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  • Writer's pictureJo Soria

Are Love Languages Legit? The Science (and Debate) Behind the 5 Love Languages

Updated: Mar 12

What’s your love language? Thanks to a 1992 book about the five primary ways we supposedly give and receive love in committed relationships, there’s a good chance you’ve been asked this question more than once.


But is the love language concept scientifically sound? This question has become even more of a hot topic in recent years, and the whole discussion is under the microscope. Let’s take a look at the great love language debate.


Man and woman on beach; Valentine's Day; Love Languages

What are the Five Love Languages, and Where Did They Come From?

If you haven’t heard of the five love languages or need a refresher, let’s do a quick rewind. In the early nineties, author and family counselor Gary Chapman, Ph.D., developed a concept to explain the patterns of how partners in relationships tended to look for and communicate their love for each other.


This concept evolved into the wildly popular and enduring book/cultural phenomenon, The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. Based on Chapman’s research and hands-on counseling experience, the five love languages are:


Words of Affirmation — verbally encouraging, affirming, appreciating, or otherwise pumping up your partner

Physical Touch — nonverbal use of body language and touch to communicate affection

Gifts — giving thoughtful, personal gifts as expressions of love

Quality Time — sharing focused, uninterrupted one-on-one time for the purpose of connection

Acts of Service — taking action that eases your partner’s burdens/responsibilities or takes something off of their plate


The 5 Love Languages; Gary Chapman; Valentine's Day

The Trouble with Love (Languages): Where Romance Meets Research

It sounds like a helpful enough tool for connecting with your partner, right? Even the quickest Google search will turn up countless think pieces, success stories, and couples’ therapy activities centered around the love languages. So what’s the problem?


Time Changes Everything

While any sociological school of thought is likely to face criticism—especially one that attempts to tackle the deep, murky mystery of love—Chapman’s theory is definitely seeing an influx of debate as time and generational shifts take their toll. Not only are views on love and relationships changing, but also how we explain it.


A search for “the science of love” turns up 1.2 billion results. And don’t even get social media started on love languages. On any given platform, you’ll find a jagged split between the love language believers and the growing number of dissenters who contend it’s an outdated model for relationship growth.



Bouquet of white flowers; Valentine's Day; Love Languages

Concerning Love Languages: What Critics Say

Let’s focus on a few of the specific critiques that today’s relationship researchers and experts are voicing:


1. The Original Research Model and Findings Were Flawed

“There is an issue with (Chapman) taking insights that he gleaned from couples that he counseled in his role and then generalizing that to the broader universe of people,” says Rachel Vanderbilt, Ph.D., a researcher in the field of relationships and communication. “It’s not based in science, even though it’s using science-like terminology…”


Critics say that by limiting his research to the limited demographics and themes within his religious community, Chapman wasn’t in a position to draw valid conclusions for the greater population, nor could he account for the numerous types of relationships and dynamics that exist outside of his expertise.


2. The Love Language Model Itself is Limited and Outdated

Just one love language? Relationship experts are concerned that limiting our focus to just one or two love languages can create tunnel vision when we think about bonding with our partners. If we’re not intentional with our efforts, we may unintentionally shift our actions from creating a connection to simply executing tasks or treating love like a checklist.


This shift could also lead us to feel like we must compromise our natural ways of expressing love to stay within what we perceive to be our partner’s primary language preference. “The dark side version of this theory that people might take away is that if someone doesn’t quote, ‘speak that language,’ then your relationship is doomed,” says psychologist Sara Algoe, Ph.D.


We may also forget that our partner’s views on love (and how they want to receive it) may change over time. Our preferences and capabilities may shift as we age and experience various life changes.


And, let’s just be honest here: how many of us 100% want to receive all five love languages all the time? Wait, just me? Okay.


3. Love Languages Can be Easily Weaponized

“Love languages are] being co-opted by some as a form of manipulation,” says Kerry McAvoy, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in toxic relationships. She and other health experts are concerned that—like therapy speak—manipulators can use love languages solely to get their own needs met.


This unsettling trend seems to be making its way across dating apps in particular. “The love language’s purpose is to grow intimacy in a relationship,” McAvoy says. “But I don’t like how it’s being used…”


The Bottom Line on Love Languages

As with any trend or school of thought, you can adopt the parts that resonate with you and leave the rest. If love languages work for you and your partner, go with it. Just keep the following takeaways in mind:


  • Love languages are intended to build intimacy within a safe, trusting relationship. Consider it a major red flag if someone is instead using love languages to prematurely accelerate the relationship, satisfy their agenda, or push their partner to do something they’re uncomfortable with.

  • Love languages should be taken with a grain of salt, and a single love language shouldn’t be relied on as a relationship’s sole measure of connection and effort.

  • Love languages aren’t an excuse to become complacent in other areas of the relationship. Keep looking for ways to strengthen your bond and be the best version of yourself as a partner.

As a wise but unknown author once said, “Relationships end too soon because people stop putting in the same effort to keep you as they did to win you.” Keep those xoxo’s fresh, friends.


 

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