As soon as I began receiving pocket money, I started giving gifts. Teenage me would spend months saving for Christmas, not so I could treat myself at the end-of-year sales but to bestow family or friends with festive treats. On my micro-budget, such presents weren’t lavish, and strangely, I was never concerned with how they were received. It was simply something I felt compelled to do for those I cared about.
This behaviour continued into adulthood. Even now, when I have a crush on someone, I’ll daydream about an ideal present for their next birthday. The thing is, not everyone is as chuffed with my more creative offerings. Each Valentine’s Day, during a particularly long relationship, I presented my partner with a playlist containing every love song I’d heard in the previous 12 months that made me think of them. In my mind, this was the pinnacle of romance, but every February, their response was akin to bafflement. And yet I persisted in this practice for a decade.
When I typed “What is my love language” into Google, it was inevitable that it would come up with gift giving. It tracks almost too well. But then, so do many of the other options. At least now I can subtly flag this behaviour to a new paramour through a conversation about love languages. It’s my way of sending a smoke signal way in advance, so when I inevitably bust out some surprise gift too early in our courtship, I can deflect any embarrassment with an awkward, “See, I told you I’m a gift giver…”
Everyone (including me) throws the term ‘love language’ around with much abandon. The New York Times noted that love languages have become “a cultural phenomenon and shorthand for anything that brings a person joy.” Sliding into a feline-loving friend’s DMs with endless cat memes could be described as such. Heck, even US politician Ayanna Pressley described her passion for Elizabeth Warren’s command of policy as a love language.
But where did the concept of love languages come from, and what led to their development? In this blog, I’ll look at the five love languages, how researchers and psychologists feel about them, and do a bit of a dive into their openly-homophobic creator. Yes, fellow queer people, a content warning: Dr Gary Chapman isn’t a very nice person.
What are love languages?
Love languages describe specific ways people express devotion to a romantic partner and also how they identify that love is being given to them. It’s a two-way concept because while you may try to give a partner love in one way, you may want to receive it in another. So, using my gift-giving example, while I often express my love through presents, I’m not as bothered about receiving them as I am about other expressions of affection.
Essentially, love languages are a framework within which partners can communicate their needs. By identifying their receptive style, they can then let their partner know what signs they will interpret as love and also begin to understand how this differs from additional signs their partner puts out there.
So, while you may have one or two preferred ways of expressing love, this concept suggests that you will probably have better relationships if you put more effort into your partners’ preferred ways of receiving love. So, in effect, I should have quit making Valentine’s mixtapes and paid more attention to my ex’s love languages. (I should point out that this would not have altered the fundamental reasons why that relationship ended. Plus, who doesn’t like curated playlists?).
In 1992, the Baptist pastor Dr Gary Chapman released his book The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts, based on decades of anecdotal evidence he gathered while working as his church’s marriage counsellor. While sales were initially slow, the book has sold over 20 million copies in print, audio and e-book formats (according to Moody Publishers). Chapman has also published separate editions for parents and teenagers plus, strangely, a military edition.
The core thesis behind Chapman’s work is that we each have an emotional “love tank” (metaphorically speaking) that we need our partners to consistently fill, so we feel adored and appreciated, which helps to maintain the quality of the relationship. To achieve this, we must learn to “speak” our partners’ love languages so that any acts of devotion are understood correctly and, thus, fill their tanks.
What is my love language?
In Chapman’s book, he specifies five love languages (and surprisingly, none of them is tacos). They are:
- Words of affirmation: positive, encouraging messages.
- Quality time: intentionally doing something together.
- Gifts: tokens of affection of any size.
- Acts of service: assisting with tasks without necessarily being asked.
- Physical touch: anything from hand-holding to sexual pleasure.
If you would like to find out what your love languages are, Chapman has created a short online test that you can use to determine which of these categories are the most important for you. I haven’t linked to this website because, as you’ll discover below, I can’t trust that this site won’t contain homophobic content. However, you can easily find it with a quick search if you’re curious.
Interestingly, Chapman focuses on the idea that we only have one or two fundamental love languages, with the others being of lesser importance and not things we will necessarily understand as signs of love. However, at some point, many people desire most or all of these things from their partners. How Chapman positions love languages can make people feel selfish or insecure for wanting them all. However, it’s more than ok to be ‘multilingual’ in your relationships. To give and receive love in many varied and beautiful ways.
Also, having love languages that match or complement each other isn’t necessarily a guaranteed sign of compatibility. Similarly, having differing ones doesn’t mean you are inherently incompatible. It’s also important to remember not to weaponise this concept or use it to pressure a partner into doing something they might not be comfortable with, especially regarding physical touch.
So, what is my love language? Obviously, gift-giving is a primary way I enjoy expressing love. But receiving it? As I mentioned, I’m not so bothered about presents. Quality time, physical touch and words of affirmation are all significant ways I like to give and receive love, making up most love languages. So clearly, no particular one is really that important to me.
What do psychologists and researchers think?
