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Are Love Languages Real? Debunking Myths Of Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages

Dr. Lisa Lawless

Dr. Lisa Lawless, CEO of Holistic Wisdom
Clinical Psychotherapist: Relationship & Sexual Health Expert

heart with question marks around it

Are Love Languages Important?

The concept of 'love languages' in relationships has nestled comfortably into our everyday vocabulary. However, it isn't the magic potion for relationship bliss that it's often made out to be. Let's take a journey and explore some of the issues that are controversial with this popular relationship methodology.

What Are The 5 Love Languages?

The 'love languages' refer to the idea that people have a primary and a secondary preference for how they give and receive affection. The concept of 'love languages' was written by Gary Chapman, who is a Baptist pastor with a degree from the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His degree focused on biblical studies, providing in-depth Christian theological studies and preaching.

I mention this because some people feel it significantly shapes his perspective in his work and also highlights that he lacks the qualifications to devise such a psychological framework for couples. However, I will delve into that a bit more later.

Chapman popularized the idea of 'love languages' in his 1992 book "The Five Love Languages," which has been widely used in mainstream culture. According to Dr. Chapman, the five 'love languages' include:

  • Words of Affirmation
  • Acts of Service
  • Receiving Gifts
  • Quality Time
  • Physical Touch

Through his 'love language' concept, he proposes that a couple's relationship quality will improve by expressing love to one's partner in their preferred love language.

With that in mind, let's explore what the research shows in why love languages are limited in their usefulness and how they can be potentially harmful in some situations.

Are Love Languages Real?

To begin, Gary Chapman's 'love languages' are not based on scientific theory. Instead, they are anecdotal speculations. While some couples feel his work has helped them, others disagree.

The biggest problem with his work is that he never bothered to do any systematic investigation, data collection, analysis, peer-review process, or replication of results by independent researchers to establish them as accurate. Thus, Chapman's work is a type of pop psychology.

Pop Psychology Vs. Psychology

Pop psychology can be helpful as it presents ideas easily. However, it is often oversimplified and sometimes inaccurate due to its lack of scientific basis. Typically shared through blogs, media, and self-help books, pop psychology should be approached cautiously. Because it lacks research, it can lead to unhealthy advice.

Additional Areas Of Controversy

Dr. Gary Chapman has been criticized for holding patriarchal and homophobic views, as well as for expressing skepticism towards fundamental scientific theories like evolution. Furthermore, the concept of love languages emerged from his role as a pastor while religiously counseling couples and nothing more.

Despite possessing a Ph.D., Gary Chapman's specialization as a pastor does lend itself to the psychological insights and skills needed for creating such a theory. Let's review how 'love languages' can be problematic in more detail.

What Chapman Teaches

Chapman suggests that a partner can decipher one’s preferred love language by observing how they express love. Furthermore, he claims that understanding and communicating through your partner’s love language, couples will have a more gratifying relationship.

Where This Goes Wrong

What is troubling is that some couples' counselors have reported that couples have divorced or broken up because of the differences in their 'love languages.' Based on these premises, they felt entitled to their preferred 'love language,' mistakenly believing their partner should simply submit to these preferences using Chapman's work as justification.

This oversimplification of compatibility can be quite damaging to a relationship. Such a narrow perspective disregards the need for the flexibility crucial for romantic relationships to thrive.

It is also vital to understand that one of the most critical components of a healthy relationship is self-love. We should not solely rely on our partner to fulfill all of our emotional needs since nurturing our own spirit is part of the self-care we are responsible for maintaining.

Moreover, 'love languages' aren't a one-size-fits-all solution for relationship challenges. If there are deeper, unresolved issues, merely communicating through one's preferred 'love language' won't miraculously fix those problems. 

Are Love Languages Bad?

Are 'love languages' bad for couples? They can be. The notion of 'love languages' has garnered much attention in the public eye, yet it's crucial to approach it with a discerning mindset. Scientific studies cast a cautious and critical approach when engaging with the 'love languages' framework.

While there's nothing inherently wrong with Dr. Chapman offering relationship advice based on his anecdotal pastoral experiences, concerns arise when he generalizes insights gleaned from a limited number of heterosexual, cis, married couples to the broader population. There is no one-size-fits-all therapeutic approach to relationship issues.

Studies That Debunk The Love Languages

There is research contradicting Chapman's theories that have been conducted by those who specialize in psychology. For example, a 2013 study conducted by Poke and Egbert found no evidence supporting the existence of primary and secondary 'love languages.'

