Gary Chapman’s team had been trying for ten years to get him on Oprah Winfrey. When they finally got a callback, a producer asked if they would be okay filling an hourlong slot on Oprah’s Lifeclass, a primetime show on her cable network, for Valentine’s Day weekend 2013.

On air, Winfrey told her audience she’d noticed Chapman’s book, The Five Love Languages, never seemed to leave The New York Times Best Seller list. When she asked her staff about it, her wardrobe manager spoke up and said it had transformed her marriage.

“It was such a game-changer for me,” stylist Kelly Hurliman explained on the show. “There’s such simplicity in its message, but I feel like it’s so powerful.”

That simple message was Chapman’s theory that there are five main ways that people feel loved or tend to show love: words of affirmation, acts of service, quality time, receiving gifts, and physical touch. Most other forms of love fall into these categories as “dialects” of the languages, he argues.

Chapman became a household name for evangelicals in the mid-1990s after publishing his iconic purple book that helped people discover their primary ways of giving and receiving love. The Five Love Languages sold 8,500 copies its first year. It more than doubled that in the second year. The fourth year, it sold 137,000 copies. And it kept going.

The book will mark its 30th anniversary next year, and it’s still crushing records. It was the top-selling Christian book for much of 2021. It has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. Only six other evangelical books have reached the 10 million mark, including Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life (30 million), Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling, and Bruce Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez.

The love languages have been the center of marriage conferences and TikTok videos. In recent years, they’ve been referenced on The Bachelor, used as an icebreaker question on dating apps, and boiled down to bite-sized advice on social media (19,000 posts on Instagram include “#fivelovelanguages”).

Moody Publishers, whose Northfield imprint publishes Chapman’s books, says that 2.5 million visitors come to the Five Love Languages website each month, many to take the love languages assessment quiz.

“When I wrote the book, I wrote it intentionally with non-Christians in mind,” Chapman told me. His writing style is deliberately barren of psychology or theology terms, and it’s based on a universal concept: the need to be loved.

Secular consumers are savvy to the conservative evangelical underpinnings of Chapman’s mission but have embraced it anyway. “Gary Chapman isn’t a friend to the LGBTQ+ community,” wrote trans blogger Trystan Reese. “But his idea has helped me grow and develop my queer relationship.”

For all the lives Chapman has changed on his way to becoming the world’s biggest relationship coach, however, his own looks remarkably unchanged from what it was in 1992, when he wrote the first of his 71 books.

Gary Chapman is, well, just Gary.

Sure, the 83-year-old’s two children have grown up. There are grandchildren now. But in an era when evangelical influence is marked by charisma, preacher sneakers, and VIP greenrooms, he’s more like an anti-influencer.

Gary Chapman is constant. He’s lived in the same red-brick house for more than 20 years. He still counsels couples in the same Baptist congregation he has pastored for five decades in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He blocks Sundays from his busy speaking schedule so he can attend worship there, even if it means taking a redeye flight to make it on time. Many weeks, he stands at the door after services to greet parishioners.

Article continues below

Gary Chapman is vanilla. He doesn’t drink. He seems to have worn khakis for most of his life. His guiltiest pleasure is that he can’t finish lunch or dinner without a dessert. (“A slice of cake, a slice of pie,” said his son Derek. “He goes silent. He goes into the zone.”)

Gary Chapman is methodical. He waters his backyard flowers in the mornings and pulls kudzu. (“Just alone with God and nature and mosquitos,” he said.) He prays through his first round of daily calisthenics: “I come to you in the name of Jesus,” he recites, swinging his arms up and down, then intercedes for people by name while swinging his arms left to right and doing bicep curls. During heel raises, he covers some refugee camps and rescue missions. He does it all over again at night, “but at night I’m just talking to God and praising God.”

Gary Chapman is, well, just Gary.

“Don’t tell him he is old or famous,” goes the punch line around his home and office. “He doesn’t know either.”

In October, Gary’s family and formidable sphere of friends will gather at his church and celebrate his retirement from full-time ministry with some hymns and a few guest speakers. (He officially retired from the church this summer after holding multiple positions there over the years, including stints as an interim executive pastor.)

