The love languages theory was proposed by Gary Chapman in his book published in 1992, titled, The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. This book took the world by storm and has become a cultural sensation. Love languages have a cult-like following with people insisting that implementing this theory into their relationships fundamentally changed their life for the better. Alternatively, I have seen the weaponization of this concept, with women sharing their husbands or boyfriends utilize the concepts outlined in this book to guilt them into sexual activities or doing the majority share of the housework.
So, what are the love languages and how do they work?
In the early chapters of his book, Dr. Chapman introduces us to the concept of a love tank. The idea being, we have emotional needs that ought to be filled, and through need fulfillment, we fill our love tank. He specifies that spouses in marriage crave love from their partner above all else, and without that love, we have a dull an unsatisfying marriage. Like a child and parent relationship, he posits that an empty love tank in marriage corresponds with experiences of misbehavior, criticism, harsh words, and withdrawal from the relationship. He also shares that people who don't perceive love from their partner, or who have an empty love tank, will be less effective at navigating conflict with their partner. Overall, he specifies that allowing your marriage to persist on an empty love tank will irreparably damage your relationship.
Dr. Chapman postulates that there are five ways love might look: words of affirmation (receiving compliments or encouragement), quality time (having meaningful conversation and shared time together), gift giving (receiving something just because and not only on special occasions), acts of service (doing tasks in service of your partner), and physical touch (not just sex, but small casual touches). We are meant to have a primary love language, which he indicates is the way in which we most prefer to receive love from a partner. Sometimes, we might have a secondary love language which might also be a way that we register our partner giving us love. These are the things our partner does that makes us feel loved above all else.
When trying to identify which of the five love languages is your primary love language Dr. Chapman indicates there are three ways to help suss it out. First, think of what your partner fails to do that hurts you--the opposite of that will likely be your love language. Second, think of the thing your most often crave or request from your partner, that might also correspond to your love language. Third, how do you give love to your partner--that may also indicate the way you would prefer to receive love from your partner. He shares that speaking your partner's love language will help fill their love tank. People with a full love tank will perceive they have a more satisfying relationship.
In the closing chapters of the book Dr. Chapman shares that when your relationship is in crisis, speaking your partner's love language consistently for a six-month period will show marked improvements in your partner's emotional need fulfillment and their willingness to express love back to you.
What does the research say?
This book was based on Dr. Chapman's experience of counseling couples in his role as a pastor at a church. He observed the ways in which couples indicated their frustrations with their partners and the mismatch existing between how a person expresses their love and how their partner craves experiencing love. His counseling sessions are the basis of this book with no additional research.
Other scholars have attempted to explore the suppositions in this book with the goal of validating its claims.
To start, researchers assessed whether the five love languages are distinct and correlate to other known measures of relationship communication. Egbert and Polk published a study in 2006 that examined the construct of love languages alongside relationship maintenance behaviors; relationship maintenance behaviors are a research-based understanding of the routine and strategic ways we contribute to the functioning of our relationships. Although Dr. Chapman defines love languages as both the way we prefer to give and receive love, the authors measure the construct as how we give love in our relationships. They found that the five love languages are distinct from one another and are positively related to relationship maintenance behaviors.
Subsequent research from Cook and colleagues published in 2017 explored the validity of the five love languages and found that, when allowed to freely vary, items used to measure the five love languages actually statistically grouped into different kinds of love styles (see Lee, 1977). For example, giving a thoughtful present, making something special, buying dinner, arranging a special date, and giving compliments on their partner's appearance all loaded onto a factor resembling "sacrificial love". This did not support Dr. Chapman's conceptualization of love languages. Of note, again, is the framing of love languages in this study as the way in which a person gives love to a partner, rather than how they prefer to receive love from a partner.
From sharing this content online for several years, I have become privy to the assumption that most men indicate their preferred love language will be physical touch. This is primarily because men who are only casually familiar with the concept of love languages assume that physical touch is reflective of sexual intimacy when it is actually meant to reference emotional closeness brought about by little benign touches (like holding hands, rubbing a partners back, etc.). Research from Bland and McQueen published in 2018 found that in a sample of American married couples, the most prevalent love language was quality time. They note that this might be reflective of a cultural norm around quality time in the United States, whereas couples in other countries may place an emphasis on gift giving that could be illuminated in an exploration of this construct internationally.
Bunt and Hazelwood published a study in 2017 assessing the validity of the claim that couples in which partners have the same primary love language will have higher relationship satisfaction because they speak the same language. The researchers did not find support for relationship satisfaction being improved for couples who had matching primary love languages. Further, although 76% of participants were adequately able to identify their partner's love language, those participants did not have statistically significantly improved relationship satisfaction. Simply being aware of your partner's love language didn't correspond with improved relationship assessments.
