interior of book tower in Prague Municipal Library

Love as a Second Language

Gary Chapman. The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts. Chicago: Northfield Publishing, 2015 (1992).

[An installment of the Read Me Project.]

To be completely honest, The 5 Love Languages never quite made it to the “Read Me” shelf. It was on display in the back of Barnes and Noble, on the way to Starbucks, along with a whole table of “inspirational,” “relationship” books, on one of our recreational family outings. [And now you know something about our family.] I’d been hearing about it for years, most recently from Mitch Teemley, so when I saw it just sitting there inviting me to read it I said “Sure.” And since I still had time to drink that cup of coffee at Starbucks, there was no reason not to get started reading it right away. Then, since I wasn’t the one driving home, there was no reason not to keep reading. After that, it was easy just to keep reading till it was finished. It isn’t a long book.

But it is, I think, a kind and helpful and positive and valuable book.

Five Love Languages cover

Chapman’s main point is that relationships – the focus in this book is marital relationships – are not automatically self-sustaining. They take maintenance. In that light, Chapman’s book might be something like an owner’s manual.

Because even when we love other people, they don’t always feel it from us. And we may not always feel it from them. Sometimes we “talk past each other,” not quite connecting, as if we’re speaking a foreign language.

The “languages” of love may be a metaphor, or maybe only half a metaphor. Chapman’s work as a marriage and family counselor has convinced him that people “hear” love or feel love in different primary ways. What he’s observed is that people who don’t receive regular inputs to their “love tank” in a way that they can interpret as “love” feel increasingly depleted and unloved.

His goal is to help people do the preventive relationship maintenance that keeps that from happening.

The “five languages” he describes are the languages of (1) words of affirmation, (2) quality time, (3) gifts, (4) acts of service, and (5) physical touch. In the context of marriage, knowing which of these is your spouse’s primary language will make a monumental difference in their happiness, sense of security, warmth … with positive spill-over effects in every area of domestic life.

Chapman’s appeal makes sense. If I were married to someone whose first language were … Greek, for instance … I would make an effort to learn that language, or at least enough of it to be able to communicate in it a little. I’d try. That’s what you do when you love someone – you try. So, if it turns out that there are specific acts or comments that speak volumes about how important someone is to us, why wouldn’t we do those acts or make those comments?

But maybe we don’t because we don’t know, or don’t notice, that we need to do that – maybe because that’s not our own primary mode of communicating love. That’s where Chapman’s experience, and his book, could be a life-saver, or at least a life-enhancer. We might need someone to point out: “Hey, here’s an opportunity to say something affirmative,” or “You could pick up something little that says ‘I was thinking about you’” or “This might be a good time for a pat on the back,” etc.

The book illustrates Chapman’s understanding of the situation convincingly with stories drawn from his counseling practice, and with practical discussions of what it means to “speak love” in each of these languages. All of that is both persuasive, and helpful.

Aside from the obvious application to family life, Chapman’s work seems to me to have some straightforward extensions to teaching, to life in the church, and to other areas of common life. Granted, touch is a … touchy subject, perhaps especially these days. Gift-giving might start to run into money – although the gifts Chapman is talking about don’t necessarily cost much money; bringing extra pencils to choir practice probably counts. But there are lots of opportunities to increase our frequency of handing out words of affirmation, spending a little more genuinely quality time with our associates, and doing acts of service for the people in our lives outside our families.

In other words, if “what the world needs now is love, sweet love,” Chapman may have given us some of the practical know-how to spread more of that around more effectively. That strikes me as a big act of service indeed.

So, although Chapman doesn’t really need my recommendation – his book has been a #1 New York Times bestseller, and his love languages paradigm has become a commonplace – he can have my words of affirmation any time.

interior of book tower in Prague Municipal Library
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