Gary Chapman says he and his wife had “a lot of struggles” at the beginning of their marriage.
Chapman is the author of “The 5 Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate.” The book, published in 1992, describes five ways a person expresses or experiences love:
- acts of service
- physical touch
- quality time
- receiving gifts
- words of affirmation
Typically, a person speaks the love language they most like to hear. Chapman's is “words of affirmation,” something he offered endlessly to his new wife, he said.
“I told [my wife] how nice she looked and how much I appreciated how much she did,” he said. “I would tell her all day, ‘I love you. I love you. I love you,'” he told CNBC Make It.
But his wife's love language is “acts of service.”
“One night she said to me, ‘You keep saying, “I love you.” Well, if you love me why don't you help me?'” he said.
So, he started helping.
“I do the dishes, I take out the trash, I vacuum the floors, and she tells me I'm the greatest husband in the world,” he said, “and I know it's hyperbole but it still feels good.”
“Before that she wasn't giving me any words of affirmation, probably because she didn't think I deserved any,” he said.
Chapman says the problems he and his wife faced are common, which is why 30 years after its initial publication, his book is still conversation fodder.
“What's your love language?” has become a common question on dates and at happy hours and is used as a code for how to improve romantic, familial and friend relationships.
Chapman, a Southern Baptist pastor, says he came up with the love languages after decades of ferrying couples through hardships at Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he and his wife live.
He says marriage counseling was something he was “pushed into” after becoming a pastor.
“Over and over, couples were sitting in my office, and one would say, ‘I feel like you don't love me,' and the other would say, ‘I don't get that,'” he said.
“I know people could be sincere and still missing the other person.”
For example, a wife who doesn't care for a gift from her husband may not be shunning his affection but rather not recognizing it at all because her love language is, say, quality time or physical touch, he says.
Despite the book's success, Chapman's beliefs and expertise have come into question over the years.
For one, his doctorate is in adult education — not psychotherapy.
And Chapman has expressed heteronormative beliefs and works solely with heterosexual couples. When asked about same-sex couples, he said, “I don't deal with all that, but, yes, in any relationships if you understand this concept it will enhance the relationship.”
Intentionally or not, though, he's created a tool that's gender-neutral.
It's also approved by many therapists, though some have reservations.
Lisa Bobby, a psychologist and the clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching in Denver, says a lot of relationship advice is more inclusive now than when Chapman published his book.
“I think what has evolved since then is more understanding of attachment style and more understanding and appreciation for family and origin and cultures,” she said.
Some experts think Chapman's identity should be taken into consideration.
“The roots are hugely problematic,” said Lia Love Avellino, a psychotherapist and the CEO of Spoke, an emotional wellness space in Brooklyn.
“Not only where it came from or who it was written by,” she said. “This is a language that made sense to a white, Christian, straight male. It made a culture where people thought you had to pick one, you have to have a specific way of communicating.”
Chapman's book endures because it can be used in pretty much any type of relationship. Bobby says she often discusses love languages with her patients, regardless of orientation.
“It offers a very relatable and accessible way of understanding and appreciating the differences we've had in a way that's actionable for our partners,” she said.
The barrier to entry is also quite low, says Pamela Larkin, a therapist who specializes in relationships. The quiz is multiple-choice, free and only takes a few minutes.
“Some other personality assessments, like the Enneagram, take a little bit more reflection and go deeper in talking about motivations,” Larkin said. “The love languages are more straightforward.”
The word “language” itself is comforting as well, Avellino says.
“This idea that there is language out there that we can teach someone else to speak is empowering to somebody: There are some words that already exist rather than me having to come up with them.”
Along with being accessible, the concept of love languages can actually be helpful and make relationships “instantly feel better,” Bobby says.
“Readers are able to understand all these different ways of giving and receiving love in a way that didn't diminish the importance of any of them,” she said. “Words of affirmation are not more important than physical affection or vice versa.”
For Avellino, it helps her patients answer important questions.
“One thing I noticed when I ask people in therapy ‘What do you need?' or ‘What do you want?' most people don't know how to answer,” she said. “This gives couples five pillars. There is a standard language so it doesn't feel so vulnerable to go out on a limb because there have been topics pre-established, so it must be acceptable.”
Larkin says the biggest danger in using love languages is believing that the work stops there.
Knowing and even performing your partner's love language does not absolve you from putting in effort elsewhere.
“Doing acts of service doesn't make up for the need to still build trust, build respect, show honor, listen to each other, showing up for one another, being dependable,” she said. “You still have to do those things.”
It also could be used in harmful ways during cycles of abuse, she says.
“There is tension-building, the acute moment of abuse, and then the honeymoon phase,” she said. “Let's say someone knows their partner's love languages, they can go through the other parts of the cycles and then use the honeymoon for, say, gift giving, to try to say they are sorry.”
Another critique is that the five love languages are not all-encompassing.
“There are other ways of experiencing love and care that Dr. Chapman didn't talk about in his book,” Bobby said. “For many people, emotionally intimate conversations are the most important love language, and Dr. Chapman does not mention those.”
Your love language might also change throughout your life, Avellino says.
“We don't have a single self,” she said. “Different people bring out different needs, and circumstances change your needs.”
Chapman agrees that a person's love language might vary based on “circumstances and seasons of life.”
A mother of two, he says, might find that for the first time in her life “acts of service” is her most important love language.