The concept of the "language of love" is gaining popularity as a way to explain differences in how people express and receive love. However, while the language of love is very popular, there is still not much science behind it. So is this still a useful framework for understanding love? If partners disagree about what behaviors make them feel loved, how can they effectively maintain a happy and healthy relationship?
To find out, I spoke with Dr. Terry Orbuch, a distinguished professor at the University of Oakland and a research scientist at the University of Michigan institute for Social Research. She's been studying the science of love and relationships for more than 30 years, and her new book is called Secrets of Survival in Children's Romantic Relationships.
Below are excerpts from our conversation (which can be heard in full on this podcast). We discuss the "Five love languages," how this concept helps people talk about what makes them feel loved, and why it's important to remember that the way we desire or express love changes over time. Please note that this record has been lightly edited for clarity.
Justin Lehmiller: As a Love doctor, I want to ask you what you think about the Five Languages of Love, because it's a super popular way to understand love. I hear people talking about it all the time, and I'm sure you might do the same.
But I think what a lot of people don't realize is that the whole linguistic concept of love was not research-based when it was developed. It has become a huge cultural phenomenon, albeit with no scientific basis.
I know a lot of people believe that, but as a scientist, Terri, what do you think? Do you see the value in the concept of the language of love?
Terry Orbuch: You took the words out of my mouth, really. It's so popular. Everybody likes it. I think everyone likes it, because there's a quiz on the Internet to find out what you're saying.
But as you say, there's not much science or research to back that up. So, what I often say is that it makes you understand that there is a difference between you and your partner, it makes you identify with something about yourself and the way you express or desire love. Share with your partner; Your partner can do the same. In that moment, or in that understanding, it's amazing, because you can see things from your partner's point of view. I think the utility and benefit of the language of love is that we can understand our partner better and we can understand ourselves better.
Justin Lehmiller: I take a similar view. I think the value of this linguistic concept of love is that it highlights the subjective nature of love, that it is not just a thing. I think there's a really important issue here, which is that two people can be in a relationship, or more, if you're polygamous or non-monogamous, but these people have completely different ideas about love.
For example, you may think your partner doesn't love you because they don't act out in a way that you can recognize or acknowledge. I've actually seen this a lot in relationships. Your partner says they love each other deeply, but they're estranged because they don't feel loved.
So, what tips do you have for letting your partner know you love them?
Terri Orbuch: In my research, when I follow couples over time, one of the things I find is that in a relationship, it's really important for two or more people to share their expectations with each other. We think that we know our partner, or that we can read minds, or that they can read our thoughts, but on the contrary, those expectations, those meanings, those understandings and expressions of love, and what we equate to love, are so important to communication. Love, as you say, is a very complicated phenomenon. We can all see it, understand it, and express it in different ways. So take the time to show your partner that you understand.
The other thing I've discovered over time is that depression is a major cause of relationship failure. Frustration is the gap or degree of difference between what you think should happen and what actually happens in a relationship. The bigger the gap, the greater the frustration. Depression can erode happiness in a relationship.
Justin Lemmiller: I think that's good advice for any relationship. For example, I did some research on "friends with benefits" -- I don't have data on 34 years of friends with benefits -- but I did a year-long longitudinal study of people who had friends with benefits. One of the key things I found was whether people were still in positive relationships after a year of study, and whether they had come to an agreement at the beginning about what the relationship was and wasn't.
When people come in with completely different expectations, for example, some people think, 'Oh, friends with benefits is an opportunity for love and romance and it will transition naturally to that, but the other person says,' Hey, this is an unconditional great sexual opportunity ', it's a disaster. I think it's a good idea to make an agreement with your partner in any relationship.
When it comes to something like love, you may understand it in a completely different way than your partner. If these five love languages give you a way to negotiate or talk, use it.
But I think it's also important to recognize that love and the way we express it, and the way we want our partners to express it to us, can also change as relationships evolve. So you don't have to have one language for eternal love. You have to be flexible and adaptable.
Terry Orbuch: Oh, people change. Absolutely. That's good. I think change is a good thing. So when you change the language of love -- if that's what you want to do -- or you change your understanding of love, or you change your expectations of what you should have in a relationship based on having a baby, a new job, getting older or getting sick, please take a moment to step back. Make what we call relationship adjustments: communicate and share changed expectations, shared meanings, shared understandings or changed understandings of love. Of course, we change over time.
Justin Lemmiller: We've changed a lot. For more than 20 years. The way I wanted to show love more than 20 years ago is very different from the way I want to show love now. At the beginning of our relationship, I wanted us to spend our lives together, because I thought that was an expression of love. In contrast, I just want a little privacy right now. Yes, of course I still want us to be together. As a person, I just changed and wanted some time to myself.
It's a different kind of need, because once you're together for so long, you change what you want and how you feel appreciated and valued. I've changed, and so has my partner. We've learned to adapt and how to meet each other's needs at different points in our lives. I know that in another 20 years, things may be completely different! So, you have to be flexible.
Terri Orbuch: I couldn't agree more. It's the same for me. I've been married to the same man for 29 years, 30 years this November. So there's no question that my needs and expectations have changed. I think it's important that this is a good thing.
Another thing I did in this long-term study was ask my partners about their marriage rules. So, if they had an ideal relationship, what rules would they make for that ideal relationship? I find that these patterns change over time, and that's fine.
One interesting thing, however, is that expectations or rules of trust are true for both men and women. I follow heterosexual married couples. Trust is the most fundamental principle of the annual study. They have since changed, but trust has become the number one ingredient in a happy, healthy ideal relationship, which I find fascinating!
Justin Lemmiller: Yeah, it means a lot to me. I think you said some very important negotiating rules about your relationship. A common mistake people make in relationships is that they never go over the rules. They just assume that whatever you say in the beginning will be the rule that will govern your relationship for the next 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years.
Like we always say, people change, rules change; It's okay to change the rules in your relationship, but you have to agree on that.
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