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.”
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.
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: 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.
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 make 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: 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.
This blog is excerpted from "The Five Love Languages" by Ryan Howes. The full version is available in the May/June 2016 issue, Unexpected Gifts: Six Master Therapists Recall Their Most Unforgettable Sessions.
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