Sex

How 'The 5 Love Languages' Became the Language of Love We All Know (and Love)

The quietly Baptist self-help book has broken its own sales records almost every year since it was published in 1992. The secret is its simplicity.

by Kathryn Jezer-Morton
Oct 16 2019, 11:00am

Illustration by Cathryn Virginia

In college I had a sort-of boyfriend whose affection I wanted very badly. Approximately 75% of our relationship took place in my head. When I came down with a bronchial infection, I saw it as a heaven-sent opportunity for us to finally really connect. Lying on the futon-mattress-on-the-floor which was my bed, I might as well have been rubbing my hands together in anticipation of how he would care for me. Through that care, our love would blossom. I could already taste the chicken soup.

It didn’t play out as I’d hoped. When I called him and asked, sickly-yet-cutely, if he could bring me some soup, he seemed confused by the request. In fact, he expressed his bewilderment more eloquently than he had ever expressed anything to me before. The symbolic importance of the soup appeared to be completely lost on him. If I was sick… wouldn’t it be best if he left me alone? Maybe we could hang out again when I was feeling better? I remember feeling humiliated, like I’d been stood up on a date.

I diagnosed him as immature, but Dr. Gary Chapman, author of the blockbuster, perennially best-selling relationship advice book The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts, would probably have read it differently. He would have explained that we were speaking different “love languages.” I was and remain someone who loves small acts of consideration. Not everyone thinks a plastic container of soup can contain heavy romantic overtones, but I do. Maybe my erstwhile boyfriend’s love language was something different, like gift giving, or physical touch.

Chapman’s Love Languages, first published in 1992, argues that many relationship conflicts can be explained by his theory of romantic miscommunication. (Later editions of the book extended the love languages doctrine to apply to all kinds of relationships, from parents and children to co-workers.) “There’s a universal human need to feel loved,” he writes in the book. But he takes this platitude further; the premise of his wildly influential life's work is that each of us have a love language that we use to express love, and that this is usually this is the way we want to be shown love, too. Two people in a relationship might express love to each other using different “languages,” and this would make it hard for them to “understand” each other. Chapman advises us that figuring out our love language can help us ask for the type of love we need. For the uninitiated, these are: quality time; gift giving; words of affirmation; acts of service; and physical touch. Not sure what your love language is? Just take this easy quiz. I’m an “acts of service,” with a “words of affirmation” rising.

Many people find this theory and these categories cheesy. The appeal is, shall we say, broad. Describing oneself in terms of a “type” strikes some people as pretty reductive—stupid, even. But the simplicity of the love languages is key to its phenomenal success.

Twenty-seven years after the Love Languages was first published, its influence continues to grow. With almost every consecutive year, the book breaks its previous year’s sales record. It has now sold over 12 million copies and has been translated into 51 languages, most recently into Arabic for a Saudi Arabian edition. Since its publication, the concept of “love languages” has seeped into the collective consciousness, to the point that today, as a pop-psychological idea, the term has become ubiquitous, one people even unfamiliar with its origin understand.

In the West we have an affinity for classifying ourselves into types, and the love languages have joined the Myers-Briggs personality test as a go-to romantic rubric, as familiar to many people as the twelve signs of the Zodiac. They’re constantly referenced in popular advice columns, and on blogs. In the last few months alone the love languages have figured in interpersonal drama on reality shows such as Love Island, Are You the One? and Real Housewives of the Potomac. People riff on the concept constantly, extending the metaphor far beyond its intended, abstract purpose. Wine-making is a love language. Fried cheese is a love language. Baseball pitchers are a love language. Toni Morrison is a love language.

Gary Chapman never planned to be a self-help guru capable of this kind of impact. 80 years old, he has been a pastoral counselor at a Baptist congregation in Winston-Salem, North Carolina for 48 of those years. His Baptist faith informs his belief in the importance of long-term commitment—he has been married to Karolyn J. Chapman since they were in their early twenties—but you don’t need to be a Baptist to appreciate his practical approach to making it work. Most of us here on Earth hate feeling vulnerable, and expressing the need to be loved is an exquisitely unpleasant flavor of vulnerability. It’s the pulpy center of love-maintenance that we avoid at all cost. We’d rather quit and start fresh with someone new than poke that pulp.

