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What’s your love language? Exploring the theory’s origins and criticisms

(Ko Carlos/Daily Bruin)

By Katherine Wang

Dec. 6, 2023 7:46 p.m.

With the heart of holiday season and winter break approaching, Bruins may look forward to building on relationships with their loved ones through avenues such as love languages.

Sharing and analyzing one another’s love languages, similar to discussing Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment results and zodiac signs, has become a way of fostering relationships among friends, family and romantic partners. However, the origin, applications and criticisms of the five love languages remain unclear to many.

The term “love languages” first appeared in counselor and pastor Gary Chapman’s book “The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts” which was published in 1992.

According to Chapman, the five love languages represent different ways people prefer to express and receive love, which he distinguishes as acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, words of affirmation and physical touch. An example of each is helping run errands, preparing a thoughtful gift, dedicating undivided attention, giving a compliment and holding hands, according to the same source. Chapman’s theory states that connecting oneself to a primary love language can help identify values, resolve conflicts and enhance intimacy in relationships.

Chapman’s love languages theory may be appealing to people because it can serve as a guide on ways to enhance beneficial personal connections. Psychology professor Benjamin Karney said interpersonal connections make up a significant part of the human experience, and its absence can cause negative effects.

“Our experience of life is often validated by other people (and) often gets its meaning from being shared by other people,” Karney said. “It’s very hard to overstate how important social relationships are.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who engage in supportive social interactions are more likely to have better physical and mental health. Jaimie Krems, an assistant professor of psychology, said in an emailed statement that social connections can greatly improve people’s health, well-being and even economic mobility.

Krems added that people of different genders may express and receive love differently. She said in friendships, while women tend to prefer one-on-one conversations and self-disclosure, men gravitate towards group-based interactions focused on an activity.

A 2023 Pew Research Center research study found that 66% of adults in America said all or most of their close friends are the same gender as them and 20% more women than men said they talk to their close friends about their family frequently. According to Chapman, learning of each other’s love language can mediate communication gaps and help people connect more profoundly.

Interpersonal relationship dynamics vary not only by gender, but also by ways differences are mediated. Karney said compromising on behavioral preferences such as communication is a strategy for relationship maintenance.

“There’s all sorts of behaviors that can accentuate positivity or sort of diminish positivity, and it makes a difference whether we seize the moment to celebrate the good things that happen when they happen, or whether we ignore or skip those moments,” Karney said.

Beyond differences in preferences between people, preferences can change at an individual level. Clinical psychologist Avigail Lev said in a Forbes article that love languages are fluid and can change in different contexts. Sociology professor Terri Anderson said a person’s perspective on love and intimacy does not evolve on a specific trajectory, but rather is influenced by culture, new experiences and other factors throughout the course of their life.

Differences in preference and perspective mirror the different types of relationships love languages can help strengthen. According to the 5 Love Languages website, love languages can apply not only to romantic partners, but also to family and workplace relations and friendships.

However, the development of technology has affected the expression of the different love languages, an example being how quality time is spent between partners, according to Utah State Today. As the use of digital tools such as social media continues to grow, Anderson said more human feelings may be removed when people communicate through texting instead of face-to-face interactions.

“If there is less and less actual connection as we are increasingly removed from each other through technology, through our devices, we have less direct communication – less direct connection,” Anderson said.

Karney said there are two common viewpoints responding to the rise in digital communication. He said some people emphasize how technology has changed intimacy, such as how texting introduces the expectation and frequency of immediate communication, while others argue technology has changed some, but not the core, features of relationships.

“The center of a relationship is still negotiation and interaction, connection and support,” Karney said. “The challenges of relationships are exactly what they always were, which is negotiating differences in priorities and opinions. … Technology has changed some things, like how often we communicate and how we find partners, but some of the fundamental challenges of intimacy are pretty constant.”

According to Spark Magazine, there remain ways to adjust conventional practices of the five love languages in the growing digital world, such as sending someone a customized Spotify playlist as a gift.

Chapman’s book sold over 20 million copies, owing to the versatile nature of love languages updated to reflect the complexities of relationships today for them to remain applicable three decades after the book’s original publication, according to Goodreads.

However, despite the book also being named a New York Times international bestseller, Chapman based the love languages theory on his own experiences and thus it holds little scientific validity, according to Simply Psychology. The theory – which describes that practicing one another’s preferred love language can strengthen the relationship – lacks data and scientific research to back it up, said Krems.

Karney said the theory is too simple to associate each individual with a single distinct way of expressing love, suggesting there is more nuance to people’s preferences and behaviors.

“I think the love language idea helps people understand there’s a lot of different ways to express love,” Karney said. “What I think there isn’t as much evidence for is the idea that a person has one way, and one way only.”

The various ways of effectively expressing and receiving love reflect different strategies Bruins can utilize to nurture close relationships with their romantic partner, family, friends and co-workers.

Alongside using Chapman’s love languages theory to enhance interpersonal connections, Bruins can establish other habits to improve social well-being. Expending resources on relationships, similarly to spending money to eat well and dedicating time to exercise, can help cultivate both short- and long-term benefits, Krems said.

Karney said he advises students to pay attention to the context in which their social interactions happen and to be understanding of others to foster long-term relationship satisfaction.

“People who are willing to compromise, who are willing to be flexible, who are trying to be empathic, who understand that their needs and their partner’s needs are different and that they will have to negotiate those differences – that tends to be a profitable way to be in relationships,” Karney said.

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Katherine Wang
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