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Yesterday, the day before Valentine’s Day, I got an email. It was from Gary Chapman, an 86-year-old radio-talk show host, former minister, and author of the 1992 book The Five Love Languages. (Or really, from his marketing team.) Chapman wanted to offer, along with a gift guide, some ideas for how I could make my loved ones feel more loved: Read a book in person to a loved one, offer two hugs to a loved one you know is struggling this week.

Presumably, I got Chapman’s marketing email because a couple of years ago, I took his free quiz on a lark. (What was my love language? My battered heart wanted to know!) Chapman argues that we all have one or two preferred ways of expressing and accepting love—acts of service, physical touch, words of affirmation, receiving gifts, and quality time—and that having a partner with the same preferences or at least one who understands yours, can make for a stronger, more lasting relationship. 

“Sex is like money; only too much is enough,” the celebrated novelist John Updike reportedly quipped.

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In the 32 years since its publication, The Five Love Languages has become a cultural touchstone and a phenomenon. Some 20 million copies of the book have been sold. The phrase love language has entered the popular lexicon: Anything and everything we care about is now referred to as a love language: donuts, surfing, good grammar. It has become shorthand for ideas or preferences that define some core piece of who we are and what we love. But all these years later, the original concept of the five love languages is coming under scrutiny. 

Last month, a researcher named Amy Muise, an assistant professor in the psychology department at York University and the director of ShaRe Lab, which conducts research on relationships, published a review of recent research that challenges the core tenets of Chapman’s philosophy. I decided to call her up. She was also prepared to debunk a series of other myths about love and desire. 

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1. Love Is a Language 

Intuitively, the idea that we all have specific ways we most like to give and receive affection makes some sense, but apparently it is not supported by scientific evidence. “People love a metaphor, you know?” says Muise. “And I think people also like being categorized. You see that a lot online. Like, ‘Which Harry Potter character are you most like?’ People like to have these categories for identity,” she says. “But having this fixed mindset about your love identity isn’t as helpful as understanding that relationships take work and effort, and your partner will have various needs that you’ll have to remain attuned to.”

The evidence, says Muise, suggests that there are more than five ways to express love, that we don’t just need affection in one or two ways but all of these ways in different contexts, and that in the real world, we tend to offer love in multiple ways at once. What’s more, the research does not show having the same preferences as your partner makes for a stronger relationship. When study subjects were asked to rate each different “language” of love on a continuous scale, as opposed to making a forced choice between one language or another, their scores indicated that they rated all kinds of love highly, she says. “In terms of the metaphor, it might be better to think of healthy love as akin to a nutritionally balanced diet, because that leaves all of these expressions of love on the table,” says Muise. 

2. Daily Sex Makes a Healthy Relationship

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“Sex is like money; only too much is enough,” the celebrated novelist John Updike reportedly quipped. He had plenty of company in that belief. Many popular books about love suggest that more sex is always better and that the ideal is to have sex every day. One woman named Charla Muller wrote a book called 365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy about gifting her husband with sex every day for a year for his 40th birthday, for example. But in a paper a few years ago, Muise decided to investigate the association between sexual frequency and well-being in a relationship. In a series of three studies with over 30,000 participants, she and her colleagues found that it’s not a linear association. Instead, the well-being of couples increases with sex frequency up to a rate of about once a week—the average reported in established relationships—but after that it levels off, independent of age, gender, or relationship length. Perhaps once a week is the average amount of sex most couples have because greater frequency is not associated with greater well-being, Muise and her colleagues suggest, or maybe couples feel happiest when they are engaging in at least as much sex as the average for most couples.

3. Spontaneous Sex is More Passionate

Popular culture suggests that sex that happens spontaneously with no planning is more satisfying, more passionate. So Muise decided to examine this assumption. She found that it is, in fact, something most people believe. But then she and her colleagues actually followed people in their daily lives for several weeks, and found that their satisfaction with the sex was no different whether it was spontaneous or planned. She acknowledges that the study mostly looked at couples in happy relationships. It is possible that planning sex is more difficult in relationships with a lot of conflict. For couples with young children, planning ahead could be especially important to sustaining a sexual connection so that’s something that she and her team are going to look into next. 

4. Closeness Can Kill Desire

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There is plenty of evidence that sexual desire for a partner declines over time, after the so-called “honeymoon” phase of a relationship—particularly for women. The popular assumption has long been that closeness or familiarity is the culprit, that novelty is what fuels desire. (The catch-phrase “familiarity breeds contempt” is as old as the fifth century.) But in a 2022 study, Muise’s group found that for established couples, the highest level of sexual desire is generated by a combination of closeness and novelty that comes when partners engage in new experiences together. Shared new experiences, she says, make partners feel more intimately connected, but also allows them to see one another in a new light. That combination of familiarity and otherness, she says, can lead to fireworks.

5. Happy Wife, Happy Life

Obviously, this phrase is a dated throwback to days when marriage was commonly understood as a heterosexual one. It may have first appeared in a rhyme created by a political party called The Work and Wages Party in 1903, or it may have come later, in a real estate ad used in Abilene, Texas, in 1958. Either way, the phrase has had remarkable staying power—even in the psychological literature, according to Muise, the idea that women are the barometers of heterosexual relationships has persisted. So Muise’s group set out to test the idea: They gathered data from nearly 1,000 heterosexual couples, including their reports of relationship satisfaction in daily life. They also accessed a large online database of over 3,000 heterosexual couples who were surveyed annually for five years, and they used that data to look at how well relationship satisfaction at one time point predicted satisfaction the next day or the next year. “What we found was that how men and women felt about the relationship was equally predictive of future satisfaction, both their own and their partner’s. There was no difference in the strength of these effects,” says Muise.

When it comes to matters of the heart, it’s easy to buy into cultural myths and phrases. They are everywhere. And love is such a powerful drug that it can scramble our thinking. But the more we know about how romance and desire work the better we may become at sustaining our most electric relationships.

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Lead image: Fotografiche / Shutterstock

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