'Love languages' have guided couples for decades. Scientists are skeptical.

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

If you have ever contemplated ways to improve your romantic relationships, you have probably heard about love languages.

Love language, a theory about how people express and receive love, was introduced 30 years ago by Baptist pastor Gary Chapman. The notion that we all speak a love language has become so entrenched in public consciousness that it has spawned memes, satire and even a song by Ariana Grande.

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But some scientists are questioning the validity of the concept. And others have suggested, that in some situations, love language thinking can do harm, encouraging adherents to stay in difficult or even abusive relationships. This month, a paper published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science reviewed the scientific literature and concluded that core assumptions about love languages stand upon shaky ground unsupported by empirical evidence.

"I feel like academics haven't really taken this seriously," said Emily Impett, a psychologist and director of the Relationships and Well-Being Laboratory at the University of Toronto who was a co-author of the paper.

Chapman's book, "The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts," has sold over 20 million copies since its original publication in 1992 and been reprinted in 50 languages. The premise is that love means different things to different people, and the key to a happy relationship is understanding your partner's love language. Their language might be words of affirmation (giving compliments), gifts (presents big and small), acts of service (helping your partner with chores or in other ways), quality time (doing things together) or physical touch (such as hugs, kisses or sex).

Responding to the new scientific review, Chapman said the success of his book speaks for itself. "I think the fact that so many millions of people have read the book, so many people have found it to be helpful in their relationship, that I'm convinced it can have a tremendous positive impact on a marriage," Chapman said.

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Science or pop culture?

There is little academic research into love languages. But when Impett and her co-authors Haeyoung Gideon Park and Amy Muise dug into the research literature, they found that some of the key assumptions behind "love languages" aren't supported by relationship science. Here are their findings.

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1. People don't really have a primary love language

Discovering and learning to speak your partner's primary love language is a key tenet of Chapman's book. But when researchers ask study participants to rate the love languages on a continuous 5-point scale, they consistently find that people tend to rate all five love languages very highly indicating that most people connect with most or all five love languages. "In real life, we know that people often don't need to make these kinds of trade-offs between do you want a partner who is going to touch you versus express love in some other way," Impett said.

While it may seem like a small point, finding your "primary" love language is a cornerstone of love language advice. "If that's the core assumption, then everything that follows kind of falls apart in a lot of different ways," said Sara Algoe, a psychologist who runs the Emotions and Social Interactions in Relationships Laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and was not an author of the paper.

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2. There are more than five love languages

Chapman claims there are five key love languages. But the research indicates that humans express love in more than the five ways defined by Chapman. In the review, Impett and her colleagues raise other possible expressions of love, such as supporting a partner's personal growth and autonomy.

"We know that these things are really key for relationship satisfaction and might be more meaningful to couples with more egalitarian values," Impett said. Research shows that developing conflict management strategies and integrating partners into one's larger social network are also distinct behaviors that maintain relationship satisfaction.

Relationship experts say other important behaviors don't fall neatly into a love language category. "There's hundreds of them," said Helen Fisher, biological anthropologist at the Kinsey Institute and author of Anatomy of Love. "Just being nice to your mother-in-law, being on time for the opera, creating interests together, learning things together, doing novel things together. It's a little different than just spending time together."

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3. Sharing the same love language may not improve your relationship

The practical implication of love languages is that discovering and speaking the same love language as your partner is key to a successful relationship. "The dark side version of this theory that people might take away is that if someone doesn't quote, 'speak that language,' then your relationship is doomed," Algoe said.

But research shows that partners with matching primary love languages did not report higher relationship satisfaction than those with different love languages. Impett said rigorous statistical analyses suggest that receiving expressions of love in any form is associated with higher relationship satisfaction, regardless of whether the love language matched.

John Gottman, one of the pioneers of scientific relationship research, is also skeptical that learning your partner's love language is a key to relationship happiness. "My general conclusion is that these dimensions are not very distinct conceptually, nor are they very important in terms of accounting for variation in marital happiness and sexual satisfaction," said Gottman, a psychologist and co-founder with his wife Julie Gottman of the Gottman Institute in Seattle.