But even in retirement, not much will change about Gary. He’ll keep his church office and will continue counseling.

“The only thing that’s going to change is that he won’t be on payroll,” said his wife, Karolyn.

I met Gary and Karolyn for lunch on a Friday afternoon in July at Real Q, a local barbecue joint five minutes down the road from their church, Calvary Baptist. The joint was hopping with silver-haired country folks escaping the 90-degree heat for a cold Cheerwine and a $5.99 chopped barbecue sandwich. Overhearing their conversations, I had the sense that the Chapmans knew half of the customers there, many of whom were current or former Calvary members.

Gary is tailor-made for pastoral work. He’s quiet and amiable, with a button-down shirt and a Southern drawl and gentle eyes that may as well have been special ordered for church counseling. He asks thoughtful questions, listens intently, and is comfortable with hard topics. (In his recently released memoir, he recounts explicitly asking his mother about her sex life during a tough time in his parents’ marriage.)

What many observers note is that he was not a likely candidate for the role of pop-star love-guru. The New York Times once said Gary “looks like Mitch McConnell and sounds like Gomer Pyle.” Southern comedian Leanne Morgan quipped that she and her husband took up the love languages after she heard a “little frail man” talk about them on Oprah. (Gary is, in fact, quite tall and does pushups twice a day.)

Gary grew up in a small North Carolina town called China Grove, in a devout Southern Baptist family. They read Scripture, prayed at every meal. He recalls a simple childhood with his mother and younger sister as his father served in the Navy during World War II.

At the age of 10, Gary said he was overcome with the awareness that he was not a Christian while attending a Sunday evening service. At a service a week later, “I pretty much ran to the front of the church,” he said, committing his life to Christ with others gathered around to pray for him. As a teenager, he evangelized at local “beer joints.”

The first in his family to go to college, Gary moved north to attend Moody Bible Institute. He remembers a conversation with the school’s postmaster about Billy Graham, who was then in the early days of his public ministry. “He said, ‘You know what I pray for Billy? I pray that God would keep his heart,’” Gary recalled. The comment stuck. “Ever since then,” Gary said, “I pray that for me. ‘God, keep my heart.’ Because if God keeps your heart, and your heart beats with his heart, you’re not going to get very far off the road.”

Article continues below

Gary is a serious person, someone who doesn’t mess around. He wanted to become a missionary. He transferred to Wheaton College to study anthropology, at a time when the school was especially known for producing missionaries and evangelists. He earned a master’s in religious education and a PhD from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and, eventually, a master’s degree in anthropology from Wake Forest University.

But Karolyn had health problems that kept them from the mission field. So Gary taught for a while at Carolina University, a Baptist college in Winston-Salem, and helped pastor a small church in the city. Four years later, he took an associate pastor position across town at Calvary Baptist Church, where he would remain for the rest of his career.

As a father, Gary was close to his two children, Shelley and Derek. The family would have breakfast together each day before school, and Gary would read a psalm. At the end of the day, Gary would take a walk with Shelley and would listen to Derek process his day at school.

We are “opposite personalities,” but “he would go into my world. I was in a band, and he would come to all the shows,” said Derek, now a 51-year-old art therapist. “He would be the guy in khakis who looked like he played golf, but all my friends loved him because he would listen to them.”

Growing up, the Chapman children recall Black, white, Filipino, and Puerto Rican friends coming over to their house to read the Bible and ask hard spiritual questions. David Horner, former senior pastor of Providence Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, met Gary his first year at Wake Forest University when the pastor was doing college ministry in his home.

“Long before the marriage stuff came along, Gary was an advocate of the Navigators style of discipleship: personal quiet time, sharing your faith with others, disciplines of the faith,” Horner said. “He was very unassuming. Not a very dynamo personality that drew people to him, but he was just the real deal.”

Being the “real deal” didn’t guarantee a happy marriage.

The Chapmans, who celebrated 60 years of marriage in August, are honest about how miserable their first years together were. That struggle is central to the love languages origin story.

