What’s your love language? Are you particularly receptive to words of affirmation? Or maybe you appreciate spending quality time with your partner, or cherish physical touch, or splashing out on a gift to express your love. Whatever your love language is, it has one thing in common with the others: none of them are supported by empirical research, according to a new study.
The notion of love languages has become deeply entrenched in society these days. In fact, the idea that people express and receive love in specific ways has become so popular that it has featured in various memes and as lyrics to songs.
The concept was first introduced by Gary Chapman in 1992, when he published his influential The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts, where he explained how there are five unique categories related to communicating love. The development of these categories was based on his experience in marriage counseling and linguistics. Since then, Chapman’s book has been translated into 50 languages and sold over 20 million copies worldwide.
The idea has spread far and wide; a casual Google search will offer you a glut of advice pages, charts, and quizzes, not only to help you identify your own love language, but also to offer tips on how to communicate it to your partner. There are even government initiatives that have been influenced by Chapman’s principles, including a $20 million relationship education and counseling programme that the Australian government has backed.
But while the idea may be cute, is it accurate? Well, as with all popular psychological ideas that try to compress complex social behaviours into easily digestible and identifiable categories, there are skeptics. And now a new study has poured cold water on Chapman’s ideas by finding very little empirical data to support it.
“Although there is only a limited body of empirical research on love languages”, the authors write, “the work that does exist does not provide strong support for the validity of the love languages’ core assumptions.”
Firstly, contrary to the prevailing idea that we all have our own specific form of love expression, our “primary [love] language”, research has consistently shown that people tend to “endorse all five love languages as meaningful ways of expressing love and feeling loved.”
This is a bit of a blow to one of the main principles of the love language system. If individuals do not actually have a preference for a specific language, then everything the idea is built on starts to wobble.
The second assumption, that there are only five forms of love language appears to be equally shaky. According to the researcher’s review of the existing literature, there are more ways to express love, including supporting a partner’s personal growth and autonomy. In addition, incorporating your partners into your wider social networks and developing conflict management strategies are also key.
Finally, Chapman’s third key assumption, that couples who “speak” the same love language report greater relationship quality, has also failed to show any meaningful evidence to support it. When testing whether couples who share the same languages (vs. those who don’t) claim to be more satisfied, the results were not empirically significant. In contrast, the evidence seems to suggest that receiving any form of love is associated with greater relationship satisfaction.
Responding to the study, Chapman has said that his book’s success speaks for itself. As he told the Washington Post, “I think the fact that so many millions of people have read the book, so many people have found it to be helpful in their relationship, that I’m convinced it can have a tremendous positive impact on a marriage.”
How can over 20 million people be wrong? Well it wouldn’t be the first time in history a large body of people believed and endorsed something that has little basis in reality.
Love as a diet?
So how do the researchers recommend we think about our love expressions and relationships if they have now toppled the romantic Tower of Babel? They recommend viewing relationships as a kind of balanced diet:
“We offer an alternative metaphor that we believe more accurately reflects a large body of empirical research on relationships: Love is not akin to a language one needs to learn to speak but can be more appropriately understood as a balanced diet in which people need a full range of essential nutrients to cultivate lasting love.”
The explain that, just as we need a varied diet providing all the key nutritional ingredients, such as carbs, protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals, so too do our love lives.
“[A]lthough people might be able to successfully maintain their relationships even if they are missing a particular ingredient (e.g., lack of physical touch in long-distance relationships), the best relationships will be ones in which partners spend time together (quality time), express appreciation (words of affirmation), show affection (physical touch), help and support each other (acts of service), and make each other feel special (which is presumably the intention behind gifts), among other behaviors (e.g., support for personal goals and autonomy) not captured in Chapman’s five love languages.”
The study is published in Current Directions in Psychological Science.