TORONTO, Ontario — There’s no shortage of myths and stereotypes prevalent across popular culture telling us how our relationships should work. So, do these outdated love legends really represent relationships today? From “happy wife, happy life” to the “five love languages,” researchers from York University say in most cases the answer to that question is no.
Amy Muise, Faculty of Health Assistant Professor and Research Chair in Relationships and Sexuality, analyzed popular sex and relationship pop psychology theories for this project, debunking the vast majority along the way. Luckily, Prof. Muise, who is also director of the Sexual Health and Relationship (SHaRe) Lab, offers a few alternative relationship theories backed up by her research.
‘Love is not a language’
To start, researchers assessed the Five Love Languages, an invention of Gary Chapman, a one-time Baptist minister who went on to provide marital counseling to couples in his church, eventually writing a book based on his experiences. His theory states that each person has their own primary love language:
- Words of affirmation
- Quality time
- Receiving gifts
- Acts of service
- Physical touch
Moreover, Chapman noted that relationship problems usually arise when one partner is speaking a different love language. Many modern dating sites encourage people to share their love languages; 50 million people have taken the online test, and videos with the hashtag boast half a billion views on TikTok.
So, it’s undeniable that the theory has permeated pop culture and ingrained itself in the popular imagination. However, Prof. Muise’s latest work suggests the theory simply isn’t valid.
“His work is based on a very religious traditional sample of monogamous, heterosexual cisgendered couples and it is all anecdotal. We were pretty skeptical of the claims made so we decided to review the existing evidence, and his idea that we all have one primary love language really isn’t supported,” Prof. Muise says in a media release. “His measure pits the love languages against each other, but in research studies when they’ve asked people to rate each of these expressions of love independently, people tend to rate them all highly.”
Still, Prof. Muise adds that she understands why the concept is so popular.
“It’s something people can really grab onto in straightforward way and communicate something about themselves to their partner. But we would suggest that love is not a language that you need to learn how to speak but it’s more akin to a nutritionally balanced diet, where partners need multiple expressions of love simultaneously, and that these needs can change over time as life and relationships evolve,” she adds.
Happy wife, happy life?
The research team also investigated the popular notion that women’s perceptions are the barometer, so to speak, for a relationship. However, across two experiments assessing mixed-gender couples, study authors found instead that both partners’ conceptions of a relationship are equally important.
“Based on our findings, we think it’s less ‘Happy Wife, Happy Life,’ and more ‘Happy Spouse, Happy House,” Prof. Muise notes.
Is unplanned sex better?
Not necessarily, researchers say. During a study conducted last year with a York graduate student, Prof. Muise uncovered that even though plenty of people like the idea of spontaneous sex, no evidence was found suggesting people’s actual experience of sex was more enjoyable when not planned.
If you are planning on hitting the sheets this Valentine’s Day, Prof. Muise suggests it might work out better to plan to have it before a big meal.
Is too much closeness bad for the sexual spark?
“In the research, we find couples who grow closer have more desire for each other, but we argue that what’s also needed for desire is otherness or distinctiveness,” Muise concludes.
“It’s important to bring new things into the relationship, find ways to see a partner in a new light. Novel experiences have been shown to increase desire in long-term relationships, so when making plans for Valentine’s day, doing something together that’s broadening or expanding can increase desire.”
The study is published in Current Directions in Psychological Science.
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