Rather, their findings suggest that individuals do not necessarily prioritize one 'love language' over the others and typically consider all forms of love expressions significant. Additionally, no evidence indicates that individuals who score highly on a particular 'love language' prefer to express love in that manner.

Further debunking of 'love languages' occurred in a 2017 study by Blunt and Hazelwood that demonstrated there is no correlation between utilizing a partner's primary love language and achieving higher relationship satisfaction.

In addition, one 2018 study that utilized Chapman's Love Language Quiz discovered that couples sharing similar love languages didn't report higher satisfaction levels than those with differing love languages.

In essence, Gary Chapman did not empirically validate the theories outlined in his Five Love Languages framework. Despite this lack of validation, he published a book propagating these ideas and has continued publishing more.

One positive study from 2022 revealed that heterosexual partners whose love languages aligned did report higher levels of relationship and sexual satisfaction compared to those with different love languages.

However, this study had some issues, such as potential response biases, multicultural sample variations, and causality direction issues. This means that the backgrounds of the participants may have influenced it, and the study didn't look at all the possible reasons why couples might match in their love languages.

Subsequent research by other scholars has not corroborated his original theoretical framework. Thus, calling into question the accuracy and reliability of Chapman's popular concept but also causing one to wonder about the harm it may be causing to couples.

What harm could it cause? Let's delve into that.

Potential Problems With Specific Love Languages

While love languages may serve as insightful guides to expressing and receiving affection, it's crucial to understand their limitations. Let's explore such issues in each of the five love languages below:

Acts of Service

A harmonious relationship necessitates shared responsibilities, including finances, household tasks, and children. When an imbalance occurs, and we over-serve our partner in service, it creates resentment, inequity, and fatigue. Constantly caring for your partner can also lead to losing sight of your needs, goals, and identity.

Additionally, if you perceive your value in the relationship as being based on what you do for your partner, it can erode your self-worth. You may also feel unrewarded if your acts of service are taken for granted rather than appreciated and reciprocated.

Furthermore, partners who receive repetitive and frequent acts of service can become overly reliant and dependent, losing their sense of responsibility and independence. Partners can also unconsciously use acts of service to control or manipulate the relationship dynamic or by demanding them.

Quality Time

When your significant other asks for more of your time than you can afford to give or takes away from the time you need for yourself to regenerate and decompress—you may find yourself feeling resentful and exhausted.

In addition, spending excessive time together may lead to a loss of individuality, where you may neglect personal hobbies, interests, and connections that are important for your sense of self.

Consistently sacrificing your own needs to spend a lot of time with your partner or going on a lot of dates with them may cause you to feel overwhelmed or even emotionally distant. This can eventually make these moments together feel burdensome and like a chore rather than enjoyable.

Partners may also become overly reliant on such social fulfillment, leading to an unhealthy imbalance of dependence and impeding personal growth.

Physical Touch

We all possess unique comfort levels and desires regarding physical affection, but our needs and boundaries should also be respected. When one's partner insists on specific forms of touch or sexual engagement that misalign with our comfort or consent, it can cause challenges in the relationship.

In addition, some people exploit 'love languages' to manipulate partners into engaging in uncomfortable physical behavior. For example, it has been noted that some people who say their 'love language' is physical touch will pressure the expectation that their partner should submit to sexual demands even when they are not comfortable with it. Situations like these have led to incidences of sexual coercion through pressuring or guilting partners into sexual activity and even sexual assault.

A partner who begins to feel obligated to engage in physical acts may begin to experience the loss of feeling in control over their own body. It should also be noted that pressure to provide physical touch can increase anxiety as well as trigger trauma or PTSD in individuals with past abuse experiences.

Dependency on physical touch as the primary means of connection can also mean avoiding addressing deeper issues. It can also create an expectation of continuous physical affection regardless of how a partner feels about it.

The Overemphasis On Sex Regarding Physical Touch

Some critics observe that a primary love language for many men is physical touch, as a significant number tend to equate it with sexual intimacy. However, Chapman outlines that physical touch doesn't necessarily refer to sexual touching and lists other forms of physical affection such as hugging, kissing, holding hands, patting one another on the back or shoulder, touching one's arm or face, and snuggling. What he does not explore is consent and personal boundaries.

For related information on this, please see our guide: How To Ask For Better Sex.

Words of Affirmation

Seeking words of affirmation for continuous affection and validation becomes particularly challenging when one partner attempts to coax expressions of love from a partner that may be excessive, unnatural, or dishonest. This can be especially unhealthy when a partner is demanding it and is exhibiting narcissistic tendencies.

