Hi, my name is Rebecca Watson and I’m here to give you relationship advice. What are my qualifications, you ask? None. What’s my personal “success rate” at maintaining healthy relationships? Gotta be honest, pretty spotty! So why should you listen to me? Uh, because I have like a hundred thousand subscribers on YouTube. What a stupid question.
For the past year or so, a surprising number of people in comments here, on Patreon, and on social media have asked me to talk about the Five Love Languages. I have absolutely no idea why. Well, I get that this is basically like astrology and they want me to debunk it but I’m not sure why it’s become so popular recently. I assume that in this time frame, “love languages” have grabbed the attention of the TikTok set or something, but I always demurred because I just didn’t have any recent and relevant research or commentary to discuss on the subject. Well, today all that changes, because I have just seen an actual scientific study published this month that purports to put the popular idea under the ol’ microscope. So let’s talk about it!
First of all, in case you’re living in the past and still try to learn more about your partner with outdated methods like using their star sign, looking up their Myers Brigg personality type, or just, like, asking them about themselves, what are the five love languages? The concept was invented in the early ‘90s by Gary Chapman, a Baptist minister who counseled some of his congregation on their marriages. Gary decided that one reason couples weren’t getting along was because of a lack of understanding how the each prefer to show and receive love. He came up with five categories, all of which are nice but which could have an important order of preference to each person in a relationship. They are:
words of affirmation
acts of service
Gary claimed that your relationship will be better off if you know your preference and your partner’s, so that you can each bump up your use of the other’s preference. There’s a quiz you can take online, and back in 2018 when I first heard about this idea, I went ahead and took it. My preferred love language was “physical touch,” and my partner’s was “acts of service.” You may think that the fact that we’re still together more than five years later means that the love language quiz was helpful, but you’d be wrong because I forgot what our results were and I had to search my own Twitter feed to be reminded.
I didn’t find the love language viewpoint particularly helpful, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t see the potential good in it: I bet there are people out there who are confused because, say, every Friday they buy their partner flowers but their partner still feels unloved. Their partner just doesn’t view gifts as a true declaration of love, the way they would view, say, their partner literally saying “I love you” or doing the laundry for once.
What this is really about is simply empathy. It’s kind of funny that this was thought up by a Baptist minister because it directly contradicts a particularly well known Bible verse, the “golden rule”–Matthew 7:12 reads “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” which is nice at first blush but in practice falls short. You might be a huge NASCAR fan but that doesn’t mean I will be overjoyed if you give me tickets to the Indy 500. By the way, after I wrote that in this script I looked it up and confirmed that no, that is not even a NASCAR race. My point stands.
A better maxim, and one which Gary the minister stumbled upon, is the “platinum rule”: to “do unto others as they would have you do unto them.” The problem is that this is a little harder to do because it requires empathy: understanding what another person is feeling, and then treating them accordingly. Not just doing something because, well, it’s what YOU would have wanted.
With that in mind, it’s kind of hard to argue against the idea of “love languages” on its own. If it helps lead people to the truth that their partner has a unique perspective that is worth understanding, it seems good to me. There’s nothing revolutionary about it but that means there’s also no extraordinary claim there. The only thing I’ve personally found objectionable is any idea that there’s scientific proof that learning your partner’s “love language” directly or solely leads to healthier or longer lasting relationships, which I have rarely seen anyone claim. In fact, I really only see people arguing that it’s NOT that, though I am not on TikTok very much so I am probably missing some more extreme opinions on the matter.
I’ll also say that I do find Gary Chapman HIMSELF objectionable. He’s an old Baptist minister so it won’t surprise you to learn that he’s said some stupid shit about gay people, notably writing on his website that God “designed” men and women for each other and that’s why it’s disappointing when your kid comes out of the closet but make sure you hate the sin and love the sinner, that type of boomer ass bullshit.
That said, there is nothing homophobic or even heteronormative in the basic idea of “love languages.” If it’s true, it’s as true for gay couples as straight couples, and it’s even true in friendships and other relationships where one would show someone else love.
So given my understanding that “love languages” are an inoffensive and possibly helpful idea, I was interested to see what scientists would want to study about them. In this paper, “Popular Psychology Through a Scientific Lens: Evaluating Love Languages From a Relationship Science Perspective,” the researchers evaluate three claims:
that (a) each person has a preferred love language
(b) there are five love languages, and
(c) couples are more satisfied when partners speak one another’s preferred language.
I think that’s fair. All of those appear to be points made by both the author and proponents, though I struggled to see how this study’s authors would go about testing each of them in one paper. The answer is that they didn’t. This paper does not actually detail any new research–it is just a review of existing literature as it relates to those three questions. Which is fine! But in this case it falls way short.
