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Relationship Scientist Explains Why The 'Problematic' 5 Love Languages 'Aren't Real'

Photo: Justin Follis / Unsplash
loving couple

Gary Chapman's 1992 book "The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate" and its multiple offshoots have been wildly popular for decades. 

It's also been controversial for just as long, and a scientist on TikTok recently explained several of the reasons why. 

Relationship scientist Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt says the 5 love languages 'aren't real' and are wildly problematic. 

For the uninitiated, Chapman's "The Five Love Languages" posits that all of us feel and show love primarily in one of five ways: touch, words, gifts, quality time, or "acts of services" AKA doing things for one another.

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It's been helpful to millions. Chapman's book suggested that learning your partner's love language was the key to marital harmony and good communication, and avoiding all those conflicts when your partner felt slighted by how you didn't help with the dishes or weren't willing to be intimate often enough. 

But Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt, who holds a Ph.D. in the science of communication and whose specialty is conflict in relationships, is one of the many voices who say Chapman's theory and the relationship dynamics it recommended were not based in science or evidence, and might actually be harmful. 

Vanderbilt said there's no evidence the 5 love languages even exist.  

Chapman, a Baptist pastor and radio host from North Carolina, holds degrees in anthropology and a Ph.D. from the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. 

While those degrees certainly provide some insight into human behavior and relationships, as does experience ministering to people, his book was not based on scientific research. Instead, he created his own religion-based theory on harmonious relationships. 

   

   

"Chapman did not do an empirical evaluation of love languages and the ways in which people express love to others," Vanderbilt explained in her TikTok, "[so] it's unclear whether there truly are five love languages and whether those are encompassing all of the ways in which people express love to their partner."

Scientific evidence suggests that love languages aren't real and that the ways Chapman says they work aren't either. 

Vanderbilt explained that Chapman's book asserted "that we have one primary and perhaps a secondary love language, and this is the way that we feel most loved by our partner." But actual scientific studies have shown that's not the case. 

"If you force people to have a single love language, they can," Vanderbilt explained, "but most often, if you allow people to have flexibility in these measurements, people prefer to receive love in all five ways. Those are all somewhat equally important to most people." 

   

   

Chapman theorized that by observing your partner's behavior you could figure out their "love language," but, according to Vanderbilt, the opposite was often true. "The way a person gives love to others is not necessarily the way they would like to receive love themselves." 

Vanderbilt called Chapman's claim that "if you give love to your partner in the way that they want to receive love… your relationship would benefit from it" his worst because "literally no research… has found support for the idea... which is the whole foundation of the book."

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Vanderbilt added that Chapman's book was basically an instruction manual for women to change for the benefit of men.

"If truly this book were to do good, it would be to recognize the ways that your partner gives love by natural inclination and recognizing that as signs of love from your partner," Vanderbilt said. "Instead, he tells people to change themselves, to force themselves to behave in unnatural and undesired ways."

As has been discussed for decades, this is especially problematic for women, because much of Chapman's advice to women centers on "[telling] women to have [intercourse] with their husband who they hate, who have mistreated them. He tells people who are uncomfortable touching others that they need to get over it."

In another video, Vanderbilt shed light on how insidious this was. She shared a conversation she witnessed online in which a woman noticed that in heterosexual relationships, the man's love language was almost always physical intimacy and the woman's acts of service, but the same was rarely true when women were in partnership together.

   

   

The subtext, of course, was that the five love languages were based on the same old, often harmful gender dynamics that have existed forever. Men felt entitled to physical intimacy while women just wanted some help around the house.

Gary Chapman's open homophobia and sexism have angered people for years, and Vanderbilt said this 'foundation of abuse' undermined the five love languages.

To illustrate this, Vanderbilt used an anecdote from Chapter 12 of Chapman's book in which a woman came to him for help dealing with a husband she said she "[hated]" and who refused to go to counseling. For most of us, that sounds like a situation the prescription for which is divorce. Not according to Chapman. 

   

   

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After determining that her husband's love language was — surprise — physical intimacy, Chapman's advice to the woman was essentially to not only submit to but actively pursue, aggressively, having intercourse with her husband until their problems were resolved. 

When she protested the notion of being required to be intimate with someone who mistreated her and refused to go to counseling, he instructed her that "you'll probably have to rely heavily on your faith in God in order to do this."

   

   

That shocking advice shouldn't be shocking at all. The outdated notion that men's need for physical intimacy was an innate physical drive that had to be satisfied at all costs, while women's was merely a secondary emotional one, underpinned much of the book's advice.

But Chapman made clear he had other outdated and unsavory opinions based in hardline religion, too.

In a since-deleted advice column on his website, he urged a mother who just found out her son was gay to send him to "talk to a counselor" because being gay was "outside the primary design of God."

Given his religious affiliations, it's not unreasonable to assume by "counseling" he meant "gay reparative therapy" or "conversion therapy." This Christian-based protocol for attempting to change LGBTQ+ people into straight people has no scientific basis and is so psychologically damaging it has been ruled a human rights violation and is outlawed in many countries.

   

   

None of this necessarily means there's no value in Chapman's book. Many therapists recommend using the five love languages framework as an approach to learning more about your partner's needs. 

Still, the fact that love languages aren't real from a scientific perspective should make us all tread carefully. One TikTok commenter said to Vanderbilt that he considered the five love languages "a great shorthand" for learning about relationships "that's not especially scientific or complete."

Given how intricately intertwined our relationships are with our psyches and mental health, that "grain of salt" approach is probably the best foot forward. 

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John Sundholm is a news and entertainment writer who covers pop culture, social justice, and human interest topics.