This one’s a cornerstone.
Gary Chapman’s The 5 Love Languages is easily the best relationship book I’ve ever read.
Better yet, let’s lose the qualifiers. It’s simply one of the best books I’ve ever read.
The premise is simple, powerful and mind-blowing. Chapman identifies five “languages” in which we demonstrate our love: Words of Affirmation, Physical Touch, Quality Time, Gifts and Acts of Service. Each language means the same thing–I love your pants off!–but Chapman identifies that if we’re not communicating in the same terms, you might as well be speaking a 13th-century Navajo dialect. The love is lost in translation.
A HELL YEAH burst from my chest when reading this concept. Then I took the quiz.
[DO IT! DO IT NOW! DO NOT PASS GO, DO NOT COLLECT $200!]
My head just about fell off my neck. I need Words of Affirmation, Physical Touch and Gifts.
My ex-wife, it was instantly apparent, valued Acts of Service above all.
She’d make me dinner, do my laundry, clean the house. And I’d barely notice, because those chores have to get done anyway and I’d gladly do them myself. I would have much rather heard that I was kicking ass, that I was going to rock all my writing projects, that I would nose my way out of a career maelstrom–addressing the deep insecurities that churn within me with big, beautiful reaffirmations.
Add in physical touch, and I could soar.
It goes without saying that I was excruciatingly low on self-awareness–or ANY awareness–at the time. It’s painful to recount how little I valued some of her attempts to love me. The upside is, we can all grow. (And emotional intelligence is fodder for another blog post.)
Chapman contends that we each have a love tank, and when it’s running on empty we can’t love back. It’s up to our partner to fuel us with the love language we need. After gassing up on love in ways we can understand, our engine runs in top gear and we can give back without reservation.
There are quite a few fair criticisms of The 5 Love Languages:
- The book contends that we must rely on others to fill our love, rather than doing the hard work of deepening self-awareness and finding ways to meet our own needs. Love yourself, as Bieber says.
- A slight variation: it’s our partner’s job to power our happiness by doing what we want when we want it.
- Chapman presents us simply as people with needs, but behind the curtain of adult-sized bodies and fancy cars and the ability to buy automatic weapons and aged wines, we’re just narcissistic children with unreasonable and emotionally greedy demands on the people we care about most. (Here’s an interesting, albeit religious, take on the idea.)
All fair points. But Chapman gets at a vital truth: we can hope that somehow one day we transform from fragile humans into perfect bodhisattvas with no needs and transcendent calm, or we can accept that we’re all somewhat screwed up and irrational and frankly need stuff that comes off as trite, manipulative or petty to get through the millions of annoyances scattered through our day and move on to our better selves.
You can either accept that most of us are flawed people trying our best or wish we were mini-gods. Up to you.
Also, The 5 Love Languages isn’t a dating book; it’s a relationship book. Once we’re in a relationship, I actually believe that yeah, we DO have a responsibility to help power our partner’s happiness, within reason. (Nothing involving circus animals or tasers, for me at least.) And they have a responsibility right back.
Isn’t shoving the ego out of the way to help your partner the whole point?
My criticism? The 5 Love Languages is too vague.
Words of affirmation are vital to me, but specifically, I want to hear my butt looks good, I’m going to crush it at work, and that Katia wants me bad. It’s nice to hear I made a scrumptious dinner or I rocked a Guns N Roses track at karoake night, but frankly I already knew that and don’t have deep insecurities about it. That stuff’s a long way from the turbulence at my core.
Likewise, The 5 Love Languages aren’t situational–and don’t offer the classic If then, then X structure (that’s IFTT for my engineers and logicians in the house!). A few examples from my User Manual:
- If I’m having a crap day, tell me you love me and offer a cornucopia of physical delights…! (We don’t have to live them out, though that’s nice–it’s almost better to know they’re available.)
- If I’m impatient/annoying at a store, then give me reading material.
The User Manual is packed with specific actions geared to meet our relationship needs and create ridiculously amazing relationships. No generalities allowed.
Yes, that means it’s more work to create in the first place, as there are no easy categories to drop our needs into. But that level of specificity is essential and forces us to deepen our self-awareness along the way–a terrific side benefit that might actually more of a core benefit.
Frankly, if my approach is a fraction as successful as Chapman’s, I’ll be delirious. I’ve met too many people who could live richer, more expansive lives with a few of these pointers.
On that note, one of my favorite parts of The 5 Love Languages is its pervasiveness. I regularly catch people on BART plowing through the book (it’s a slim volume), making it easy to spark a conversation with, “hey, what’s your love language?” Also, taking the love language quiz really should be required for anyone on the dating app rollercoaster, as “what’s your love language?” is as useful a guidebook to the psyche as Myers-Briggs or Enneagram assessments.