Hey baby, do you speak my love language?

Hooray! At last, a bestselling relationship-mending book I can get behind. The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman hasn’t yet made an annual list, but it’s been kicking around the USA Today top-150 for the past four years or so.

Chapman’s premise, developed during his years as a marriage counselor, is that people have different ways of expressing and feeling loved. You might get all squishy when your special someone helps you with your origami, but your partner might be dying for you to make him a bologna sandwich. And if your relationship is suffering, most likely you’re expressing love in the way you want to receive it, rather than the way your partner does. So, if you want to turn things around, you have to determine your sweetie’s “love language” and start speaking it.

According to Chapman, there are five main “love languages”:

1. Words of affirmation (“You are a tidy little bon-bon!”)
2. Quality time (talking, shopping, escuchando los discos a la biblioteca)
3. Receiving gifts (don’t have to be expensive—it’s the thought that counts)
4. Acts of service (cooking, mowing the lawn, making that bologna sandwich)
5. Physical touch (holding hands, hugging, doing the nasty)

While most of us respond to all of those things to some degree, one probably stands out as our primary “love language.” And when our significant other speaks that language, we get the misty-eyes and the jelly-knees.

Five languages, five reasons to read

Here are the top five reasons I liked this book, especially as compared to other love-related mega-sellers.

1. Doesn’t simplify—accepts the complexity of humanity and the fact that we are all different. This book does not employ the one-size-fits-all mentality so common in the self-help universe. Each individual has his or her own “love language” and even own “love dialect,” which is a variation on one of the five main languages. The call to action here is not to pigeonhole your spouse but to understand and respond to his or her distinctive needs.

2. Gender-neutral. The Five Love Languages is not addressed to women only, nor does it put the burden on women to make relationships work. It doesn’t assume all women (or men) want or need the same things. Chapman even says “there are no rewards for maintaining stereotypes, but there are tremendous benefits to meeting the emotional needs of your spouse” (110)—even when they don’t fit traditional gender roles.

3. Doesn’t claim relationships are easy. Speaking an unfamiliar language is hard work, and doing it for a lifetime will take commitment and a real desire to do “something for the well-being of the one you love” (41). In fact, Chapman claims that the “in-love” period of a relationship—when everything seems so wonderful and effortless—is not really love at all. Real love, he says, “is emotional in nature but not obsessional. It is a love that unites reason and emotion. It involves an act of the will and required discipline, and it recognizes the need for personal growth” (35). But it’s not as boring as it sounds. Chapman promises that, if we make all this effort, true love “will be exciting beyond anything we ever felt when we were infatuated” (37). While I would argue that falling in love is a form of true love, one that makes the next, quieter stage of love possible—the simple and necessary admission that long-term relationships take work is almost foreign to bestselling relationship reading.

4. Describes happy spouses as having a deep connection. In Chapman’s world, the point of a relationship isn’t just to get along or accept each other’s differences. “Our most basic emotional need,” he claims, “is not to fall in love but to be genuinely loved by another, to know a love that grows out of reason and choice, not instinct. I need to be loved by someone who chooses to love me, who sees in me something worth loving” (35). By meeting our spouse’s deepest needs, we forge a powerful relationship, not just a functional household.

5. Doesn’t even mention a “white knight.” I don’t think I can take any more of those.

Complaints? Instinctively, my main issue with the book would be how unnecessary it is. I would think that anyone who is even fractionally emotionally astute would know, from experience if not conversation, what made his/her spouse the most happy. And, unless that person was totally creepy or lazy, s/he would probably do it.

But I think I am wrong on this one. I have always found relationships extremely easy (not work-free, understand, but easy), so all this gooey emotional stuff and its associated effort are a snap. However, I am starting to think I am a freak (for this and the other ten thousand reasons). Given the enormous popularity of bestselling books like this, it seems a lot of people are not particularly emotionally perceptive and really don’t know what their spouses want. I find such a possibility mystifying, but this is far from the first time that I have been mystified by America’s needs. So I’m going to assume that Chapman’s is a lesson that needs to be taught.

And teach he does. He offers a variety of methods for sleuthing out your partner’s love language, mostly pretty obvious techniques such as “listening to what your partner asks you to do for him/her” and “observing your partner’s behavior toward you” (since people often give love the way they want to receive it). Once you have identified the hidden language that’s been mucking up your life, you just have to start to “speak” it. For each language, Chapman offers a list of suggestions for new practitioners. Most are reasonable, but some veer into the ridiculous, like this one for the “Words of Affirmation” people:

As you read the newspaper, magazines, and books, or watch TV or listen to radio, look for words of affirmation which people use. Observe people in conversation. Write those affirming statements in a notebook. (If they are cartoons, clip and paste them in your notebook.) Read through these periodically and select those you could use with your spouse. When you use one, note the date on which you used it. (56)

I mean, come on. Good at relationships or not, a person who needs to do this is bordering on mentally challenged. And imagine finding this notebook—wouldn’t it give you the creeps?

Some of the dialogue is a bit clunky, especially the stuff about sex (how many times in a paragraph can a person say “sexual intercourse”?), though thankfully it’s still a big step above the language in Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.

But these are minor quibbles. The book makes sense. And it explains to me why some relationships are just harder than others—having to do unnatural, uncomfortable things all the time is just plain more difficult and more apt to fail than doing natural, comfortable things. I’ve witnessed relationships like that, and unless there is a great amount of love and commitment on both sides, they simply don’t work in the long run. How reasonable is it to expect that a person who never needs to be touched, for example, can really make a physically-oriented spouse happy? Good intentions or not, people often revert to their old, familiar ways. And can you really blame them? In the book Chapman claims he rarely meets couples who speak the same love language. I’m assuming he’s saying that to send an optimistic message to his lonely readers (“you’re normal! you can fix it!”), but I read it differently: People who need the same things are much less likely to seek counseling.

Chapman’s moral is work hard and make your spouse happy. My variation is pick the right person to begin with, someone who needs what you need, and the work you do will be a lot more enjoyable—and the relationship a lot more likely to last.

But hey, that’s the opinion of a freak.

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