According to Gary Chapman, there are five love languages that humans use to communicate “heartfelt commitment” to one another. Proposed in 1992, his five love languages are: words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, gifts, and touch. Supposedly, everyone has a primary language that dominates over all the others in terms of making them feel most appreciated and cherished.
Since he published his first love languages book for couples in 1992, Chapman has gone on to publish 10 more books on the concept. The original book alone has sold over 12 million copies and has been printed in 50 languages, making Mr. Chapman a millionaire many times over and changing forever the way people all over the world talk about relationships.
Not 10 feet from where I now sit typing, a copy of Chapman’s “The Five Love Languages for Children” is nestled on my bookshelf between “Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child” and “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk.” As recently as last week, I forwarded a tweet to my partner about their “love language.” When I think about showing my partner I love them, I do consider their love language. I try to be cognizant of the gestures they appreciate most, and to do those things — to always show them how much I love them in a way that feels most meaningful to them. And my partner does the same for me.
Even for those who have never read a single word of any of Chapman’s books, the concept of “love languages” still weasels its way into their lexicon. It’s useful to have precise language to talk about the ways in which we love. Most of us who’ve at least dabbled in adapting our behavior to better suit a loved one’s emotional needs have benefited from these ideas if only tangentially. I certainly have.
Because, ultimately, Chapman’s ideas are supposed to be about empathy. Figure out how the person you love ticks. See their point of view. And love them accordingly.
Sadly, it has recently come to light that Chapman has printed some blatantly homophobic material.
From his website:
Q: “My son has recently told us that he is gay. I’m having a very hard time dealing with it. How can I help him with this and still show love?”
Gary Chapman: Disappointment is a common emotion when a parent hears one of their children indicate that he/she is gay. Men and women are made for each other—it is God’s design. Anything other than that is outside of that primary design of God. Now I’m not going to try explain all the ins and outs of homosexuality, but what I will say is this—we love our children no matter what. Express your disappointment and/or your lack of understanding, but make it clear that you love them and that you will continue to love them no matter what. I would also encourage you to ask your child to do some serious reading and/or talk to a counselor to try to understand him/herself better while continuing to affirm your love.
Another excerpt from his website:
Almost all parents – even those who say we should tolerate all lifestyles – will feel shock and deep pain if one of their children announces that he is homosexual. The initial reaction is that they have failed their child in some critical way. The fact is that research has failed to discover the causes of homosexuality. We simply don’t know why some people have “same sex” attraction. So what’s a Christian parent to do? The example of Jesus would lead us to spend time with them, communicate with them, and demonstrate love for them, even though we do not approve of their lifestyle.
Note how Chapman adjusts his language here so that empathy is no longer the goal. Note how now the concern and empathy is placed wholly with the parent who feels conflicted about their love for their child. Chapman admits he does not know why “some people have ‘same sex’ attraction,” but he hypothesizes about what Jesus would do. He says that “even though we do not approve of their lifestyle,” he thinks Jesus would “demonstrate love.”
Not “love them.” But demonstrate love.
In the previous example, where he offers advice to a concerned parent, he suggests the parent express their love but also be sure to express their “disappointment and/or your lack of understanding.”
This is the most insidious form of homophobia. It’s subtle, and it’s so thoroughly and meticulously couched in “demonstrations” of love that you almost miss it. Indeed, Mr. Chapman’s homophobia flew under the radar for years. The advice to the mother concerned about her gay son is from 2013, and last week was the first time I’d heard of it.
Here’s the thing that Mr. Chapman doesn’t seem to comprehend: You can’t love a person while denying their identity. You just can’t. No matter how earnestly a person may believe in their own love-despite-disappointment, the love is now stained by disapproval. It is no longer love.
There isn’t a way to argue this point with people like Chapman who sincerely believe in their own good intentions. Because while we are expressing our frustrations with their conditional love, they are stuck in the mindset that sexual orientation and gender identity are behaviors. They don’t see their love as conditional. They see a behavior that can be modified if one only tries hard enough. Do some serious reading. Talk to a counselor.
We queers feel cut to the core when someone comes at us with “I love you, but I don’t approve of your lifestyle.” Because to us, this is not a lifestyle. It’s who we are. To love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin folks, they are loving while disapproving of a particular behavior, the way a parent might love an adult child but disapprove of them having an affair or being a Democrat. Behaviors can be modified!
The argument is impossible because we’re not even having the same conversation.
And while I can grasp all of that on a cognitive level, in my gut, I’m still enraged. Gary Chapman made millions of dollars teaching people how to love selflessly. He taught that words of affirmation, for many, are the primary method by which a person feels fully seen and cherished.
And yet, the advice he gives to the parent who is literally asking him, the expert, to give them permission to love every part of their child, is to love them with a caveat.
Love is not supposed to come with caveats. That is NOT affirming.
If you feel hoodwinked by Chapman’s teachings like I do but you would still like to keep working on being the best partner, parent, and friend, consider instead following the teachings of Drs. John and Julie Gottman. The Gottmans use similar concepts of simply paying attention to the kinds of gestures that are most meaningful to your partner and demonstrating your love accordingly. However, they note that a person’s primary “love language” likely is not fixed and is often context-specific. Sometimes words of affirmation are most important, and sometimes a thoughtful gift is more appreciated than anything else. They also point out that some of Chapman’s singular languages, like “quality time,” are critical ingredients in every relationship.
I won’t demonize Mr. Chapman’s ideas about love languages. I have found the concept of love languages useful, even in my extremely queer relationship upon which Chapman would likely frown. But I sure as hell will never spend another penny on his books.
Mr. Chapman, along with everyone who continues to hold and propagate these outdated, hurtful beliefs about “loving the sinner but not the sin,” needs to be called out. Enough of this. Love is not a sin. Who you love is not cause for “shock,” “disappointment,” or “deep pain.”
Love is cause for celebration, full stop.