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If you’ve ever been in therapy or even just a conversation about relationships, you’ve probably been asked, “Do you know your love language?” Though the concept of love languages is more than 20 years old, the idea that we all have different ways of expressing and receiving love has stuck around.
Gary Chapman, PhD, published The Five Love Languages in 1995, and it remains one of the best-selling relationship books of all time. It’s helped millions of people relate to each other in relationships romantic and platonic alike. On the book’s website, you can take The Five Love Languages quiz to learn which of the five love languages is your primary language. Once you know your language, though, you might have a few questions like: How do I ask for what I want? What is my partner’s love language? I’m single; why should I care?
If you’re new to the concept of the five love languages, you might be wondering where exactly they came from and why they’ve become such a phenomenon.
We spoke with the languages’ creator, Chapman, to find out how his theory has changed over the years, how he interpreted the response to his original book, and how learning the five love languages might help people make positive life changes—even if they aren’t in a long-term romantic relationship.
Here’s a basic synopsis of the five languages theory.
Chapman’s beliefs are simple: People express their love in different ways—specifically, through five “love languages.” Those languages are:
Words of Affirmation: Giving Compliments, Thanks, and Other Positive Comments With a Positive Tone
That last part is especially important, as tone can undercut a positive message. Depending on the context and tone of voice, a statement like “You’re great storyteller” might come off as a genuine compliment—or as scathing condescension.
People who speak this love language aren’t necessarily fishing for compliments; they crave positive affirmation in general, but it’s not because they’re self-centered. If you notice your S/O looking particularly good one day, let them know. If you loved the dinner they cooked for you, explain why you liked it so much. People who want to hear words of affirmation tend to appreciate hearing positive things in general, so try speaking highly about things that your partner appreciates, and make an effort to avoid unnecessary complaints and other harsh, negative speech.
If you aren’t the type to verbalize your feelings, get in some practice with a few sweet text messages or Snapchats a day. Letting your partner know you’re thinking of them and appreciate them is key.
Quality Time: Giving Full, Undivided Attention and Finding Joy in Activities Pursued With a Partner
“Quality conversation is more about listening than talking,” Chapman writes in the book, “but usually, partners want both.”
To speak this love language, block off time specifically for your partner. We know, we know—that’s easier said than done if you’re already juggling work, kids, your own personal health, and myriad other responsibilities, but your romantic relationship deserves your commitment.
Unfortunately, spending time in front of a television set binging on Netflix probably doesn’t count as quality time to those who are attracted to and moved by quality time. Instead, consider taking up a hobby together (yoga, we’re looking at you). Go on a walk a few times a week, just you two. Get in bed early and have a conversation about your day. Make sure you think of this time as a non-negotiable. If you or your partner thrive on getting quality time, it needs to be a priority.
Gifts: Physical Tokens That Are Representative of Love
Gifts is one of the most misinterpreted of the five love languages. If your loved one is gift-oriented, it doesn’t mean they’re a gold-digger. Instead, people whose primary love language is gifts respond best to physical reminders that you’re thinking of them. If that seems difficult to you, start small. Pick up a latte for your partner or make an inspirational Spotify playlist if you know they’re having a tough day at work. If you see a pair of socks you know he’d love, pick them up. If she’s been talking about this beautiful notebook, surprise her with it.
Small tokens of affection can be just as meaningful as more expensive gifts, but if your partner responds best to gifts, be sure to give them regularly—not just on special occasions.
Acts of Service: Doing Chores and Other Actions That Ease a Partner’s Burden
Granted, both partners should help with the chores, but people who speak this love language see a direct correlation between their partner’s love and the amount of time spent serving the household or performing acts of care and kindness.
As with quality time, the trick is to dedicate some time every day to your partner’s happiness and well-being. Surprise them by tackling a home improvement project (you know you want to regrout the tile, right?) or taking the kids to the park. If they hate washing dishes or folding laundry, offer to do those while they clean or put the laundry away. Small acts can make a big difference.
Physical Touch: Holding Hands, Hugging, and Other Forms of Physical Intimacy
When we talked to Chapman, he made sure to clarify that “physical touch” isn’t all about sex (but that’s a big part of a healthy relationship!).
People who speak this language need physical touch as a reminder of your love. Make sure that the physical touch is coming from a genuine place of affection instead of being a constant precursor to foreplay. Reaching over to hold a partner’s hand while watching a movie can work wonders; a slight graze of their back in public might be enough to send shivers down their spine.
Make eye contact, smile, and exhibit positive body language; as with the words of affirmation, tone is everything.
The Five Love Languages makes the case that every person has a primary and secondary love language (they may also “speak” the other languages to a lesser degree). If you and your partner don’t share the same primary love language, it can be hard for both of you to feel loved if you aren’t both working to love each other using your partner’s love language. Those feelings can cause the breakdown of the relationship.
