The five ‘love languages’ have guided many relationship decisions, but is there any science behind the theory?

Whether you are in love, looking for love or have your Facebook status set to ‘it’s complicated,’ there’s a decent chance you have heard of ‘love languages’.

The term was first coined 30 years ago by relationship therapist and pastor Gary Chapman. In his book, The 5 love languages: the secret to love that lasts, Chapman suggests that the way we express and communicate our love to our partners could be described by them.

For the uninitiated, they are as follows: acts of service, physical touch, quality time, gifts and words of affirmation.

Whether it’s the fact that Chapman strips back the complexity of love or that he normalises the act of asking for a specific type of love — his theory has quickly gained a broad appeal.

Chapman has now sold an estimated 20 million copies of his book, with his prose now widely circulated across social media and deeply rooted in collective consciousness. Who needs compatible star signs and harmonised rising moons anyway?

But there is one problem regarding Chapman’s vision of love: the science doesn’t really support it.

Adam Bode from the The Australian National University (ANU) and our unofficial ‘love doctor in training’ says that researchers have actually tried to prove Chapman’s hypothesis to be correct.

“A paper recently published by researchers at the University of Toronto and University of York that looked at exactly this,” Bode says.

“They considered if there was evidence to support the assumption that if love languages match, couples will have a more satisfying relationship.

“Four scientific articles did not find that matching love language was associated with greater relationship satisfaction. This could be because the assumption made in the theory is incorrect, although it could also have to do with methodological factors.”

As for why the concept is so enduring despite lacking scientific evidence, Bode says there are few key drivers — all of which speak to an innately human story.

“I think if people are more attuned to what their partner means, needs and feels, it is probably better for a well-functioning relationship.”

Adam Bode, ANU PhD candidate

“The basic goal behind them is helping people to figure out how to increase their relationship satisfaction. We all want happy and satisfying relationships,” Bode says.

“Another reason is that the idea is simple. It suggests that how a couple communicates, expresses need and displays love is important in relationships. Everyone intuitively knows these things are a big part of any romantic relationship, and I think people can relate.”

“A third reason is that people love labels. It gives them something more concrete to work with and an identity with which they can identify and label their partner.”

More recently, love languages have found new (digital) freedom outside of Chapman’s theorised categories. Bode says this has only added to their popularity.

“There is also a short quiz available that tells each individual their supposed love style. And that makes the labelling all the more fun and efficient,” he says.

“Some have also suggested that the theory’s use of metaphors is another reason that the theory is so popular with the general public.”

That’s not to say that believers of the theory should despair.

“The basic premise that the way people communicate, express needs, and display love are important for a romantic relationship seems to be correct,” Bode says.

“Independent of the validity of the ‘five’ love languages, the idea that the way people communicate affects their romantic relationship seems inherently reasonable, doesn’t it?

“I think if people are more attuned to what their partner means, needs and feels, it is probably better for a well-functioning relationship.”

Illustration: Anya Wotton/ANU

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