Karolyn and Gary had grown up together in their church in China Grove and started writing letters throughout college, even when Karolyn was dating someone else. After nearly three years of dating long-distance, they were married in that childhood church.

They came off the romantic high almost immediately. In his memoir, Gary recounts a time that Karolyn stormed off into a rainy night after one fight. They even argued over small annoyances like how to load the dishwasher.

“It just went downhill,” Gary told me. He was in seminary at the time, wondering how his marriage was going to survive. “I started to feel like I made a mistake. It was painful.”

That’s when Gary had the first inkling of the love languages concept. While praying one day in desperation over their marriage, he received the image of Christ washing his disciples’ feet. He realized he needed to serve Karolyn in a sacrificial way. He asked her frequently how he could help her and be a better husband to her. Her response was usually: Do some chores.

Article continues below

“I’m thinking, ‘My mama did that,’” he said, chuckling. But in hindsight, “she was really telling me her love language.”

Now, Gary takes out the trash and vacuums the floors. “And she tells me every day that I’m the best husband in the world,” Chapman said—a laugh line he likes to use to summarize the secret to their relationship. (As for her own acts of service, Karolyn’s are many, including binding his socks together so Gary, who is colorblind, will know which are black and which are blue.)

The love languages concept didn’t really solidify for Gary until years later, after more than a decade of counseling couples. A couple who had been married for 30 years came to him, saying that they felt like their relationship had been reduced to living like roommates.

“‘I don’t understand that,’” Gary recounted the husband telling him. “‘I start the evening meal. I wash dishes, vacuum floors, mow the grass.’ And I realized this guy is sincere. After that, I realized there was a pattern.”

The problem, as Gary saw it, was that the great things the husband was doing just didn’t seem all that great to his wife. He read through 12 years of notes from counseling and realized that, in the majority of cases, unhappy couples were simply attempting to show one another love in ways that didn’t connect with their partners. He distilled what he was seeing into the five languages.

Gary feels loved through words of affirmation. So it’s perhaps surprising how gracious he is toward critics who have less-than-affirming opinions about the languages. “I welcome the results they discover in their own research,” is a typical Gary response when psychologists poke holes in his rather unscientific theory.

Still, peer-reviewed studies have suggested the love languages can be an effective tool for improving relationships and that couples may even be happier when both partners have similar love languages.

Some evangelicals have criticized Gary’s concept for not being biblical enough. What Gary was initially skeptical of, though, was the applicability of his idea across cultures. When a Spanish publisher approached Moody about The Five Love Languages a few years after it was published in English, he didn’t think the philosophy would translate. “I discovered this concept in Middle America!” he said. The book has since been printed in 57 languages, selling over a million copies in Spanish alone.

People have said there might be a sixth or even a seventh language in other cultures, or even in white America. Most commonly, Gary’s heard chocolate or food as suggested alternatives. But he feels that those could fall into acts of service or gift-giving. “I’m not dogmatic, but I’ve never heard one that did not fit as a dialect of one of the love languages.”

Gary is not oblivious to the roles that ethnicity and geography play in relationships.

Growing up in the South in the 1940s and early 1950s, he played basketball with Black friends from another neighborhood. During one summer in college, he served at a camp for African American teenagers. And one of his most formative lifelong friendships was with a Black teenager during Gary’s early pastoral years in the 1960s.

“[Gary] is one of the most godly men I ever met,” said Clarence Shuler, a relationship coach and counselor. He met Gary at the age of 14, when Gary was a young associate pastor. Gary led Shuler to Christ when he was 16 and stepped in as a spiritual father when Shuler’s dad died four years later. Gary keeps a photo of Shuler’s family in a spare bedroom. He was best man in Shuler’s wedding. They’ve coauthored a book for young men and are working on another about racial reconciliation—an area where they learned some lessons the hard way.

Article continues below

“I remember once, early on, I was going to pick up Clarence and his friend over at his house and take them somewhere,” Gary said in a 2019 FamilyLife Today interview. “I pulled up in front of the house, I get out of the car, and they walk out on the porch. And I say, ‘You boys ready to go?’ And his buddy said, ‘I ain’t no boy.’”

