A Review of The Five Love Languages
Chapman, Gary. The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts. Chicago: Northfield Pub., 2015.
by Michael R. Burgos
What makes for a good marriage? A quick survey of some of the more popular books on this subject reveals myriad answers: Married couples that develop “emotional intelligence” flourish. Couples who obey the “four foundational laws of marriage” thrive. If couples embrace the “laws of marital physics,” their marriages will last. Indeed, the vast quantity of books that claim to unlock the secrets of a happy marriage is perhaps outdone only by the number of divorces in North America. Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts is one of the most successful in this genre. It is a number one New York Times bestseller, and it has spawned numerous companion volumes focused on various demographics and relational problems.
Prior to retiring, Chapman served as an associate pastor of a Southern Baptist Church for over fifty years. He was educated at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, earning an M.R.E. and Ph.D. His vocational ministry focused on counseling in his local church, and it was through this ministry that he developed the concepts articulated in The Five Love Languages.
In The Five Love Languages, Chapman seeks to resolve relational problems by identifying the basic human need for love, or what Chapman calls “an invisible emotional love tank,” and by explaining how one may fill another’s love tank by employing various “love languages” (i.e., ways people communicate and understand love, 15; 35). These love languages include “words of affirmation,” “quality time,” “receiving gifts,” “acts of service,” and “physical touch.” While there are five “primary” love languages, Chapman notes that these are expressed through different “dialects” or variations of a particular love language (15-16; 47).
Chapman argues that an empty love tank is not merely the root of marital conflict but also the reason for children who misbehave and rebel (20-21). By learning the primary love language of another, especially if that person’s love language is different, one can effectively communicate love and, thus, meet that person’s felt needs (23). Whereas romantic relationships begin with a kind of euphoria Chapman calls “obsessional love,” “reality invades,” and the need for “real love” emerges (29-32). Couples achieve this real love when they pursue filling each other’s emotional love tank (31; 33; 35).
Chapman exposits each love language and leverages basic Christian virtues such as kindness, forgiveness, and humility in intensely practical ways (e.g., 43-6). He advocates for an approach to marriage focused on meeting a spouse’s emotional needs. He explains how to determine one’s own love language and how to discern the love language of one’s spouse.
While Chapman’s pursuit of helping couples understand and meet each other’s desires is admirable, his presentation lacks the necessary ballast of a Christian worldview. Chapman rarely mentions the Bible, and the few times he does, he refers to things said by “an ancient sage” and the like. (44; cf. 38). In Chapman’s system, man’s fundamental problem is not sin and its effect upon his relationship with God and his fellow man but his empty love tank. The solution for relational conflict is not God’s sanctifying grace but discerning one’s love language. Chapman’s approach to achieving marital joy is fundamentally man-centered. Indeed, the language of emotional needs that permeates this volume has more in common with folk psychology than biblical Christianity.
In some ways, Chapman’s approach presents as a simplified version of Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.” Whereas Maslow postulated five forms of psychological needs leading to self-actualization, Chapman has proposed five love languages that, when properly wielded, reportedly lead to relational bliss. The relational ideal, therefore, is not a life and marriage which glorify God but happiness that results in the satisfaction of so-called “emotional needs” (20; 46; 80). Numerous accounts are described in The Five Love Languages wherein Chapman counsels a disillusioned spouse to meet their spouse’s emotional needs so that this love may be reciprocated (e.g., 41-42; 93-96). On this approach, getting one’s needs met results in “self-worth” and the ability to move past being “obsessed” with one’s own needs (142). This needs-based approach neglects the biblical call unto self-denial and recasts marital problems as two-dimensional. That is, not only is Chapman’s approach man-centered, but it also presents marriage as a formal arrangement designed to satisfy its participants through simplistic gestures that scratch the emotional itch. Chapman’s construal reduces the institution of marriage to a quid pro quo and the vast complex of marriage problems are reduced to a lack of communicating love.
The concept of “self-worth” or “self-esteem” also underlies Chapman’s love languages model. He argues that self-worth is directly owed to the receipt of love from a spouse or family members (141). Without receiving expressions of love through the relevant love language, those struggling in marriage “are pushed by their emotional needs to seek love outside the marriage” (133). This transactional needs-based relational paradigm focuses on oneself. It does not countenance the God-given purpose of marriage, namely, the glorification of the Triune God through the exemplification of the gospel and obedience to the dominion mandate (Eph. 5:22; Gen. 1:28). As Jay Adams observed, “Pagan thought emphasizes getting what you need (or, rather, what you think you need) while godly thought emphasizes giving God the honor and service in His church that He deserves totally apart from whether your needs are met or not.” The New Testament calls us not to ensure that our emotional love tanks are filled but to deny ourselves and follow Christ on a death march (Luke 9:22-23).
