Todd is well aware that the idea—that there are five love languages and everyone has a primary one—has eclipsed in popularity the book that introduced it. “People are using the phraseology of ‘love languages,’ and not even realizing it’s coming from this book,” she told me. At this point, she added, “it sort of has a life of its own.” (Indeed, as the Vice story noted, some therapists even impart the idea of love languages to their couples-therapy clients without having read the book: One therapist told the author she knew enough to know it was “a vehicle for people to communicate about yourself to someone else. It’s a way to ask for what you need.”)
But people who become familiar with the concept without reading the book often think, Todd noted, that people should simply express love in the way that feels natural to them and then explain to their partners that that’s their love language—or that the point is to know your own love language solely for the purpose of telling your partner what you want. Certainly, Todd emphasized, it’s good to know your own love language, and it’s healthy to communicate to your partner what makes you feel appreciated and what doesn’t do much for you. But Chapman’s advice, she pointed out, doesn’t stop there so much as it starts there.
If you sit down and read Chapman’s book, it’s clear that the love language you’re meant to think about isn’t your own, but your partner’s. The first chapter concludes by hammering home that the pathway to a more fulfilling relationship is to tailor your own expressions of love to what makes your partner feel loved: “We cannot rely on our native tongue if our spouse does not understand it,” Chapman writes. “If we want them to feel the love we are trying to communicate, we must express it in their primary love language.”
Chapman then devotes five chapters to identifying each of the love languages in a partner, just one to identifying your own love language, and the better part of six chapters—essentially the rest of the book—to specific strategies for adapting your behavior to your partner’s love language. In other words, what often gets lost in the discourse is that The Five Love Languages encourages attentiveness and behavioral self-regulation above all else.
Which, if you ask some relationship researchers, is a shame—because that’s the part that holds the most promise.
When the love-languages concept entered the cultural lexicon, it soon attracted the interest of a handful of relationship and marriage researchers who wanted to test Chapman’s claims as scientific hypotheses. Their findings have been mixed, but some researchers have found its attentiveness-plus-behavioral-change formula worthwhile. One study determined, for instance, that Chapman’s advice was likely to produce certain established “relational maintenance” behaviors that research had previously linked to higher rates of love, satisfaction, commitment, and equity in relationships. So in theory, it was certainly possible that a couple who applied the principles of The Five Love Languages to their day-to-day lives could end up with higher levels of relationship satisfaction. Another study found that love-language alignment (or two halves of a couple identifying as having the same love language) was a somewhat weak predictor of relationship satisfaction, especially when compared with self-regulating one’s behavior according to a partner’s wants and needs.