Once you’ve found someone you love, how should you show your affection? A kiss? A poem? A blueberry scone?
This question is explored in Gary Chapman’s best-seller The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate.
Chapman proposes that people primarily speak one of five “love languages”—that is, the type of affection that feels most meaningful to them:
- Words of affirmation—encouraging and affectionate messages
- Quality time—time spent together doing shared activities
- Gifts—tokens of affection
- Acts of service—help with tasks
- Physical touch—hand-holding, cuddling, etc.
Chapman isn’t a scientist, but scientists have since found support for many of his ideas:
- One study found that the kinds of affectionate behaviors people engage in do tend to cluster into Chapman’s five love languages. Moreover, these love languages correspond to “relational maintenance behavior.” These are things couples can do to help keep the spark alive, such as telling your partner they’re important and you’re committed, talking about issues directly, giving compliments and pep talks, sharing chores, and having the same friends.
- Another study had people imagine scenarios where they received love in their preferred language, or a non-preferred language. Imagining their preferred scenarios led to signs of excitement, such as a quickening pulse and sweaty palms.
So, different people like receiving different kinds of affection. But does that mean a relationship is doomed when partners don’t receive love in their preferred languages?
This idea has intuitive appeal. “He sends you flowers when what you really want is time to talk,” Chapman writes. “The problem isn’t your love—it’s your love language”. To have a happy relationship, the reasoning goes, you need to know what love language your partner speaks and give them affection in their own native language.
In reality, few couples meet this ideal. In one study, only 27 percent of couples reported that both partners received love in their preferred language.
Interestingly, this same study found that the worst thing for a relationship is not when neither partner receives their preferred language; rather, it’s when one partner is receiving their preferred love language and the other isn’t.
These “mismatched” couples reported lower relationship quality, and were more likely to disagree about the quality of their relationship.
This makes sense: People tend to be most comfortable when there’s balance in a relationship, when both partners receive benefits in proportion to what they’ve put into it.
So, if you are in a relationship, by all means try to give the kinds of affection your partner most craves, whether it’s physical touch or extra help around the house. But, for both your sakes, keep in mind your own needs, and make sure they are being met as well.
1. Chapman, C. (2004). The five love languages: How to express heartfelt commitment to your mate. Topeka: Tandem Library.
2. Egbert, N. and Polk, D.M. (2006). Speaking the language of relational maintenance: A validity test of Chapman’s (1992) five love languages. Communication Research Reports, 23, 19-26.
3. Leaver, E., & Green, D. (2015). Psychophysiology and the five love languages. Eastern Psychological Association Conference.
4. Polk, D.M., and Egbert, N. (2013). Speaking the language of love: On whether Chapman’s (1992) claims stand up to empirical testing. The Open Communication Journal, 7, 1-11.
5. Walster, E., Walster G.W. & Bershcheid, E. (1978). Equity: theory and research. Allyn and Bacon, Inc.