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A Kind Critique of the Five Love Languages

Dale Johnson: Today on the podcast I have with me Dr. Jim Newheiser. What a great friend Jim is to so many people. I’m so thankful for his relationship to me, not just as a friend, but also as a Board Member at ACBC. He’s been a longtime member of ACBC as well. He also serves as the Director of Christian Counseling programs at the Reformed Theological Seminary, RTS, in Charlotte. He’s also the Executive Director of one of our training centers, IBCD. Brother, I’m so thankful that you’re here. 

And I missed an important point, that you are also the husband of Caroline Newheiser, one of our beloved certified members who teaches so well to so many of our women’s issues. Brother, I’m so grateful that you’re here. Thank you for joining us today to talk about this book. 

Jim Newheiser: It’s my joy to be with you, Dale. 

Dale Johnson: Dr. Newheiser, as we get into talking about Gary Chapman’s book, this has been a very very successful book. So many people, even in our Christian community, have embraced this book and loved this book. To say the least, there are a few concerns. I think, first, let’s set the context, because always when we critique we want to be fair and try to represent what the book is trying to say. What is the actual message of the Five Love Languages book?

Jim Newheiser: I think that Gary Chapman recognizes a problem. He describes a problem of many marriages where it begins with a great deal of romantic gusto and excitement and euphoria, and then over time it kind of wears out. His theory would be that over time the relationship is wearing out and it’s like the love tank is emptying. Each partner needs something to fill that love tank. This is an explanation he would give when the tank is empty for divorces and affairs. 

His idea would be you need to find out your spouse’s love language in order to fill the tank and to make them happy in the relationship. His concern would be we have different love languages and so if my way of showing love is acts of service and my wife wants quality time, then I’m not filling her tank. I’m putting diesel into the unleaded or something, and so the relationship sputters. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. And if I could just be educated as to what her love language is, then all of a sudden her tank would be filled and our marriage would flourish.

Dale Johnson: That’s helpful because I think that does build exactly the analogy that he uses. But for us, what makes the book so popular, maybe so appealing, as we read it?

Jim Newheiser: I think it’s like a lot of other popular things, like the Enneagram and personality types, where people can look at it and say, “Yeah, that really does describe me.” Some of this you could see from Scripture, where in 1 Peter 3:7 it says that husbands are to live with their wives in an understanding way, that she’s a weaker vessel. She’s different from you. And it’s right—we are different from each other. So there is some common grace wisdom in the idea of rather than doing for your spouse what you would like done for you, you figure out what they yearn for and like Philippians 2 says, considering others more important than yourself. Not just asking, “If I were her, what would I want?” But, “What does she want?” Because she’s different from me. In terms of understanding each other and caring for each other and recognizing the differences, there is common grace wisdom in that. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, and so even as we think about the Love Languages concept, we might have a tendency to swing in one direction and say,”I love this and it’s a hill on which to die, and I can’t believe that you people would even have anything negative to say about it.” Then, you have sort of another extreme where someone would say, “It all belongs in the dumpster.” But the question that we should ask is, and you’ve even mentioned some of this as far as common grace understanding here, is there any value to some of the concepts in the Love Languages book? 

Jim Newheiser: The way I first read it a few years ago is actually someone who is an ACBC certified counselor who said, “This book really helped me.” I remember thinking, “No, that couldn’t happen,” because I already knew some of the problems with it. But in this particular situation, she was saying, “My husband didn’t really know what I yearn for and this helped me to identify what I yearn for. And once I explained it to him and vice versa, it improved our marriage.” 

Part of the concept of understanding each other better and even the categories he puts the love languages in—I think oftentimes that which is not explicitly biblical can have common grace wisdom by observing human problems and observing human behavior, human nature. I think it’s a useful categorization, the kinds of things people like done for them. Some people can have benefit when they understand, “Oh, that’s what my spouse really wanted,” or, “That’s what I really am yearning for and if I could communicate that to my spouse he or she might do a better job.”

Dale Johnson: Yeah. I think that’s an absolutely very charitable way to describe some of those concepts. Now, as we look at it a little bit more in detail, there is some caution, certainly. What are some of the things that you’re seeing that may be missing from the book to make it a complete explanation of how we should think about love within marriage? 

Jim Newheiser: I think that you can take a book like the Love Languages, and you can see that has some of the same both strengths and weaknesses to many non-biblical counseling paradigms. It makes some accurate representations or understanding of human nature, and maybe even some common grace answers, prescriptions to provide certain amount of pain relief from suffering, but it misses out on what’s most important. I can rattle through a few things very quickly.

His authority is basically experience rather than the Bible. When the Bible is referenced, it’s used very vaguely and moralistically, not in a gospel-centered way, not even in an authoritative way. His goal, which is the one of the big problems of the book, rather than whether alive or dead our goal is to glorify God, the primary goal is human happiness. It’s man-centered as opposed to God-centered. His understanding of human nature is also primarily from a psychological perspective. He talks about children as well, how every child has an emotional love tank waiting to be filled with love. 

It gets down to his understanding of the problem. The problem is that we’re basically good people, and if we just got our needs met, we wouldn’t misbehave. He applies that both in marriage and he applies it in children, and otherwise. He doesn’t understand that our problem is human sin, and merely buying some gifts or scheduling some quality time is not going to resolve that. 

