Love languages have been a pop culture sensation for nearly 30 years—but are they based in any actual science? In this episode, Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt, the Relationship Doctor, explains why love languages are not scientific, but why they may be useful anyway.
Last weekend, two married friends and I took our kids to a local theme park for a day out together. We were talking about how I was planning to write an episode for Relationship Doctor about a common myth about relationships: love languages. While she was aware that love languages were not scientific, her husband looked really sad to hear that. “Love languages aren’t real?” he asked, and his wife responded, “Well, no, but I needed a way to get you to open up and talk to me about stuff.”
In 1992, Gary Chapman wrote the book The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate, and it took the world by storm. Marital therapists, relationship coaches, and romance enthusiasts heavily bought into the idea that there are five ways to express love to your partner, that we have preferences for how to give and receive love, and that you can improve your relationship just by tailoring your affection to your partner’s love language.
On his website, Chapman proclaims, “The premise of The 5 Love Languages™ book is quite simple: different people with different personalities give and receive love in different ways. By learning to recognize these preferences in yourself and in your loved ones, you can learn to identify the root of your conflicts, connect more profoundly, and truly begin to grow closer.”
Here’s the thing: Gary Chapman is not a relationship scientist, and although he has a PhD, it is in education and he does not conduct relationship research. Chapman's five love languages were not driven by data, and his book is not based in science. In writing his book, he had no generalizable evidence that people have different preferences for giving and receiving love. He had no evidence that they are connected to your personality. He had no evidence that misunderstanding your own and your partner’s love languages could contribute to conflicts emerging.
What makes this unscientific book so catchy?
Whenever I talk about my research to someone new, inevitably they will bring up their love language and get excited to talk about it. Like other pop culture quizzes, such as the Myers-Briggs personality assessment (which is also not empirically based), it taps into our innate desire to understand who we are and why we operate in particular ways.
Chapman argues that we have preferences for how we express and how we receive love. He says people fall into one of five love preferences:
Words of Affirmation: Providing encouraging messages to your partner. This can look like complimenting your partner, telling them how much you appreciate them, or acknowledging when they do something good.
Acts of Service: Providing help with necessary tasks. This could be running errands for your partner, finishing a chore for them, helping them when they need it, or generally maintaining shared spaces.
Gifts: Providing tangible tokens to show your appreciation. This could be giving them a thoughtful birthday gift, picking up a card for them, or giving them a gift for no reason.
Quality Time: Spending shared time together doing activities that make you both happy and fulfilled. This can mean listening to your partner about their day, doing something you both enjoy together, having a good conversation, or just sitting together in the same space.
Physical Touch: This is pretty self explanatory, but generally refers to any physically intimate connection like holding hands, hugging, kissing, and more.
These categories are masquerading as something scientific, which makes it appealing to people—it seems legitimate! The five love languages are relatable because they are obvious ways that we form and maintain human connections, and as Chapman says, they apply to most close relationships in our lives. So, when we read these things, it is easy to say, “yeah, this makes sense, this applies to me, it must be something that works.”
What does the science say about love languages?
The first scientific article to take on the empirical validity of love languages in 2006 examined whether the five love languages were distinct from one another while also belonging to a larger behavioral category. While Chapman’s measure didn’t quite reach the threshold for statistical significance, the researchers said it came close. Additional efforts in 2013 to validate the love languages fell short, with the five subcategories of behaviors behaving differently than what Chapman presented in his books.
Additional efforts were made to try and see if parters would experience an improvement in relationship satisfaction after working to accommodate the other’s love language preferences. The research did not find that couples who worked to align their behaviors to love languages reported more satisfying relationships.
In short: many of the claims Chapman makes are untested today. Those that have been tested, such as there being five distinct love languages, or that aligning them will positively impact relationship satisfaction, have not been supported.
What does this mean for your relationships?
My married friends are not alone in feeling like this book made a difference for them. I got a lot of comments from my TikTok followers about how reading this book fundamentally saved their relationships. It provided an avenue to talk about the things they liked and appreciated that their partner did. It provided an accessible way for partners to speak the same language about their relationship, and open the door to communicate about relationship concerns more effectively.
The bottom line is that love languages are not based in science. But what this schema has given to the public is a desire and an ability to talk about what works and what doesn’t work in our relationships—which I am always in favor of.
So, what are some ways you can effectively communicate about your relationship with your partner?
Ask about how you can better support your partner. What is on your partner’s plate today that could maybe be shifted onto yours? Have you spent enough time together recently, or is it time to plan a date? Figuring out the ways in which your partner could use your help can help to show you care.
Ask about things you have done recently that your partner found helpful. We like to have our good deeds acknowledged and appreciated. The truth is that we all do little things that can be overlooked by our partners. When you give them time to think about it, they realize all of the maintenance you’ve done to help with shared responsibilities. It can help to ensure we are equitably splitting tasks and not feeling overburdened, while also having your contributions noticed—as we’ve talked about on this podcast before, invisible labor is still labor!
When your partner does something to help you, acknowledge it. Just as our partners may overlook the things we do, it’s possible that we also overlook their contributions, too. We don’t have to wait for a check-in conversation to acknowledge when we do notice something our partner has done for us! Take a moment to let your partner know that you appreciate their contribution.
Checking in with your partner regularly can provide opportunities to resolve small issues, and also identify the things your partner appreciates about your contributions. We all have a desire to feel appreciated and cared about by the people close to us, and having an ongoing open dialogue about what is and isn’t working can help facilitate that effectively.