You’ve probably heard of Gary Chapman’s The 5 Love Languages, originally published in 1995. Many marriage counselors and therapists use his work with their clients, telling them that if they can just learn how to speak their husband’s or wife’s love language, they’ll have more relationship satisfaction. But did you know that the 5 love languages have been debunked?
The 5 love languages are acts of service, quality time, physical touch, words of affirmation, and receiving gifts. I believe that I was introduced to his work in 2008 (ironically from someone I was always helping with her relationship issues).
Earlier this year, we were in the checkout at a craft store and I saw a 5 love languages desktop calendar and decided to purchase it, hoping it would be helpful as inspiration for the content I create.
Boy, was it! I disagreed with so many of the pages that I kept feeling pushed to write this article. I’ve actually been concerned with the love languages for the past five years and never articulated it.
Then yesterday I was speaking with a mom friend who stated that she divorced her ex because her love languages were physical touch and words of affirmation and he wouldn’t deliver (probably more reasons than just that, but that’s what she shared).
The 5 Love Languages Are A Myth
So I have to address the fallacy of speaking your partner’s love language. Let me explain my thoughts about why they’re a myth, and if you’d like you can read this study1 that concluded the same:
The aims of this study were to empirically investigate the notion within Chapman’s popular five love language model that love language alignment corresponds with higher relationship satisfaction and explore any effects that self‐regulatory behavior may have. This study found that neither love language alignment nor implicit knowledge of a partner’s love language increases relationship satisfaction, but relevant self‐regulatory behaviors do. These findings point to the conditional effectiveness of Chapman’s five love languages model being dependent on spouses exhibiting appropriate self‐regulatory behaviors. Female, and not male, self‐regulation was found to positively impact relationship satisfaction for both men and women when couples had love languages that were misaligned.
In summary, this study makes a significant contribution toward investigating the empirically unfounded, yet highly popular, five love languages model. The model has been responsible for book sales of over 9 million and has been used extensively in couples counseling and was included as an available program in the recent $20 million Australian government‐subsidized Stronger Relationships initiative. The results of this study suggest that the effectiveness of Chapman’s model to improve relationship satisfaction resides not so much in whether couples have the same primary love language but in the ability to catalyze self‐regulated appropriate interactions.
These Are Acts of Care, Not Love
Here’s a page out of that calendar I regrettably purchased. Can you imagine the audacity of, first of all, saying that you love someone else but not yourself? That is absolutely contradictory to what love is. But these “love languages” are not love at all, they are expressions of CARE.
The Difference Between Love And Care
Love is an energy we align to. It’s a beautiful, joyful, state of being. We have infinite love for everyone, especially ourselves. If God can be felt, it is through the energy of love. What do people say when they have near death experiences? How they they felt this beautiful energy and knew that they were loved unconditionally. That’s love, so let’s not confuse that with care.
Care is what we do for ourselves and others as an expression of love. When you have a baby, you care for it. You touch it, hold it, tell it how amazing it is, spend tons of time with it in presence, buy it what it needs, and labor endlessly to run life until it’s able to do things on its own as an individuated, self-reliant human.
Rarely Is Caring Done With Love
Those who care for others do NOT always love them. In fact, they often are not even in an energetic state of love while doing the caring, because most of the world is exhausted and not taking care of themselves to begin with. Think of nurses, doctors, nursing home employees, teachers, etc.
Caring, then, should come from a place of overflow. Meaning, our energy tank is so full because we’ve adequately cared for ourselves, that we have extra energy to give to others and care for them. I know this is rarely the case, but there has been a movement at least the past five years toward remembering our own worth and taking care of ourselves so we even have a cup full to pour from, aka Self Care. I’ve written about it a lot here.
Once We Grow Up, The Only Dependence We Should Have Is On SELF Care
The whole point of childhood is to individuate from our parents and become self-reliant adults. Everything our two parents do with us should be in the interest of independence. That entire 18+ year journey is with an exit in mind. If we enter the adult world and don’t have it mostly together by 25, then our parents have failed to allow us to separate from them. We should know how to love ourselves and care for ourselves as we set out in the world. The goal isn’t to immediately find another adult to care FOR us. Care is merely an expression of our love. It is not something we should ever be obligated to do unless our partner loses the ability to do it for themselves.
In short, care is something we should be doing from an overflow after we care for ourselves. When we have enough, then we give.
This is why the study I mentioned found that self-regulation is a greater determinant of relationship satisfaction.
What Is Self-Regulation?
Self-regulation means that each of us is able to control our thoughts, emotions, and behavior. It’s funny, when I was trying to find a self-regulation checklist I saw mentioned in the study, all I could find were checklists for elementary teachers. In fact, I started reading one thinking, yep, that’s about right, what a challenge before I realized it was for elementary students!!! There are soooo many dysregulated adults walking around today that those expectations of first graders blew my mind a bit.