“We had seen our dads be called boys, and they were grown men,” Shuler responded. “But … [Gary] stopped afterwards, and before we got home, we talked—maybe an hour or two.” Both said that they learned from that experience, among other conversations through the decades.

Gary is also not oblivious to gender differences.

Notably, the five love languages don’t distinguish between men and women. All people are different, and all relationships are different, Gary says. While men often assume that physical touch is their love language, he challenges them to consider whether they enjoy nonsexual touch (a hand on their shoulder, holding hands). Physical touch doesn’t necessarily mean sex, Gary argues, and it’s not just women who love gifts or seek words of affirmation.

“What I discovered over and over again is that [the love languages] are non-gender-specific,” he said.

While some of Gary’s written anecdotes do flirt with gender stereotypes of yesteryear, Love Languages’ equal treatment of the sexes stands out against other classic but more gendered relationship books of its time, such as John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (1992) and Emerson Eggerichs’s Love and Respect (2004).

“As a woman, I always felt valued—and this was 45 years ago,” said Beth Lindberry, a Calvary member who met Gary in the ’70s as a college student. “I always felt valued, always felt wanted, always felt equal.” In his counseling and preaching, she said, she never heard Chapman distinguish men versus women. “I’ve never heard him say, ‘Men do this,’ and ‘Women do that.’”

I asked Gary, a lifelong conservative Southern Baptist, for his thoughts about today’s controversies over gender roles in the church and how those views affect his counseling and ministry.

“I think you’re encouraging each other; you’re utilizing your strengths; you’re working as a team for a common goal as Christians to minister to people and help people,” he said. “Patterns of a marriage relationship and who does what can be very, very different for different couples.”

Gary Chapman and his wife, Karolyn, celebrated 60 years of marriage in August.
Image: Chris Edwards

Gary Chapman and his wife, Karolyn, celebrated 60 years of marriage in August.

Gary says he doesn’t take a salary from his writing or speaking or conferences. All those earnings get rolled into a nonprofit he started in the early 1980s, Marriage and Family Life Consultants, that funds Christian colleges and helps young counselors get on their feet. Records list Gary as its director. He doesn’t disclose how much the charity takes in each year but confirmed that $1.5 million is “a good ballpark” number.

“Our intention is to give it away,” he said.

In all of Gary’s stunning publishing success, he did one thing that smacked of blockbuster authordom: In 2004, he purchased a second home. It’s a modest two-bedroom that he can see across his backyard. He bought it, circa-1960s furniture and all, and turned it into a space for writing and afternoon naps.

Article continues below

It smells a bit musty. In the living room, a clawfoot desk looks out onto a sprawling pink crepe myrtle tree and an occasional deer traipsing through the lawn. Near the desk is a green folding card table where he records radio interviews and podcasts.

In one of the nap rooms, there is a bed with a dated comforter he thinks may have belonged to the previous owners.

“It was just going to be me in there, so it didn’t matter,” Gary said.

Which is perhaps the real secret to Gary’s ascent, the reason millions have trusted him as a beloved relationship guide. Gary just doesn’t spend much energy worrying about himself.

“You’re the most important person to him in your time with him,” said his publisher, John Hinkley. “I often tell people that the person they see onstage is the same person you see offstage.”

As Gary now steps away from pastoring, those who know him best know that it’s not a real exit. His friend Shuler, who canceled an overseas trip to attend Gary’s retirement party in October, told me that “even though he’s officially retiring, he has no intentions of retiring.”

“He’s the energizer bunny,” Hinkley said. “His consistent prayer request to people is that God would give him strength and energy to continue.”

Gary told me a story about a trip to Crewe, Virginia, where he stopped to visit the grave of beloved Southern Baptist missionary Lottie Moon.

“It took me a while to find it, and I expected a pretty nice grave,” Gary said. “But I got there, and it was a little stone thing. And all it said was ‘Lottie Moon’ and it gave her birth date and death date. And then it said, ‘faithful unto death.’ And I wept.”

Gary paused, getting emotional.

“And I said, ‘God, that is what I want. To be faithful unto death.’”

Kara Bettis is associate features editor at Christianity Today.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Issue: