Do love languages actually matter? Psychologists weigh in
In my last long-term relationship, my partner really wanted me to read The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman, a bestselling book about how people in relationships can learn to show each other affection in their partner’s first, or preferred “language.” The languages Chapman details are: receiving gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, physical touch, and acts of service. The point is that every individual has a “love language” — or manner in which they express their love — and that caring partners should take the time to figure out how to best express their affection in a way that translates.
Honestly, I wrote the whole concept off as pop-psychobabble and never read the book, but after the relationship ended, I wondered if there was validity to Chapman’s theories. If I had learned his “language,” might the relationship have worked out? I asked psychologists if there's any research or evidence that speaking someone’s “love language” can better a relationship.
“I don’t consider it to be an evidence-based practice, but I do find it to be a very useful tool and use it in all of my work with couples,” says Stefani Goerlich, a Detroit-based psychotherapist. “I have found that 8 times out of 10, whatever the issues are that my client-couples bring to the table, they are rooted in a fundamental misalignment in how each partner gives and receives love.” Goerlich, in fact, uses the five love languages as a framework for helping couples learn to communicate better about their needs.
“We can learn how to recognize our partner’s love language and say ‘oh, she bought me a present. That’s her way of showing me she cares,’ even when gift giving is not the first love language you speak,” says Goerlich. Knowing that your partner is trying to show love, even if it isn’t being shown in a way that perfectly meet your needs, can go a long way. The concept may be pop, but it’s a useful shortcut that many relationship therapists employ.
As Goerlich points out, the five love languages approach to communication wasn’t developed based on clinical research, but due to its popularity, some, research has been done on its effectiveness since the book was released in 1992. However, even the small amount of data on love languages is mixed. A 2000 study indicated that the five love languages can be a more effective framework than other approaches to helping couples communicate, but research conducted in 2017 suggests that the five love languages only work when “both spouses exhibit appropriate self-regulatory behaviors.” In other words, the love language concept works if both partners are able to control (and change) their own behavior.
The research, or lack thereof, isn’t really the point, though. Goerlich explains that the five love languages concept is basically a communication hack that couples can use in and out of therapy. “When I use the love languages concept with my clients, I explain to them that we have love languages that we ‘speak’ and love languages that we ‘hear,’” says Goerlich. “For the couples that I work with, helping them to identify their respective love languages can go a long way towards resolving some of the issues that often bring them to therapy.”
Basically, teaching clients about how to communicate affection in ways their partner can grasp creates a dialogue between partners that allows them to express their emotional needs — and gives them a convenient shorthand for doing so. “I encourage couples to learn about their partner's love language and [learn to] speak their partner's language,” says Shlomo Slatkin, a relationship counselor in Baltimore. "When this happens, they can meet each other's needs and feel loved.” Once couples become mindful about using their partner’s language, it can become naturalized, like a second language.
Creating awareness around how your partner likes to receive affection can be helpful even when the translation is a bit rough. “Just like a native Spanish speaker learning to speak Japanese, we can always learn a new love language,” says Goerlich. “Sometimes, it’s just about taking the time and effort to understand how our partners ‘hear’ love and making an effort to show them in the way that they will most easily receive it.”
But what if we don’t learn our partner’s language? Does that make us incompatible? “People are only incompatible when they are unwilling to learn and respond to their partners needs,” she says. “Where there is willingness to adapt and grow, there is always the potential for long-term happiness.” In other words, you may not pass the AP love language test, but if you put in the effort of finding a shared framework for communicating about your partner’s needs, the language gap may not matter.