprise with a huge following.
The book’s suggestions can be very helpful for some couples. It can be a wonderful resource for couples who are kind to each other. However, for many distressed situations, the seemingly benign model can quickly be weaponized to wreak havoc in a marriage. I want to warn people of the limitations of the paradigm. While it can facilitate loving acts in a relationship, it can also justify a quality of stinginess which is harmful. I rarely recommend the book in therapy because most couples have been previously introduced to it and use it in a way that is not helpful; to be fair, I’m a marriage therapist so people aren’t coming to me because they are blissfully happy, but allow me to explain.
Here are some examples of what I commonly hear couples express:
“He wants to kiss me when he gets home, but my love language is acts of service.”
“We did the love languages test, and she knows mine is physical touch, but she won’t let me near her, even when I do all the chores she wants….it’s never enough for her.”
“Well, he did wash the dishes and take out the trash and fold laundry and help put the kids to bed, but my love language is gifts, and he knows that, so I don’t know why he’s surprised that I didn’t want to have sex.”
“She said her love language was gifts, but every time I buy her something, she takes it back because I bought the wrong thing.”
“She knows that my love language is words of affirmation, but all I ever hear from her is criticism, and she spends all of our money and I don’t know what she expects me to use to buy gifts, which she says is her love language.”
“His love language is physical touch, but he knows mine is quality time, and he’s never around, so I don’t know how he expects me to want to kiss him. Mine is also acts of service and he never does anything to help either, so he doesn’t do either of my love languages.”
See what I mean? Couples routinely use the love languages to hurt each other more and to stay disconnected. The related themes are, “My partner knows my love language and refuses to do it, so I know I don’t matter to him/her,” and “Why should I speak his/her love language when he/she doesn’t reciprocate with mine?”
I hear this over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over.
I think Chapman’s intent was to both expand people’s imaginations and to increase behavioral congruency in showing love, but too often, they use his classifications to be less flexible about how they give and receive l’amour. His languages can be used as an excuse to reject a partner’s attempts to connect. They sometimes give people an excuse to have constraining expectations.
Furthermore, they are often used as an impaired regulatory device to police partners about whether they are reciprocating loving acts. For example, “I vacuumed the floor the other day because her language is acts of service, but she hasn’t done a single thing on my love language list.” Wearisome.
Chapman argues that most people operate from one primary love language. This makes for a tidy resale narrative, but it might be a tad simplistic. As people develop healthy relationships, they generally exhibit partner adaptation. They become more accepting of the offerings of their partners. I believe this is what Chapman had in mind, and I think some couples probably use the model this way. In fact, I think my husband and I use the model that way. However, couples in distress who worry that they are no longer loved develop rigid rules for identifying their relational worth. Their relational anxieties translate into inflexible demands for determining whether they are a priority.
The love languages model has not been empirically validated, which obviously does not matter in most popular psychology circles. Marketing and salesmanship are generally more important than accuracy when it comes to popular relationship ideologies. There was one very limited study on love languages with a small sample size (N=110), primarily Caucasian, mostly between ages 18-22 and with people in a relationship for less than five years. However, the authors only evaluated the factor structure and construct validity of the instrument. In short, the five languages do seem to represent psychometrically distinct categories and the behaviors do correlate with one other instrument designed to measure related constructs, but there aren’t studies to my knowledge demonstrating that people operate from one primary love language. It’s also difficult to know how people are applying the model, and that’s where a lot of the problem lies. Self-report would be intrinsically flawed.
There is a lot to like in the love languages books. If it encourages people to put more positive energy into their relationships, huzzah! However, don’t think that because you are more “fluent” in your partner’s rigidly defined “love language,” that somehow your marriage is going to magically improve, especially if it’s used quid pro quo. If you want to focus on your spouse’s happiness, love languages will help, but if you are constantly monitoring fairness, you will sabotage the book’s original intent.
Bottom line: We all speak the same love language. This fluency lies in secure relationship attachment. When we feel secure in our marriages, we are more cooperative about the specific ways in which we give and receive love. While it’s true that partners may have different foci at different time points in marriage, there is an ongoing fluidity of exploring and experimenting and expanding on ways to give and receive love, not a narrowing in exchange.
If you really want to be fluent in love languages, then increase your comfort level with all the categories. Be intentionally receptive to your partner’s efforts across the board.
And PLEASE stop using love languages as a blunt force weapon with which to bludgeon your partner! Those relational wounds that are invisible to the eye are the hardest to repair.
An excellent idea for a Valentine’s Day gift this year might be to increase your exchange of all 5 love language scales–I think it might be the best use of Chapman’s book.
The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts by Gary Chapman, 2015, Northfield Publishing.
Speaking the Language of Relational Maintenance: A Validity Test of Chapman’s (1992) Five Love Languages by Nichole Egbert & Denise Polk, 2006, in Communication Research Reports, 23(1), 19-26.
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