Gary Chapman, The Five Love Languages (Northfield Press, 1992)
If you know me, you’re probably well aware of my stand on self-help books (if you don’t, you can get a very quick primer in my review of Stanton Peele’s essential The Diseasing of America). So when I got this one as assigned reading, I can’t say I was overly enthused. Still, it was an assignment, so I took it with me on the bus and cracked the cover. Two days and two round trips later, I had finished it. The short answer for the tl;dr crowd is that while there are some things about this book that I find truly horrifying, there’s just enough pearls cast amongst the swine to make it worth your time as long as you can willfully blind yourself to a few things.
While Chapman’s book is aimed specifically at married couples, The Five Love Languages is applicable in many ways to any relationship you have with another human being (as evidenced by the seeming avalanche of follow-up products, which is starting to rival the Chicken Soup for the Soul franchise. Though, to my knowledge, there is not a Five-Spice Languages product to rival the actual Chicken Soup for the Soul soup. [Yes, that exists]). The basic premise is that there are five general aspects of the way we interact with others, and that you can learn to interact with others better by figuring out which of these aspects are most important to them and tailoring your interactions with them to the aspects they most desire.
The upside of the book is that there is some very good stuff in here—very validating for some people, and, when not floundering in point #2 below, related in such a way as to sound common-sensical, but in a way that maybe you hadn’t thought of before. In that regard, I’m going to be right in there with the cheerleaders telling you that this book is pure gold and you need to go read it right now if your relationships are less than they could be, because maybe you will think of certain things in a new way.
On the other hand, I have to really, really qualify that statement, because there are four things about this book that range from the mildly annoying to the downright horrifying that should make you take a lot of it with an entire salt lick. In no particular order:
1. Chapman has a tendency to cherry-pick his interpretations. The most obvious example of this is in his dissection of the oft-lamented “men are from mars, women are from venus” syndrome, where men are classed as problem-solvers and women as emoters. (We’ll get to why he doesn’t look askance at this generalization in point #4.) There’s one particular passage where his sleight of hand really rubbed me the wrong way. He describes a couple where the woman started talking about a problem at work, the man offered a solution for it, the woman didn’t take the advice, and it developed into a big problem. (I am obviously oversimplifying here.) Chapman goes on to talk about how the man’s problem-solving in this particular instance was him turning his relationship into a problem to be solved instead of an organic process that requires evolution. That is, simply, ridiculous. The whole point of the story as I saw it, before Chapman came in and mucked everything up, is that the husband trying to get rid of the outside problem would allow both of them to focus on their relationship and its organic nature etc. When you start mixing up external forces and internal forces, you’re either being disingenuous or you have a tendency to blame football players for injuries they suffer when getting tackled.
2. There is a base level of cheese one finds in self-help books. It is somewhat unavoidable (and, in Chapman’s case, it is somewhat linked to #4 below, which exacerbates the problem), and I have yet to delve into the self-help book that even attempted to address the problem. I think I understand why; it’s the cheesiness factor of books like this that create the sound bites that allow people to discuss the books quickly and stick in people’s minds. (The Five Love Languages is, after all, “that book about love tanks!”.) There are a number of places in here where you run the risk of finding yourself rolling your eyes as you read.
3. While there’s only one instance of Chapman falling for an urban legend in The Five Love Languages, oh man, is it a doozy. After discussing the fifth love language, physical touch, Chapman goes on to clarify that he’s talking about more than sex, but then pulls out the biggest tallywhacker men have foisted on women in order to get laid for decades, maybe even centuries: the idea that, in the, ah, vernacular, when men don’t have sex often enough they get blue balls. No, I’m not kidding you, though Chapman (I needed to find a way to reference problem #4 in every paragraph, snicker) would never use such a vulgar term. He’s going to go for the pseudo-academic approach (the buildup of seminal fluid and its effect on the human psyche and all that jazz). Are you freakin’ kidding me? [Ed. note 22May14: it would seem that, after decades of sex ed teachers telling us this is bunkum, there is now science that kinda-sorta supports this, though not in the way that guys use it to get laid.]
4. Chapman is what, these days, we call a “committed Christian”. Back in the eighties, we used the term “born-again” as a noun, rather than an adjective, to refer to such folks. I gathered this during the opening chapter (one does not use the bible as the source of one’s footnotes if one does not follow the faith, methinks), but then the Christianism faded well into the background when Chapman started talking about the actual love languages. All well and good…until the last couple of chapters. When Chapman started getting into talking about his own conversion and all that sort of thing, that was eye-rolling rather than scary. “Scary” starts in one of his parables, where he’s talking about a very deeply religious woman who he basically counsels to stay in an abusive relationship and try to make it work. That it did, so we are told, is immaterial. When you read the bit about how everyone else in her life told her to get out, well, who you identify with in that story will tell you which way to go. The Christian angle also explains some other alarm bells that may go off in your head throughout the book when he talks about a number of the couples he’s counseled. You’re going to see a lot of stuff about roles that you may consider uncomfortably traditional. If that makes you twitch, be warned.
So… recommended? I think so, though it’s kind of a tough call. The prudent thing to do would likely be to read through the caveats above and decide from there, but there really is a lot about this book that makes perfect sense, and it would be a shame to toss the baby out with the bathwater; give it a shot, but gird your loins. ** ½