Your Love Language Isn't Saving Your Relationship
The love language framework -- derived from a pastor's handbook on relationships -- isn't conclusively backed by research. But it's distancing us from ourselves.
In 'Psyched Up', we find out what’s wrong with the pop psychology fads we love.
What began as a Church Pastor’s 1995 book based on his personal observations while serving as a marriage counselor for two decades – “The 5 Love Languages” – has replaced every other adjective to become the Internet’s favorite shorthand for qualifying any close relationship. So much so that in the third season of Netflix’s cult favorite series ‘You,’ the anti-hero Joe described his love language as being ‘violence’; an emotion mutually shared by his wife Love Quinn. The Internet fawned over the pair, deciding they were the ‘perfect match’.
Turns out, our collective over-reliance on the love language vocabulary distances us from ourselves. For one, it gives us the false notion that we're all just easy-to-crack codes, devoid of context, history, or the potential to change. Also, it's starting to make us look insufferable. “In an era when an ironic type of detached self-awareness governs the communication styles of many, a lot of us can have a tendency to think that just being aware of an emotional truth about ourselves is, in itself, a virtue” writes journalist Lauren O’Neill.
The implicit morality ascribed to love languages makes it the perfect candidate for being a wellness, self-improvement tool. It just feels right -- the faux technicality of it, the way it lends itself easily to the metaphor of puzzle pieces fitting together, all serves to make love languages appear more impactful than they really are. It's arguably a feature of our era of relentless self-optimization, where only the superficial appearance of perfection and symmetry feels like an inner transformation. For instance, Gwyneth Paltrow through her widely viewed Netflix show, Sex, Love & Goop— showcased intimacy experts helping couples rekindle their spark through cutting edge innovation and self-improvement-speak. They had to be mirrors to one another and sync to the other’s rhythm: not an easy feat, especially not without the help of a specialist as the show subtly suggests. One episode in particular presupposing “sexual incompatibility is a myth,” featured a somatic sexologist’s trademark technique called the “erotic blueprint”. This blueprint, the latest addition in the workbook of couple’s therapy, specially developed for identifying any couple’s “specific arousal language” was arguably a nod to its more widely recognised ancestor: the five “love languages”.
There's a reason why love languages fit so seamlessly with wellness-speak: they're broad enough to be easily applicable to everyone, without requiring any deeper introspection. Also, the simplistic framing of human behavior was arguably by design: the source material was intended for the purpose of upholding the sanctity of marriage at a time when the institution was in crisis. The original book claims that practicing your partner’s language of love, namely: words of affirmation, acts of service, quality time, gift giving, or physical intimacy shall bridge the broken bond between an unhappy couple. The central premise of this theory relies on the inadvertent lack of communication between partners, which according to Chapman is the root cause of the subsequent failure of the relationship. Yet the problem inherently lies in not what the book suggests should be done, but in how it is to be done; forgetting that to be human is to err. Paradoxically, then, the love language framework leaves no room for fallibility: it provides a seemingly simple method for partners to get along, failing which signals an inherent shortcoming of the individual or the relationship. After all, words of affirmation shouldn't really be so difficult.
What makes the original idea and concept even more suspect, then, is the mystification of something as fundamental and basic as individuality in a relationship. Th love languages look easy to follow, but humans are simply too complex. The ambitious attempt by Chapman to remaster Maslow’s hierarchy of needs into a five-pointer checklist for marital problems and how to fix them, reframes the kaleidoscopic nature of human flaws into a model advertised to be representative universally.
Granted that the framework has perhaps aided many looking to be reminded of how to care for their partner better, when immortalized by the zeitgeist’s love for personality tests, it enters the realm of pop psychology and creates a new set of problems. For one, research shows there’s little evidence that love languages even exist. Researchers even attempted to create their own version of the love languages survey, but the results fell short of meeting statistical criteria to affirm the adequate representation of the five love languages. Moreover, their findings did not lend support to the notion that there are specifically five love languages. In a qualitative exploration involving the analysis of written responses from undergraduate students on expressing love, an alternative proposition emerged, suggesting the potential existence of six love languages.
While a study examining the fundamental tenet of the love language theory—that couples with congruent love languages experience heightened satisfaction compared to those without—research findings were notably indeterminate. Besides, three studies, including one employing Chapman's Love Language Quiz, discovered that couples sharing matching love languages did not exhibit greater satisfaction than those with unmatched languages.
