What you know about relationships might be wrong. That said, it isn’t entirely your fault. Often, the culprit is an overreliance on our own (limited) experience, or friends’ well-intentioned advice. Even when we try to seek out quality information in popular relationship books, it’s hard to know how much of what we read is supported by science. Take, for example, one of the most widely read books on love, The 5 Love Languages (Chapman, 2010).
What Are Love Languages?
The 5 Love Languages’ highly intuitive premise is that there are five key ways that we express love: gifts (e.g., surprising them with a present), words of affirmation (e.g., giving them compliments), quality time (e.g., intently listening to them), acts of service (e.g., doing errands for them), and physical touch (e.g., giving them a hug) (Egbert & Polk, 2006). While you may use any of the five “languages” to show your partner love, according to Chapman, you have one primary or dominant style. A recent study found that the most preferred love language was time (40.8%), followed by touch (40.0%), words (22.7%), service (13.6%), and gifts (4.0%) (Hughes & Camden, 2020).
For example, you may particularly value service. As a result, you express love for your partner by doing things for them like cooking a meal or cleaning up around the house. If service is your dominant love language, you would also look for acts of service from your partner as a sign of their love for you. How often are they looking for ways to help you out? According to the book, when both partners share the same dominant love language, the relationship will go more smoothly and be higher quality. That is, it doesn’t matter which language you both speak (e.g., time, touch, words etc.), just that you’re both on the same page. However, if your languages are mismatched, you have a hard time relating and understanding each other, which undermines your relationship. Allegedly.
Do Love Languages Impact Relationships?
Love languages are a good story. They're simple, intuitive, and easy to implement. The problem is, they're likely wrong.
First, it’s important to note that love languages have not been widely studied. However, two early dissertations examined how knowing your partner’s love language might impact relationship satisfaction (Thatcher, 2004; Veale, 2006). Neither study found that it helped. In fact, not only did knowing the partner’s primary love language not correspond with greater relationship satisfaction at the moment, but it also didn’t relate to greater satisfaction three weeks later (Veale, 2006).
But maybe knowing your partner’s language isn’t enough. Perhaps you need to be matched. Two Australian scientists tested this by seeing if partners with matching love languages had better relationships (Bunt et al., 2007). They gathered heterosexual couples in their mid-20s and had each person complete a measure of their relationship satisfaction and love styles (e.g., “I tend to express my feelings by running errands for her/him”). Consistent with Chapman’s suggestions, researchers determined each partner’s primary love language based on which of the five languages had the highest score. Next, researchers compared partners to see if their primary love languages matched (e.g., both rated touch highest or both rated service highest) or mismatched (e.g., one person had touch as their primary, while the other person had time).
According to Chapman, those with aligned love languages should have better relationships. However, this was not the case. Couples with mismatched love languages had relationships that were just as good as those couples who were matched. You could argue that it might not just be alignment that matters, but that there are also benefits to knowing what your partner values about love. In fact, most people were actually really good at this, with 3 out 4 (76%) able to accurately read their partner’s love language. Yet, the researchers found no evidence that this insight helped them have a more satisfying relationship.
More recently, research took the matching idea a step further by looking at which love language each partner wanted, what they gave, and what they received (Polk & Egbert, 2013). Using this approach, there were three potential outcomes: matched (both partners received their preferred love language), mismatched (neither partner received their preferred love language), and partial match (one person received their preferred love language, while the other didn’t). According to the Love Language theory, the matched couples should easily have the best relationship quality. However, the researchers found no difference between couple types. In other words, the findings again provide little support for the idea that love languages are important for relationships.
Though most research fails to support the Love Language theory, a 2020 study did find partial support (Hughes & Camden, 2020). In a sample of nearly a thousand adults in the United States, over 50% reported that their partner used their preferred love language well. When participants thought their partners used their preferred love language, they reported greater satisfaction and love in their relationships.
The Take-Home Message
The verdict? Over 11 million people have read the book and believe in love languages. However, the research generally doesn’t support the “lessons” it shares. No wonder our ideas about love are wrong. Really, the key lesson is that just because something sounds good, intuitive, or like common sense, it doesn’t mean it’s actually true. Relationships are complicated. More often than not, attempts at simplification naturally sacrifice accuracy. All of which is problematic if you’re using these ideas to better understand your own relationship and/or making changes to improve it. The best approach is to make science your love language and learn as much about relationships as possible so you can set your relationship up for success.
Bunt, S., & Hazelwood, Z. J. (2017). Walking the walk, talking the talk: Love languages, self‐regulation, and relationship satisfaction. Personal Relationships, 24(2), 280-290.
Chapman, G. D. (2010). The 5 love languages: The secret to love that lasts. Chicago: Northfield Pub.
Egbert, N., & Polk, D. (2006). Speaking the language of relational maintenance: A validity test of Chapman’s (1992) five love languages. Communication Research Reports, 23(1), 19–26.
Hughes, J. L., & Camden, A. A. (2020). Using Chapman’s five love languages theory to predict love and relationship satisfaction. Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research, 25(3), 234–244.
Polk, D. M., & Egbert, N. (2013). Speaking the language of love: On whether Chapman’s (1992) claims stand up to empirical testing. The Open Communication Journal, 7(1), 1–11.
Thatcher, E. D. (2004). The interaction between love language and marital alignment on marital satisfaction for selected married individuals. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 65 (11–B), 6093. (UMI No. AA13152566)
Veale, S. L. (2006). How do I love thee? An investigation of Chapman’s ‘Five Love Languages’ (Gary Chapman). Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 67,2286. (UMI No. AA13215981)
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