Let me start by painting this scenario: Two coworkers are having lunch. They were discussing why one of them was having problems in his marriage. The other coworker, a female, asked, “When was the last time you told her you loved her?”, to which the married coworker replied with all seriousness, “I married her, didn’t I? Shouldn’t that be enough?”. Incredulous, the female coworker stated, “Dan (not his real name), that was over ten years ago.”. To which “Dan” simply shrugged, rolled his eyes, and walked away.
I’m the situation above brings to mind a number of thoughts regarding Dan, not all of them think positive. I can recall feeling sorry for both Dan and his wife (yes, this conversation really took place). I also think about how many couples I have since encountered whose attitude is similar to Dan’s. They acknowledge there is a problem, but it is really their partners behavior that lies at the root of their marital problems. If they would change, and apologize, things would get better. The problem with this position is that it ignores a significant portion of the relationship problems; their own behavior, and the attitude of resistance to change that behavior.
One of the more popular books on healthy marriage is the best-selling book by Gary Smalley, “The Five Languages”. While the book has been often used in marital counseling, its principles apply to any love relationship, including children, siblings, and friends. The book breaks down the different ways people express love and affection into five “love languages”. For a quick review, the Five Love Languages are:
- Words of Affirmation – “I Love You!”, “You did a great job!”, “I’m really proud of how hard you are working!”
- Quality Time – Playing with your children, going out to dinner, going for a drive, watching a favorite TV show together, reading a book to each other.
- Gifts – Thoughtfully giving something the other person really wants or needs.
- Acts of Service – Doing each other’s household chores, letting your partner have control of the remote for the evening, hire someone to do a needed task if you don’t have the time, taking care of the kids for the evening to give Mom the night or day off to play. And lastly,
- Physical Touch – Everything from hugs, holding hands, kisses to sexual intimacy with your spouse.
Gary Smalley goes on to make the point that while we use all five love languages throughout our lives to express our love and affection for others, and we also like to receive love and affection expressed in those same languages, there is usually one or two expressions that really touch our heart more profoundly than the others. This is called our primary love language (PL). One way to discover your own PL is think about how you express love and affection to others. If you are a hugger, then that means you also like being shown love through physical touch.
However, your spouse might be someone who is always doing things for you and your children. If you are constantly showering her with hugs, she may not always respond well (understatement here). Conversely, your spouse may be putting her heart into making you breakfast every day, and while you appreciate it, you may sometimes forget to thank her for her effort. In this case you are both missing each other’s message of love. The solution is, if you are a hugger, get “fluent” at doing things for you acts of service spouse, and your spouse can practice giving physical affection more freely without the implication being that you both suddenly have to run off to the bedroom.
I recommend that every couple and/or parent purchase a copy, read and apply the principles contained in the book. However, increased knowledge alone or simply performing new tasks will not do the trick and improve your relationships, and this brings me to the real point I want to make here: You must be willing to practice other ways of expressing affection than what is the easiest, most comfortable for you. You must be willing to put your heart and mind and soul into it.
I was listening to a podcast recently. It was an interview with Shelby Steele, a noted black scholar and author. In discussing the civil rights movement, he made the point that freedom is a frightening thing because it puts the total responsibility for a person’s life in the hands of that individual. To paraphrase Steele, if a person is unable to learn how to accept personal responsibility for themselves and function in that context, they will ultimately begin to search for a scapegoat, and thus return to the life of victimhood.
Relationship change is an expression of freedom. It does not deny that your partner may misbehave or misinterpret the love messages you are sending, nor does it deny the emotional pain that currently exists. Instead it places the focus squarely on our own shoulders to take personal inventory of our own part in the current mess. This is where Dan from the first paragraph got stuck. He wasn’t able to see his own part in the unhappy relationship he was in, therefore he stayed stuck in the blame game, the “If He/She would just do…., the I would do…” dance.
Willingness is a key ingredient in making any personal change. It means that I will own responsibility for my behavior, and also be open to considering new, more effective ways of communicating and relating to others. It also involves remembering why I love and value the other person in the first place. If they were valuable to me before, then they are still worthy and valuable today. To treat someone less than their worth is to devalue them, to treat them like an object. If you want your marriage to be a flea market, go ahead and try and bargain your way into getting the best deal from your spouse for the least amount of effort. Let me know how that works for you.
If, on the other hand, you are one of those fortunate souls who want the best for yourself, then you realize there is no way you want a bargain-basement marriage, but are willing to pay full price for a happy, robust marriage that honors God, yourself, your spouse, your family, your friends, and even some of your coworkers. If that means you consciously think loving thoughts of your spouse while you vacuum the house then so be it. They are worth the price.
When you are willing to engage your heart and mind in expressing your love for another, you are actually using two love languages simultaneously, because the expression of love, regardless of the form it takes, inherently contains the language of gifts in it. Vacuuming the house is no longer an item to be checked off the to-do list, it is a “gift” of love in the form of an “act of service”. This is the secret behind the concept of a primary love language. A wife who appreciates acts of service instinctively receives and is open to the gift aspect of her husband vacuuming the house if his heart is in it. Since love flows outwardly, she will be moved to respond back in a way that brings her own joy at being loved to its fullness.
Lastly, willingness also involves opening one’s heart to changing their behavior for the better, regardless of whether we see our partner change in the short term. Don’t count the cost in the short term, practice expressing affection in new ways because you and your loved ones are both worth it. The fruit will come