“We don’t have a single self,” Bobby adds. “Different people bring out different needs, and circumstances change your needs. There are other ways of experiencing love and care that Dr. Chapman didn’t talk about in his book. For many people, emotionally intimate conversations are the most important love language, and Dr. Chapman does not mention those” she contends.
But the stranglehold that the love languages framework has on relationship reels and TikToks frames it as an inviolable truth: choose your partners wisely since “people are more satisfied in their relationships when both partners match when it comes to their primary love language”. Anyone willing to buy into the idea falls prey to the belief that simply sharing a singular aspect of their lives signals success of their partnership. What it does is lead to, in many instances, is an excruciating – and often futile – search for the perfect partner. And when the cracks begin to show in a relationship, someone attempting to find a stopgap through these measures is probably signing up for disappointment. That’s because the love language framework relies on certain basic assumptions: marriage, monogamy, heteronormativity, and traditionalism. “The roots are hugely problematic,” said Lia Love Avellino, a psychotherapist.
“Not only where it came from or who it was written by,” she says. “This is a language that made sense to a white, Christian, straight male. It made a culture where people thought you had to pick one, you have to have a specific way of communicating.”
However, some experts see merit in using the love language framework as a starting point to addressing relationship problems. Lisa Bobby, a psychologist and the clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching in Denver says, “Along with being accessible, the concept of love languages can actually be helpful and make relationships instantly feel better”. One thing I noticed when I ask people in therapy ‘What do you need?’ or ‘What do you want?’ most people don’t know how to answer,” she told CNBC. “This gives couples five pillars. There is a standard language so it doesn’t feel so vulnerable to go out on a limb because there have been topics pre-established, so it must be acceptable.”
But their aid in therapeutic settings can be chalked down to offering a vocabulary for describing the nature of a relationship, rather than diagnosing or saving it. That’s thanks to their explosion in online quizzes, where many individuals and couples often self-diagnose and adopt love languages as a personality label. The Love Language QuizTM is the most popular of online questionnaires that people can complete to find out about their love languages. Despite millions of individuals having taken the quiz according to 5lovelanguages.com, there are no published findings as to the reliability and validity of the measure.
But their ubiquity online turned love language quizzes into a self-diagnosis tool rather than a tuning fork allowing individuals to become more attuned to their partner’s needs. Ashley Fetters writing for The Atlantic says, “This self-focused way of discussing love languages is very different from what the concept’s inventor seems to have intended. As the idea has grown ever more ingrained in the popular consciousness (and ever more disconnected from the text that introduced it), Chapman’s consistent urging toward learning other people’s love languages and modifying one’s own behavior accordingly has been de-emphasized. In its place has emerged a notion that the point of knowing your love language is to find a partner with the same one, or to request that others learn to “speak” it.”
“People are using the phraseology of ‘love languages,’ and not even realizing it’s coming from this book,” comments Janis Todd, a publicity manager for the publishing house who has been working with Chapman’s book for 20 years. “At this point it sort of has a life of its own” she adds. Therapists working with couples have been indicating that the vernacularisation of the phenomena into the popular psyche without ever having read the book has caused it to become self-serving.
Julie Gottman—who co-founded the Gottman Institute for marriage and relationship research and therapy – notes, “when partners use the concept of love languages only as a way to talk about how they themselves instinctively express affection or what makes them personally feel loved, the idea can actively cause trouble in relationships”.
“Some survivors of combat or sexual-abuse trauma, or some people with autism-spectrum disorders, for example, won’t respond well to partners who insist on physical touch as the way they want to give and receive affection” she said to The Atlantic. “Identifying a primary love language can also have a pigeonholing effect: Partners may begin to express affection in only one way, regardless of context, or recognize only one kind of act as an act of love. Plus, some elements of a relationship that are framed as “love languages” in Chapman’s theory should be considered necessary ingredients in any healthy relationship—like quality time”.
All this has ushered in a change of our collective understanding of love and care within the space of a safe relationship. At the crux of it, the success of a relationship demands that both partners are aware and attentive to who their person is at the core. Instead of using mechanisms which create an illusion of rigidity around individuals' personalities, we should probably go back to the basics: people change and so do their expectations from a relationship. A situation where your love language – if it even exists – is not reciprocated is not an adequate measure of compatibility. Irrespective of what the reels say.
Naina is a sociology graduate of the Delhi School of Economics. She presently works as a writer focusing on queer theory, culture, media semantics, and women's health.