Do ‘love languages’ help improve your relationship? Here’s what experts think

·5 min read
Do ‘love languages’ help improve your relationship? Here’s what experts think

For better or for worse, the idea of the five love languages has embedded itself in our culture. Gary Chapman introduced the concept in 1992 in his bestselling book, "The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate."

And today, almost 30 years later, you’re probably familiar with the idea. It goes something like this — we all express love and receive love in five languages:

  • Acts of service

  • Receiving gifts

  • Quality time

  • Words of affirmation

  • Physical touch

While you probably express and receive love in all these ways, there’s likely one area that resonates most strongly with you — that’s your love language. (This quiz can help you identify yours.) You and your partner may have the same love language or different love languages. If your love language is acts of service, you may feel loved if your partner puts gas in your car. If your partner’s is physical touch, they may feel loved when you hold their hand during a road trip.

Does the love languages structure work?

The love languages concept sounds like it makes sense. But does knowing your own love language and your partners’ make a difference in your relationship? Maybe not. Psychology Today recently dug into the subject and found knowing your love languages doesn’t correlate with having a more satisfying relationship. And the experts who spoke with TODAY agreed.

“It’s a fun concept. I would classify it more in what we call the ‘pop-psych’ category because there isn’t a tremendous amount of empirical support for it,” said Marni Feuerman, Psy.D, a psychotherapist based in Boca Raton, Fla.

Joel Block, Ph.D., is an assistant clinical professor of psychology and psychiatry at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine and author of "The 15-Minute Relationship Fix: A Clinically-Proven Strategy that will Repair and Strengthen Your Love Life." He said, “I haven’t seen anything that supports the approach that one love language is a good fit for you, and the other person recognizes it as a loving gesture.”

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with doing nice things for your partner and recognizing when your partner does nice things for you. “I don’t care what your love language is, if I spend more time with you, it’s usually going to be better than not spending the time with you. It’s almost common sense,” Block said.

And there’s value in recognizing that you and your partner have specific ways of showing and expressing love. “One of the main messages of the book, which I do think is worthwhile, is that we want to think about what our partner’s style is — what makes them feel loved,” Feuerman said. “It certainly isn’t a bad idea to ask, ‘What is it that I do that makes you feel loved in this relationship?’ That’s a very sweet question to ask a partner.”

But Feuerman said focusing on your love languages might not help if you’re struggling in your relationship. She said a lot of clients who come to her for counseling say they’ve read the book. “I don’t want people to think if they have a distressed relationship, it’s necessarily going to help,” she said. “Just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it is the correct information we should be giving to people or couples to help their relationship.”

Is there a better way to strengthen your relationship?

Block and Feuerman both said you can use strategies that are more solidly grounded in research to improve your relationship. Block said what’s most important is that both partners feel like they “get” each other. “Validating is extremely important. Without that, you don’t really have a relationship,” he said. Validation means you understand how the other person feels — not necessarily that you agree with what they are saying or doing. You offer understanding that’s free of judgment or blame.

Feuerman pointed to Dr. John Gottman and his research in the “Love Lab” at the University of Washington. “When people make attempts to communicate clearly and effectively, but also vulnerably, I think that’s where couples really thrive,” she said. “Sometimes we have to clearly ask for [what makes us feel valued and loved], and that can feel a little risky to people.”

For example, many people who are feeling disconnected from their partner say something like, “You never schedule a date night. You don’t care.” Instead, you can share your thoughts from a more emotionally vulnerable place. You can say something like, “I’m feeling a little bit lonely lately. I don’t feel like we’re spending enough time together. I would love to try to make a date night, and if you initiated it, it would make me feel even better.” Feuerman said, “That conversation is going to be very different. Those are love-tank-filling conversations.”

What if your relationship is in trouble?

Strategies like love languages, validation and communicating vulnerably might deepen relationships that are already solid. But sometimes, it’s better to connect with a professional who can help you untangle your relationship problems. Feuerman pointed to two warning signs:

  • Feeling like roommates. If you feel that way, Feuerman recommends sharing your feelings honestly with your partner. “See how that conversation goes. If it still doesn’t change, I would say reach out for help,” she said.

  • Fighting all the time. If every topic seems to dissolve into a fight, seek help. “You don’t have to know what the problem is, exactly. If you know in your gut something is not right, the therapist can focus on what’s going on and make a plan for how to help you,” she said.

Related: