Are “Love Languages” Just a Quirky Synonym for Communication?

Drawing by Alison Czinkota. Retrieved from verywellmind.com .

Name has been changed*

You’ve heard it before: “men are from Mars, women are from Venus,” a theory which blames relationship troubles on fundamental differences between the sexes. It suggests that male and female brains are wired differently and that men and women do not reside in the same world— they live metaphorically on two separate planets. 

This idea is laid out in a book of the same title by John Gray. Distinguished by CNN as “the “highest ranked work of nonfiction” of the 1990s,” the bestseller suggests that innately, men are problem-solvers while women dwell in their emotions. 

In an article by Sandy Smith for the Sydney Morning Herald, Denise Reichenbach, a counselor at Relationships Australia, a non-profit organization providing a range of community support services, explains her view. She claims that Gray’s thesis puts in accessible terms, what is at the core of most disputes among couples — communication. “You can’t blame everything on gender because human relationships are much more complex than gender,” she explains.

While John Gray’s Mars and Venus portrayals of men and women are considered outdated, the heterosexual fascination with “figuring out” the opposite gender is an age-old phenomenon. Freelancer Bassil,* who prefers we don’t use his real name, believes that gender should not dictate how couples behave with each other.  

“As a gay person, I find it hilarious how unnecessarily complicated straight relationships are,” he says. Bassil goes on to describe that in both his romantic and platonic relationships, gender does not play a significant role. “Men specifically love to act like women are these massively complex creatures that need to be decoded,” he adds, “it’s not that deep sis — just be a good person.” 

While relationship problems remain a constant through time, it seems like 1992 was monogamy’s most tumultuous year. It was Dr. Gary Chapman’s “The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate,” published in the same year, that sold four times what the publisher expected. The book became a New York Times #1 Bestseller and currently, its sales are 12 million and counting. Today, Dr. Chapman is an 82-year-old Southern Baptist pastor and hosts marriage seminars across the United States. 

Dr. Chapman spent his earlier years as a marriage counselor and noticed that the majority of his clients’ grievances fell into five categories. So, he developed an approach for couples which focuses on how they, individually, prefer to give and receive love. He calls these the “5 Love Languages” which fall into the categories of Words of Affirmation (compliments, verbal reassurance), Acts of Service (completing tasks, chores), Receiving Gifts (thoughtful material items), Quality Time (spending time together), and Physical Touch (physical closeness, hugging and kissing.) Dr. Chapman believes that couples must be able to learn each other’s love languages and provides an online quiz on his website for doing so. 

Early childcare provider Pari had initial doubts about the quiz. “For a while I sort of put off the concept because I thought of it as a Myers-Briggs-esque test that, in its organization, would quantify what is basically your entire consciousness into something they could sell.” 

One review on Amazon calls Dr. Chapman’s book “sexist, heteronormative, triggering, and religious” saying that in one section, the book advises women to sleep with their husbands against their will. Other reviews state the book caters to straight Christian women and is based on 1950s nuclear family ideals. Despite its highly problematic subject matter, many argue that using its love language framework can be a powerful tool in navigating relationships. 

A simple Google search will yield countless articles from the past few years proving that the love language phenomenon has gained immense popularity in recent times. As of late, articles like How To Speak Your Love Language in Corona, which outlines how to love from a distance during the COVID-19 pandemic, have been popping up.

For receptionist Tamia, who uses the pronouns “they/them,” and their boyfriend Austin, the lockdown has forced them to reassess their respective love languages. The pair started seriously dating in February and began quarantining together at Austin’s place as the pandemic progressed. Tamia shows their love through trying to make the lives of others easier by doing favors and completing tasks for them — one of Tamia’s primary love languages is acts of service. 

According to Dr. Chapman, often what someone likes to give is what they like to receive in a relationship. Tamia notes that being helped out by their boyfriend in various ways has been very stress-relieving, especially during the lockdown. “He’s been immensely generous with letting me share his space,” they said. They also shared that Austin tends to help out with groceries as well as transportation. Acts of service is also one of Austin’s primary love languages. 

With that said, having the same love language does not guarantee a successful relationship. In student Yasmine’s case, her year-long relationship came to an end when she realized that although both she and her partner’s love languages were physical touch and words of affirmation, she found herself frequently feeling unfulfilled. “It just wasn’t enough,” she shares. 

She says that even though her partner would kiss and compliment her often, she couldn’t stand his lack of commitment or flakiness. “If you have the same love language but one person puts more effort into the relationship as a whole, it’s not gonna work out,” she adds.

Yasmine also admits that quality time may actually be one of her primary love languages. 

For Gaby and Leo, their love languages conflict at times. Project associate Gaby likes to give personal gifts — often planning them months in advance  — but Leo tends to find gifts a bit stressful (but appreciates them nonetheless.) The data engineer prefers physical touch and words of affirmation but Gaby struggles with PDA and finds sweet nothings a bit cheesy and off-putting. However, the couple frequently discuss how to compromise and better manage their expectations.

According to Leo, “there is no relationship that can’t be improved by better understanding your partner and their needs. Reframing thoughts of ‘they don’t love me’ to ‘they don’t express their love in a way that I understand’ are very helpful to stop resentment from building.”

For some couples, gift-giving/receiving doesn’t always have to be grand or elaborate. As childcare provider Pari puts it, “I’ll keep something simple like a pretty rock for years if someone gave it to me as a gift.”

Pari shares that one year on her birthday, instead of giving her a gift, her boyfriend Matt saw spending quality time as more valuable during their period of being long-distance. She says that although she was displeased, she understood that their love languages were just a little bit different. However, since earning an income, Matt says he is better able to spend money on their relationship and satisfy that need of his girlfriend’s. 

The pair acknowledge that sometimes, in heterosexual relationships, “there is a possibility for imbalance.” Pari continues, “women are often expected [to do] acts of service for the household while men are expected to be the breadwinner and gift his female partner.” She argues further that this can cause strain in a relationship because it becomes an expectation or chore instead of something special. 

Of course, there’s no secret to a successful relationship. Each one is different and although our expectations do not always fall under five rigid categories, Dr. Chapman’s model can be a useful tool in reevaluating our emotional needs. 

On a blog called Rinse Before Use, the author (whose screen name is ZLOTYBABY) criticizes Dr. Chapman for failing to stress the importance of compatibility in a relationship. In the blogger’s view, “the better you choose your partner the less work you have to put into a relationship.” She also recognizes that most relationships do require work but Dr. Chapman’s love languages should not necessarily be considered work — they should be the baseline elements of a healthy relationship. 

While it’s true that most of our relationships are more nuanced than Dr. Chapman would like to believe, a romantic partnership almost necessitates two people spending a lot of time growing together. No relationship is perfect and if a couple is truly committed to making it work, few obstacles will stand in their way. So, whether we call them “love languages” or, put more simply, “expectations” in a relationship, it isn’t very reasonable to demand that they are satisfied in every capacity all of the time. The same goes for platonic or familial relationships — they rely on communication and understanding to thrive. At the end of the day, we all just want to love and be loved and we cannot be expected to constantly try to meet every last need of our partner’s, no matter how basic they seem.

At the same time, there is no shame in being open about our needs.

We can give all of the verbal and physical affection, exchange all of the gifts, do all of the favors, and spend all of the time in the world with our partners, but if we can’t properly talk to them, what do we actually have beyond those things? We may be able to understand each other’s love language but do we really understand each other? Many relationship experts will tell you that communication is key. And through time and dedication, an honest and healthy dialogue is  possible, even if it feels like you are planets away. 

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