In our romantic fantasies, the path to true love is smooth, and partners know exactly how to make each other feel loved. But the couples we see in therapy aren’t always so adept. In fact, Gary Chapman, a North Carolina pastor and counselor, realized that people typically tend to express and understand emotional love through one of five “languages”—words of affirmation, quality time, personal gifts, acts of service, or physical touch. Further, one of the primary obstacles to emotionally connecting is the failure to speak each other’s love language. That core insight has led his book, The 5 Love Languages, first published in 1992, to sell more than 10 million copies and to stay on the New York Times bestseller list since 2009.
But why? What about this pastor’s simple categorization so captivates people from all faith traditions? In this conversation, Chapman tries to explain the remarkable appeal of his book.
RH: What inspired the love languages?
CHAPMAN: I kept hearing similar stories over and over again in the office. One person in the relationship would say, “I just feel like he doesn’t love me,” and the other would say, “Well, I don’t understand that. I do this and this and this. Why would you not feel loved?” I knew there had to be a pattern. Eventually, I sat down and read 12 years of my session notes to try to figure the patterns out, and later I called them the five love languages. The concept I came up with is that partners often speak different love languages, and if we want to be effective and really communicate emotionally, then we have to learn to speak love in their language.
I started by helping couples try to determine each other’s love language, and they’d come back and say, “Gary, this has changed everything. I mean, the whole relationship’s different.” Then I started using it in small groups, and the same thing happened. About five years later, I started to think that if I could put this concept in a book, write it in the language of the common person, leave out the psychological jargon, then I could help a lot of couples that I’d never have time to see in my office.
RH: Have these five languages held up over time?
CHAPMAN: I wasn’t dogmatic in saying that there are only five, but now that it’s been out all these years, no one has come back to me with number six. Actually, one guy once said that chocolate should be number six, but I said to him, “Well, if they bought it, it’s a personal gift. If they made it, it’s an act of service.”
RH: Why do you think that 24 years later your book is more popular than ever?
CHAPMAN: It’s because it speaks to the deep human need to feel loved by the significant people in your life. I think that people read it and have an aha moment. They look at their relationship and realize, “I think we’ve been missing each other.” So they try speaking each other’s language, and it really does change the emotional climate. Then they want to share it with their mom and dad, their friends, their brother and sister. In fact, the way I got on the Oprah show was because Oprah’s wardrobe assistant had read the book and it had really helped her in her marriage, so she told Oprah, “You’ve got to get this guy on here.” It was the wardrobe assistant who made that happen, even though my publisher had been trying for years.
In any case, I think the book speaks to readers because almost everybody can agree that their primary emotional need is to feel loved by the significant people in their lives. If we feel loved, we can pretty much handle the rest of life. And it’s a simple idea, easy for people to understand, but not necessarily easy to do.
RH: What about cultural differences? Is this a book about American love languages?
CHAPMAN: It’s been translated now into 50 languages around the world, which really surprised me. With my background in anthropology, I had a real concern about cultural differences. When the Spanish publisher first came to me, I said, “I don’t know if this works in Spanish.” They said, “Well, we’ve read it, and we think it works.” It’s been a bestseller there ever since.
RH: You wrote this book as a theologically trained evangelical Christian, writing to a general audience. Was that a challenge?
CHAPMAN: I intentionally wrote the book with the idea that the audience would be broader than just Christians. It doesn’t matter if you’re Christian or not: you have a need to feel loved.
RH: Does the way a person expresses their love always correspond to the way that they like to receive it, or can there be a difference?
CHAPMAN: I say that it’s a clue. The language they speak most often is probably the one they want, but it’s not true always. I don’t have hard research, but my guess is about 25 percent of the people who speak one language predominantly desire to receive love in another language. Another clue is to note what people complain about most often, because complaints are really revealing. If they say, for example, “We just don’t ever have any time together anymore; we’re like ships passing in the night,” they’re telling you that quality time is their language. Or if you go on a business trip and you come home and they say, “You didn’t bring me anything?” They’re telling you gifts are their language. The third clue is to consider what they request most often. If they’re saying, “Honey, can we take a walk after dinner?” They’re asking you for quality time.
RH: A client of mine recently said she felt like her husband could perform all the love languages, but she could tell that his heart wasn’t into it. She felt like feeling or intention should almost be another language. What would you say about that?
CHAPMAN: Well, I understand that, because I think all of us want people to be sincere in their expressions of love. But the heart of love is a choice. We choose to speak another person’s language if we know it. Or we choose not to. One man said to me, “I read your book, and so did my wife. She tells me her love language is performing acts of service. But if it’s going to take my mopping floors and my washing dishes for her to feel loved, she can forget that.” He’s got the information, but he doesn’t have the will to follow through.
Love is essentially a choice. I can give you information, but you’re the one who has to make the choice. If your husband’s never spoken this language to you before and now he starts, you may feel like it’s not going to last, like it’s not really natural for him. And I’d say, “Well, it may not be natural for him, but if he’s choosing to do it, then it’s an act of love. He doesn’t have to do it.” For example, my wife’s language is acts of service, and one of the things I do is vacuum the floors. Do you think that vacuuming floors comes natural for me? You think I enjoy vacuuming floors? No, I don’t! I don’t vacuum floors for me. I do it for her, because I know it’s going to maker her feel loved. So really, we need to give people credit, even if the language they’re trying to speak to us doesn’t really come naturally for them.
RH: So the love languages are more evidence of the feeling of love? If people are willing to demonstrate that, then they’ll show it through their spouse’s love language. So your wife’s language is acts of service. What’s your primary love language?
CHAPMAN: Words of affirmation. I vacuum the floor, and she tells me how great I am. (Laughs.)
RH: Sounds like a good arrangement!
CHAPMAN: Absolutely! My wife and I had a lot of struggles in the early years of our marriage. But when you finally get it together and start loving and supporting each other, it’s worth all the struggle. When marriage is all it can be, it’s a loving, supportive, caring relationship, and you’re each trying to help the other person reach his or her potential for good in the world. That’s why we’re in the field, right? Trying to help people have those kinds of marriages. I’ve also applied the same principles to children, adolescents, singles, the workplace, and couples in the military. People are likelier to be open to learning and growing if they feel loved. If you can wrap your message in their love language, they’re much likelier to receive it positively.
RH: What does that look like for couples in the military?
CHAPMAN: We focus there on how to speak these love languages while you’re deployed. We interviewed scores of military couples to get ideas. For example, you’d think physical touch would be impossible half a world away. But a lady said, “I put my hand on a sheet of paper, and I traced it, and I mailed it to him with a note that said, ‘Put your hand on my hand; I want to hold your hand.’” When he came home, he said to me, “Gary, every time I put my hand on that paper, I felt her.” It’s not literal touch, but its emotional touch. That’s what we’re talking about.
A husband said, “My wife’s language is physical touch, so when I left, I said to her, ‘I’m going to leave my jeans jacket in the closet. Any time you need a hug, you put it on, and I’ll hug you.’” She said, “Gary, every time I put it on, I felt his arms around me.” That one’s been well received by the military. It’s just been step by step. I never intended to branch out in all those directions, but it’s come as people have brought the need for it to my attention.
RH: Do you have any message you’d like to send to therapists?
CHAPMAN: I think that the five love languages concept is important because it addresses the deep emotional need to feel loved. Our country is in desperate trouble when it comes to relationships, and we need all the help we can get.