Three decades ago, Southern Baptist pastor Gary Chapman published The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. It was an instant and enduring hit: Book sales were four times higher than his publisher predicted at the time, and millions of copies have now been sold. In that book—and the many he’s written since on the same topic—Chapman posits that we each have a primary love language, or a preference for the way we receive and express love: words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service, quality time, or physical touch. The key to a happy relationship, Chapman says, is figuring out what language your partner speaks and becoming fluent in it.
That idea has become a pop-culture touchstone, inspiring dating-app questions, plenty of TikTok videos, and TV and movie scenes. But little research has explored the role love languages actually play in relationships. Now, a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE suggests that heterosexual couples’ relationship satisfaction is, indeed, linked to whether their partner uses their preferred love language.
“It shows the importance of good communication, understanding your partner’s needs, and being able to provide the things they want to affirm the relationship,” says study author Gerald Matthews, a professor of psychology at George Mason University. “People don’t always understand their partners as well as they think they do. You can’t just assume that your partner wants what you want.”
Matthews and his co-authors studied 100 heterosexual couples who had been together for 6 months to 24 years. The participants, who were ages 17 to 58, completed questionnaires in which they were asked to rate the extent to which they express love by engaging in certain behaviors. They also noted when they felt the most loved: when their partner gave them a hug, for example, or ran errands for them, or spent quality time with them. Participants’ relationship and sexual satisfaction were measured through self reports by using standardized scales.
The results indicate that people whose partners used their preferred love language had higher levels of relationship and sexual satisfaction than those whose partners didn’t. People who said they used the love languages their partners preferred to receive also reported greater relationship satisfaction. “The more tailored your love language is to your partner’s needs, the greater their—and your own—satisfaction,” says study author Maciej Stolarski, a psychology professor at the University of Warsaw in Poland. “Your satisfaction is boosted not only if your partner adequately responds to your love-language preference, but also when you do the same for them.”
Overall, study participants’ most frequently declared love language was quality time, followed by physical touch, acts of service, words of affirmation, and receiving gifts. Since it’s possible to have more than one preferred love language, the researchers also analyzed preferences and expressions as a set of dimensions. “Humans are not so simple,” Stolarski says. “Each of us may prefer to receive love in more than one way, or may equally desire to be loved using three love languages.”
Read More: Singles Are Starting to Care Less About Looks. Here’s What They Want Instead
Interestingly, people who reported the highest levels of affection for their partners in the study weren’t necessarily more likely to share the same love-language preferences than people in less close partnerships. Matthews notes that it’s common for the people in a relationship to have starkly different needs.
Despite the popularity of Chapman’s five love languages, the concept remains relatively under-explored by researchers. Most studies have focused on validating the framework—confirming that love languages exist, which past studies have—rather than exploring the dynamics they lead to within a relationship. Chapman isn’t a scientist, “and despite the extreme popularity of his books, the concept of love languages was often perceived as non-scientific,” Stolarski says, which might have contributed to a hesitancy to take the phenomenon seriously.
Still, therapists have used the love-language framework for years. Andrew Bland, an associate professor of psychology at Millersville University in Lancaster, Pa., and a practicing psychotherapist, says it’s helped many of his clients “simply because it’s very easily understood.” (Bland wasn’t involved in the PLOS ONE study but has previously researched love languages and found that they may predict relationship satisfaction—and that by adapting our behaviors to meet our partners’ needs, people can experience deeper self-development.) He appreciates that the new study contributes international support to the love-languages model, since it involved many European participants, particularly from Ukraine, Poland, and Belgium.
When Bland explains the significance of responding to a partner’s preferred love language to his clients, he puts it like this: Imagine you’re listening to the car radio, but then you drive under an overpass, and the signal cuts out for a moment. With a love-language mismatch, “essentially what’s happening is the other person is trying to convey a sense of appreciation, but if they’re using their own love language, it’s not necessarily going to be received by the other person,” he says. “The signal simply doesn’t make it.”
So if you’re entering a new relationship—or hoping to improve an existing one—ask your partner about their love language, and share your own. Stolarski suggests planning a special day in which you focus on celebrating your partner’s love-language preferences, and then another that’s all about them responding to yours. “See what worked and how you and your partner felt that day,” he says. “Based on my own experience, it really does work.”
More Must-Read Stories From TIME