The 5 Love Languages is one of the few popular relationship advice books that shows us a way to maintain a relationship without advising us to turn inward and self-optimize. The love languages function as a clever rhetorical bait-and-switch that allow us to be honest about our needs without opening up the abyss of vulnerability that, unfortunately, exists within all of us. Saying “I need more attention from you” is painful, but saying “my love language is quality time” is somehow less so. The love languages might be cheesy, but their most profound wisdom is an underlying truth that Chapman might not have even meant to convey: Asking for love is the worst, he suggests, but we need to do it.

Love, unlike capitalism, doesn’t require continuous growth to survive. The economy of love is based on maintenance, not growth, and born capitalists like us Americans would much rather create and grow something new than maintain something that already exists. To be loved, we don’t need to keep improving and updating ourselves, coming up with new personality traits and skills with which to surprise and entertain our loved ones. But the hard work of self-improvement is easier for many of us to swallow than the hard work of maintaining a long-term partnership, as exemplified by your commitment-phobic ex or your recently divorced sister.

Westerners believe in the redemptive power of reinvention. We promise ourselves that next time it will be different. This belief is the essence of consumer culture, and it’s tempting to see relationships in the same way as we see consumer goods: as things that are supposed to make us feel good. Chapman sees through this fallacy because he’s a Baptist, but as the success of his book and now brand shows, you don’t have to believe in a God to agree with him.

Sample love languages email
"Practical suggestions" for how to practice the love languages in your life on any given week

The first golden age of self-help literature in the United States came during the 60s and 70s, when books like Thomas A. Harris’ I’m OK—You’re OK provided moral support to conventional middle-class Americans who felt unsure of how to navigate the new social and sexual mores that had arisen from the 1960s counterculture.

But by the '90s, many veterans of the counterculture had settled down. Maybe the sexual experimentation of the '70s was exhausting, right down down to The Joy of Sex's very groovy illustrations, because in 1992, two of the best-selling relationship self-help books of all time were published: The 5 Love Languages, and John A. Gray’s Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. Both books are fundamentally conservative; Men Are From Mars argues that men and women have different “natures,” while the Love Languages is dedicated to making marriages last. (Divorce is scarcely mentioned as an option.)

Men Are From Mars has sold approximately 15 million copies to date, making it the best-selling relationship self-help book of all time. But based as it is on a set of gender stereotypes that many 10-year-olds could handily dismantle in 2019, it hasn’t aged well, and as such, its sales have fallen off in recent years.

In a world hell-bent on trying out new stuff until the world ends, whatever the cost, Chapman’s vision of accepting each other’s need to be loved is downright radical.

In contrast, Love Languages continues to pick up speed. During its first year of publication, the book sold about 8,500 copies, far exceeding the expectations of its publisher, Moody, a division of the nonprofit Moody Bible Institute; Love Languages itself is published by their more secular imprint started that same year, Northfield Publishing. The following year, the number doubled. In 2009, sales hit 5 million copies, and Moody relaunched the Love Languages with what they called their “most aggressive marketing campaign in a decade.” As part of the new campaign, John Hinkley, the director of marketing at Moody at the time, remarked that “our goal, our vision is to help reduce the number of divorces.” As a nonprofit, Moody uses the book’s proceeds to fund the Moody Bible Institute, which exists to “educate and equip students for Christian ministry.”

The book’s initial success was largely thanks to sales at Christian bookstores, but the relaunch pushed it squarely into the mainstream. In 2011, Elizabeth Hasselbeck may have been a linchpin in the book’s crossover secular success when she held up her copy of the book on the View, announcing that it had saved her marriage. Two years later, Oprah made its place of honor in our culture official by inviting Chapman onto an episode of Oprah’s Lifeclass. (For those wondering, Oprah’s love language is words of affirmation.)