Foundational to The Five Love Languages is the assertion that relational problems, be they severe or mild, are owed to a failure to speak in terms of one’s love language:
With empty love tanks, couples tend to argue and withdraw, and some may tend to be violent verbally or physically in their arguments. But when the love tank is full, we create a climate of friendliness, a climate that seeks to understand, that is willing to allow differences and to negotiate problems. (166)
The child who misbehaves does so because she does not “feel love” (23). The husband who pursues an adulterous relationship does so because his love tank was empty (111). This viewpoint amounts to a soft form of Pelagianism that leaves little room for recognizing how thoroughly sin has affected humanity and, subsequently, human relationships. Conversely, Scripture presents man’s problem as something far more systemic than an empty love tank. It teaches that every part of the human person has been corrupted by sin (Gen. 8:21; Rom. 3:10-18) and that relational trouble extends far beyond unmet felt needs. The fall has resulted in corrupt desires, disordered thoughts, and ungodly behaviors. Thus, from a biblical perspective, the child who misbehaves does so because she loves sin and the husband who commits adultery does so because he is an idolater who exchanged the glory of God for a lie (Rom. 1:23).
The needs-based model of relationships and behavior in The Five Love Languages is unrealistic and it does not accord with viewing marriage as a means of sanctification (Eph. 5:21-33). If marriage is a means through which God conforms his people to the character of Christ, married couples should expect to have their desires and expectations curtailed and reshaped by the Word of God. Imagine the husband who enters a marriage with a propensity for arrogance. His love language is words of affirmation since he desires his wife to validate and embolden his pride. Consider the wife who desires gifts from her husband because she has derived joy from her material possessions. In either of these scenarios, meeting these desires would be antithetical to either the marriage or the spiritual condition of the spouse. Instead, to properly love her husband, the wife should speak the truth to him about his pride and call him to repentance and humility (Jas. 4:10). The husband should love his wife by refraining from engendering materialism. He should teach her that life does not consist of an abundance of possessions (Luke 12:15) but in the person of Christ.
The popularity of The Five Love Languages is not hard to understand. Chapman’s need-based model resonates with the pragmatic tendencies of American culture. Married couples quickly lose sight of each other as they engage in the business of family life. The Five Love Languages serves its readers by reminding them to consider each other. Beyond a helpful reminder, however, the concepts presented in The Five Love Languages do not accord with the Bible’s teaching on the purpose and nature of marriage. Whereas those who employ this volume’s teaching to their troubled relationships may expect the saccharin outcome Chapman suggests, the complexities of human life and relationships will ultimately betray such efforts. By contrast, the Scriptures call the church to embrace a God-centered view of marriage which subordinates human desires to God’s will.
 John Gottman, Nan Silver, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country's Foremost Relationship Expert (New York: Harmony Books, 2015), 5.  Jimmy Evans, Marriage on the Rock: The Comprehensive Guide to a Solid, Healthy and Lasting Marriage, 25th Anniv. ed. (Dallas: XO Pub., 2019), 17.  Mark Gungor, Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage: Unlocking the Secrets to Life, Love and Marriage (New York: Atria Books, 2008), 14-15.  E.g., Gary Chapman, Jocelyn Green, The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts, Military ed. (Chicago: Northfield Pub., 2017); Gary Chapman, Ross Campbell, The Five Love Languages of Children: The Secret to Loving Children Effectively (Chicago: Northfield Pub., 2016); Gary Chapman, The Five Love Languages of Singles (Chicago: Northfield Pub., 2004).  Moody Publishers, “About Dr. Gary Chapman,” accessed October 4, 2022, https://www.moodypublishers.com/events/about-gary-chapman/.  Allison Futterman, “Take 5: Dr. Gary Chapman,” Winston-Salem Journal, last modified October 30, 2016, https://journalnow.com/winstonsalemmonthly/take-5-dr-gary-chapman/article_ccf7297e-9f07-11e6-9515-9b3d1e6c67a2.html.  See Abraham H. Maslow, A Theory of Human Motivation (Mansfield Centre: Martino Pub., 2013), 8-22.  Jay E. Adams, The Biblical View of Self-Esteem, Self-Love, & Self Image (Eugene: Harvest House Pub., 1986), 48.