If you’ve been in couples counseling or done any kind of work on your intimate relationships then you are likely to have heard of love languages. Now on the whole, I don’t recommend the Five Love Languages book by Gary Chapman for many reasons, not the least of which is the very concerning advice given to a woman in an abusive relationship. That said, the concept of love languages can be a useful tool or framework for better understanding ourselves and our loved ones, as long as we understand that these are not fixed personality traits and don’t negate the need for continually learning about our partner.
Evaluating the use of love languages
The Five Love Languages book was not based on any scientific research and the few studies that have been done to test validity of the concept have had inconsistent results and at times, bias in methodology. The author, contrary to popular belief, is not a licensed marriage therapist but is in fact, a Baptist pastor who counsels couples in his church. It’s important to keep these things in mind because although it can be helpful to learn ways in which we can show love to the people in our lives, there is a danger in overidentifying with the results of personality tools such as this. It can lead to disconnection in relationships when change and growth are not accounted for and partners fail to continue learning about each other. In its proper context, partners can understand that their loved ones are multilingual and may need different languages spoken at different times. As each partner understands themselves and each other, they can ask for and offer different forms of love communication.
Today, I want to focus on men and the love language of physical touch. In conversation with men in therapy, I have found that many men, especially cisgender straight men, feel physically disconnected in their relationships. Likewise, their female partners often also feel a lack of physical affection. I believe there are at least a few pervading myths in our culture that both condone and perpetuate this disconnection.
Myth #1: Each person has one primary love language
The first myth is that each individual has one primary and fixed love language. This is not supported by any empirical evidence and in fact, in one study, it was found that when partners focused on showing love to each other in their partner’s primary language, it did not increase relationship satisfaction or happiness. Humans are complex beings, capable of growth and change, and experience love in many different ways. If I focus on showing love to my partner through acts of service and rarely express words of affirmation, or if I give gifts to my partner but rarely spend quality time with them, they will more than likely not feel loved and the relationship attachment will suffer.
Myth #2: Most men’s primary love language is physical touch
Many people mistakenly assume that the physical touch love language is often the most common amongst men. This is based on the misconception that the love language of physical touch is synonymous with sexual touch and the second being that men have a higher sexual desire than women. None of this is based in unbiased empirical evidence. In fact, historical and cultural data contradicts American heteronormative ideas of gender and sexuality. Some data even suggests that amongst men and women, the most common love language identified through the quiz is words of affirmation.
Myth #3: The love language of physical touch is met through sexual intimacy
One of the factors that contributes heavily to men not having their need for physical touch met is the belief that it is synonymous with sexual touch. In actuality, the language of physical touch encompasses many forms of non-sexual, platonic affection. The concept of love languages can be broadly applied to relationships between friends and family members, and can help parents to identify ways in which each of their children feel most loved.
Humans have a very basic need for human physical connection. This has been shown through numerous studies throughout the last century, most notably the observation of children in orphanages who were dying from a lack of nurturing physical touch despite their needs for food, shelter, and physical safety being met. In the last two years, in the mental health field, we saw the devastating impact of isolation on emotional and mental health. The astronomical increase in depression, anxiety, addictions, eating disorders, and suicide was in direct correlation to the need to social distance in order to protect our communities from a pandemic. Even with the availability of video chats, many people continued to report feeling disconnected. Physical affection in both intimate and platonic relationships is essential to emotional and physical health for all genders.
Toxic masculinity and physical affection
Further complicating the ability of men to give and receive the physical affection that they need is the insidious and pervasive nature of toxic masculinity in our culture. Children learn from an early age that demonstrations of physical affection between cisgender, straight men, and with their female and gay friends, are met with derision and discomfort. It is not unusual, for example, to see two female friends showing physical affection but it is rarely seen between two adolescent males. Even a hug between two guys is often followed by the “bro” pat on the back or a qualification of their status as a straight male. Furthermore, the harmful myth that men and women can’t be friends creates an awkwardness and avoidance of physical affection amongst friends of different genders. The only socially acceptable means of physical affection for cisgender straight men then is sexual touch with an intimate partner. Even within that relationship there is an assumption in heteronormative culture that physical affection for men has the ultimate goal of sexual satisfaction, leaving their female partner distrustful of their intent. Their female partners often report that their relationship is devoid of physical affection outside of the bedroom and can feel their partner’s attention is purely self serving. This lack of physical affection in men’s romantic and platonic relationships leaves a void that can lead to depression, loneliness, addictions, anger, coercive and abusive behavior, and broken relationships.
The path to change
Physical affection is a basic human need and it is a language that can be spoken in all of our relationships. Men in our heteronormative culture are suffering from a lack of non-sexual physical affection in their relationships because of the myths about masculinity that are so pervasive in our society. There are some things that we can do to begin to change these social norms. On an individual level, men can begin to normalize physical affection in their platonic relationships while challenging their own internalized biases and the automatic discomfort they may feel. They can also work towards expressing and receiving non-sexual physical affection in their romantic relationships, remembering that physical touch only communicates love when it is wanted and feels safe for both participants. Without a large scale cultural change in mindset, however, their efforts may ultimately increase their feelings of loneliness and reinforce shame. It is imperative that all of us begin to confront our internal biases of toxic masculinity and heteronormativity. Cultural change will not happen overnight but we can join with others who are already providing education and safe spaces. We can become educated and aware of our language and behaviors that are reinforcing these myths.
If you would like some resources to begin exploring your own gender biases, I recommend starting with the 2015 documentary “The Mask You Live In” or Jared Yates Sexton’s book “The Man They Wanted Me To Be: Toxic Masculinity and a Crisis of Our Own Making.” What resources do you recommend? Share with us in the comments.
Hannah Lindsay, MSW, LCSW-C provides individual and family therapy in our Sterling, VA office and virtually to those located in Virginia. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary consultation with Hannah!