Now, the love languages are a full-on brand, with an app called Love Nudge introduced this year that "will help you put the concepts of The 5 Love Languages® into action in ways that are easy, obvious, and satisfying," radio programs, and conferences. But getting in touch with Chapman is easier than you’d think, considering he’s been on the New York Times best-seller list on and off for more than half my lifetime. In the days leading up to our interview, friends eagerly sent me questions they wanted him to answer, mostly to do with his feelings about the rules around “physical touch,” the love language that some people (myself included) had always understood as a cute euphemism for sex. Are any of the languages more “powerful” than others? Does Chapman think of them hierarchically?

Over the phone, I found Chapman to be friendly and indulgent, though when questions don’t appeal to him, he issues forth a good natured chuckle that means “no comment.” Talking with him is remarkably similar to reading his book; he speaks with a drawl, and has a folksy, unpretentious manner befitting a man of religion but perhaps not of someone who has risen to the level of success he has.

Chapman studied anthropology in college, and told me he’s remained fascinated with cultural nuances. The first foreign edition of Love Languages was in Spanish, and Chapman wasn’t sure it would work in a translated edition; it became a best-seller. The success of future foreign editions has reinforced his belief that the need to feel loved is a human universal.

Chapman has published many companion editions to the original book, including a “Military Edition,” an edition for teens, one for families raising children with special needs, and a book about using the languages in the workplace (they’re “languages of appreciation” in that context, though). If you take the online quiz to determine your love language, you can sign up for Chapman’s weekly newsletter, which comes full of practical tips for integrating love language awareness into your daily life. Is your partner a physical touch person? Try kissing them good morning and goodnight, each day for a week. Before you know it, Chapman reminds us, you’ll have established a new habit.

Much of the advice seems like common sense, but the newsletters almost always contain a wholesome Easter egg like, “If your spouse leaves their laptop open, change the desktop background (if you don't think they'll mind) to a picture of you together. Overlay text on the picture that says, ‘I Love You.’” (This was offered as a tip for showing love to people whose love language is words of affirmation. In Chapman’s world, we have nothing to hide—on our laptops or anywhere else.)

Chapman deliberately kept his book’s Christian message subtle so that more people would read it. (After submitting a manuscript to Moody Press in the 70s that he had been using for his marriage seminars, and initially being rejected, he would publish two much more religiously focused relationship books before the Love Languages took off, Toward a Growing Marriage, and Hope for the Separated.) “Some people tell me they didn’t know I was a Christian until they got to the end of the book, which is fine,” said Chapman. “Toward the end of the book, I say something to the effect of, what I’ve given you is information. I can’t give you motivation, but I’ll tell you how I got my motivation. And I have a paragraph about my relationship with God, and how that changed my relationship with people.”

The love languages, Chapman maintains, apply to everyone, regardless of religious belief. He admits that “many men I know will say, ‘I know my love language! It’s physical touch!’ But I’d argue it’s often more subtle than that.” The gender neutrality of the languages means that the book can make sense for same-sex couples, nonbinary people—anyone. “I relate to people who seek my counseling as human beings,” he says. “So if I can help same sex couples in their relationships, that’s good.”

Chapman’s religious background asserts itself through what it omits rather than what it states.

The world of the love languages is simpler than the world most of us live in. There’s no manipulation, or duplicitousness, or gaslighting—just people trying to fulfill the basic human need to feel loved, or, as Chapman puts it, to “fill up their love tanks.” Chapman’s old-fashioned family-values vibe turns some people off. But its resistance to a vision of perpetual self-improvement makes the book quietly subversive.

“Never stop growing,” contemporary society implores us. “You’re a badass! Be awesome! Be bold and courageous. Go out and claim what you deserve!” Meanwhile, Chapman’s love languages encourage us to focus our attention and care on what we already have. He may have been compelled to write the book by a Christian belief in the moral victory of long-lasting marriage. But this kind of conservatism can also be understood as oriented towards sustainability rather than waste. In a world hell-bent on trying out new stuff until the world ends, whatever the cost, Chapman’s vision of accepting each other’s need to be loved is downright radical.

