I was originally thinking of coming up with an inflammatory title for this post like “Chapman’s Love Languages Debunked” because that makes for good clickbait on the internet!
But this is The Marriage Podcast for Smart People and I figured, well, smart people are going to see that I’m just trying to create hype. And my mission is to help marriages, not create hype. So we’re actually going to look at research that examines the validity of the 5 Love Languages Concept and challenge you on how you might be using or abusing this concept in your marriage.
We have an exciting post for you this week. Today we’re going to be talking about Gary Chapman’s famous book, the 5 Love Languages. Now, the premise of the 5 Love Languages is that everyone has one single primary way in which they prefer to receive love and one secondary way. The five options are:
- Gift giving
- Quality time
- Words of affirmation
- Acts of service (devotion),
- Physical touch
The idea is that once you discover what yours and your spouse’s love languages are you’ll be better able to give and receive love in a way that resonates with them. This concept has been widely accepted in mainstream thought and seems particularly popular in the Christian world. But the purpose of what we do is to offer sound, research-based advice, which sometimes includes questioning popular ideas. Most of all, we offer hope and because we tell you what actually works in marriage.
So I’m working from the assumption that Gary Chapman is a brother in Christ and I have no desire to cut him up or attack his reputation. Where we’re coming from today is we’ve noticed a number of occasions in marriages now where the 5 Love Languages has actually been counterproductive to the health of the marriage. While it’s nice to put yourself in a box, we’ve seen it become an issue in a number of ways. So we want to look at what works, what doesn’t, and give you some research and some points to consider before you swallow the whole 5 Love Languages idea hook, line and sinker.
Is There Empirical Support for the 5 Love Languages?
If you look on the Wikipedia article it’ll say right away that there’s some question as to whether Gary’s concept can be empirically validated. Well, we’re happy to tell you some researchers have taken up the challenge. In 2006, Polk and Egbert[i] set out to determine if the claims made in Chapman’s book could be supported through an empirical study.
They took 86 couples and asked them to pick one of the five languages that best described the way they prefer to receive love. So these folks each had to pick their primary love language. Then they had to complete two surveys: how they preferred to receive love and how they preferred to give love. They also used a standardized assessment called the Quality of Relationships Inventory to measure the quality of these relationships (this is the non-Chapman part of the study).
Following this they bunched the people into three categories:
- Match: both spouses gave and received in their preferred Love Language. The way they gave and received love in their marriage was perfectly complementary.
- Partial match: only one spouse received his/her preferred Love language.
- Mismatch: neither spouse received their preferred Love Language.
Here’s what the researchers found, for and against Chapman’s ideas.
There was no correlation between the survey regarding how you preferred to receive love and your actual perceived preferred love language. In other words, if I said “choose one of the 5 Love Languages as your preferred one” and then gave you a detailed survey that asked 20 questions to help determine the same there would be no statistically dependable matchup between the two.
What you think your Love Language is when you pick one vs. trying to measure this by looking at what you actually do to express love and maintain your relationship doesn’t match up.
There are a few possible conclusions. One is that the study participants were too young (most were 18-22) and they didn’t really know themselves well enough to say how they best received and gave love. Or, it’s possible that all of the behaviors that display love and maintain a relationship are important. Which means there is no such thing as a preferred love language— they’re all equally important. Bottom line: further testing is necessary.
What the study did find is that 3/4 of couples fell into the partial match or the mismatch category. So the majority of marriages exist without one or both of the partners receiving love in their preferred way.
Love Languages and Relationship Satisfaction
Here’s the most concerning point: the study found that relational quality was not predicted by whether the couple was matched, partially matched, or mismatched. In other words, it didn’t matter if you spoke your spouse’s love language or not, or if one of you did and the other didn’t. If the Love Languages are such an important aspect of how couples experience love, surely having a mismatch would create dissatisfaction? But this does not appear to be the case: no significant difference was found in the relational quality of couples in the three categories of matched, partially matched or mismatched.
Additionally, “the couples with mismatched Love Language’s largely reported high relational quality. Perhaps as long as both partners feel under-benefited, they may not experience diminished relational quality[ii]”. What this is saying is that relational satisfaction may be more about a sense of fairness: are both spouses trying? Rather than being about if they’re speaking the right language.
So the research suggests that Chapman’s love languages are not as easy to identify in ourselves as you might think, and that they don’t appear to have much bearing on the quality of your relationship. In any case, Chapman does put popular language around the well-established concept of relational maintenance behaviors. These are the things we do in marriage in order to sustain the wellbeing of the relationship. These behaviors include everything from making your spouse a cup of coffee after a long day or telling them they look nice in that top to full body massages and trips away together, and they include all five of the Love Languages. So if Chapman’s book helps us understand the importance of these behaviors and gives us a way to talk about them more easily then there is definitely some value to his work.
I think the bottom line on the research side is that there appears to be some relevance and some irrelevance in Chapman’s concept. Obviously, it appeals to how we think— it’s a very popular book. But let’s critique a couple of points because not everything that is popular works out well. And part of what we are going to see here is that when the Bible defines love, it does so in a different way.
A Personal Reflection Exercise
Once again we’ve created a bonus worksheet for our much-appreciated supporters. This one is pretty cool because it’s a personal reflection exercise. Each of you should do this. We take 1 Corinthians 13 and lead you through a series of questions that takes this Bible passage on love and helps you to bring it into practice in your marriage.
Problems with Chapman’s Love Languages
There are three issues I want to raise and I’m drawing from the work of a Christian counselor Powlison[iii] who wrote a concerned critique of Chapman’s Love Languages.
First, Chapman’s theory of love languages is all about me and my desires. He raises a very good point here that resonates with the concerns we have. What if your preferred love language is actually sinful?
