Modern Love Languages: New Tools for Building Healthy Relationships

When Gary Chapman published The Five Love Languages in 1992, his publishers weren’t expecting it to be a big seller. But it took off like wildfire, exceeding sales projections and eventually spending several years on the New York Times bestseller list. More than two decades later, Chapman’s Five Love Languages are still a popular topic, showing up everywhere from therapists’ offices to social media to dating apps. The concept behind the book is fairly simple: each of us gives and receives love in different ways. When we take the time to understand what helps our partner feel most loved - their “primary love languages” - we can express our feelings in the ways that are most meaningful to them. Similarly, when we understand our own love languages, we can better communicate to our partner what we need. Chapman’s love languages are:
  • Words of affirmation - offering compliments, support, and positive affirmations
  • Acts of service - doing something unexpected to lighten your partner’s load
  • Gifts - giving your partner something (big or small) to show you thought about them
  • Quality time - setting aside uninterrupted time to spend with your partner
  • Physical touch - holding hands, cuddling, kissing, massaging, etc.
The book creates a simple framework for better understanding ourselves and others, which can lead to deeper, more meaningful connections. Chapman also went on to write books that apply the five love languages to other relationships, such as the parent/child relationship and relationships among coworkers. While many have found these books to be invaluable, Chapman and his work are not without controversy. He is a Christian pastor who counsels people, but he is not a trained or licensed therapist. He focuses on straight, cisgender, Christian, married, monogamous couples, leaving out the many people who don’t share these identities. He has also shared homophobic views and advice on his website. In response to these and several other concerns about Chapman’s work, Anne Hodder-Shipp (a Certified Sexuality Educator) has published a more inclusive and expanded version of the love languages in her recent book: Speaking from the Heart: 18 Languages for Modern Love. Hodder-Shipp’s book reworks and adds to the original five love languages, adapting them for a wider audience. She also incorporates ideas like consent, platonic love, addressing systemic injustice, trauma healing and more. The format of the book itself challenges tradition by relying heavily on images to convey what each language means and does not mean. The sheer number of languages in Hodder-Shipp’s book makes it harder to narrow down someone’s primary languages with a simple quiz or set of exercises. But many people may find it gives them new ways to understand and explain what is important to them in relationships. For example, one of her languages is “Accountability.” She says accountability happens when we “acknowledge our part in a conflict or miscommunication, recognize the harm we’ve caused, and respond to a loved one’s hurt feelings with empathy and an apology.”  She adds that accountability includes things like “acknowledging impact” and “following through on changes,” not things like “making a both sides argument” or “focusing on intent.” While the concept of accountability is certainly not new, framing it as a love language can help partners to have conversations about why this is particularly important to them and what happens when it isn’t present. Another example from her book is the love language of “Engaged Experiences,” which means doing something you want to do with someone you care about in order to build a stronger sense of trust and belonging. While it sounds like Chapman’s idea of “Quality Time,” the difference becomes clear when she gives examples such as: “DMing each other memes,” “watching each other’s fave shows,” “exploring new places,” or “visiting family” together. She also points out that Engaged Experiences are not a substitute for “Intentional Time,” which focuses on creating one-on-one time with each other without distractions. Framing Engaged Experiences as a love language can help a partner explain why doing things together that might seem insignificant to some people, like sharing a meme, is actually an important way to build the relationship. Anne Hodder-Shipp’s book is not the only way to reconceptualize the five love languages, of course, but it can be a helpful tool for people who want a more nuanced and expansive way to talk about love. As ideas about gender, equality, sexuality, communication, and more continue to change, the frameworks we use to talk about love languages will likely change as well. But no matter what framework is used, the most important takeaway is that a healthy relationship (romantic or otherwise) is built on taking the time to truly understand how we and others can feel more safe and connected with one another. If you’d like to learn more about love languages or other tools for building positive relationships, register for one of our free community workshops.
By Cassandra Weisman, Social Work Intern