You’ve undoubtedly heard of love languages – the theory that everyone has a ‘language’ that best makes them feel loved and appreciated pops up everywhere, from Love Island to dating app prompts.
Love language theory is a big topic of conversation in the dating space, particularly on TikTok where the hashtag has 67.3 million views.
While lots of people report finding love languages useful in their dating life and some people base their whole dating approach on them, new research from the University of Toronto and York University suggest that there is no psychological backing to the theory.
In case you haven't heard of it, love language theory was devised by marriage counsellor Gary Chapman in 1992. It suggests that everyone has a primary love language out of five different languages, which include;
Acts of service
Words of affirmation
The theory also suggests that knowing and being compatible with your partner’s love language is the key to a happy and long lasting relationship. To find your primary love language, you simply complete a quiz. But is there any truth to all this?
Three psychologists who co-authored a new study set out to test three theories:that there are in fact five love languages, that everyone has a primary language, and that incompatibility in love languages causes relationship issues. The results found little evidence to substantiate any of them.
“As a psychologist who studies relationships, I have always been skeptical of Chapman’s ideas,” says Emily Impett, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, and one of the co-authors of the study.
Among other findings, Impett and the other researchers found that the quiz Chapman devised to help people ‘discover’ their primary love language asked people to rank acts such as ‘holding hands’ or ‘receiving gifts’ based on how important each is to them. “But when researchers have asked people to independently rate the value of each expression, they tend to rate them all highly,” explains Impett. “So, in real life, when people do not actually need to make these trade-offs, they see all five ways of expressing and receiving love as important.”
This is not the first time Chapman’s theory has come under fire. It has previously been pointed out that despite being a marriage counsellor, Chapman does not have any formal qualifications in psychology (he does have a PhD in anthropology). He also based his love language theories on his experience of counselling only , married heterosexual couples who identified as Christian.
This limited data set would have obviously impacted the theory's usefulness, and may have caused him to miss other meaningful ways in which couples express love and affection outside of traditional values.
“Chapman’s five love languages do not include anything about providing support for a partner’s autonomy or personal goals outside of the relationship, and we know that these things are associated with increased relationship satisfaction and might be more meaningful to couples with egalitarian values,” notes Impett.
Chapman also came under fire for using his theory to enforce misogynistic gender norms. For example, men are more likely to name ‘physical touch’ as their primary love language, and Chapman would use this to suggest that women need to be more sexually active with their partner, going as far to say in the book that women need to “rely heavily upon [her] faith in God” to have sex with her husband even when she doesn’t want to.
So why has a theory based on traditional values from the ‘90s continued to resonate with people so much today? The Five Love Languages has sold over 20 million copies worldwide, and has stayed on The New York Times bestseller list since 2007.
“People love to categorise themselves” concludes Impett, adding that Chapman’s quiz can provide a quick diagnostic tool for self-reflection. Easy answers like those Chapman’s quiz offers can also be a salve for painful issues like unmet needs and relationship problems. If you ask yourself whether you and your partner are fundamentally incompatible and need to have difficult conversations about your future together, or whether you just need to learn each other's love languages, one is definitely an easier fix than the other.
While Impett says that Chapman’s book does include questions that can be a useful starting point for couples, she also believes that love languages “promote a rigid view of people and relationships”.
“The only kind of change that Chapman talks about in his book is changing for the partner [by learning to respond to them in their primary love language]. But we know from research on relationship science that we get many needs met in relationships, things like emotional support, physical intimacy and companionship [which don’t require changing ourselves],” says Impett.
Our own needs also change over time, so if our partner believes the main way to make us feel loved is through words of affirmation, issues might start to occur if we suddenly need more support around the house – which would be classified as “acts of service” – due to stress or illness, for example.
Impett and her co-authors offer a different metaphor: thinking of love as a nutritionally-balanced diet, as opposed to a language that we speak. In the same way that you need a range of fruits and veggies, healthy fats, carbs etc, a loving relationship needs a variety of ways of showing affection and support to our partners.
“Doing so keeps all types of expressions of love on the menu and invites partners to share what they need at a given point in time,” says Impett.
If the love language theory enriches your relationship and helps you to communicate better with your partner, that’s great. But as with any enneagram test, it should probably be taken with a pinch of salt and for what it’s worth, it’s probably not something you want to base your whole personality or your entire search for love on in the long run.
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