It happens almost every time. When it happens, a little part of me wants to throw a fit. A full-on, Clark Griswald at the end of the Christmas Vacation movie “Where’s the Tylenol,” fit! It’s like chewing on aluminum foil while dragging your nails across a chalkboard for me.
Everything is going along fine. I’m beginning to work with a new couple in therapy, learning their story, being a fully engaged and phenomenally skilled therapist, and then out of the blue one of them says it. “I know his Love Language is physical touch,” or “We just don’t speak one another’s Love Language,” or “I wish she’d at least TRY to speak my Love Language for a change!”
And every time it happens Gary Chapman makes a dollar and I lose a piece of my soul!
If you are one of the few that don’t know who Gary Chapman is, then let me summarize his work for a minute. Dr. Gary Chapman is a well known and very skilled marriage counselor. In the early ’90s, Dr. Chapman wrote a book entitled “The 5 Love Languages” in which he defines 5 primary ways that couples give and receive love in their relationships. The book then became a bestseller and quite honestly has helped thousands of couples. Please don’t hear me wrong, it’s a good book that has been very helpful for a lot of people.
However, as with many good books written in the 90s in the self-help or relationship-help categories, it became embedded as fact right along with with E=mc2, the Sun is the center of the solar system, the sky is blue, and the fact that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. And all of this from a book that included EIGHT endnotes, three of which are references to other Gary Chapman books and four others are from the Bible. Dr. Chapman even writes at the beginning of the book, “My conclusion after thirty years of marriage counseling is that there are five emotional love languages…”
In other words, the five love languages are based on his observation. Granted, it is a well-informed opinion, not some random vagrant from the street rambling on about the government experimenting with ways to turn frogs gay. But it was an observation. And then it became a marketing campaign. And then it became fact. And then it became gospel!
You can always tell how successful one of these 90s books was by what I call the “Chicken Soup” factor. There are currently somewhere near 3 billion different versions of the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” book available for every possible soul that is out there. Dr. Chapman’s book was a mega-hit because it was followed with:
The 5 Love Languages Men’s Edition
The 5 Love Languages Gift Edition
The 5 Love Languages of Children
The 5 Love Languages of Teenagers
The 5 Love Languages Singles Edition
The 5 Love Languages Devotional Bible
And The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace
Again, please let me reiterate, the five love languages idea was a good thing and has helped a lot of couples and I don’t hate Dr. Gary Chapman or his phenomenal marketing team. I’m not even jealous. Okay, maybe a little. But I’m all for riding that horse until it’s dead when you hit the 90s version of going viral. Good on you, Dr. Chapman!
I do, however, get somewhat irritated with the notion that these five love languages were hard-wired into the human DNA or handed down to Charleton Heston on a mountain somewhere. They are a good map. They are not THE map. They provide some insight. They are not pre-set determinants of human relationships.
The Map is Not the Territory
Here’s what I mean by this. Let’s say you and your sweetheart take the Love Languages Quiz which is the 90s version of the “Which Hogwarts House are you in” quiz, and you find out that your love language is Acts of Service and hers is Physical Touch. Great! Now you’ve found some insight into why she wants to snuggle and didn’t notice that you did the dishes today. But that’s what it is – insight. You don’t get to hide behind your love language by saying, “You know I don’t like to snuggle. It’s not how I receive love, remember!” And you don’t get to be upset with her when she didn’t notice your martyrdom. Your love language may explain you, but it doesn’t excuse you.
Like I said before, the Love Language concept is a map, and the map is not the territory. Even using our modern-day GPS maps, we know that there are times when the map says there’s a road, but you look ahead of you and can see that the map is an idiot because there’s not a road here. Use the map for what it’s good for, but don’t be too surprised when you look up and you’ve come to a dead end. In more scientific terms, the Love Language concept is meant to be descriptive more than prescriptive. It’s a picture, not a rule.
Don’t be the Stupid American!
The second problem I have with this Holy Grail of marriage books is that it reduces a complex human process that took millions of years to develop to five easy-to-understand patterns. Once you understand which of the five is yours and which one is your partners, you just have to do the right steps and you’ll find yourselves in marital bliss. And if that were the case, every marriage therapist and divorce attorney in the country would be out of business. So why isn’t that the case?
