Let’s unpack that

Why love languages could be holding you back (and what to look for instead)

This 30-year-old idea about how we express love has transferred from the therapy room to the mainstream. But is it really the ultimate codebreaker when it comes to cracking our relationships? Helen Coffey asks the experts whether we should take the theory as gospel – or with a giant pinch of salt

Sunday 03 March 2024 06:00 GMT
Gifts is one of the five ‘love languages’ – but do we set too much store by the theory?
Gifts is one of the five ‘love languages’ – but do we set too much store by the theory? (Getty/iStock)

I’m acts of service”; “I’m a words of affirmation girlie!”; “Physical touch for me…”

Welcome to the world of “love languages”, where listing how you receive devotion is as easily reeled off as your current favourite Netflix series or star sign.

If you’re not well versed in this phenomenon, looking at people’s dating profiles can feel a little like you’ve stumbled into some kind of secret society or cult. It’s only fully entered the mainstream lexicon in the last few years, but the shorthand for how we express and receive love is now as ubiquitous as people saying they’re looking for their “partner in crime”, or following the classic dating app prompt “don’t hate me if I…” with the words “put pineapple on a pizza [crying laughing face emoji]”. (IYKYK.) But could the gospel according to love languages actually be holding us back when it comes to romantic relationships?

If you’ve managed to miss this latest theory of life, the universe and everything, it runs thus: there are five main “love languages”, and apparently most of us have a primary and a secondary one. These five “languages” are: words of affirmation (expressing affection through spoken words, whether that be praise, appreciation or compliments); acts of service (practical things done for a partner, such as cleaning the kitchen, taking the bins out, fixing that broken door handle); quality time (giving the other person your undivided attention and spending time together in a meaningful and intentional way); physical touch (this isn’t just sex – it might be holding hands, kissing, hugging, giving a foot massage); and gifts (the time, thought and effort put into picking a present is usually what’s key here, rather than the amount of money spent).

The idea was posited by an American Baptist minister, Gary Chapman, in his book The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate, first published in 1992. He theorised that people tend to naturally demonstrate love in the way that they would prefer to receive it – and that figuring out what your love language is and communicating that to your partner can help ease tensions in a relationship.

For example, if you’re someone whose primary love language is acts of service, you might do a lot of things around the house – but then feel resentful if your other half never says thank you, or fails to do practical things for you in turn, because they don’t perceive that as an act of love.

“If I said to my partner, ‘You never notice when I put clean sheets on the bed,’ what I’m really saying and demonstrating is that this is the way I understand love – if you behave this way to me, that shows me you love me,” integrative psychotherapist, psychosexual and relationship therapist Helen Mayor says. “If my love language is gifts and I give my partner a gift, I’m also nudging him that this is the way I understand love in return – that I would like him to give me gifts to demonstrate care.”

Speaking in tongues: the way you express love could be different to your partner (Getty/iStock)

Despite being more than 30 years old, the love languages theory has gained a remarkable amount of traction in the last three to four years, spurred on by social media and the TikTokification of simplified therapeutic ideas. Aside from dating-app speak, I’ve heard it being casually bandied about by male and female friends alike when attempting to explain struggles within their relationships.

“We now live in a world where people use psychotherapist-type terms for things as standard,” agrees Mayor. “Really, it’s all about clustering together frequencies of behaviours so that they resonate and can be easily digested by people. It’s noticing patterns of behaviour in couples and determining why there might be friction.”

As with most theories attempting to explain why we act in certain ways, it can be a tool for us to better understand one another. It’s a means of “simplifying another human’s response, of allowing another person to see us more clearly,” says Mayor. “Ultimately, anything that shows or simplifies another human’s way of communicating care and allows it to land can be valuable.”

But issues can arise when we hold onto such ideas too rigidly. “We like to categorise ourselves – it’s in our nature as human beings,” says Chance Marshall, therapist and co-founder of contemporary mental health practice Self Space. “It means we often hang tightly onto frameworks that are based in pseudoscience.

We often hang tightly onto frameworks that are based in pseudoscience

Chance Marshall, therapist and co-founder Self Space

“On one level, if theories like this are helping people connect in a deeper way, great. Where it becomes problematic is if it becomes a ‘script’ or a standard to meet constantly.” For example: if one person decides that any time their partner forgets to unload the dishwasher, it means they don’t love them.

