Examining the False Equivalencies of Love Languages
Though the concept of so-called "love languages" has been around for about 30 years, the term coined by an evangelical marriage counselor is now more quoted than ever. How many people realize what they're referring to? And, more important, do they know how to effectively interpret the concept and its original intention?
Capitalizing on love languages
Attempting to perform critical research on both the concept of love languages and their originator, Gary Chapman, Ph.D., is a very strange experience. It's nearly impossible to find information about Chapman or the perennially successful publication he has become famous for, which doesn't function as a pseudo-scientific and glowing recommendation for either his book or the author himself.
A keen eye might observe that a lot of time, energy and money has been spent on curating a positive atmosphere online for Chapman and his seminal work. It's apparent love languages make for a fantastic branding model by cornering the market on a few different wide-spanning concepts, which are central to human existence: love, religion and relationships.
These three terms encompass so much of the human experience, and the ideation behind love languages has taken on a milieu of relevance afforded to no other category of relationship advice. "The Five Love Languages" effectively dominated the market on relationship counseling, so much so that many people who cite the text don't realize they are quoting from a book or that the author's background is primarily in religious study rather than brain chemistry or qualitative anthropological research.
The book has made a ton of money (with more than 13 million copies sold), and continues to do so, for multiple individuals, organizations and publications—not just Chapman. It makes sense that the available information about this notion is overwhelmingly positive, as this is what it looks like when search engine optimization and private data mining dictate information dissemination to a culture at large.
This is not to say Chapman's book or his own work as a pastor and/or marriage counselor are bad, per se. In fact, many counselors and psychologists seem to think understanding love languages can be a helpful tool for all people interested in fostering healthy romantic and domestic partnerships. However, there are a number of areas where misunderstandings lead to false equivalencies drawn between love language terminology and healthy-relationship-forming practices.
Enforcing unidirectional thinking
In order to best identify one of the fundamental flaws in how the public perceives love languages, it's important to compare the concept to its most obvious counterpart: actual language.
For example, it's not exactly common to hear people advocate for monolingualism. There's a reason schools have foreign language requirements and that job opportunities increase exponentially with the number of languages a person is fluent in. We're talking about a simple idea here: the more parts of the world in which you can communicate adequately, the greater your chance of thriving in any condition.
The same is true for love languages and for operating within the "world" of relationships. For example, if your primary love language happens to be physical touch, and it also happens to be the only love language you speak (so to speak), you're going to have a hard time communicating about love and relations with those who do not identify with that particular language. You'll feel like a monolingual individual in a world of foreign languages.
Many people mistakenly view love languages as a sort of zodiac sign or as the result of an online personality quiz.
On the other hand, an active and consistent practice of engaging with and developing "fluency" in each love language will allow you to go anywhere, do anything and love whomever comes across your path. While this may seem simple, it is often lost on those who perpetuate love languages as little more than buzzwords.
Chapman's book is often perceived as being either about how you give love or how you receive it. In truth, those clinical professionals who make use of the book in education or counseling sessions would say the text is attempting to emphasize both facets of a loving relationship. Recognizing your own love language is only the first step—the initial layer of foundation meant to have many more levels built upon it. Once you understand your own love language, you are meant to spend time exploring and exercising your ability to "speak" another person's.
Many people mistakenly view love languages as a sort of zodiac sign or as the result of an online personality quiz. This kind of superficial absorption of the concept can lead to bad interpersonal practices in a variety of ways.
Indulging desire and developing dependence
Some people are more generous and some more self-centered. Neither side of the spectrum indicates an intrinsically bad personality, but rather tendencies a person has regarding attitudes and behavior. When interpreting love languages unidirectionally, the generous become too focused on appealing to a partner's love language, while the self-centered seek only to have their particular love language satisfied.
In this way, love languages become a kind of reserve tank where love can be deposited into or withdrawn from. Losing track of an equal exchange means somebody (potentially both parties) often gets hurt. Because of this, in the presence of a narcissistic, abusive or otherwise toxic person, a love language shifts from being a tool to a weapon.
A self-centered person will observe another person's primary love language and tap into it at their own discretion with no regard for how their actions actually benefit the other partner.