That gets to the most crucial problem, which is that the solution that he gives is very shallow, in the sense of act—I would say—morally or moralistically, do a better job of being a good husband or a good wife. Whereas for us the solution is centered in the gospel. I, who have received perfect forgiving and gracious love from God, am able to show love to somebody else. It’s not based upon what they deserve, not based upon whether my love tank is being filled by them, but that I’ve received grace and ultimately, it’s Christ and not my spouse who fills, if you will, my love tank. I don’t like using that language exactly for Jesus, but you know Jeremiah 17:5-8 says don’t trust in men or you’ll be like the bush in the desert. Trust in God and you’ll be like the tree planted by rivers of water. The book never really gets beyond the horizontal, when the key thing is the vertical.

Now to be fair, there’s one little bit in there where he actually describes where one spouse shows love when they’re not getting it back. It’s the first time there’s kind of a whiff of the smell of the gospel. And I’m thankful for that, but I think it falls short of a gospel-centered approach that biblical counseling would offer. 

I think that a book like this is true of a lot of other common grace approaches. I think it has a lot of commonality with something like love and respect, where one spouse yearns for respect and the other spouse yearns for love. Those are accurate descriptions of what people want. It’s similar to the Love Languages thing, except for it’s those two particular things instead of the five love languages. But again, it’s too much on the horizontal level of, “I must have my needs met.”

I think another concern would be that I think it can have a backward effect on some marriages, where a spouse gets the idea, “Well, I need someone who connects in quality time, and my spouse is an engineer who isn’t good at quality time. Therefore my situation is hopeless.” There’s not anything about the covenantal bond of marriage where for better for worse, you’ve committed to this person until death parts you, and then showing grace to them in their weakness, rather than insisting, “Well because this is my love language, this must be met for me.” Or it could be, “I’m just not good at the thing my spouse needs,” and there’s a sense of hopelessness. Whereas, Christ through the gospel can both transform me to better love than I did before, it also is a focus upon giving graciously, but also Christ can—through the gospel—give me grace if I don’t think my yearnings in marriage are perfectly being met by my sinful, fallible spouse. I can have my ultimate need met in Christ. 

One other criticism that my wife would make is pegging people with one language. She says she is multilingual—that she likes every single one of those five things. She wants quality time and gifts and physical touch. Whatever it is, she wants it. Somedays she wants one thing and somedays she wants another. That’s also where it may be like some of the personality tests that people kind of get pegged, and they identify themselves that way. Where I think the gospel is more fluid and flexible in how it transforms us. I think sometimes getting those labels put on ourselves, or our spouses, can be unhelpful.

Dale Johnson: Jim, this is really helpful, honestly, in a couple of different directions. First of all in helping us to be wise in how to read a book, how to understand some of the concepts that are that are promoted. I appreciate the way that you’re being very gracious, but you’re also being very honest—with the backdrop of the Scripture—helping us to see and understand.

The second thing that I would say, that I would add to even some of the things that you’ve mentioned so far, is this is often what happens when we become problem-focused. When we look at, as you mentioned, very real problems in the ways that we would express them, “I’m not experiencing love,” or “I want to be loved well,” or “I want to love my spouse well.” When we look at those as being problems that need to be answered, we have a tendency to say we’re willing to do whatever it takes to fix that, to remove that issue, as opposed to, “Let’s take a step back and say, ‘What did God intend for marriage in the first place?'” God intended marriage for us to walk together in faithful love, which means self-sacrificing on a consistent basis to reflect the character and nature of God. Now that explains why we have the problems that we have, and it helps to not dismiss those problems, but put them into an understandable fashion that relates particularly to the gospel. God explains those problems better than any of man’s systems. 

This is very helpful I think in multiple ways. I pray that our listeners will pay attention to the way that you’ve done this in a very charitable way, but an honest way according to Scripture, because again, I know this is a popular book and so I pray that you’ll read it with wise and mature thinking in mind as well. 

Jim Newheiser: I found an article [1] from years ago in the Journal of Biblical Counseling from David Powlison, whom everybody regards to be the most gentle, charitable reader and yet I think that his analysis of the weaknesses of the book is very profound. He recognizes, he says that his advice seems so doable—speaking of the book—a bit of education, a bit of self-effort are all that is needed for life to sing. The marriages in his book don’t need Jesus’ blood, sweat, and tears. The people don’t need help and power from outside themselves, even to stumble in the right direction. They don’t need Jesus to come back, as they consider the current fixing adequate. I think that captures so much of when people try to Christianize psychological self-help. 

For people who already have decent marriages, they can be made better sometimes, but for people who are in the ditch, only the gospel can bring the transformation that’s necessary—not human effort. Even the people whose marriages are slightly improved, if the gospel is not central, if the goal is merely to live a bit more peaceably and be a little bit happier, this may help. If the goal is to live for the glory of God, this falls way short. 

Dale Johnson: That’s very helpful, Jim, and I know this will be helpful to those who are listening as well. Thank you, brother, for being bold enough to speak in this way, but also demonstrate the kind heart of Christ in the way in which you did it.

Recommended Resources

2020 Annual Conference [2]: [2] Destroying Strongholds [2]

“Love Speaks Many Languages Fluently,” [1] by David Powlison