The covers for Hope for the Separated, The 5 Love Languages, and Toward a Growing Marriage

The love languages have achieved the status of clinical legitimacy without having been the product of any kind of actual research beyond Chapman’s own observations as a church counselor. In 2006, two academic researchers conducted an empirical study to determine whether the love languages model generated consistent results of improved “relational maintenance.” Although the study wasn’t completely conclusive, the researchers did find that using the love languages model led to a “close match” with improved relationships.

But whether or not there’s empirical evidence to back them up, the love languages are a fully integrated part of the American therapeutic landscape, even among therapists who don’t necessarily intend to use them.

“I’ve never read the book, but couples will refer to it in sessions,” said Avi Klein, a psychotherapist with a couples therapy practice in Manhattan. “It’s a vehicle for people to communicate about yourself to someone else. It’s a way to ask for what you need. I think people try to use the love languages in a positive way.”

All of Chapman’s 5 Love Languages media—the purple-covered book that started it all in ‘92, the email newsletters, and his many subsequent books—take for granted that once we’ve learned our partner’s love language, we will work hard to learn how to speak it. The underlying assumption is that a little love language elbow grease is all it takes to keep a long-term relationship running smoothly. And, more importantly, Chapman seems to believe that speaking your partner’s love language can solve almost any problem. “You can’t make someone want to speak your love language,” he said. “The best you can do is try to speak theirs, and hope it softens their heart.” In most cases this seems reasonable—is a little more quality time, or a few more words of affirmation, ever too much to ask?

The book starts to feel a little weaselly when it gets into the love language of “physical touch.” In a book with religious overtones, “physical touch” seems like the closest stand-in for the role of sex in a relationship, a way of shying from taking about sex directly but nonetheless highlighting it as important. Sex is much more complex than complimenting and and gift-giving.

But sex, Chapman argues, isn’t necessarily part of the love language of physical touch. “Let’s not equate the love language of physical touch with sexual intercourse,” Chapman said when I brought this up. “When I meet people who tell me their love language is physical touch, I might ask them, ‘Do non-sexual touches make you feel loved? Let's say your wife takes your hand while you’re walking across the parking lot from the car to the mall. Or how about, she puts her hand on your shoulder while she’s pouring you a cup of coffee.' If these forms of touch, which are loving but not sexual in nature, don’t make you feel loved—then physical touch is not your love language! People who like sex—that’s not necessarily their love language.”

Chapman’s religious background asserts itself through what it omits rather than what it states. Sexual preferences, according to Chapman’s worldview, are not necessarily relevant to expressing and receiving love. “Coming up with new ways and places to touch can be an exciting challenge,” writes Chapman in the chapter on physical touch. “If you have not been an ‘under-the-table-toucher,’ you might find that it will add a spark to your dining out.” Chapman goes on from here to suggest all kinds of touching, none of which are the kind that happen in private. It feels a bit like taking a sex ed workshop with Ned Flanders.

Some readers might have to go off-piste from Love Langauges doctrine here, either by considering physical touch inclusive of sex, or by thinking of sex as something that happens as part of other love languages, like quality time or even, let’s be honest, acts of service. It’s a reasonable extension of the overall philosophy, but Chapman never mentions sex directly in any of these respects. The elision of sex is the book’s unignorable flaw; how can sex be separate from other expressions of love?

“Our sexuality is so bound up with who we are,” said Klein. “I don’t think that most men are particularly connected to their sexuality. People talk about sex as if it’s an act rather than a form of intimacy and a way of being known...I do think people would be so much better off if there were ‘sexual love languages.’ So many people would be better off learning about themselves and their sexuality, and how much better would people’s sex lives be if they could like, name a way that they wanted to be related to sexually?”

Different versions of the 5 Love Languages books

Even third-party experts aren’t necessarily aligned on where sex fits in. “I consider sexual intimacy to be included in the love language of physical touch,” said Leslie Bartlett, a licensed clinical professional counselor who works exclusively with couples in Brunswick, Maine. “I think we should honor Gary. What he has done is profound. He’s offered a way of looking at couples’ fundamental misunderstandings in a way that can shine a light and allow these misunderstandings to be softened. And of course there’s more! There’s always more, there’s always deeper. But he took a beautiful step into a journey that needed to be examined.”

