The 5 love languages idea has grown into self-help empire for author Gary Chapman. There’s 5 love languages for children, 5 love languages for men, 5 love languages for singles, and so on. Building a simple catchy idea into a brand and leveraging it into various niches is good business. But how good is it for relationships?
An endless stream of self-help books and relationship gurus try to convince us that they alone hold the key, that if you will just follow this one rule or strategy, your marriage or relationship will become bullet-proof.
The 5 Love Languages book and website promises to provide “The secret to love that lasts” with this simple formula –
- gift giving
- quality time
- words of affirmation
- acts of service
- physical touch
For such intelligent animals, we seem to be easily seduced by the promise of simple solutions, even for complex phenomena like romantic relationships. For this reason, some of my clients come to counselling in search of an easily understood, tried and true solution to their marriage or relationship troubles… indeed, they are – as the book publishing marketing departments clearly know – hoping to find “The secret to love that lasts,” and they hope that I may reveal to them this secret.
But relationships aren’t simple machines. There’s no manual, no simple understanding of how they work. A truly difficult relationship does not necessarily present us with a concrete problem that is able to be solved through 5 love languages or anything else so basic.
Love languages – A valuable tool?
This doesn’t mean that learning and using “love languages” won’t be valuable. It very well might. I encourage you to try it. You can even take an online 5 love languages quiz (click here).
The love language model can be a great insight and practice. I like how it makes us reconsider who our partner actually is, and what it is they value as distinct from what we value. Dropping our assumption that our partner wants to be cared for the same way we want to be cared for; caring for a partner in ways that THEY find meaningful; seeing our partner as an individual with their own unique needs; these are important tasks, and may be game-changers for some people, in some situations.
But is it really accurate, and entirely honest, to claim that The 5 Love Languages is “The secret to love that lasts?”
Maybe it’s more reasonable to say that love lasts when we can keep up with it.
Love changes, and it asks us to change too. It’s possible that connecting with your spouse through the 5 love languages is precisely the medicine your relationship needs right now… but what if a relationship, a particular relationship – yours or mine, in this particular time and place, is asking something different of us?
What do relationships ask of us?
As I touched on earlier, relationships present us with tasks, (“developmental tasks” in popular psychology speak) and those tasks are always helping us become more mature, whole, integrated human beings.
Will 5 love languages help us recognize and manage our own nervous system arousal and the conflict it produces? Will 5 love languages help us wrestle with the deep dilemmas of being human… the inner conflict between wanting to be close to another, and protecting our freedom? Will 5 love languages help us acknowledge our own cruelty in the relationship, and where it might come from? How about power struggles, and the ways power dynamics shape the relationship? Will The 5 Love Languages help us recognize and retrieve the parts of ourselves that we have sacrificed in order to be in relationship? Will it give us a map for working with the trauma that we bring to our relationship?
These important questions and many others do not really get addressed by the 5 love languages or any other magical-seeming relationship solution. The 5 love languages is framed in an appealingly simple and disastrously naive (and perhaps incidentally, religious – Chapman is a Southwestern Baptist) view of relationships. The author seems to believe that if couples just focus on meeting each other’s needs, based on a 5-item menu, their relationship is sure to flourish, or at least to “last.” Frankly, this does not match my experience working with real-life couples.
Here’s one example from a client couple I ended up doing some very significant work with –
We read the 5 love languages book. I learned that words of affirmation is my wife’s love language, and so I really paid attention to speaking her love language. I gave her words of affirmation all the time. But it was never enough. In fact the more I affirmed her, the lower her self-confidence seemed to get. She became like a bottomless pit, totally needy, never satisfied. Her neediness really started to turn me off. I thought maybe I was doing it wrong. I got really frustrated.
The woman in this marriage was wrestling with some deep self-worth issues. No amount of “words of affirmation” from her husband was going to fill the emptiness she felt. Learning each other’s love languages was simply not what their relationship was asking of them. It was a nice gesture, but certainly not the secret to make their love last. (Love is actually rarely the key issue in most couples’ conflicts, but that’s another topic.)
I understand that we live in a culture addicted to speed, and that popular self-help authors are expected to deliver simple solutions in digestible forms. As a writer and relationship book author myself, I struggle sometimes in finding a balance between making an idea accessible and keeping it sufficiently robust, sufficiently honest. And so I can appreciate what Chapman is trying to do with his 5 love languages. I think it’s a worthwhile tool, AND I’m skeptical of it delivering entirely on its promise.
The 5 love languages idea doesn’t need debunking – probably it’s true enough, as far as it goes – it just needs to be taken with a grain of salt, and understood as merely one of the many tasks, and probably a fairly minor one, that relationships ask of us in the course of a marriage or a life.
Have you used the 5 love languages? What do you think?
[Note – I wrote this in response to the many questions I get from clients and colleagues regarding the 5 love languages.]
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