It may also lead to an unhealthy reliance on words of affirmation, creating dependency, low self-esteem, and resentment if those expectations are unmet. Over time, repeated words of affirmation may also lose value if used without sincerity.

For a healthy relationship, it is crucial to avoid such uncomfortable dynamics. Feeling obliged to express love through words constantly without an internal desire can create anxiety, especially for individuals who struggle with verbal expression.

Respecting each other's unique ways of expressing love is fundamental. Each partner should feel at ease and free to convey their affection comfortably.

Receiving Gifts

In utilizing the 'love languages' framework, be cautious if gifts are your primary language of love. The gift-receiving partner might develop a sense of entitlement, while their partner may feel they must spend money to please them. It can inadvertently promote materialistic values, equating love with expensive items.

Furthermore, it can put a great deal of pressure on a partner to feel they must constantly be getting their partner material tokens of affection to prove they love their partner. In contrast, a gift-receiving partner may become expectant of their partner to consistently initiate expressions of love through gifts.

Expectations around the type and value of gifts may also not be realistic in the relationship, leading to disappointment. Over time, the emotional impact of receiving gifts may decrease, requiring more significant or frequent gifts to achieve the same level of satisfaction. Additionally, there is also a danger when gifts are used as a means of control within the relationship.

Gift-giving also lacks the ability to foster deep intimacy built through time, communication, and shared emotional connections. It is always a good idea to practice expressing and receiving love in a financially considerate manner by discussing realistic and appropriate approaches to gift-giving.

Offshoot Theories About Love Languages

Are Love Languages Really Childhood Needs?

Some people claim that your love language is essentially what you did not receive as a child. For instance, if someone did not receive much praise growing up, they might particularly value and respond to words of affirmation as adults.

This perspective suggests that individuals develop preferences for giving and receiving love in ways that compensate for unmet needs. However, one must approach this idea with cautious skepticism, as no studies provide such conclusive evidence.

Realistically, how people express and understand love is likely influenced by a complex interplay of factors, including personality traits, cultural background, family dynamics, life experiences, and more.

If you find the love languages framework helpful in understanding yourself and your partner, it could be a valuable tool; however, be aware that such pop psychology oversimplifies things.

Does The Opposite Of Your Preferred Love Language Hurt You The Most?

A similar stance made by relationship novices claims that what hurts you the most is the opposite of your love language. Nonetheless, psychology does not support this notion, as ANY of the mentioned things below could be hurtful to someone:

  • If your love language is 'acts of service,' your partner not following through with tasks would be painful for you.
  • If it is 'physical touch,' you would be most hurt by physical neglect, abuse, corporal punishment, or threats.
  • If 'quality time' is your love language, distractions during your time together or extended periods without time together would be hurtful.
  • For those whose love language is 'words of affirmation,' the pain would come from a lack of recognition or appreciation for your efforts or a lack of support for your interests.
  • Lastly, unenthusiastic gift-receiving or forgotten special occasions would be particularly hurtful for individuals who value gifts.

This idea is an example of when people build upon pseudo-psychology to create other concepts. However, it is easy to see that any of these things could be hurtful to anyone regardless of their love language. This clearly negates the idea that individuals process painful experiences based on the opposite of their preferred love language.

A Fresh Take: 18 Love Languages

Since the introduction of Chapman's five 'love languages,' Anne Hodder-Shipp, certified sex and relationships educator, published "Speaking from the Heart: 18 Languages for Modern Love."

In it, she outlines love languages such as accountability, active listening, acts of empathy, affirming communication, bestowing, emotional labor, engaged experiences, intentional time, personal growth, platonic touch, problem-solving, providing, shared beliefs, solidarity, teamwork, and more.

This more inclusive book acknowledges love without conventional boundaries of gender and sexual orientation. It also dismantles the traditional hierarchy often imposed upon relationships, offering various possibilities.

However, like Chapman, it has not undergone any systematic investigation, data collection, analysis, peer-review process, or replication of results by independent researchers to establish them as accurate. Therefore, it can also be categorized as a form of pop psychology, albeit a more inclusive and comprehensive one.

In Closing

There is an ongoing effort by many to oversimplify relationships, grab readers, and make it all seem so simple. It can make relationships seem less daunting and sell books like "The Five Love Languages." 

However, the truth is that to make a relationship satisfying, you must recognize that they are complex, much like our own intricacies. It's crucial to understand that removing rigid concepts on how we perceive and communicate love allows us the freedom to experience and express it more fully to one another.

Hence, approaching 'love languages' as a potentially helpful yet limited tool rather than a cure-all allows for healthier and more realistic expectations in fostering intimacy.

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