According to Marshall, he has seen long-term relationships literally break down because people adhered so strongly to the love language theory. “One person says to the other, ‘that’s not how I express my love – if you can’t do acts of service, that means you’re not my person. If you aren’t recognising my love language, I’m going to count you out and move on.’ That’s where I’m seeing it becoming problematic and unproductive.”

And, although some couples might find it helpful in navigating how they can best show and recognise one another’s love, it’s important to note that the love languages concept isn’t robustly backed up by research or scientific studies. The results have been, at best, inconclusive. While there has been some empirical research and academic literature supporting the theory, an equal number of studies have proven it is limited.

But that hasn’t stopped people from taking it as gospel. “People often confidently use psychotherapy-speak to give validity to what they’re saying,” says Marshall. “They take snippets of research and amplify them to present them as absolute truth. Therapists take all of that with a pinch of salt.”

Don’t assume your partner doesn’t love you because they haven’t emptied the dishwasher (Getty)

Mayor says that, while love languages can be useful, what they’re usually reflecting is a deeper truth about attachment styles. Attachment refers to the emotional bond we formed as infants with our primary caregiver, usually our mother. Attachment theory, initially proposed by British psychiatrist John Bowlby and American psychologist Mary Ainsworth, is the idea that the quality of the bond you experienced as a baby often determines how you relate to others as an adult.

“Really, that’s what everything boils down to: an expression of attachment,” says Mayor. “People whose love language is ‘acts of service’ might have witnessed that the only way of getting recognition when they were young was by doing things to prove or demonstrate their value and worth. Perhaps mum was incredibly hard to please and picky. They then bring that into their adult relationships.”

But, according to Mayor, the “beautiful thing about attachment is that we can change it if we understand it. Everyone is capable of total evolution – we can learn to reprogramme our neural pathways to respond to things differently.”

Much of the way we behave in adult relationships comes back to our childhood, agrees Marshall. Many people end up repeating the dynamics that they experienced growing up: “Our internal working models – the way in which we were parented – become blueprints for how we then expect people to relate to us,” he says. “It might be that you unconsciously seek out emotionally distant partners. Freud called this ‘repetition compulsion’: seeking out relationships that mirror the one you had with your caregiver as an infant. It’s what’s familiar, rather than what’s good for you. In therapy, we work out if those models are serving us or not.”

With the mindless sweep of a finger, we can flick past entire lives and vibrant stories, and quickly dispose of people based on categorisation

Chance Marshall, therapist and co-founder Self Space

Getting overly hung up on love languages when you’re single could also mean you discount potential partners. We’ve never had as much choice and information as we do now when dating, says Marshall – “with the mindless sweep of a finger, we can flick past entire lives and vibrant stories, and quickly dispose of people based on categorisation. When people are set on love languages, or attachment styles, or even hobbies and interests, it can create a closed-downness – but we need to have a spirit of curiosity and openness and wonder. Compatibility isn’t just something we have, it’s something we build towards.”

This ruling out of potential romantic interests based on arbitrary criteria often goes hand in hand with the modern obsession with “red flags” – problematic attributes or behaviours we’re warned to look out for that can encompass everything from ordering for you on a date, to refusing to peel an orange for you. “If we cut out every person the Instagram therapists told us was ‘toxic’, we’d have no one left in our lives,” says Marshall. “We get so invested in looking out for red flags, we miss the green flags that show us reasons to pursue someone with whom there’s real potential.”

Rather than focusing on love languages, shift your attention to these green flags, he advises. These include someone who’s not playing games; who calls when they say they will; who shows up for you, acknowledges your feelings, and practices being vulnerable with you. Someone whose life is rich and filled with friends, hobbies and other interests outside the relationship. Someone who gives you the benefit of the doubt, practices repair after an argument, and demonstrates commitment in helping you be a better person while working on themselves. Someone with whom you feel at ease – not embarrassed or ashamed. Someone who takes the time to get to know who you are and what you like and don’t like.

If you meet or are already with a person who fulfils the above – does it really matter what their love language is?

As Marshall puts it: “We all need each other. We need other people. Find a way to inhabit the vulnerability of knowing that. However we express our love, we need it, and the other person needs it too; we can open up a space in which to meet each other properly if we can whole-heartedly admit that.”

So try to open yourself up to all the myriad ways in which a partner shows that they care – and maybe leave the languages to Duolingo.

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