In the book, Chapman discusses each of the five love languages in detail, telling stories to illustrate his points. Occasionally he also references the Bible, which is a possible point of contention, and some reviewers have noted that Chapman’s Christian faith may alienate potential readers of the book. But reviewers like Slate’s Ruth Graham have defended the book’s underlying concepts while noting they were initially resistant to its non-secular approach.
Is there any scientific basis to the five love languages?
The Five Love Languages isn’t based explicitly in science. It doesn’t reference much peer-reviewed research; instead it relies on Chapman’s anecdotes to reinforce its points.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s without academic merit. A 2006 study examined the five love languages and found that they could, indeed, reflect the behaviors that people use to successfully maintain their relationships. More recently, a 2016 study of 400 participants found support for Chapman’s theory.
For adherents of The Five Love Languages, those scientific findings aren’t a surprise. The book uses intentionally simple language and broad concepts to talk about the communication issues that can arise in any relationship, but its core arguments seem quite strong. In any case, it’s certainly worthy of serious discussion.
Talking to the Five Love Languages founder, Gary Chapman
HealthyWay: So I just finished the book. Your background is in anthropology. I was wondering if you could tell me what role that background played in the development of this approach?
Chapman: Ha ha, you know, probably not a lot—at least directly.
A thing that really surprised me—where my anthropology background kind of jumped to the front—was when the book was published. My publisher was approached by a Spanish publisher; they wanted to publish it in Spanish.
With my anthropology background, I said to my publisher, “I don’t know, does this really work in Spanish? You know, I discovered this in middle America.”
And they said, “Well, they’ve read the book, and they want to publish it.” I said, “Well, okay, let’s just go with it.”
It became their best seller. In fact, they’ve told me the other day that they’ve sold 3 million copies in Spanish. After that, the other editions started, and now it’s been translated in 50 languages around the world.
That surprised me because of my anthropology background. But as for directly impacting the writing of the book, there’s no real connection there.
You wrote something about that in the book—the success you’ve had with different translations, and how the “dialects” of the five love languages change in different cultures. Could you talk about that for a moment? For instance, how it would relate to a Spanish audience?
I think—of course, in English, as well—each of the [five love] languages have different dialects. For example, in words, there’s words of praise, there’s words of encouragement, there are other types of words. That’s still true in other languages. But there may well be different dialects in other cultures that we wouldn’t necessarily have.
For example, in the Spanish culture … when you greet somebody, just socially, you might kiss them on both sides of the cheek. Well, we wouldn’t do that in American culture. It’s physical touch, but it’s not a dialect that we would use in our culture.
So I think there are other dialects in all languages. And I wouldn’t even be aware of what many of them would be. But obviously, the translator and publisher would be.
What did surprise me, however, is that the five languages do seem to be fundamental to human nature. And, therefore, they make sense in all the cultures in which they’ve been translated.
I saw there was a 2006 study, which I’m sure you’re aware of, that found evidence that your five love languages “may reflect behaviors performed to enact intended, relational maintenance.”
That seems to provide some scientific credence to the languages. Would you like to see more scientific research like that, to confirm what you’ve written?
You know, I’ve always been open that. I’ve had probably three or four grad students in different places that have written me and asked about doing research on a particular aspect of the love languages. I’ve always said, “Yes, I’m happy for you to do that. And when you finish your research, please send me the results.”
Well, I don’t know if they did it or not, but I never got any results. So I don’t know. But yes, I welcome that.
What are the changes from one edition of the book to the next? How do you update the book, or when do you decide it merits a new edition?
Well, essentially we have changed some illustrations from time to time. And also, in more recent years, we’ve used a few illustrations that include social media and that kind of thing, which obviously was not there when we wrote the book.
But there are no radical changes, really. The concept is still the same, and the five languages are still the same.
That’s interesting—I’m guessing that you notice social media affecting the ways that people communicate emotionally.
I do. Both positively and negatively.
For example, the simple thing of texting can be great for a marriage relationship. I text my wife when I’m traveling. I’ll say, “Okay, I’m at Greensboro airport, da da da,” you know. Then I tell her the next airport. We go back and forth texting, which is more convenient than calling, because sometimes I may be involved and not able to answer the phone.
So, yeah, I think social media has been helpful, but also it can be distracting from the relationship.
For example if a husband or wife spends their free time on the computer, doing whatever, the other person can feel like, “I think the computer is more important to you than I am.” So there’s a downside and a plus side.
One thing that kind of surprised me when I started looking into this, was how many non-religious people seem to appreciate your book and the approach of the five love languages. Is that something that you keep in mind while you’re writing?
Yes, very definitely. When I wrote this book, my desire was to write it in such a way that folks who are not religious would find it helpful.
I knew that religious people would know that all these languages are, for example, found in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and probably in other religious writings. But I didn’t want to write to just one particular group. I wanted to write for a general audience.
