Even if you don’t know what your personal love language is, you’ve probably heard of it. The theory’s popularity in mainstream culture has only grown in the 30 years after Baptist pastor Gary Chapman published “The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts.”
However, psychology researchers at the University of Toronto Mississauga recently showed that Chapman’s main assumptions do not hold up to scientific scrutiny — and have proposed a new metaphor for sustaining positive relationships.
“We were very skeptical about the love languages idea, so we decided to review the existing studies on it. None of the 10 studies supported Chapman’s claims,”
said Emily Impett, a professor in the UTM department of psychology who collaborated with UTM graduate student Gideon Park and York University Assistant Professor Amy Muise.
Three Faulty Premises
Chapman employs a language metaphor to explain how people prefer to give and receive love. The idea is based on three premises: that everyone has a primary love language, that there are five love languages (physical touch, words of affirmation, acts of service, quality time, and gifts), and that when partners “speak” the same love language, their relationships strengthen.
Each of these assertions broke down when Impett and her team evaluated them based on the studies’ findings.
“People determine their primary love language by taking Chapman’s quiz, which forces them to select the expressions of love they find most meaningful. 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,”
said Impett, who is also the director of the Relationships and Well-Being Laboratory at UTM.
No Matching Effect
In terms of the number of love languages, the studies found inconsistent evidence for the five languages identified by Chapman, while other relationship research indicates that there are additional ways to express and receive love.
“One key thing to remember is that Chapman developed the five love languages by working with a sample of white, religious, mixed-gender, traditional couples,”
Certain things are left out, such as affirming a partner’s personal goals outside of the relationship, which may be important to couples with more egalitarian values.
Most importantly, Impett and her team found no scientific evidence for Chapman’s central contention that people who choose partners that speak their love language, or learn to speak it, will have more successful relationships.
“There’s no support for this matching effect. People are basically happier in relationships when they receive any of these expressions of love,”
Balance Your Diet
Nonetheless, she and her collaborators recognize that people want simple solutions that claim to improve their love lives. After all, Chapman’s book has sold over 20 million copies, the online quiz has been taken by over 30 million people, and the hashtag #lovelanguages has had 500 million views.
“Everyone wants to be in a good relationship, so we didn’t just say the love languages are scientifically debunked and stop there,” says Impett. “We offered an alternative metaphor that’s rooted in the research.”
Their new metaphor suggests that relationships are like a balanced diet, with people needing a full range of essential nutrients (including the factors described by the five love languages and others, such as companionship and emotional support) to nourish lasting love.
“It keeps all expressions of love on the menu and invites partners to share what they need at different times. It allows for the fact that people and relationships aren’t static and can’t be categorized into neat boxes,”
This is not the first time she has put common beliefs about relationships to the test.
“I really like challenging these lay ideas, because my goal is always to translate the best scientific evidence to therapists and the general public,”
- Impett, E. A., et al. Popular psychology through a scientific lens: Evaluating love languages from a relationship science perspective. Current Directions in Psychological Science (2023) In Press.