One valid critique of the love language ideology is it overlooks the presence of such individuals in the world. The harsh truth is not everyone wishes to foster love or develop healthy relationships with those to whom they are close. Some people lack the ability to make the best interests of others a priority. Others don't develop healthy habits around survival and personal growth. In either case, love languages can become harmful mechanics for manipulation or detrimental handicaps within a relationship.
A self-centered person will observe another person's primary love language and tap into it at their own discretion with no regard for how their actions actually benefit the other partner. An overly codependent person will sacrifice their own needs for that of the other to the point of self-destruction. Much like a hammer, a person's love language can be used to build or destroy.
The only universal love language: gibberish
Perhaps the key takeaway from all of this is the inherent error involved in trying to apply definitive terminology to a concept that holds no clear, universally applicable definition.
Think about nonverbal communication. If it helps, imagine talking to your best friend or closest family member using only nonverbal communication and utterly nonsensical gibberish. As you make up words and string together meaningless utterances, the person on the other end of the conversation has to pay close attention to your expressions, your tone and your overall body language. In turn, you're forced to lean into the nonverbal expressions that seem most effective, learning and adapting as you go to achieve communication sans verbiage.
If you've ever attempted this gibberish exercise or traveled to a foreign country where you do not speak the language, you are probably aware that communicating without translatable terms is entirely possible. Sure, the conversation may take an awkward turn or two, but this generally manifests in the form of comedic moments and learning opportunities.
Much like love languages, you can't speak in gibberish or communicate with a foreign speaker without relying on the language or languages you've already learned. Maybe your gibberish sounds a little more French or your French sounds a little more like gibberish. It's all a matter of perspective, purpose and empathy.
Partners who embrace "gibberish" as a shared love language can cross just about any divide together. One person may require more quality time, while the other looks for words of affirmation. As long as both parties are willing to admit nobody has all of the answers, or that there is no singular language for love, there remains hope for communication between the two.
A look at alternative takes
Clearly, framing love in the form of various languages has merit for interested individuals and couples. Many people have, undoubtedly, found clarity in the concept offered by Chapman and subsequent advocates for love languages.
But love has been limitlessly covered by academics, clinicians and authors of all types. The five languages may provide a framework that benefits some, but here are a few examples of texts that may prove useful to those for whom that particular model of thought has glaring limitations:
- "All About Love," by Bell Hooks: Renowned author and intersectional social activist Gloria Jean Watkins, who writes under the pen name Bell Hooks, delivers this contemporary masterpiece, which examines the meaning, practices and patterns of love in the modern world. The book challenges conventional notions of love while touching on subjects and experiences that will resonate strongly with almost anyone. Empathy is at the forefront of the conversation in this work rather than in the background as merely an implied imperative.
- "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work," by John Gottman: Backed by scientific research, this book utilizes a building model for love and marriage rather than framing love as manifesting in the form of one or more interchangeable languages. While much of the interpretation about love languages begins and ends with understanding one's own preferred vehicle for love, The Gottman Method leans on clinical research and treats self-understanding as the first step in building a lasting and foundationally secure relationship between two people.
- "Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love," by Sue Johnson: Sue Johnson is a clinical psychologist and couples counselor. She created Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy as a means of dealing with problems that may arise in a relationship between two people. This book introduces readers to ideas essential to her practice and places emotional awareness, rather than intellectual awareness alone, at center stage of the conversation regarding lasting love and successful relationship dynamics.
- "Getting the Love You Want," by Harville Hendrix: This book evolves and improves upon concepts relating to love and relationships, which are often misquoted or misunderstood interpretations of Freudian fundamentals. Holding a Ph.D. in psychology and theology from the University of Chicago, Hendrix identifies voids we seek to fill in our lives through the pursuit of love and the advancement of relationships. The work he does with his wife, Helen Lakelly Hunt, uses Imago Relationship Therapy and is centered around transforming conflict into healing opportunities with families and couples.
Clearly, many modes of thinking surrounding love and relationships exist. Hopefully, this list leads you down an academic path rather than one built from discarded hashtags and headlines on dating profiles.