Recently, I read an article by Richard Sima in The Washington Post (Love language advice for couples isn’t backed by science, new research shows) and I felt inspired to present an alternative view.
I have been a licensed counselor since 1996. In 2010, I wrote the award-winning, bestselling book, Secrets of Happy Couples, and I have been citing the concept of the five love languages in my counseling work with couples ever since. Just because it hasn’t been properly researched doesn’t mean it has no validity, and there haven’t been studies that decisively show it doesn’t work, in my opinion.
The lack of research could be explained by the fact that Chapman is an outsider to the academic research community. World-renowned psychiatrist William Glasser was given little credence in his profession because he was highly vocal with his opinions about the dangers of psychiatry and psychotropic medication. He even wrote a book titled, Warning: Psychiatry Can be Hazardous to Your Mental Health. There were few in the psychiatric research community who wanted to validate Glasser’s concepts. Might it be similar with a pastor who wrote couples advice? I don’t know, but it’s at least something to consider.
Not only do regular people find Chapman’s information useful but so do therapists. His book has sold over 20 million copies and has been reprinted in 50 different languages. These are amazing results for any book, particularly for one whose validity is being questioned.
When I first read Chapman’s book, The 5 Love Languages, it immediately made things clear about my own marriage to my deceased husband. It was obvious to me that my love language is quality time while his was acts of service. This did not mean that we didn’t appreciate some, or all, of the other love languages, but one stood out for each of us as the thing that felt most like love to us. If you want me to know you love me, then spend quality time with me. On the other hand, my husband appreciated when I would do things for him like cook and clean—or in Chapman’s language, acts of service.
We had been loving each other for 18 years but were questioning the other’s sincerity because the way we expressed our love wasn’t registering as love—we spoke different love languages. My husband passed away in 1999; he had leukemia and was ill for five years before his death. Because the chemical benzyne was linked to his type of leukemia, he stopped working as a mechanic and had lots of free time, which he spent with our sons, coaching various sports they played, among other things.
When I got done with work, I would tend to go wherever they were for some quality time, watching them play their sport. My husband would commonly ask, “Why aren’t you home cooking dinner?” This hurt my heart because it seemed to me that he didn’t care if I was with him or not. He wanted me to be fixing dinner. Little did I know at the time, that was how he interpreted love, much like his own mother had loved him.
It wasn’t until after he had a bone marrow transplant and needed lots of personal care from me that he looked at me and said, “You really do love me, don’t you?” I couldn’t believe it—I had been loving him for 18 years. How did he not know that? It was because he needed me to show it with acts of service, which I performed plenty during his illness. I was so happy that he realized I loved him in the end. And when I read Chapman’s book, I also realized Dave had loved me, too, as he was always performing acts of service, often preventing him from spending quality time with me.
If I were seeing us as a counselor, Chapman’s love languages would have truly helped us. I’m not saying, though, that it fixes everything that could be wrong with couples, but the concept has helped many, especially when delivered by a skilled counselor who understands Chapman’s work.
Sima’s article suggested that “love language thinking can do harm, encouraging adherents to stay in difficult or even abusive relationships.” To this point, I would say that abuse is not a love language. It may be seen and learned in childhood, but abuse is never to be confused with love. As for difficult relationships, sometimes that difficulty is worsened by speaking a different language to your partner, like the relationship my husband and I had. We loved each other for sure, but our relationship was more challenging because we often didn’t feel that love in the way that spoke love to us.
Also, according to the article, when Impett, Park, and Muise did a meta study of the research literature, they found that when subjects were asked to “rate the love languages on a continuous five-point scale” by how they “connect” with them, they consistently found that people tend to rate all five love languages very highly, indicating that most people connect with most or all five love languages.” This is not consistent with Chapman’s work. Of course, I like physical touch, receiving gifts, words of affirmation, and acts of service. Who wouldn’t? However, they don’t necessarily make me feel loved like quality time does. I cannot tell if the research connected the five love languages with “what makes you feel most loved” rather than “which ones you connect with.”
The article also claims that several researchers have found more love languages than the original five proposed by Chapman, and I would not argue against this. More research is needed to discover them. From the examples given, I could make a strong case that supporting a partner’s personal growth and autonomy is another love language. However, the others mentioned, being nice to your mother-in-law and being on time for the opera would be acts of service, while creating interests, learning things together, and doing novel things together would fall under quality time.
I can also agree with the third point of the article that “sharing the same love language may not improve your relationship.” Love language mismatches are not the only problem couples will have. This is why I would recommend reading Chapman’s book to try to learn to speak your partner’s love language and see if there are positive results. If there are, fantastic. If not, seek out a skilled couple’s counselor who could help you delve into deeper issues that may be occurring in your relationship.
Finally, the article speaks about “love language advice…could be interpreted as suggesting the unhappy partner change or compromise their own needs rather than finding common ground.” This may be a poor interpretation of Chapman’s work. When I work with couples, I do talk about each partner’s individual needs, as well as the needs of the relationship. When two people come for counseling who want to improve their relationship, I ask them if they are willing to express their individual needs while simultaneously working toward satisfying the needs of the relationship. They won’t always want to relinquish their own needs for the good of the relationship, but if they do, then the therapist’s job is to see that this sacrifice is comparable. One person never sacrifices their needs for the other—it is always for the relationship.
Should only one person be willing to put their individual needs on hold for the relationship, then I work with them alone to clarify their necessary boundaries. Can you separate performing your new behaviors for the relationship, rather than for you partner? If so, how long are you willing to try? How will you know when the relationship is working or when it becomes untenable for you?
No one book can ever fix what’s wrong with all couples but, at least in my practice, I believe Chapman’s love language concepts have helped more of my clients than anything else, including my own book, Secrets of Happy Couples. Do not dismiss The 5 Love Languages out of hand. Try it, and if it doesn’t help, dig deeper with a professional who is trained to work with couples.