When my now ex-husband and I were in marriage counseling trying to save our relationship, one of the very useful concepts our therapist introduced us to was The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts by Gary Chapman. At that time, I did not read the book because one does not need to actually read the book to take advantage of the basic concepts of the five love languages. However, because the concepts had been so important to understanding what had gone wrong in my former marriage, I felt as though I should read the book; I also wanted to use it for a spiritual singles group I am starting in a few months.
Through his years of work as a counselor, Chapman has devised a system of five "love languages" which he has found to be common to all humans regardless of culture. While the dialects that individuals speak may vary within cultures, the five languages remain the same. These five languages are (in the order presented in the book) words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. Most of us speak one of these love languages as our primary love language, though occasionally some people are bilingual. The love language we speak is the main way in which we feel loved, or in Chapman's words, it is how we fill our "love tank." Unless we are getting our basic needs for love met, we will not be happy in a relationship. To facilitate the process of discovering our love languages, Chapman provides surveys and other means for readers to determine both their own love languages and the love languages of their partners.
For those whose language is words of affirmation, they have a need to hear their partner verbally express praise, love, and desire. Those who desire quality time want their partners to spend free time together talking or doing activities of mutual interest. They want their partners to be truly there for them, disposing of digital devices while they are together in order to focus on each other. Those who speak the language of receiving gifts want their partners to demonstrate love through presents: They may be expensive gifts or homemade cards depending on the individual and the financial situation. For those who desire acts of service, doing chores such as sewing buttons on shirts or vacuuming the house are ways to communicate love. And finally, for those who desire physical touch, they want to feel their partners' hands and bodies touching their own. How they want to be touched will vary widely by each person's individual dialect.
With regards to my own relationship, we quickly realized that my then-husband was an acts of service person. He felt that because he was doing the dishes and taking out the trash, he was telling me that he loved me. I had never remotely viewed those acts as ones of love. Instead, I viewed them as getting necessary chores done. For my part, I speak the languages of physical touch and words of affirmation. I felt that by telling my then-husband how I felt about him and by touching him I was showing him love. He did not see it that way. Thus, in the case of my marriage, since I was all but bedbound and no longer able to do acts of service for my husband, he had taken this to mean that I no longer loved him. Since my husband was rarely touching me or talking to me, I had decided he no longer wanted to be near me or love me. Clearly our linguistic differences created a huge hiccup in our relationship.
Chapman correctly points out that we often try to meet our lovers' needs through the language we speak and not the language they speak. This is where most relationships falter in his opinion. Instead, what we need to be doing is making a conscious effort to do things for our partners that are spoken in their love languages. In many relationships, rectifying the differences and working to meet our partners' needs in their languages can resolve the problems the couples are facing. However, in the case of my ex-husband and me, there were too many other issues outside of the five love languages also contributing to the issues in our relationship. Just speaking each other’s love languages was not going to solve our issues despite Chapman's belief that solving this crucial issue would help unravel many other problems a couple faces.
One of the largest problems with Chapman's theory is that it will not work for relationships involving narcissists. Narcissists are individuals whose own needs far outweigh those of their partners (or so they think). Narcissists only want to make their partners happy if their partners can be happy in ways that primarily meet the narcissists' needs and desires. For example, narcissistic individuals might be willing to take romantic partners to the movie if they express interest in doing so, but the narcissists will only be willing to see movies that they enjoy. The concept of seeing a movie that their partners enjoy and would make their partners happy is incomprehensible to narcissists. This extends far beyond seemingly minor things like movie viewing habits: Narcissists will dictate meal choices, sexual activities, employment decisions, lifestyles, and more.
Thus, Chapman's idea that if you give more to your partner, then your partner will then get his/her/hir love tank filled and give more in return is ultimately flawed when it comes to narcissists. In narcissists' worlds, their views and needs are the only ones that matter. The more that a non-narcissistic partner gives to a narcissist, the more the narcissist will demand. Narcissists will make their partners' wishes and desires seem unimportant. In the long run, the only one who will benefit from a system of giving is the narcissist since the narcissist will suck a partner dry long before ever contemplating truly meeting the partner's needs.
I also felt a great deal of concern in the chapter towards the end of the book where Chapman helps a devout Christian woman to stay in an abusive relationship (quite possibly with a narcissist) using Biblical injunctions since he felt that was the only way to reach this particular woman. Chapman believes this chapter proves that even an abusive situation can be turned around if the abuser's love tank is full. I feel that it likely demonstrated that an abused person can be brainwashed into believing that having certain needs met justifies the abuse.
Despite these major holes in Chapman's book and theory, I still feel that The 5 Love Languages is an excellent book that should be recommended premarital reading for all couples; perhaps its contents should even be taught in high schools so that we begin learning from our earliest romantic relationships that it is important to get our own needs met in a relationship while simultaneously meeting the needs of our partners. Learning the five love languages certainly has changed my view of how I understand relationships, and I believe it can do the same for many others as well.
(I've attached a very detailed list of questions I developed from this book that are meant to be used for a group discussion or for personal journaling. Feel free to adapt them for your group's needs.)
© 2015 Elizabeth Galen, Ph.D., Green Heart Guidance, LLC