Starting in the early 1990s, I had couples in therapy start to mention something about their “love languages”. As a trained therapist, I was confused by this term “love language”. I had never heard it used in any context before, and I asked my clients to explain it to me.
Eventually they pointed me to the book by Gary Chapman called “The Five Love Languages”. I did a quick read and felt it reflected the approach taken by many pop-psych books. I mistakenly predicted it would have no impact on the counseling world.
I was wrong. At least, I was wrong about one aspect. It certainly does have an impact on the counseling world, if one refers to people going to marriage counseling. It has virtually no impact on therapists. There are some pastoral counselors who made extensive use of the material in their pastoral offices. But the concept itself does not line up with any therapy modality accepted by psychologists.
The premise of the book is very simple.
- There are five ways we show love to others
- Each of us prefers two of these languages
- Our partner will appreciate us more if we express love in their language.
- Couples should buy the book, identify their love languages, share this information with each other, and have a happy life together.
Boom! Instant marital success. Well, to Chapman’s credit, he never says this is a panacea to solve all difficulties in long-term relationships. Though, after reading the book, that implication is not hard to pick up. More to the point, desperate people in difficult relationships viewed it as a fix-all for their relationship. And on the surface, following this formula can improve some elements of a marriage.
But it can also make some existing relationship problems worse.
Long-term relationships are difficult and nuanced. Tricking out one element of the relationship may mask other problems. Following the principles in this book produce only a temporary fix. And when a couple puts all their hope in a temporary fix, the result can be devastating.
Chapman’s concept, and all the subsequent spinoff books, has several significant problems connected to it.
It is a Reductionistic List
Some people claim that Chapman never said this was a comprehensive list. But he actually does claim that. He goes into detail explaining his background in pastoral counseling and that the love languages that made the cut are the five he sees most often with couples. In fact, he claims several times that all expressions of love can be placed in one of these five categories.
To be fair to Chapman, research psychologists are always trying to reduce relationship and personality characteristics to three, four, or five categories. And Chapman may have seen that and wrote his thesis accordingly.
So in essence, these are five love CATEGORIES. But he doesn’t say that.
My first caution about the book is that it is dead wrong. Not only are these five love languages not the only ones, they may not even be the most important ones.
Let me give several examples of other love languages. Note that these are not even close to being all of the remaining love languages. There could be thousands of love languages for all I know. The five that Chapman chose are very Americo-centric, cis-heteronormative, and very much based in white culture. I am sure that individuals from other cultures would have a tough time identifying Chapman’s five as their subset of love expressions.
Sex: Chapman mentions several times that sex is just a type of Touch. But in this, he is wrong. There are many people that come into sex therapy with me who distinctly don’t like being touched. But they love sex. And then there are some who love to be touched and held, but do not have any desire for sex. Sex would never mean love to them, but touch would.
Sex is a completely different category on its own. Some find rough sex to be loving. Others find the same with oral sex, slow sex, BDSM, group sex, ethical non-monogamy. There are ways that other people find some sex to be unloving. As a love language, sex can have many expressions. But it is ludicrous to place sex under the Touch category.
Respect: Some would say Respect is different than love. But that argument could be made about quality time, and any of the other love languages. Many people believe that if a person shows respect, this shows their love for a partner. And there are hundreds of ways respect can be offered.
Example: A University of Washington study showed that couples married more than 40 years had one thing in common more than any other: The husbands respected their wife’s opinion. That is the only common identifier they found in interviews with these couples. Yet it does not show up on Chapman’s list.
Gentleness: In this sense, I am using the word “gentleness” as the opposite of “violence”. This is one of my major criticisms of Chapman. He does not differentiate between the five love languages shown in a gentle atmosphere versus a violent home. If a person is violent and then buys their partner gifts, the gift does not equal love. Neither does quality time if there is violence. Affirming words do not mean much if someone has bruises from last night’s fight. On their own, gentleness and safety are important ways that love is expressed. Most people would identify that as their first love language if they knew it was an option.
