My Love Language Is Silent Condescension

Could I learn anything about my marriage from a cheesy, best-selling, vaguely evangelical self-help franchise?

Illustration by Jon Chadurjian

I’m a firm believer in judging books by their covers, and the cover of the 10-million-selling relationship self-help book The 5 Love Languages isn’t promising. A stock-photo couple embraces on a garish purple beach, the sunset spraying fake lens flare into the foreground. The subtitle overpromises: “The Secret to Love That Lasts.”

But millions of readers less cynical than me have turned The 5 Love Languages into a surreptitiously steady best-seller for the past 23 years. The book has been translated into 50 languages, and as of this writing is ranked No. 11 on the New York Times list of best-selling advice books. (It’s by far the oldest book on the list.) In almost every year since it was first published in 1992, it has increased its sales over the year before.

Unsurprisingly, then, the book has become a franchise. A newly revised fifth edition was released on Jan. 1, and you can also buy versions of The 5 Love Languages for men, for singles, and for military marriages. There’s The 5 Love Languages of Children, and a separate edition for the parents of teenagers. The book’s author, a Southern Baptist pastor named Gary Chapman, hosts a syndicated radio spot titled “A Love Language Minute,” and leads marriage conferences all over the country. Meanwhile, “love language” has entered the cultural lexicon. Online, “Weirdness is my love language,” “Coffee is my love language,” and “Vacuuming is my wife’s love language.”

Vacuuming is not a love language, thank God. But it could be a dialect, as I found out when I finally picked up the book recently after years of fascination with its quiet ubiquity. I was skeptical, to say the least. First, there’s that cover. Then there’s the book’s association with evangelical Christianity, the culture in which I grew up. That culture’s record on marriage is more complicated than it’s often given credit for by outsiders. On the one hand, it is earnestly obsessed with the hard work of cultivating happy, healthy, and long-lasting relationships. Indeed, many of the marriages I admire most have been nurtured by evangelical churches. On the other hand, as is much better-documented, the specific marriage wisdom doled out by prominent evangelical leaders is often clumsy, simplistic, and downright misogynistic.

So I didn’t have high hopes that a best-seller like this one would speak to my secular, egalitarian union. And more to the point, my own marriage is both young and happy, and I simply didn’t feel the need for the kind of triage offered by a book that promises help for “hurting couples,” including those who have been trapped in loveless relationships for decades.

I purchased my copy of The 5 Love Languages at a huge Barnes & Noble in suburban Chicago on Christmas Eve. The store was busy, and my husband, my sister, and her boyfriend were waiting for me in a restaurant across the street. I impatiently handed the paperback to the clerk, a round middle-aged woman with a name tag reading “Bonnie.” “Oh,” she sighed, “This book is wonderful.Well, I thought, maybe for you, Bonnie. (My love language is silent condescension.)

As is true for most successful self-help books, the essential wisdom at the core of The 5 Love Languages at first seems laughably intuitive. People have different ways of experiencing love, and we must learn our partner’s “language” in order to make him feel loved. You may be “speaking” your own language to your mate, but if his native language is different, he won’t interpret it as love. When the language is mastered, however, you can effectively fill your partner’s “love tank”—a recurring metaphor, unfortunately—and the relationship will thrive.

“Well, duh,” I thought, snootily breezing through the first chapters. In other words, effective communication is important for a healthy relationship. You don’t say. Chapman writes that there are—surprise!—five basic love languages (although dialects can vary): Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Receiving Gifts, Acts of Service, and Physical Touch.

The print is large, the language simple, the questionnaires screamingly obvious. The book is emphatically targeted at married heterosexual couples, and dabbles in hoary stereotypes about men’s higher sex drives. In one chapter, Chapman relates a story about counseling a woman to offer herself sexually to her husband regularly for six months, even though their marriage had turned toxic, even borderline abusive. Like almost all the anecdotes sprinkled throughout the book, this one has a suspiciously neat ending: “In the next six months, Ann saw a tremendous change in Glenn’s attitude and treatment of her.”

And the book is indeed infused with a generic but palpable Christianity. Chapman is constantly bumping into troubled couples at church, and he drops veiled theological arguments like “I am significant because I stand at the apex of the created order.” When he counsels Ann on loving Glenn, he first has her read one of Jesus’ most famous and difficult-to-obey exhortations: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” Chapman wisely ellipses out the line that immediately follows, about turning the other cheek. To his credit, he also makes clear that Ann was already a devout believer—in other words, he was speaking her language. But although the book is intended for a wide audience, that language won’t be to every reader’s taste.

Gary Chapman
Gary Chapman.

Courtesy of Moody Publishers

A more serious problem is that Chapman’s focus is myopically personal. He writes, for example, that the country’s divorce rate shows too many couples “have been living with an empty emotional love tank.” This means he almost completely ignores the economic and political forces that act on families. For example, low-income Americans are less likely to marry, and they are more likely to divorce when they do. That’s not because they can’t afford a self-help book. It’s because successful relationships are about more than just figuring out how to love. They’re also about stability, breathing room, the means to plan ahead, and access to a wider support network, to name just a few resources that tend to accrue to the comfortable and educated.

As I read deeper into the book, however, another source of irritation began to arise: Against my will, light bulbs were illuminating. This breezy book for Bonnies was convincingly explaining some small but persistent frictions between my husband and me. And it described with weird precision my own emotional hungers and satisfactions. Sure enough, a Myers-Briggs-style quiz in the back of the book confirmed that my love language is Words of Affirmation. (Please keep this in mind in the comments section.) My husband’s is Acts of Service, which I had also intuited before he took the quiz. “People tend to criticize their spouse most loudly in the area where they themselves have the deepest emotional need,” Chapman writes. It’s true! It wasn’t exactly a lightning strike—more like the prick of static electricity you get when you unload the dryer. But self-help best-sellers have been built on much less.

Chapman has been married to his wife, Karolyn, for more than 45 years. In his videos, he reminds me both of Fred Rogers and eHarmony founder Neil Clark Warren, both older Christian men who made their names in the secular sphere. The gentle, folksy vibe does not resonate with everyone, sometimes for good reason, but for me it’s like a soothing bowl of Cream of Wheat. And that same grandfatherly tone animates the book to mysteriously reassuring effect. “Love doesn’t erase the past, but it makes the future different,” Chapman writes in a chapter titled “Love Is a Choice.” It’s a sappy line. But I believe him, or at least I want to.

When it comes to loving and being loved, even the most jaded and worldly often feel deep insecurity. That’s true even when we’re in happy relationships. If we can find some comfort and direction in a mega-best-seller with a tacky cover, so be it. For those of us who hope to grow merrily old and saggy and gray with our beloveds, it’s a reminder that packaging isn’t everything.

The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman. Northfield.

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