I think the most important piece of self-regulation, which Gabor Maté explains very well in his book Scattered, is the ability to regulate our nervous system. Instead of that sympathetic nervous system activation of fight or flight, are we calm, grounded, and in rest and digest mode? This either fearful or calm energy affects our loved ones directly before we say or do anything. We pick up on it, just like a horse or bear can tell if you’re scared when you approach them. The energy of our bodies is critical to the security of our relationships.
Self-Regulation, Not Love Language Alignment, Creates Happy Relationships
Ok so I can already hear you… “But Beth… I NEEEEED physical touch. How am I supposed to do it for myself??” The first question I would ask my clients is, what does physical touch DO for you?
Does it make you feel worthy? Then what else can you do to show yourself that you’re worthy? This is where your own behavior and thoughts matter… are you self-regulated? If you have to be touched by another to feel worthy, then no.
Does it co-regulate you (the primary outcome of physical touch)? Then what else can you do to regulate yourself?
Yes, human touch is a big one for us, but that doesn’t mean all the weight of that need has to go to your partner. Get a massage, get your hair done, have a mani or pedi, get a petable pet (studies show it’s about the same as human touch), massage yourself, put lotion on, snuggle your kids (if they want it), and most of all – GET CONSENT – before you want to touch another human.
Another reason why I know that the 5 love languages are a myth is that mine changed over time. Before we were married, my quiz result said Quality Time. After we had kids, it changed to Acts of Service. Of course it did!
The 5 Love Languages Highlight Where You’re Not Doing Your Own Self-Care & Healing
Basically, when we say, “Oh, but that’s my love language! Fill me up!” What we’re really saying is that we are empty. We’re not doing our own self-care, and we haven’t healed from our childhood traumas or experiences. Let’s break it down:
- Acts of Service: You’re exhausted from doing everything for everybody else. You need to outsource or renegotiate the tasks needed to run your home or stop saying yes to so many things/overserving other people. Put yourself and your family first. Are you healing the inner child parts that didn’t get the care she needed or deserved as a child? The one who was parentified and did adult tasks while still a child?
- Quality Time: You’re out of touch with your own connection to yourself. Do you journal and read it back to listen to yourself? Do you process what’s happening in your life? Are you present when you’re doing activities? Do you have different friends/a support system that each help you connect in different ways? Are you healing the inner child parts that didn’t get the emotional presence she needed from her parents?
- Physical Touch: Are you meditating? Spending time in the water? Outsourcing massages, mani’s, pedi’s? Snuggling your kids? Petting animals? Gardening or other outdoor activities? Are you healing the inner child parts that didn’t get the amount or type of physical touch or physical presence she needed from her parents?
- Words of Affirmation: Do you pump yourself up? Are your own biggest fan? Have you curated friends and people in your life that get you on different levels and remind you of the awesome work that you’re doing? Are you healing your inner child parts that didn’t get the empathy and life-affirming beliefs every child deserves from her parents?
- Receiving Gifts: Do you buy yourself things that spark joy? Have you examined your limiting beliefs that money/gifts equal love? Are you healing the inner child parts that got presents instead of presence from her parents?
Healing From Your Childhood Matters To The Health of Your Relationships
In my marriage coaching program, Happily Ever After the very first two modules help women explore their triggers to understand their origin (usually from childhood) and heal from those experiences. Until you’ve done that work, you will desperately crave someone else to fill you up, and the 5 love languages seem like the perfect solution.
The 5 love languages are really screaming, “My parents never did this for me, do it for me!!! I desperately need you to do it so I can feel safe!!”
And that kind of dependence on your spouse is an absolute marriage killer. It worked out well when you first met, you soothe my inner child and I’ll soothe yours, but eventually those inner child parts aren’t satisfied because we’re so empty inside that it’s never enough. No amount of care from another is enough.
That healing has to come from YOU. You will never be happy until you learn how to self-regulate and be in a state of happiness already that you share WITH your family.
It’s not living together “like roommates”… it’s bringing your adult self to the party and realizing that whatever you’re not “getting”, you’re not GIVING yourself.
Ladies, You Matter
The unexpected, but not surprising, finding that female self‐regulation moderated both male and female satisfaction gives substance to Halford and Wilson’s study, which also found this association. It also provides further support for research that has found female attributes to be better predictors of relationship satisfaction.
This line from the study I mentioned earlier puts what I’ve suspected into print: women have the power to create healthy relationships. You regulating is the most important thing, and this is why I don’t work with men in my Happily Ever After program.
Just one of you has to step out of the dysfunctional role you’ve played in the relationship to change it, and I believe that women are the ones with the longest road to healing right now. That doesn’t mean that men don’t need to heal, too, but that we are usually more motivated to do it and have a longer history of acquiescing and repressing what happened to us.
If you’d like to learn more about my Happily Ever After Marriage Coaching Program, CLICK HERE.
- BUNT, S., & HAZELWOOD, Z. J. (2017). Walking the walk, talking the talk: Love languages, self-regulation, and relationship satisfaction. Personal Relationships, 24(2), 280–290. https://doi.org/10.1111/pere.12182
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