The authors claim to debunk point number 1, “each person has a preferred love language,” by saying that research shows “people tend to endorse all five love languages as meaningful ways of expressing love and feeling loved” and when forced to just pick one the one they pick doesn’t necessarily match the one they are assigned after answering questions. But, that just kinda jibes with what Chapman seems to say about this stuff in his books and interviews: yeah, all the “love languages” are things people tend to like. Very few people in the world would say that their “love language” is their partner making snide remarks about their weight or secretly stealing items and then pretending to not know where they are. They aren’t controversial! And honestly when I took the test I found myself downplaying how much I enjoy getting gifts, because who the fuck wants to be the person whose “love language” is “MONEY PLEEEEEASE”? That might be why this review found that hardly anyone chose “gift giving” as their primary love language despite obviously liking it when answering questions rating their relative preferences.
When it comes to point (b), that there are five and only five love languages, I was surprised to learn that Chapman actually does seem to believe that. Like when he told the New York Times a few years ago, “I’ve seen some of those — you know, ‘The sixth love language is tacos,’ and one guy said, ‘The sixth love language is chocolate,’” he said. “Well, if they bought it, it’s a gift. If they made it, it’s an act of service. I’m not dogmatic, but I think most of the ways of expressing love fit into one of these five.”
This is one of those things that’s kind of like religion: maybe you can’t really test it “scientifically” because the proponent will always weasel their way around it like that. So how did this paper account for that? Well, they didn’t. They bring up a few examples of “ways to express love” that they don’t feel are represented by the five love languages, like “support for a partner’s autonomy or personal goals outside of the relationship,” but we can really easily just apply Chapman’s own clearly stated rebuttal to that: HOW do you support your partner’s autonomy or personal goals? Do you GIFT them classes at the local community college? Do you USE YOUR WORDS to AFFIRM their independence? Do you use physical touch to shove them out the door of the airplane during that first skydive? BOOM, got ya.
As for the third point, that “couples are more satisfied when partners speak one another’s preferred language,” the evidence presented against it here is thin. The authors point out that there have been a few studies on couples who claim to share the same love language, and that none of them “found empirical support that couples in which partners match (vs. mismatch) in their primary love language report higher relationship satisfaction.” But later they write, “existing research on matching in other domains, such as in conflict (Busby & Holman, 2009) or language styles (Bowen et al., 2017), has demonstrated that matching is not uniformly associated with positive outcomes and the implications of matching depend on specific forms or contexts of the interaction.” So…”matching” love languages doesn’t result in higher satisfaction but neither does matching in other more important things, so shrug emoji. Cool, thanks.
The authors point out that studies show that when people think their partners are making an effort to “speak their love language” they report greater satisfaction than otherwise. That seems pretty damning to their hypothesis, but they write, “it is possible that receiving expressions of love in any form could have relationship benefits regardless of a person’s preferences.” But when you click through to the study they cited, that isn’t true: those researchers asked people in committed relationships (both hetero and same sex) to take the Love Language test to identify their primary language, and then they had them score how well they thought their partner showed EACH of the five love languages. The respondents who said their partner excelled at the love language they happened to get in the test were more satisfied in their relationships than the people whose partners may have been good at showing love in other ways but NOT their preferred way according to that test. And by the way, that study found no difference between gay and straight couples, I’m sure much to the chagrin of the people who dismiss the idea of love languages because of Gary Chapman’s bigotry and also of Gary Chapman himself who would probably prefer those same sex couples just break up already.
So it’s weird, that this paper has been published with no real meat on it. And it even got a glowing, totally credulous write up in the Washington Post. I wonder why? Oh hold on, I forgot to continue scrolling down past the “debunking” of those three main points in the hypothesis. Let’s see, what’s this? “Insights From Relationship Science: Love as a Nutritionally Balanced Diet.” Sigh.
“…we suggest that the love-languages metaphor could be replaced with another simple, intuitive metaphor: The process of maintaining successful, loving relationships is akin to keeping a healthy, balanced diet.”
I’m going to stop them right there. I appreciate the effort to come up with a competing metaphor that might be easily spun into a national Pop Psychology airport convenience store bestseller, maybe it’s not the best idea to encourage a Western audience to treat their relationships the way we treat our diets. Because our diets are terrible. If this idea catches on the way Love Languages caught on, we’re all going to end up with Relationship Scurvy. Whatever the “love” equivalent of Hot Cheetos is, that’s what we would all subsist on. Anyway, moving on:
“Whereas Chapman’s (2015) language metaphor implies that people can feel love only when their partner speaks their love language,” (note: love languages do not imply that at all) “the healthy-diet metaphor suggests that people need multiple essential nutrients to maintain satisfying relationships. Although people can certainly stay alive if they consume only some ingredients (e.g., carbs), we ultimately need all key nutritional ingredients (e.g., carbs, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals) to be in the best state of health. Likewise, although 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, express appreciation, show affection, help and support each other, and make each other feel special (which is presumably the intention behind gifts; Komiya et al., 2019), among other behaviors (e.g., support for personal goals and autonomy) not captured in Chapman’s five love languages.”
