'You cannot put people into arbitrary boxes': Psychologists critique the '5 love languages'

Speech bubble with pink heart shape on pink background.
Psychology researchers questioned the core assumptions posed in the "five love languages" theory. (Image credit: Carol Yepes via Getty Images)

The now-famous "love languages" were first introduced in a book penned by Gary Chapman, a Baptist pastor and self-named marriage counselor. His book "The 5 Love Languages" (Northfield Publishing, 1992) skyrocketed in popularity, with its various editions selling around 20 million copies and landing a New York Times bestseller title.

Nowadays, Chapman's theory is all over TikTok, where content creators talk about their own love languages and question their compatibility with their partners. But experts have long challenged the notion because there's a lack of consistent evidence that the love languages improve communication between partners, and they may not fully reflect the ways people receive and express love.

Now, in a paper published in January in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, researchers outline the weaknesses of the love language theory and offer a science-backed alternative.

Related: What does love do to your brain?

"Our critique does not label the love language system as outdated, per se, but rather highlights its lack of scientific foundation," said study co-author Gideon Park, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Toronto. "Based on the review, our paper ultimately suggests that you cannot put people into arbitrary boxes," Park told Live Science.

Paul Eastwick, a psychology professor at University of California, Davis, says that the study has sound arguments.

"I think Impett [the senior author] and colleagues are absolutely correct in their analysis," Eastwick told Live Science in an email. "I usually tell people that the love languages are fine, and using them with your partner will generally make your partner feel appreciated and loved. But there's no evidence for 'matching' whatsoever, and there is no shortcut to meaningful and effective communication."

To see whether love languages were scientifically sound, the researchers evaluated existing research and questioned three major assumptions Chapman offers in the latest edition of his book: that each person has a primary love language, that there are five distinct languages and that "speaking" the same language leads to a higher-quality relationship.

Does everyone have a primary love language?

The five love languages are words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service and physical touch, and Chapman argues that each person "speaks" in one primary language. This reflects the main way they express love and most desire to be loved.

But as it turns out, people like to be loved in all of the languages, and there isn't one preference. In studies that conducted surveys with couples, results have shown that people tend to endorse all five as meaningful ways of expressing love, and they vary in context. For example, spending quality time might be a way to express love in everyday life, but receiving a gift might be preferred on a special occasion, like Valentine's Day or an anniversary.

Forcing people to pit the five love languages against one another is counterintuitive, Park said.

"When researchers have asked people to independently rate the value of each expression, they tend to rate them all highly," Park said. "So, in real life, when people do not actually need to make these trade-offs, they see all five ways of expressing and receiving love as important."

Are there five love languages?

A happy couple with their faces close together

Park and colleagues found that studies suggest people's modes of expressing love don't fit neatly into the five love languages. (Image credit: Catherine Falls Commercial via Getty Images)

Chapman puts each of the love languages forward as distinct and separate constructs, but studies and surveys suggest that the ways people express and receive love are more integrated and complicated than that.

There is research suggesting that these five modes of expressing love do, in fact, exist. However, the review argues that Chapman's description limits expression to those five languages, unintentionally undervaluing other efforts, like making new friendships for their partner. Plus, research found that granting autonomy and offering space to foster individual needs outside of the relationship are other important needs in healthy relationships.

"The five things that Chapman picks, they all make sense," said Gary Lewandowski, professor and former chair of the Department of Psychology at Monmouth University, who was not involved in the study. "But I think there are things that make even more sense — like where each partner works to facilitate personal growth and each other."

Related: Brain signature of desire uncovered in lovesick rodents, and it may be in people, too

Does speaking each other's love language lead to stronger connections?

Researchers have tested this assumption by investigating whether partners who have the same primary love language are more satisfied in their relationships. Yet no study has found strong evidence to support the claim. These studies surveyed couples on their satisfaction levels with their partners as well as their love language preference, and it didn't seem to play a significant role.

Researchers have also examined whether people report greater relationship satisfaction when their partner expressed love to them in their preferred love language. The study evaluated this by surveying more than 980 individuals in couples on whether or not they felt happier when their partner expressed love using their preferred language. It seemed successful.

But although this idea garnered some support, the review argues that the same kind of satisfaction could occur if the partner used any love language, not just the preferred one. In fact, research recently presented at a 2023 conference found that "expressions of all love languages were positively associated with relationship satisfaction regardless of a person's preference, with very little evidence of matching effects," the review noted.

An alternative to love languages

Despite the weaknesses of Chapman's theory, Park said the book has an upside: It raises awareness around unmet relationship needs. However, the book's core assumptions should be "approached with caution," he said.

For that reason, Park and colleagues propose a more realistic framework for relationships: seeing love as a nutritionally balanced diet. The metaphor suggests people need multiple essential nutrients to maintain satisfying relationships — while you could survive for some time on carbs alone, you also need protein, fat and vitamins to thrive. So rather than fixating on one "love language," people can express and receive love in a variety of ways that meet their and their partner's evolving needs.

"People often value putting themselves and others into arbitrary boxes, as it allows them to rely on heuristics and archetypes, making it easier to understand themselves and the world," Park said. "But we need to learn how to do all those things and realize that people and relationships are not stable entities but are, instead, growing and changing over time as people and couples encounter new life circumstances."

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Anna Mattson
Live Science Contributor

Anna Mattson is a freelance science journalist based in Seattle, Washington. You can find more of her work at annamattson.com or follow her on X @AnnaMattson9.