Do You Speak Your Partner's Love Language? Does It Matter?
Do you know your partner’s “love language”? Does he or she know yours?
The idea of “love languages” was popularized by psychologist Gary Chapman in the 1990s, with his book “The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate.” Since then, the concept has really taken off.
What Are “Love Languages”?
The idea of love languages is that each of us has one or two preferred ways to receive love and attention from a partner, and that receiving affection in our own “language” makes us feel more content and happy. According to the theory, we also tend to express our love to our partners in our own preferred language. But of course, ours may not match up with theirs!
According to Chapman, one way to increase relationship satisfaction is to pay attention and learn what your partner’s love language actually is-- then try to give affection in the way he or she prefers. Ideally, he or she will do the same for you.
Chapman’s 5 proposed languages are:
- Acts of Service: Having favors, chores, tasks, etc. done for you
- Gifts: Having thoughtful gifts and items given to you
- Physical touch: Not just sex…hugs, kisses, snuggles, hand-holding, massages, etc.
- Time: When your partner makes an effort to spend quality time with you
- Words: Compliments, praise, kind words, and so on from your partner
Overall, this idea has definitely been appealing to the general public. It just seems to “feel like” it makes sense. But has research been able to back up the idea that “love languages” are a real thing, or that working to “speak” your partner’s language will improve your relationship?
Is There Proof for the “Love Language” Claim?
Surprisingly, not many studies have actually been done. Recently, however, experts worked with about 65 couples to try to find out more. Part of Chapman’s theory is that we generally tend to express love back to our partner in our own preferred love language. So these researchers wanted to find out whether couples whose love languages already “matched” (that is, they both preferred to receive love in the same way) were more satisfied in their relationships.
They also wanted to look at a behavior called self-regulation. People who are high in self-regulation try harder to work on their behavior towards their partner and to “maintain their relationship.” The researchers wondered if people who were better at self-regulation would be better at overcoming the “problem” of mismatched love languages.
What Might Matter More
To their surprise, the researchers didn’t find that having matched “languages” (according to surveys participants filled out) made any difference to couples. What’s more, about three-quarters of the participants turned out to already know their partner’s preferred love language, even if they didn’t “know” they knew it. However, this knowledge didn’t seem to matter, either.
Doing things to maintain the relationship, on the other hand, did seem to help somewhat. But this was only true for some couples. In particular, when couples had mismatched love languages, but the woman in the relationship was trying hard to “self-regulate,” both men and women were more satisfied.
What’s the Takeaway?
So, what should we take from all this? These experts point out that some of what we may be responding in the “love languages” concept is just the idea of making an effort in our relationships and working to improve our behavior. This is “self-regulation,” and unlike love languages, we have quite a bit of research suggesting that it does affect how we feel about our relationships. In fact, many relationship experts advise that when things aren’t going as well as you’d like with your partner, the best first step may be to “change yourself first.” (After all, getting someone else to change isn’t easy!)
Love languages are a fun concept, and it can be helpful or interesting to talk about what we and our partners prefer. However, at least for now, it might be more productive to focus on other relationship improvement strategies, like communication skills, learning to fight fair, and supporting your partner.
Looking for ways to connect and get closer with your partner? Heading towards marriage? The SMART Couples project is offering ELEVATE, a free, research-backed relationship enhancement class for couples, and Before You Tie the Knot, a free marriage preparation course, in 5 Florida counties. All our programs are taught by trained professionals and are welcoming to all. Sign up today!
By Carol Church, lead writer, SMART Couples, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, University of Florida
Bunt, S., & Hazelwood, Z. J. (2017). Walking the walk, talking the talk: Love languages, self-regulation, and relationship satisfaction. Personal Relationships. Advance online publication. doi:10.1111/pere.12182
Egbert, N., & Polk, D. (2006). Speaking the language of relational maintenance: A validity test of Chapman's () five love languages. Communication Research Reports, 23:1, 19-26. doi:10.1080/17464090500535822