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Can 20 million readers be wrong?

Chapman, who has degrees in anthropology and a doctorate in adult education, said he formulated the five languages and wrote the book after a decade of counseling couples as a pastor in North Carolina and noticing patterns in problem areas that kept cropping up.

"I'm not a researcher," Chapman said. "But I do think that there are significant numbers of people over the 30 years who have found that concept to be the thing that turned their marriage around emotionally."

He said 133 million people have taken the 5 love languages quiz online. When he speaks at marriage conferences or goes on tour to churches around the country, a "half a dozen couples come up and say, 'We just want to tell you, that book saved our marriage.'"

Chapman holds firm in his belief that almost everyone has a primary love language which "tends to stay with us throughout a lifetime," he said. The only people he's encountered who say all five are equally important are those who either were always loved or never loved, he said. There are also, "seasons of life and there are circumstances when another love language may jump to the top" for a period of time, he added.

"I mean all five of these are ways that anybody can receive love," Chapman said. "We're not going to turn away any one of them I think, but if we don't have love in our primary language, we will not feel loved, even though our spouses speak in some of the other languages."

He said some of the research criticizing love languages takes too strict of an interpretation of his work. "I was never dogmatic to say that there's only five love languages," Chapman said. But he says after years of people proposing a sixth, "I'm still open, but I'm a little more confident that these (five) are pretty much fundamental to human nature."

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Criticism of love languages

One key concern about love language advice is that it could be interpreted as suggesting the unhappy partner change or compromise their own needs rather than finding common ground. Critics cite one anecdote in Chapman's book as particularly concerning.

It's a story about Ann, a woman he counseled, who was unhappy in her marriage. She asked: "Dr. Chapman, is it possible to love someone whom you hate?" Ann said she had "felt used rather than loved" in sexual encounters with her husband.

Although Ann's husband had never attended counseling, Chapman surmised that her husband's primary love language was physical touch, and his secondary language was words of affirmation. Chapman advised Ann to focus her attention on those two areas for six months: give verbal affirmations but "stop all verbal complaints." He also told her to take "more initiative in physical touch."

In earlier print editions and the current e-book, Chapman encouraged Ann to initiate sex with her husband more often and "surprise him by being aggressive" with a goal of having sex at least once a week at first, and twice a week eventually. The example has been changed in the newest 2015 print edition, and Chapman's advice to Ann is to surprise her husband "by reaching out with physical gestures" like "ruffling his hair." His advice on sex now is to "ease into this slowly."

In the book, Chapman writes that he assuaged Ann's uncertainty, in part by citing the Bible. He noted that Ann saw a "tremendous change" in her husband's treatment of her and her husband "swears to his friends that I am a miracle worker."

Chapman said the example was meant to illustrate that "we can love a person that we don't like."

"Because if people begin to feel loved, they tend to respond differently to you," he said

Ann's story has caused some critics to cringe. "I agree that that particular illustration was not good," Chapman said. He noted that while Ann wasn't abused, "physical abuse today is far more evident and apparent than it was when I wrote the book. And we've had people who complained about that, and I understand that."

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So should we give up on love languages?

Impett said she hopes the research challenging love languages can start "conversations between partners about the importance of all kinds of needs, maybe opens up conversation of there being other idiosyncratic needs that people have in relationships."

Brian Swope, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Philadelphia, said clients have come to therapy sessions discussing love languages.

"It gets couples asking some questions, and it gets them to start making some change," he said. "If those questions aren't going deep enough, then that change is only going to go so far."

Gottman said he has also heard couples talk about love languages in therapy sessions. "I think the therapist has to then expand it and say, 'It sounds like part of the problem is you're not feeling very loved and appreciated.' And that seems to actually characterize almost all couples who go to therapy."

Gottman thinks the focus on love languages skirts around the important question, which is: "'What can I do to make you feel more loved now, and help me understand where you are right now?'"

Chapman said he knows love languages aren't "the answer to everything in marriage, for sure. But I think it could be a helpful tool for any individual or any couple that wants to enhance their relationship and especially meet each other's need to feel loved."

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