Little evidence linking five 'love languages' to healthy relationships, researchers say

U of T Mississauga's Emily Impett and her collaborators say good relationships are more like a balanced diet, where people receive a wide range of essential nutrients
A man opens a gift received from his partner

Assumptions around love languages, such as physical touch and gifts, don't hold up to scientific scrutiny, according to research by U of T Mississauga psychologist Emily Impett and her research partners (photo via Pexels)

Even if you don’t know your love language, you’ve probably heard of the concept.

The theory’s pervasiveness in pop culture has only increased in the 30-odd years since Baptist minister Gary Chapman published his book The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts.  

But when psychology researchers at the University of Toronto decided to test Chapman’s main assumptions, they found they don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. 

Emily Impett (supplied image)

“We were very skeptical about the love languages idea, so we decided to review the existing studies on it,” says Emily Impett, a professor in U of T Mississauga’s department of psychology who collaborated with graduate student Gideon Park and York University Assistant Professor Amy Muise.

“None of the 10 studies supported Chapman’s claims.”

For example, Chapman uses the language metaphor to represent how individuals tend to prefer giving and receiving love. The notion rests on three premises: that every person has a primary love language, that there are five love languages (physical touch, words of affirmation, acts of service, quality time and gifts), and that when couples “speak” the same love language it improves the quality of their relationships. 

But each of these assertions broke down when Impett and her team evaluated them against the 10 studies they reviewed (the team’s results are scheduled to be published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science)

“People determine their primary love language by taking Chapman’s quiz, which forces them to select the expressions of love they find most meaningful,” says Impett, who is also the director of the Relationships and Well-Being Laboratory. “It could be choosing between receiving gifts or holding hands, for example. These are trade-offs we don’t have to make in real life.

“In fact, people report that they find all of the things described by the love languages to be incredibly important in a relationship.”  

When it comes to the number of love languages, the studies found inconsistent evidence for the five languages Chapman identifies, while other relationship research shows there are additional ways of expressing and receiving love.

“One key thing to remember is that Chapman developed the five love languages by working with a sample of white, religious, mixed-gender, traditional couples,” says Impett. “There are certain things that are left out, such as affirming a partner’s personal goals outside of the relationship, which might be significant to couples with more egalitarian values.” 

Most importantly, Impett and her team found no scientific evidence for Chapman’s central contention that people who choose partners that speak their love language, or learn to speak it, will have more successful relationships.

“There’s no support for this matching effect,” says Impett. “People are basically happier in relationships when they receive any of these expressions of love.”  

Impett and her collaborators recognize that people crave easy tools to enhance their love lives – which helps explain why Chapman’s book has sold millions of copies and turned the “love languages” into romantic shorthand.

“Everyone wants to be in a good relationship, so we didn’t just say the love languages are scientifically debunked and stop there,” she says.

The team offered an alternative metaphor – one that’s rooted in research. It proposes that relationships are a balanced diet, where people need a full range of essential nutrients (including the factors described by the five love languages and others such as companionship and emotional support) to nourish lasting love.

“It keeps all expressions of love on the menu and invites partners to share what they need at different times,” says Impett. “It allows for the fact that people and relationships aren’t static and can’t be categorized into neat boxes.”   

This is not the first time Impett has put common beliefs about relationships to the test. “I really like challenging these lay ideas because my goal is always to translate the best scientific evidence to therapists and the general public,” she says.   

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