The concept of "love languages," first theorized by a Baptist preacher in the early 90s, has had a vice grip on pop psychology for decades — but now, some scientists are calling bull.
In a new paper published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, researchers from the University of Toronto Mississauga took on the public's "obsession with love languages." They found, per their close reading of ten relationship science studies, that there just isn't a lot of "strong empirical support" for the theory.
Back in 1992, preacher Gary Chapman published his bestselling book "The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts." The premise is right there in the title: to have lasting relationships, one must figure out which of the five "love languages" they respond to, which their partners use, and how they can work together harmoniously (the five, in Chapman's telling, are compliments, quality time, gifts, acts of service, and physical touch.)
While the idea itself is benign enough, there's been criticism brewing for years not only about the source material — one recent review referred to it as "Christian propaganda" — but also about whether there would be only five so-called love languages in the first place.
The latter criticism was particularly succinct because, as the team led by UTM psychologist Emily Impett discovered in reviewing relationship studies, it was "inconclusive whether the five love languages truly represent a meaningful framework for understanding the various ways people express and feel love."
"Meanwhile, even if it were true that the five love languages as proposed by Chapman represent somewhat separable constructs," the paper continues, "it is important to consider that they may not encompass all the meaningful ways that people express and feel love."
Impett, who also leads UTM's Relationships and Well-Being Laboratory, explained in a press release about the research that part of the problem with Chapman's theory is how they're defined and decided in the first place.
"People determine their primary love language by taking Chapman's quiz, which forces them to select the expressions of love they find most meaningful," she said. "It could be choosing between receiving gifts or holding hands, for example. These are trade-offs we don't have to make in real life. In fact, people report that they find all of the things described by the love languages to be incredibly important in a relationship."
Moreover, the way the Baptist author got to his theory in the first place is suspect.
"One key thing to remember," Impett said, "is that Chapman developed the five love languages by working with a sample of white, religious, mixed-gender, traditional couples."
The paper argues that the concept of love languages has become so popular because it conveys "an easily digestible message free of scientific jargon." To replace it, Impett and her team suggest another simple metaphor: "a healthy, balanced diet."
"Whereas Chapman’s language metaphor implies that people can feel love only when their partner speaks their love language, the healthy-diet metaphor suggests that people need multiple essential nutrients to maintain satisfying relationships," the paper reads. "Although people can certainly stay alive if they consume only some ingredients (e.g., carbs), we ultimately need all key nutritional ingredients (e.g., carbs, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals) to be in the best state of health."
It's not a bad place to start — and unlike the love language model, it isn't based in religiosity.
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