A long hard look at Love Languages

Hazel Mulkeen questions the love languages, and asks why we place so much value on them

If you’re reading the Sex and Relationships section of Trinity News, it’s probably fair to assume you’re familiar with the five love languages. They’ve found their way into Gen-Z culture and become a shorthand for what kind of person you are. Free online quizzes let everyone decide whether they most need physical touch, acts of service, words of affirmation, quality time, or gift giving. It’s given that this identifier unlocks key knowledge about our needs; we can use it to judge each other or predict the inevitable crash-and-burn of our relationships. 

We — meaning the general Gen-Z student cohort — love defining ourselves using categories created by other people. Most of us know our Myers-Briggs personality type; we know what mental illnesses or neurodivergences allow us to experience life differently, and we know what aesthetic we belong to (I like gorpcore, but in reality I am “frail Victorian child”). These definitions are helpful to us, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with using proper nouns to help guide our identity. Especially in the awkward pre-stage of late adolescence and early twenties: before we have careers, before we have families of our own, we can stake out common ground with others, as clean girls or sigma males. 

“In a way, love languages serve the same purpose as star signs, but ostensibly with a stronger basis in reality”

On Hinge, you’re allowed — even encouraged — to list your love language, and sort your potential matches based on theirs. It’s nice just to have another factor against which to test your compatibility with a stranger. In a way, love languages serve the same purpose as star signs, but ostensibly with a stronger basis in reality.

The problem with love languages is that they aren’t the construction of people seeking common ground; they aren’t a community creation. They were invented by one man, with whom I hope to have as little common ground as possible. 

North Carolina Baptist pastor Gary Chapman published The 5 Love Languages in 1992, quickly becoming a global sensation: the book has since sold over 20 million copies, according to his own website. He’s since published no less than 62 self-help books about family and marriage, and 11 more books on love languages alone, including but not limited to: The 5 Love Languages Military Edition, A Teen’s Guide to the 5 Love Languages (distinct to The 5 Love Languages of Teenagers) and A Student’s Guide to the 5 Love Languages: True Love Waits. 

Gary Chapman opposes premarital sex. In an interview, he said that “God reserved (sex) for marriage – it’s a deep bonding experience. … when we have multiple partners before marriage, and that bonding is broken and broken and broken … we are far less likely to be committed to each other.” 

The suspect background of the inventor of love languages could easily be ignored if love languages had value for us in and of themselves. But do they? 

Studies have never demonstrated any truth behind the love languages. A 2006 study by Egbert and Polk, conducting a validity test of the five love languages concept, found that Chapman’s five languages lack statistical validity: the behaviours that we consider loving could be condensed into four languages, or even three. Looking over Chapman’s bibliography, the number five pops up again and again. According to him, there are five languages of apology, and of workplace appreciation. There are five signs of a loving family, five ways to strengthen your marriage (but six secrets to a good marriage), and five ways to handle conflict. Maybe, instead of there being five distinct ways in which we express love, Chapman just really likes the number five.

Putting a lot of stock in love languages could make you feel like you’re obligated to provide a certain kind of attention for your partner even if it makes you uncomfortable”

Love languages are a way to improve your relationship by thinking more about what your partner wants. Unfortunately, this emotional labour is statistically more likely to be the woman’s responsibility in the heterosexual married couples that Chapman concerns himself with. Sex — and lack of it — in long term relationships is always a fraught issue. In his book, he advises a woman in a failing marriage to “rely heavily upon [her] faith in God” in order to have sex with her husband when she doesn’t want to, in order to repair the relationship.  Putting a lot of stock in love languages could make you feel like you’re obligated to provide a certain kind of attention for your partner even if it makes you uncomfortable. 

Worse, social factors will always affect what we want from our partners. The idea that we have an innate love language that can be unlocked doesn’t really make sense. A cluster analysis of 100 couples’ self-reported love languages in 2018 by Bland and McQueen, focusing on heterosexual long-term relationships and marriage, revealed that among couples where women reported more “relational distress” than men, physical touch was reported as the man’s first love language. One key byproduct of toxic masculinity is intense pressure on men to want to have sex, and as much of it as possible; this could have influenced why men overwhelmingly reported that they valued Physical Touch above any other act of care. 

In other groups of surveyed couples, who were in relative agreement about which love languages were most important to them, acts of service were on average more important to women than men. Knowing what we know about the unequal division of unpaid domestic labour within straight married couples, isn’t it possible that claiming acts of service as their love language was just the result of an unmet need among women for their partners to do their fair share of work? 

Love languages were only ever designed to improve your heterosexual Christian marriage, not to dictate how you as a student relate to the collegiate dating world. We’ve allowed this thought exercise from a self-help book to turn into a personality test dictating what we expect from those around us. Maybe we should go back to star signs.