And it’s been very encouraging to me, the number of people who are not religious at all—or maybe they have a different religion—how they have found this book to be helpful in their relationship. And that’s what I had hoped would happen.
Do you have any advice for them and how they should approach this book? Should they take a different approach than a person that’s a Christian?
Whatever we read, we bring our religious beliefs, or our philosophy of life. We bring it to a book that we’re reading. We can’t divorce ourselves from our religious or philosophical beliefs about life.
But I think that, whatever the person’s background—religious or not religious—we all want to have good relationships. And we don’t get married to be miserable. We get married hoping we’re going to have a positive, supportive relationship.
I think that is the appeal the book has to all couples.
I found that the book’s about showing love, specifically, but also more generally about emotional communication. Do you think that the love languages approach could help with other types of relationships, like friendships or workplace relationships?
Yes. As a matter of fact, I’ve written a whole series of books that spin off from this original book. The first one is the 5 Love Languages of Children, which I wrote with a psychiatrist who had had 30 years of experience working with children. It’s written to parents, and the same concept applies—that children have a love language, and you need to give heavy dosage of the primary and then sprinkle in the other four [languages]. We’d like the child to learn how to give and receive love in all five languages; that would be the healthiest child.
So I developed that book, and then parents came to me and said, “Okay, that was very helpful, but now our kids are teenagers, and this doesn’t seem to be working. What’s the deal?”
The third book in the series was the 5 Love Languages of Teenagers, written to parents, helping them learn how to [communicate] while the teenager is going through all of these physical, emotional, and intellectual changes. And that’s been well received by parents.
So, yes, I think it applies to all human relationships. We all have the emotional need to feel loved, and most people agree that it’s our most fundamental emotional need—the need to feel loved by the significant people in our lives.
The concept [of the love languages] helps us understand how to do that, how to communicate love so that the emotional need is met.
I appreciated that the book is written in this kind of simple, general language, and I could see the theory applying in all of those different instances that you just mentioned. I saw online that there’s also a version of the book for people who have partners with Alzheimer’s, which I thought was interesting.
I wrote that one with a medical doctor whose wife had the disease, and we’re hoping that’s going to be very helpful to caregivers.
Also, we did a military edition at the request of so many military leaders. And for that one, we added the dimension: How do you speak these languages when you’re deployed, so that you can stay emotionally connected? And we got great ideas from military couples who read the original book and were applying it in their own lives.
Given that we’re living in a time where gender roles are changing rapidly, do you think people can get the same effect from your book if they’re not falling into traditional masculine and feminine roles?
You know, I think so. Because none of these languages are gender specific.
A man can have any one of these five as his primary language. A woman can have any one of the five as their primary language. Now, how we express them might be influenced by the change in culture. For example, an act of service: One man who grew up being told to open the door for a woman, he might open the door as an act of service. But maybe she doesn’t like that; she might say, “I can open my own door, thank you.”
And I say, fine. I’m not opposed to women opening doors, that’s fine, if that’s what you want to do. I’m just saying in marriage, ask your spouse what they prefer. If acts of service is their language, what acts of service would they prefer? If they don’t want you to open the door, then fine, don’t open the door—take the trash out, or do something else.
So, yes, I think culture can affect some of the dialects of how you speak these languages, but fundamentally, the five languages do pretty much cover the bases of what makes a person feel loved.
What is a common misconception people have when they hear about your work?
Well, one common misconception of men is they will say, “Oh, I know my love language, I don’t need to read that book. My love language is physical touch.”
And they mean sex. I say to them, “Well, perhaps that is your language, but let me ask you a question: do non-sexual touches make you feel loved?” And [the guy] looks at me like a deer in the headlights. “Are there non-sexual touches?”
I say, “Well, let me ask you this: If you get out of the car with your spouse, and you start walking into a store, and she reaches over and holds your hand as you walk into the store, does that make you feel loved? Lets says she’s pouring a cup of coffee for you, and she puts her hand on [your] shoulder, does that make you feel loved?
And if he says, “Not really,” I say, “Well, then, your love language is not physical touch. You like sex, but that’s not your love language, okay?”
So that’s a common misconception. Other than that, nothing really jumps to my mind. For the most part, most folks get it. The question most people have is: What if the love language of the other person is something that really does not come natural for you?
And I understand that, because, for example, if you grew up in a home where you never got affirming words, then affirming words will be hard for you. If you grew up where gift giving was not a part of your life, then gift giving will be difficult for you.
But the good news is that you can learn any of these five languages, even if you did not receive them as a child. Once you understand that this is what really makes the other person feel loved, then you can learn how to do it. Yes, it may be a stiff learning curve, but the more you do it, the more comfortable you become doing it.
It’s really like learning to speak another language. It takes you a while for it to begin to become kind of natural for you. But the good news is that any couple can have a meaningful, loving relationship by learning how to speak each other’s love languages.