While secular people might find the Love Languages’ subtle Christianity off-putting, a growing minority of devout Christians find it too secular. The evangelical blogosphere in particular contains plenty of polite detractors. Dell Canright, a marriage counselor who runs Christian Counseling in Mansfield, Texas, has found that, sometimes, the love languages can encourage selfishness between couples.

He reminds us that humans have a fundamental need to feel loved, but frames this as an opportunity rather than the reason that all humans stagger through most of life suffering.

“I don’t think that Dr. Chapman intended this, but the love languages can resonate with our selfish parts. [The book] can encourage couples to say, ‘You know what my needs are—why won’t you give me that?’ As opposed to learning what kind of love your wife or husband needs. I’m not opposed to the idea of the love languages—and I think Dr. Chapman’s done a great job of identifying some simple ways that we like to receive love. But I know that most of the clients I meet start out using the love languages in a selfish way as opposed to in a loving way to minister to their spouse.”

Canright, also a Baptist, situates Love Languages within an “integrationist” approach to psychology—which takes basic tenets of human psychology, and occasionally integrates religious scripture into its practice. Canright himself practices what is known as “Biblical counseling,” which takes a more fundamentalist approach to applying scripture to everyday life.

“The integrationist approach is based on the idea that man is good, and he needs to have good self-esteem to be happy. The Biblical approach to counseling believes that man is God’s enemy. Man’s greatest need is to be reconciled to God. Life is not about me. It’s about Christ living in me and through me.”

Chapman’s integrationist approach doesn’t hold much appeal to Baptist counselors like Canright, who prefer to use Biblical scripture as a strict guidebook rather than a set of general suggestions. Chapman’s influence, however, can’t be denied, even by those who disagree with him. “Most people wouldn’t critique [Chapman],” said Canright. “Most people wouldn’t in any way disparage or think critically about the book because of the reputation that Dr. Chapman has.”

Advice via the 5 Love Languages email
Advice sent via the Love Languages email list

The original Love Languages—which remains by far Chapman's biggest hit—has stayed more or less the same since 1992, through numerous reissues. “Not much has changed,” claimed Chapman, even with prevalence of dating apps. “People who meet online, once they’re together, the situation is the same as if you met any other way. You still have a fundamental need to feel loved.”

Indeed, Gary Chapman may have written the definitive couples self-help guide of our time; no other book seems to be threatening its dominance in terms of influence and sales. He reminds us that humans have a fundamental need to feel loved, but frames this as an opportunity rather than the reason that all humans stagger through most of life suffering. To feel unloved is to be wretched. To demand love is humiliating. Love itself is often not cute. Chapman diverts our attention away from the wretchedness that we all fear, and the humiliation we all know, and normalizes the act of asking others for things we need.

The love languages stand as a protective barrier between ourselves and the painful reality of our emotional needs. In this way, they transcend their Christian origins. The feeling of being unloved is what drives consumer capitalism; most of us are taught to think that maybe this time, with this new configuration of objects and experiences, things will be different. In suggesting that we look inward for the cause of this hunger, Chapman’s as much a Buddhist as he is a Christian.

Say what you will about Chapman’s anachronistic wholesomeness or the intellectual poverty of reducing yourself to a type, the love languages have good bones. They encourage us to satisfy our need for love by asking for more love—not with more adventures, or a more inflated sense of our own holiness, or a different partner, or a remodeled kitchen, or a new hobby. We are stuck with ourselves; our needs don’t change much over time. The love languages suggest, gently, that we should stop changing the subject and be honest about what we really want.

Humans as a species are addicted to deluding ourselves. We are desperate for someone to convince us that things are better or easier or sexier than they really are—just ask me in 2003, lying in bed with my bronchial infection and my romantic hallucinations. But the love languages are dedicated to peeling off artifice rather than applying more. They don’t trade on our gullibility or our eternal optimism. We can’t resist the narcissistic mantras of self-improvement that fill so much of today’s self-help literature. But Gary Chapman (and the Moody Bible Institute's tax receipts) would argue that even more than that, we can’t resist feeling loved. What a surprisingly heartening thought.

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