Alternatively, in 2023 a study was published by Coy and Rodriguez in which they assessed 84 couples on their ability to accurately identify each partners' preference for how they prefer to receive love. In this study, people were pretty bad at guessing a partner's preference, and they subsequently indicated delivering affection in the way they assumed their partner preferred it. When a person guessed right, they enacted their partner's preferred affectionate behaviors, and subsequently report experiencing improved relationship satisfaction.
In general, the research in this area is conflicting, which is reflective of poor theorizing in this pop psychology book. This opens the door to poor therapeutic applications of this work, with the possibility for unintentional poor outcomes.
What's missing from this work today?
A comprehensive, data driven exploration of how love is expressed in romantic relationships from a representative sample.
This theory comes from a homogenous sample of religious individuals who all saw the same pastor for counseling. His observations of these individuals likely biased the types of behaviors exhibited and discussed by his clients. The examination of these behaviors was not systematic, and was not explored in other contexts, therefore, work should be done to understand the behaviors people (of many ages, relationship stages, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, etc.) enact that demonstrate their care, concern, and support for their partner. Do the five love languages hold, or are we missing behavior categories that are important?
An important note is one study assessed the five love languages in a sample of over 300 college students and identified an additional love language not previously highlighted by Dr. Chapman. I would speculate that if we diversify the sample more, we might illuminate further behavioral categories.
An understanding of the impact of each type of love altogether without an expectation that people truly have a primary love language.
We see in some of the research that individuals don't actually have a primary love language. When allowed, most people report a similar desire for all five types of love outlined by Dr. Chapman. Given that participants find all of these behaviors somewhat important, what is the extent to which each love language impacts relationship assessments when allowed to covary, or exist together.
An in-depth exploration of the empty love tank supposition.
If a person perceives their love tank to be empty, do they in fact experience a reduced capacity for navigating conflict effectively? Do they experience increased experiences of the four horseman of the apocalypse in criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt? Do people who have a full or an empty love tank struggle more than those in the middle at effectively identifying their love language? These are all statements made by Dr. Chapman that could use validation and deeper understanding. What truly are the ramifications of an empty love tank?
An understanding of love languages from both the recipient and the giver of love that explores the impact of applying love languages (does it matter that you effectively give love to your partner, or only that you receive the "right type of love"?).
Given the anecdotal responses I have seen from people talking about the weaponization of this construct, it would be helpful to know the extent to which there might be unintentional consequences from catering to a partner's love language. In addition, much of the work in this area focuses on how you give love, but not enough on the impact of effectively receiving love. Given that this is truly the basis of this book, a more intentional examination of this phenomenon would be important.
Are love languages a stable characteristic of a person or a reflection of the relationship they are in?
Like other kinds of categorization schema (think attachment styles), there is a question of whether your love language is truly a "trait" or something that fluctuates in response to your environment. This has not been explored in the literature today.
A clinical examination of implementing a program of speaking your partners' love language over the period of months and years under the guidance of a therapist or counselor.
Dr. Chapman claims without evidence that intentionally expressing love in a partners love language over the course of six month will result in improved satisfaction in the relationship and an increased likelihood in a partner expressing love back. This has not been validated. Is there a research-backed timeline in which a partner should expect to see a return on investment when they express love to their partner "more effectively"?
The five love languages might be a fun way to get to know your partner. It is always a good idea to open the lines of communication about your relationship and your needs with your partner. If this helps you start those conversations, that is outstanding. Ultimately, this is a cute tool to invite conversation, but is not a miracle cure for a bad relationship. If you are in an unhealthy relationship and are struggling to connect with your partner, consider seeking couples counseling and/or individual therapy to help navigate relationship difficulties.
Egbert, N., & Polk, D. (2006). Speaking the language of relational maintenance: A validity test of Chapman's Five Love Languages. Communication Research Reports, 23(1), 19-26.
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.
Pett, R. C., Lozano, P. A., & Varga, S. (2023). Revisiting the Languages of Love: An Empirical Test of the Validity Assumptions Underlying Chapman’s (2015) Five Love Languages Typology. Communication Reports, 36(1), 54-67.
Coy, A. E., & Rodriguez, L. M. (2023). Affection preference, enactment, and relationship satisfaction: A dyadic analysis of love languages. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy.
Bland, A. M., & McQueen, K. S. (2018). The distribution of Chapman’s love languages in couples: An exploratory cluster analysis. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 7(2), 103–126. https://doi.org/10.1037/cfp0000102