There’s a good chance you know the answer, or, barring that, you at least know what a “love language” is. This Valentine’s Day, let’s look deeper into this romantic mental health phenomenon, and why it’s so popular today.
What are love languages?
In case you don’t know, let’s start with the basics. A love language is the dominant way (or ways - for some people, there could be two) that a person shows and experiences love.
There are five love languages: physical touch, gift-giving, words of affirmation, acts of service, and quality time.
Where did the love languages concept come from?
Gary Chapman, a Baptist pastor, published his book The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate in 1992.
But although the book and concept were successful from the start, defining oneself or someone else by their love language only really took off in the past few years.
Why is the love languages theory successful today?
Why has the love languages concept become so popular over the past decade or so? One of the reasons, Salon.com writer Nicole Karlis points out, is that we like to identify ourselves and others with categories. Today, someone can easily sum themselves up by giving their astrological site, Myers-Briggs personality type, or Harry Potter house, for instance. The love languages fit perfectly with this trend.
But another reason is that the concept may actually be useful for people in relationships or looking for a relationship. After all, we don’t all experience or express love exactly the same way, or have exactly the same needs when it comes to the gestures we wish our partner would make. Understanding this, and then sharing your love language with your partner and learning theirs, could make for a better relationship.
Still, as we’ll discover, not everyone is in love with the five love languages.
Are the love languages scientifically proven?
As this article explains, the five love languages theory isn’t based in study or science.
But some researchers have studied it. One study found that the five love language approach can be a good way for couples to communicate. But another study claims that this comes with a caveat: both people in the couple have to be willing to change their behavior to adapt to their partner’s love language.
Still, it’s hard to deny that there is something about the concept that most of us have probably experienced in one way or another. Maybe you know someone who was upset that their partner or spouse didn’t give them a gift for Valentine’s Day. Maybe another person you know loves how their significant other helps with the housework, while another left a potential partner because there wasn’t a lot of physical affection.
If the love languages don’t systematically work for all of us, the basic idea isn’t totally unreasonable.
Are the love languages controversial?
In addition to the lack of concrete psychological evidence behind them, the five love languages concept is controversial for another reason: Their creator, Gary Chapman, is a Baptist pastor who envisioned the idea as a way to help preserve heteronormative marriages. As a Baptist, Chapman disapproves of the LGBTQ+ community and relationships.
And yet, most people seem to have been able to separate the author from his beliefs, not a small feat in our era where every statement is scrutinized and it’s easy to get “canceled”.
Maybe this speaks to how universal the love languages are; as many who wouldn’t fall under Chapman’s approval can attest, the theory still works for just about any kind of person or relationship.
Do mental health professionals approve of the love languages theory?
The mental health world is extremely divided when it comes to the five love languages. Even a simple online search yields mixed results, with some therapists praising the theory and others denouncing it.
Some of the major criticism points include the fact that it’s not based in science; that its founder doesn’t embrace the romantic and sexual choices of all people; that the theory can (like all theories) be misinterpreted; and that it won’t fix all of the problems in a relationship.
Can the love languages be used in other ways?
Fans of the love languages concept may know that there’s a series of follow-up books which apply the same concept to other types of relationships, including parents and children, and even coworkers.
As with romantic relationships, the love languages concept may not apply to everyone or every situation, but in some cases, seeing a relationship through this lens could be helpful, at the very least in fostering empathy.
With this in mind, maybe medical professionals could use the concept to help with bedside manner. In a way, some already do, through gestures like giving a child a lollipop or an oncology patient an encouraging word, for instance.
Whether or not you believe in love languages -- or in celebrating Valentine’s Day, for that matter -- here’s hoping that your day is full of empathy and understanding.