Empirical Evidence Is My Love Language 

Aimed at integrating cutting-edge psychological science into the classroom, columns about teaching Current Directions in Psychological Science offer advice and how-to guidance about teaching a particular area of research or topic in psychological science that has been the focus of an article in the APS journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Elizabeth Yost Hammer is a Kellogg Professor in the Liberal Arts in the Psychology Department at Xavier University of Louisiana. A social psychologist, she is a coauthor of Myers’ Psychology for the AP Course (4th edition), as well as Psychology Applied to Modern Life (now in its 13th edition).  

Impett, E. A., Park, H. G., & Muise, A. (in press). Popular psychology through a scientific lens: Evaluating love languages from a relationship science perspective. Current Directions in Psychological Science 

The study of intimate relationships stands out among all the areas of psychology prone to popular misconceptions and myths. Peruse the self-help section of any bookseller, look at YouTube channels, or scroll through TikTok, and you will find no shortage of relationship advice lacking scientific support.  

Take, for example, the idea of “love languages” proposed by Gary Chapman (1992, 2015), an author and radio talk-show host. According to Chapman, partners use five love languages to express love and intimacy: verbal affirmation, quality time, gifts, service, and physical touch. People differ in their preferred love languages. If your partner can “speak” yours (and you can speak theirs), your relationship ought to be more satisfying and long-lasting.  

The idea of love languages has become hugely popular and the term itself is pervasive in popular culture. Musical entertainers SZA and Ariana Grande both have songs entitled “Love Language”, and there are multiple social media references to this theory by influencers and counselors alike. In fact, the concept is so ubiquitous it is even used in marketing, as with a recent email from Venmo with the subject line, “Security is our love language.” Despite its popularity, decades of research do not support the basic tenets of love languages. 

In their Current Directions article, Impett and colleagues (2023) review the (lack of) empirical support for each assumption of the love languages theory. First, research indicates that people like and appreciate all five ways of receiving love, not just one. Second, the five languages show considerable overlap, which calls into question the very existence of distinct languages. Finally, even when using Chapman’s five languages, researchers have not found a consistent positive association between relationship satisfaction and either matching or mismatching on languages. In fact, all expressions of love, regardless of one’s self-reported primary language, are related to higher satisfaction (Chopik et al., 2023).  

Why does the myth of love languages endure? Implett et al. (2023) argue it is because of the intuitive metaphor it provides while offering a simplistic way to improve one’s relationship. Metaphors make complicated, multi-faceted issues more understandable and digestible, offering simplistic solutions to complex problems. Therefore, they argue that the best way to combat the love language myth is to replace it with a better metaphor with the same intuitive appeal but backed by empirical evidence: Love as a nutritionally balanced diet

In contrast to speaking only one language, the balanced-diet metaphor suggests that just as we need to consume multiple essential nutrients for a healthy body, so do we need multiple essential relational “nutrients” (the original five and more) for a healthy relationship. Our relationship might be able to survive on just verbal affirmation, and there might be situations when we need one relational nutrient more than another (e.g., physical touch in times of stress, Jakubiak & Feeney, 2019). However, research supports the idea that for maximal relationship health, we need a balanced diet of all the key nutrients over time. 

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Chapman, G. D. (1992). The five love languages: How to express heartfelt commitment to your mate. Northfield. 

Chapman, G. D. (2015). The five love languages: The secret to love that lasts. Northfield. 

Chopik, W. J., Hickman, L., Weidmann, R., Purol, M., & Yang, H. (2023). Lost in translation: Matching on love languages rarely predicts relational outcomes. [Talk]. International Association for Relationship Research Mini-Conference, Phoenix, AZ, United States. 

Jakubiak, B. K., & Feeney, B. C. (2019). Hand-in-hand combat: Affectionate touch promotes relational well-being and buffers stress during conflict. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(3), 431–446. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167218788556 

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