Partnership: This is the willingness to partner with someone you love as they attempt something difficult or painful. There are many examples of this. Being willing to sacrifice money, time, and effort to see your partner get a degree or a better job. Going with them to a funeral. Standing by them as they confront a difficult person. All of these rise above and beyond Chapman’s limited categories of ‘acts of service’ or ‘quality time’.
Listening With Understanding: One of the most loving and effective things a partner can do is to listen in a conflict with the goal of understanding. Most of us in conflict get defensive or want to win. But when someone listens with the goal of understanding, this shows the partner there is a greater goal; to love and work through the issue. The Gottmann Method, a standard in partner therapy, claims this is the greatest of the expressions of love.
There are too many more love languages to mention. Food, giving space for your partner to have time alone, inability to be easily offended, telling the truth, living in integrity; these are all love languages in their own right and should not be diminished because they didn’t make Chapman’s five.
The Basic Premises are Simply Not True
Since the book has now been in existence for over 30 years, it is not surprising a number of studies have been done to determine if the book is accurate.
This study looked at the questionnaire that Chapman uses, the five languages themselves, and whether participants could adequately measure their own preferences from the list. Their study showed that one could not determine their love language consistently from this questionnaire. So, the bottom line is that Chapman’s questionnaire is not accurate by any metric.
You should be aware that Chapman is not a psychologist. Neither is his theory based on any scientific research at all. He never claims it is. He simply says that the book is based on his own observations as a marriage counselor with no degree in counseling. That’s it. He is very up-front about it. So it should not surprise anyone that his results cannot be reproduced by scientific research.
There are several other studies that debunk his hypothesis, but I’ll just mention one more. In 2013, Polk and Egbert published this study in which they proved that people do not have two primary love languages, that they do not respond better if someone shows love in those languages, and that it can’t be proven that learning about and utilizing love languages helps relationships.
That pretty much says it all.
‘Love Languages’ Concept is Manipulative
We manipulate others when we do something for the purpose of getting them to behave the way we want them to. This is the underlying premise of Chapman’s book. He is telling us that if we learn another person’s love language and use that love language with our partner, they will respond better to us. This is manipulative and many people have identified it that way.
I was in therapy with one person who made it quite clear how he felt about his partner doing this. He knew when his partner was trying to get him to agree with him when he bought him expensive gifts over a short period of time. His partner would always follow it up with a big “ask” for something he wanted him to do. It was blatant manipulation. He wasn’t buying gifts out of love or concern.
Now, not everyone does this. But the book lends itself to this kind of use. And though this is an obvious misuse of the book, Chapman’s only caution about it shows up in a subsequent edition, suggesting that he didn’t see this kind of misuse until long after people were trying to implement the book into their relationships.
(Note: It is impossible to find original copies of the book unless you already own one. The book has been revised many times due to outlandish claims in the original edition).
Many therapists have written about the co-dependent nature of the Five Love Languages. They note that many people who are already co-dependent can be easily manipulated via love-bombing using this format. Though I would hope Chapman would be mortified by narcissists and other abusers using the Love Language modality in this way, it is exactly what love-bombing does. Nowhere in any edition of his many derivative books on the Love Language subject does he warn about love-bombing.
Nowhere is Trauma/Abuse Accounted For
One classic symptom of those who have been abused as children is the inability to trust that they are safe with other people. Therefore, a traumatized/abused person will notice how someone is using love languages and will immediately distrust it. If the person who is trying to love notices that the response is distrust, this will create further tension from the non-traumatized partner.
The best way to love a traumatized person is to keep checking in with them, holding space with them, and ask them how they would like to be shown love at any given juncture of the relationship. This is much better than trying to read your trauma-affected partner and guess what their love language might be on any given day.
Sometimes, the best expression of love is for one partner to leave the other partner alone for awhile.