This is not a book review. I will be discussing a book—a rather popular book, at that—but I will not actually review it. Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages is a perpetual bestseller, one that is a near-constant presence on the New York Times list as well as the Christian lists. And, like so many bestselling Christian books, it is one in which I see some genuine strengths combined with some appalling weaknesses. It is a book that demands that we heed the old cliche to chew the meat while spitting out the bones. What I want to do today is offer a critique of the whole idea of love languages and then show how I have found them to be useful.
The heart of the book is a description of 5 ways in which people tend to be wired or ways in which they tend to want to have love expressed to them: affirming words, gift-giving, physical touch, quality time and acts of service. Chapman believes that each of us has tendencies toward some of these and away from others. Each of us can probably take a look at the list and order them from 1 to 5. Some of us love being served while others of us love receiving gifts. But for others acts of service and receiving gifts are nearly meaningless. In his wisdom and kindness, God has made us to be very different even in the ways we give love and receive love.
There is no doubt that Chapman touches upon something real here. I need only look to my own marriage to see that Aileen and I both have our own “language.” The ways I can best express love to her are through quality time and acts of service while the way I love to receive love from her is through physical affection and quality time. Chapman’s idea, of course, is that I find out from Aileen how she likes to be loved and then begin to love her just like that. If quality time is at the top of her list, I will be sure to give her a lot of quality time. Implicit in this is that she will return the favor—she will learn my love language and love me that way in return. When we follow the model, a happy marriage will ensue. In this way, then, Chapman gives us a helpful way to describe the different ways we are wired and gives a realistic way of putting these love languages into action.
But. But the book also has some very notable weaknesses. David Powlison has written a fantastic review of the book and I commend it to you (download it here). I am going to track with him for the next few paragraphs before returning to my own thoughts below.
5 Lust Languages
After affirming some of the book’s strengths, Powlison looks to the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do to you”) and offers this commentary:
Obviously, the most basic violations of the Golden Rule occur when we simply mistreat others, doing and saying malicious things we’d hate to have done and said to us. But perhaps the most commonmisunderstanding of the Golden Rule is that even in attempting to love others we do what we would want. It’s a less heinous form of self-centeredness, more clumsy and ignorant than hateful.
This is important to see in the context of love languages. If I respond best to physical touch, then the way I will tend to express love to my wife is through physical touch. However, physical touch may mean nothing to her. My expressions of love, then, are actually selfish—I am only giving what I long to receive. At its best The Five Love Languages can correct this. But the reality tends to be a little bit different. The foundation of the book is that as I give my wife the kind of love she wants, she will reciprocate with the kind of love I most want. Powlison says, “What is Chapman working with here? Unwittingly, he exalts the observation that ‘even tax collectors, gentiles and sinners love those who love them into his guiding principle for human relationships.’” Do you see it? “Identify the felt need and meet it, and, odds are, your relationships will go pretty well.” This sounds pragmatically useful, but it doesn’t sound much like Christian living.
There is another big concern. “Love me as I long to be loved” is in a certain way a fair request. But it can also begin to sound like, “Scratch my itch” or, worse, “Bow before my idol.” Powlison says, “Part of considering the interests of others is to do them tangible good. But then to really love them, you usually need to help them see their itch as idolatrous, and to awaken in them a far more serious itch! That’s basic Christianity. 5LL will never teach you to love at this deeper, more life-and-death level.” In demanding or expecting that Aileen love me as I long to be loved, or in loving her in the way she longs to be loved, I may be bowing before idols.
What The Five Love Languages can actually do is teach us that the desires we feel within—desires that may truly belusts—are actually needs. And as soon as we see them as needs, we have deviated from biblical Christianity to human psychology. “Chapman’s model is premised on a give-to-get economy: ‘I will give to fill your love tank. But in the back of my mind I’m always considering whether and when I’ll get my own tank filled.” In Powlison’s words, “5LLreplaces naked self-interest with civilized self-interest. ‘I give, hoping to get.’”
So now we’ve got 2 big concerns: that there is an inherent selfishness with the love languages and that they may at heart be a form of idolatry.
Where, fundamentally, does Chapman go wrong? I think it is in this: He assumes that what we feel as needs are fundamentally good. “He never deals with the fact that people can desire evil. … Chapman never deals with the fact that even desires for good things can still be evil desires in God’s analysis of what makes us tick. Your ‘love language’ … is a curious mix of creation and fall.’” At the heart of The Five Love Languages is a fundamental misunderstanding of the fallenness of man. We are sinful to such an extent that even our deepest desires, things we may consider needs, may be inherently sinful.
When we understand our natural depravity we are prepared to look at God’s love for us and see that Christ’s love language is one that none of us desire. “We might say that the itch itself (an ear for God’s language) has to be created, because we live in such a stupor of self-centered itchiness. The love language model does not highlight those exquisite forms of love that do not ‘speak your language. … The greatest love ever shown does not speak the instinctively self-centered language of the recipients of such love.” Do you see this? The saving love of God, expressed in the death of Christ, does not speak anyone’s natural love language. And yet it is the greatest love and our most desperate need. In this way Christ fails the love language test! We wanted to be loved in all sorts of ways—but none of us wanted to be loved in the way Christ has loved us, by dying for us, sending his Spirit to indwell us, and being Lord over us. And yet this is what we have needed more than anything in all the world.
Powlison has offered some tough critiques, but this should not cause us to miss what truly is valuable in the book. So let me return to a couple of the ways I have found The Five Love Languages to be useful.
In the first place, I have found it helpful to categorize the ways people want to be loved. This has opened to me the panorama of ways in which it is possible to love another person. Though Chapman offers only 5 categories, they are sufficiently broad that they offer endless ways to express affection. I have found it beneficial to look at Aileen through those languages and to seek to love her well. At the same time, it has been valuable to see ways in which she may make a desire a need, a lust or an idol. And, of course, it has done the same for me. I’ve been amazed to see how the language I speak best can be the language of idolatry. As Powlison says, “I’ve found that one acid test of my heart is how I handle being misunderstood, caricatured, reviled, dissed—not how I handle being accurately known and loved! It’s when someone doesn’t speak my ‘love language’ that I find out what I’m made of, and by God’s grace begin to change what I live for.”
Second, and probably most importantly, I have found it helpful to see the ways in which Aileen longs to be loved because it has taught me how she is most likely to express love to me. She and I speak very different languages and that can leave both of us feeling unloved. But once I came to understand that our languages are different, it began to open my ears to a whole new language. It turns out that it was not that she wasn’t loving me, but that she was loving me in her own language. This had closed my ears (or heart—metaphors are getting mangled!) to those expressions of love. But once I understood her better, then I was prepared to receive love in different and unexpected ways. Now I am learning to understand new languages and to respond to them. And this has brought about far more benefit, I believe, than demanding (or even hoping) that she will learn to speak mine.