Here’s an illustration: let’s say you decide your love language is quality time. But what this actually means is “I feel loved when you drop everything to focus on me, are completely understanding, give me unconditional love, agree with all my opinions, and never disagree with me, question me, or interrupt me[iv]”. This sounds like narcissism or selfishness or just self-love and absorption.
You can keep going with this:
- Gift giving: you get me exactly what I want, when I want it.
- Physical touch: I only feel loved when we are physically intimate and don’t want you expressing any kind of intimacy with anyone else.
- Acts of service: you do what I want.
- Affirmation: here, take this huge wounded hole in my heart and I need you to fill it. Should this not be brought to Christ to fill? Idolatry is turning to anything other than God to meet our needs.
I’m not saying Chapman’s theory is sinful. I’m saying it can be applied in very sinful ways and I’m challenging our listeners who love this model to think about how they are applying it in their marriage. Knowing how you prefer to receive love is one thing, but using that as a justification for self-absorbed attitudes or expecting your spouse to bend over backwards to fit into your way of experiencing love is not Godly. What if we take the words “preferred love language” and substitute them with “selfish desire”. Even desires for good things can be evil or sinful. That’s a huge potential pitfall.
Second, Chapman’s theory of love can bring out a victim mentality and lack of responsibility for one’s own actions. Chapman talks about filling up your spouse’s love tank and keeping it full. But the corollary is that if my tank doesn’t feel full then you are not meeting my needs. But this doesn’t take into consideration how I am contributing to the problem. Instead, it can lead me to just think— well, Verlynda never fills my love tank, so she’s the problem.
This can also lead to jealousy or a tit-for-tat mentality— if you’re not going to fill my love tank, why should I bother filling yours?
Finally, the love languages can lead to manipulation. Again: we’re not villainizing Chapman here. I don’t believe for a second that he had this intention. But, what if I only use the love languages to give so that I can get?
For example, I want to have sex tonight. So I spend the day filling your love tank.
This is tricky because we ourselves teach that you need to touch your spouse’s heart before you touch their body. That’s why I say we’re not trying to make Chapman out to be the bad guy. But we all have this tendency that we’re not actually sincerely interested in nourishing our spouse’s affection, we’re just manipulating. I’ll scratch your back so that you scratch mine. I’m doing this for the benefit of my own back. That’s not Christlike. It undermines the fundamental principles of commitment and affection: showing that you care and love because you love and care about your spouse, not because you’re looking for a short term payback.
A Better Way to Love
If thinking in terms of Love Languages leaves us open to these kinds of problems, that leads to asking how we can do this whole love thing more effectively.
First, we need to acknowledge love’s emotional core. By this, I mean that we need to remember that love is also emotion.
I’ve said myself — from the pulpit and probably on this podcast — that we show love in our actions. This is true. Appreciating your spouse is definitely a good thing, and part of this is what you do. You see that Bible verse that is so well known, John 3:16 “For God so love the world that He sent his only begotten Son” and so on. God loved: He sent. Love in action, right?
But when we hold the idea that love is only about behavior and action we’ve lost something very important.
I know in my own experience that this is something I’ve pushed myself to work on. I love doing things for Verlynda and seeing her response. But what I really cherish is the feeling of love when I experience it as an emotion. I often see it coming up in a specific moment, not a behavior. Know what I mean? When you have one of those moments together. Yes, love has to have action. But the action comes out of emotion, not a sense of obligation or a desire for reciprocation. To feel love is a wonderful thing.
I like this definition: “Love is the emotion that we feel when we are drawn to an object we believe has value, worth or goodness[v]”.
Secondly, we need to understand that action, in itself, is not love.
Think about this Biblically. Again, Elliot gives help here because he points out that love is more than an exchange of actions or behaviors that bring satisfaction in a marriage. He goes to 1 Corinthians 13 to look at how love is defined: “Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.”
If you listen to that really carefully, those are not love languages. They are not actions or behaviors. There’s nothing in there about gift giving, quality time, words of affirmation, physical touch or acts of service. There’s a lot in there about attitude, perspective, values, commitment and positivity.
It’s about how you’re bringing yourself to your marriage, not just about what you’re doing to or for your spouse. Linking this back to the research, we saw earlier that a match between how spouses give and receive love doesn’t actually make your marriage any more satisfying[vi]. Not does a mismatch make your marriage worse. Perhaps this is because the underlying emotion of love is still present, and is strong enough to withstand being expressed in a way that isn’t a perfect match to our preferences. Love is expressed by doing, but it’s also far greater than the sum of all the individual actions that come out of it.
So yeah, I get that it’s not good enough to say “I love you” and never serve your spouse. But I just think it’s too simplistic to talk about “filling up my love tank” with the right language. And I think it’s a valid concern to raise to consider that we can be pretty selfish when we start insisting on our spouses speaking our language and meeting our needs like that.
So just remember that love is an emotional bond between two people. We have to do things to maintain that bond but God never intended for love to be measured by what you’re getting. Rather, it’s about what you’re giving. And that comes from a bond between you based on commitment.
So: did that make you smarter?
[i] Nichole Egbert and Denise Polk, ‘Speaking the Language of Relational Maintenance: A Validity Test of Chapman’s (1992) Five Love Languages’, Communication Research Reports, 23.1 (2006), 19–26 <https://doi.org/10.1080/17464090500535822>.
[ii] Egbert and Polk.
[iii] Powlison, David, ‘Love Speaks Many Languages Fluently’, The Journal of Biblical Counseling, 21.1 (2002), 2–11.
[iv] Powlison, David.
[v] Matthew Elliott, ‘The Emotional Core of Love: The Centrality of Emotion in Christian Psychology and Ethics’, Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 31.2 (2012), 105–17.
[vi] Egbert and Polk.