Most studies and interviewed psychologists are keen to highlight some crucial elements of Chapman’s work. Firstly, although he is a doctor, Chapman isn’t a trained therapist. However, he has an MA in anthropology and a PhD in adult education.
Secondly, Chapman’s book is anecdotal. It wasn’t developed from clinical research or evidence-based practice. That’s why it is generally regarded as a form of pop psychology, similar to personality tests such as Myers-Briggs. Yet, while it may be easy to dismiss such concepts, they can be effective tools for self-reflection and understanding the people around us.
Despite the lack of scientific basis, many professionals use love languages in couples therapy to help people understand that their partner is different from them, with their own set of wants and needs. According to Linda Carroll, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Oregon, USA (fun fact: she’s also Courtney Loves’ mother), Chapman’s book “addresses one of the most important aspects of a healthy relationship, which is the understanding that “my partner is not me.” So, it is not the specifics of these five languages but what the whole concept signals to people in relationships: that your partner does not see, experience and process things as you do.
Due to the book’s enormous popularity, testing the validity of this approach has had an understandable appeal to some researchers. A 2006 study could not confirm that there are five specific love languages and also refuted the idea that one would be considered your primary. Meanwhile, a 2017 study observed that love languages could be effective in dyadic (two-person) relationships but only when both people can regulate their behaviour and make changes where necessary.
More recently, a 2022 study tried to match responses on a written survey about expressing love to Chapman’s specific categories but found that not everybody’s experiences fitted so neatly and also felt there potentially more than five love languages. However, a separate study also from last year found that couples who were matched in terms of love languages had greater relationship satisfaction than those who didn’t.
Who is Gary Chapman?
Learning about the person who created the concept of love languages feels like pulling back the curtain on The Wizard of Oz and being disappointed. Sadly, he isn’t a particularly loving person.
According to Wikipedia, Dr Gary Chapman was born in North Carolina, USA, in 1938. He began working for a local Calvary Baptist Church in the 1970s. He became a published author in the 1990s, with his first Love Languages book becoming a continual #1 New York Times bestseller. Chapman has written around 30 books, created radio programmes and travelled the world presenting seminars on marriage, family, and relationships.
Chapman also has a 5 Love Languages® website, where he has published multiple articles expressing his thoughts on homosexuality. Curiously, these pages have recently been redirected, so they are now hidden on his website. Thankfully, such posts are still well-documented on the queer internet.
In a post from August 2013 entitled Q&A: My Child is Gay, Chapman wrote, “Disappointment is a common emotion when a parent hears one of their children indicate that he/she is gay. Men and women are made for each other—it is God’s design. Anything other than that is outside of that primary design of God.” He followed up with another blog post in December 2014 titled Understanding Homosexuality, claiming that “Almost all parents – even those who say we should tolerate all lifestyles – will feel shock and deep pain if one of their children announces that he is homosexual. The initial reaction is that they have failed their child in some critical way. The fact is that research has failed to discover the causes of homosexuality.”
It is heartbreaking to learn that such a popular idea around how we express love originates from someone who espouses such homophobic views. As a polyamorous queer person, it makes me think twice about having that conversation with new partners, knowing that I am perpetuating a concept that was clearly designed by a bigot with only cis, straight monogamous people in mind. It’s sadly a concept that excludes an enormous number of people (especially as 20% of Gen Z folks already identify somewhere under the LGBTQ+ umbrella).
What’s an alternative to love languages?
It’s important to remember that we don’t need to look to other people as our only source of love. Filling our “tank” with a self-love practice is possible. You can shower yourself with affection by intentionally giving those expressions of love to yourself. In a sense, you are subverting the idea that you need someone else to provide you with love by showering yourself with gifts, physical touch and affirmations.
If you’re looking for a different source of information about relationships, then The Gottman Institute is a great place to start. Founded by the acclaimed clinical psychologists Julie Schwartz Gottman and John Gottman (who, yes, are a couple), this organisation is dedicated to strengthening relationships through research-based products and programs.
They have even developed a therapeutic framework called the Gottman Method Couples Therapy which was “designed to support couples across all economic, racial, sexual orientation, and cultural sectors.” They also have a relationship quiz for couples, so you can identify how much you know about your partner’s likes, dislikes, needs, desires, beliefs, fears, and dreams for their life.
Conclusion: love languages
For such a simplistic concept, there is much to take on when understanding love languages and their origins.
Here are some of the key points from this blog:
- Love languages describe ways that we both express and prefer to receive love.
- According to the book, there are five love languages: words of affirmation, quality time, gifts, acts of service, and physical touch.
- The book has been enormously popular, selling 20 million copies worldwide.
- This concept was created by Dr Gary Chapman, a Baptist pastor who has also published his homophobic views on his love languages website.
- Chapman’s work is anecdotal and not based on clinical research. It is used by some relationship therapists to help couples understand that they have differing wants and needs.
- A handful of studies about love languages have yet to find evidence that they exist.
- For an inclusive research-based approach to relationships, look at The Gottman Institute’s work.
Remember, all forms of love are valid and should not be limited to romantic love between two people of specific genders. We are, individually and collectively, much more interesting and beautiful than that.
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