How Love Languages Became a Cultural Phenomenon

For Dr. Orna Guralnik, the plain-talking star psychologist of the Showtime series “Couples Therapy,” the lack of scientific evidence isn’t a deal breaker. “It’s what we call face validity — if it wasn’t useful for people, if it didn’t tap into something that matters, it would have disappeared,” she said.

Many of the couples who have come to Dr. Guralnik for therapy have either read Dr. Chapman’s book or have a cursory knowledge of the theory, she said. But to her, the love languages are a MacGuffin: a vessel, usually an unimportant or seemingly random object, used in fiction to move the plot forward. The five categories themselves are not as important as what the overall theory signals to people — that “their own frame of mind is not the way their partner is processing things.”

Though the literature isn’t robust, some researchers have started to set their sights on Dr. Chapman’s books, publishing their work in peer-reviewed outlets. In 2006, a study found that the concept of five disconnected love languages was difficult to confirm. Instead, the study suggests that individuals are more likely to use all five languages, at varying levels, and not just one or another.

In another study, published this year, researchers at the University of Warsaw in Poland recruited 100 couples between the ages of 17 and 58 who had been together for at least six months and asked them to rank their preferences out of the five (rather than singling out one love language) and their relationship satisfaction. The researchers found that couples who seemed to speak each other’s love languages — meaning individuals who preferred expressing love in the ways that their partners preferred to receive it — reported having greater relationship satisfaction.

They also found that not only did people want their partners to communicate with them in their own love languages, but also that when you speak your partners’ love language, it “makes you more happy in the relationship,” said Maciej Stolarski, one of the authors of the paper.

Last August, the Chapmans celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. They went for dinner to the same local restaurant in Winston-Salem that they go to every year — an upscale steak house, where they often order their favorites (steak for Dr. Chapman, salmon for Ms. Chapman).

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