It’s simple. THERE’S A LOT MORE THAN FIVE LANGUAGES!! And in every one of those languages, there’s nuance in the dialect. And there’s rhythm, and there’s tone, and there’s slang, and there are all kinds of things that make us human that can’t be reduced to a paint by numbers approach.
Let’s take for example again our couple and their new found knowledge of one another’s secret love code. Remember, her love language is physical touch. Once he figures this out his brain translates it as, “She needs LOTS of sex!” So he sets about his task to satisfy her sexual appetite, but he never once plays with her hair while they watch television. She leans in close. She even tosses her hair over his hand, but he never once thinks about playing with her hair. As she gets more frustrated with this, her sexual desire goes down, but he keeps trying to have sex – for her. You see where this is going, right?
If you’ve ever traveled outside of the United States, you’ve watched the interchanges. An American has arrived in a place where the residents don’t speak English. So what does he do? He speaks louder and slower English! And then he gets frustrated with the poor soul that doesn’t understand him and is looking at him like he’s a stroke victim. Don’t let your knowledge of this love language idea make you into the relational version of the stupid American.
You may discover that your partner’s love language is Time Together. Great! Now that you know they receive love in that way, go deeper. What other languages do they speak? One of their love languages may be stupid internet memes. Or it may be discussing the latest scientific discoveries. Or it may be Harry Potter trivia. Don’t let your fluency in one language keep you from exploring others or from the reality that her love language may change over the years. Or days. Or minutes. She is, after all, a human.
It’s One Person Job
Let’s go out to the deep water for just a minute. I know this is a little risky, but it’s something that needs to be understood. There’s an idea behind some of the ways that people have used the Love Languages book that underlies a lot of Christian Counseling. It’s an idea that starts off sounding really great but ends up creating some real problems down the relationship road.
It’s the idea that it is your duty to fulfill all of your partner’s needs, and then it’s your partner’s job to fulfill all of your needs. This plan sounds like a recipe for a fantastic marriage, right? Everybody rushing around trying to take care of each other and fill one another’s emotional buckets. It’s a gigantic love fest! And it all sounds great when we’re dressed up standing in front of all of our family and friends quoting verses like First Corinthians 13 while the theme song from Aladdin plays in the background.
But at some point you realize it. Your partner is an emotional black hole! They never stop needing you to fulfill their needs. You can’t go out to dinner with your friends anymore without making sure that the kids are taken care of and his dinner is ready and he has a list of emergency numbers to call and you tell him exactly what time you’re going to be home and you answer every text that he sends wondering where the remote is and…and…and. Eventually, you convince yourself that it’s too much trouble to have that night out and you feel guilty anyway because you only have a limited amount of time together so it’s much more enjoyable to just stay home and meet each other’s needs.
When did we decide that being someone’s “other half” was a good plan? When did it become a selling point for a book? Or a magazine? Or a seminar? When did we start preaching it? I’ve been married 26 years now. That’s a pretty good track record so I feel comfortable in saying this. If I go home tonight and announce to my wife, “You really are a lucky woman because you get to make me happy for the rest of my life,” she would quickly, and rightly, reply, “Nope. Sorry cowboy, you’re pretty high maintenance. You get to be in charge of your own happiness, and I’m willing to join you in the process.” It takes a while to get to that place, and every once in a while we still catch ourselves in that other way of thinking, but it’s a much more stable path because she’s right. I am high maintenance.
So are you.
So is Gary Chapman.
It’s okay to admit that. It’s even okay to use books like The 5 Love Languages to give us some insight into how we can better meet the needs of our partner in a healthy way. It’s just not okay to require our partner to make us a whole person. Take that stuff to God. And your friends. And your relatives. And maybe your therapist. After all, it takes a village.
What does that mean for you and your love language? It means that it may be time for you to get a life. That sounds rude, but I mean it in all the right ways I promise. Go make a friend. Get a hobby. Volunteer. Or just go for a walk by yourself. Not every one of your needs should be taken and placed at the foot of your spouse expecting that they will pick it up. That’s not togetherness, that’s enmeshment. And it almost always ends badly because your individual identities get lost in the process.
So I’m super proud of all of you that have read this book. It shows that you want to invest in your relationship and make it the best it can become. But just because you read a book from the early 90s, does not mean that you’ve figured out your spouse. You’re not supposed to figure them out! You’re supposed to relate, grow, connect, disconnect, reconnect, and evolve together. Enjoy the process.
Which is really difficult when he’s from Mars and she’s from Venus.