Friday, March 5, 2010

Babelfish Not Necessary

I was chatting with a friend today and it got me thinking once again about human nature, and how we as a society try to overcomplicate things.

In Utah, Gary Chapman's book on the Five Languages of Love is very much in vogue. Though I haven't read it, I am familiar with the premise and it has always rubbed me the wrong way. I could not put my finger on what it was exactly until today.

For those of you not up to speed with your pop 'psychology', Chapman outlines five love 'languages' used to express affection, and postulates that many disconnects in relationships are simply the result of both people speaking a different love language. They are:

Physical Touch.
Acts of Service.
Quality Time.
Words of Affirmation.

The idea, then, is that two people could love each other equally, but not feel loved simply because one is demonstrating his affection through gifts and the other through words of affirmation (for example).

This may indeed be the case in some situations. I have no idea what Chapman's academic credentials are, but I'm going to assume they're more impressive than mine in this field. But the problem with this theory is that, in practice, it complicates what is a rather simple issue. It is then used as a rationalization to prolong failing relationships. "Its not that she doesn't love me, she just values words of affirmation more than touch and I'm quite the opposite."

I contend that love is simpler and yet more involved than this. A healthy relationship isn't one in which you must calculate the exchange rate between caresses, compliments, and random acts of kindness. You shouldn't be wondering how many of his words equivocate one of your gestures. Love isn't an equation and you don't need Chapman's translation phrasebook to navigate its waters. Its actually a lot simpler...and therefore, sometimes it a harsher truth to face.

Relationships are either in balance or out of balance. By this I mean, either both parties are equally invested or they are not. They say that the person who cares the least about a relationship controls the relationship. This is true, of relationships and all things. When I am driving a beat up car, I know I can be more aggressive on the road than the guy in an expensive Ferrari. He can look at my dented bumper and realize that he has a lot more to lose than I do.

Control and power in a relationship are not happiness. In a healthy relationship, there is balance. His happiness is her's, and her's is his. Seeing that the other person is happy literally increases their own happiness. Its not a question of who is more invested in the relationship...they have achieved that state of unity that is described by Paul. They are of one heart and one mind, which is why they can be of one flesh without the complications and pain that inevitably when that first step is skipped.

It is rare to find a relationship in balance, but I am not being naive when I say that nothing less will do in a marriage. The trick is in finding a relationship where both partners are equally invested...and in knowing when that is not the case.

To paraphrase Michael Buble, I'd say pulling that off is about 50% timing and the other half is luck...

Just to prove that I'm not completely cynical in matters of the heart, I'll just go ahead and say that is a good note to end on. After all, I just haven't met her yet.


  1. Thanks for blogging. I needed something to read right now.

    I think that it does complicate things, but it's also true. When you're paired up with someone who isn't the same language of love (like I'm words and quality time), it makes things difficult because you have to remember what they like. If you don't fulfill their needs, it makes for a rocky relationship.

    I'm rambling. This probably doesn't make sense. I'm tired.

  2. I think what makes it hard for me to understand is that when someone does any of those five things to me, I see it as an outward manifestation of the fact that they were thinking about other words, as a token of love. Each of them serves that function, though some are easier than others. The old adage says that Actions Speak Louder than Words, so if one person is lassoing the moon for a girl and she is responding with simple 'Wow, you're great, I love you!' and that's it...well saying she speaks a different love language seems like a nicer way of saying she's just not feeling it as much as he does.

    I will say that there are probably some situations where someone just does not recognize one love language or another...maybe he was raised by wolves, for example. I just don't think its very common that someone can just ignore any of those five 'languages' in a relationship and be totally into it.

  3. I think the underlying model behind the love languages idea is good because it helps to identify trends in people's behavioral tendencies. Like any model, it oversimplifies, but in order to be of any use, a model must oversimplify.

    The problem as I see it lies in the application. Pop-psychological frameworks such as these work best when they are used as indicators of strengths and weaknesses, so we can accentuate our strengths, and work on our weaknesses until they become strengths. I may be good at spending quality time with people, but maybe I could work on giving more genuine words of affirmation. That way we can achieve better results in whatever aspect of life we are working on, or in the case of this model, dating and marriage relationships.

    The problem is that, as is often the case with pop-psychological models, people all too comfortably compartmentalize themselves into their diagnoses, justifying their actions as if they were symptoms of a disease. "I don't do nice things for people. It's just not one of my love languages. Don't try to make me into something I'm not." Relationships don't work when people aren't willing to put effort into them, or even if they are only willing to meet the other person halfway. Lasting relationships only succeed because both parties involved put their all into it.

    Another thing to point out is that the love languages model is a tactical solution, rather than a strategic one. People need to be aware that sometimes the problem with the relationship isn't just that "he isn't speaking my love language." It's that the relationship is fundamentally flawed, and slight tactical adjustments won't fix it. The strategic solution would be to recognize the sunk cost and find someone new.

    To sum up, I think the love languages model works if both parties in the relationship are fully committed to making it work, and the root of the problem is merely a misunderstanding. However, it shouldn’t be taken as an end-all-be-all to analyzing any relationship “with science” and expecting miraculous outcomes like the ones in the book all the time.

  4. Well said, Zach. Couldn't have put it better myself. That is EXACTLY what rubs me the wrong way with this book and most pop psychology.