This metaphor is so tortured that I’ve actually reported these authors to the International Court of Justice. But as they carefully review this case, I want to point out that there is absolutely no reason for this to be in this paper. Like, yes, often authors will suggest how their work might lead to improvements in certain areas, but this “nutrition” idea is pulled completely out of thin air with no real explanation. Like, if you’re proposing that this framework somehow replace “Love Languages,” you’re going to have to do a whole separate paper to explain why. Like, how is “making my partner feel special” the “protein” of a healthy relationship? Or is it a carb? Sorry, it’s just a bit unclear whether giving my partner gifts would give our relationship more strength or energy. Or if it’s more like fiber and helps our relationship poop on a regular schedule.
Ultimately, who are these researchers to say that those attributes, plus “other behaviors” they don’t bother to list in full, are the necessary ingredients for “the best relationships?” They have just as much evidence for this as Chapman did when he wrote his book, but at least Chapman’s idea was catchy and detailed enough to actually be useful to people.
I know that this will all be a bit disappointing for many of you, who were probably expecting me to come in here swinging against Love Languages because it kinda seems like they’re being used as horoscopes for people who think they’re too smart for horoscopes. And it WOULD be stupid if someone used a potential partner’s preferred love language to reject them out of hand, or to make assumptions about a person because they prefer one love language to another, or to assume that because “X” is a person’s love language they can’t possibly experience the feeling of being loved in any other way. But outside of those extremes, I honestly think that this is just a simplified way to get people thinking empathetically about the people around them and that’s a good thing.
I often think back to one of the first “relationship rules” I remember hearing as an adult, from a therapist: that one of the easiest ways to tell if a relationship was going to last was if any person in the relationship expressed contempt. I still remember the example I heard along with it: a couple was in his office for marriage counseling and the husband, who was an avid birdwatcher, looked out the window and pointed out a cool bird in the tree. Instead of looking, the wife rolled her eyes and changed the subject.
Contempt could be expressed as that eye roll, or sarcasm, or “jokingly” putting down a partner – that’s all stuff that was basically my primary form of communication in my early 20s. Being cooler and funnier and more interesting than everyone else. And my relationships at the time suffered for it – I was an asshole, my partner would be an asshole, and we passed it off as banter. Once I heard that, about contempt, I actively stopped myself from doing it. It took a long time and I’m still not perfect, but I stopped doing things like rolling my eyes because I thought what my partner was saying was stupid or not worth my time. And along with stopping the actions I changed the thinking behind those actions: why was I feeling superior? Why wasn’t I taking an active interest in my partner’s interests? Why was I only able to joke around in ways that put my partner down?
When researching this video I decided to finally see if that “contempt” thing was based on any science. I found that the popularity of this idea likely originated with a psychologist named Dr. John Gottman, who together with his (third) wife runs the Gottman Institute, which helps train therapists in science-based techniques. As such, he does have many studies supporting his hypothesis that contempt, along with the other “Four Horsemen of impending divorce,” criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling, inevitably lead to the failure of relationships.
While he DOES have research suggesting this, it’s worth noting that a study in 2010 found that using Gottman’s marriage strengthening techniques “had no positive impact and, in one case, “had negative effects on couples’ relationships.”
Does that mean I would have been better off had I never stopped to consider how contemptuous I was being with my partners? No, of course not. Because whether or not “contempt” really is the key to fixing most relationships, it was an integral problem in my relationships. Did I make the very next relationship last forever after I learned about it? Also no. Because some relationships shouldn’t last forever. Sometimes a healthy relationship has a natural conclusion that isn’t the death of one partner or the other, or both at the same time Romeo and Juliet-style. And sometimes a relationship can’t be healthy no matter how much I try because it takes both people to try. Or all the people, if you’re in a polycule, I guess. But I did drag at least one relationship on for years believing that if I just tried harder I could make it better, until I finally realized that he wasn’t even trying to meet me a quarter of the way. I could still be in that relationship today, and we’d probably be considered a success for being together more than a decade–but I would still be miserable.
All of this is to say that if the idea of love languages, or the Four Horsemen of Marriage, or god help me, even “Love as a Nutritionally Balanced Diet,” gets you to examine yourself and your relationship with your partner in a way that leads to positive, healthy change, then it’s a good thing. But there will never be an easy worksheet to follow that will tell you how to be happy in this life. You are complicated, your partner or potential partner is complicated, and the way you interact will be complicated. There is no cheat sheet. In my experience, the best you can do is assume that there will be conflict and difficult times, work as a team to get through it together, and communicate as openly and honestly as your fucked up childhood scars will allow. When you need help, find a therapist who you can trust. Maybe one with more education and less homophobia than Gary Chapman. And at the end of the day know that a relationship that ends isn’t necessarily a “failure,” if it brought you joy and left you with lessons learned about yourself and others.