“Love can be expressed and received in all five languages. However, if you don't speak a person's primary love language, that person will not feel loved, even though you may be speaking the other four. Once you are speaking his or her primary love language fluently, then you can sprinkle in the other four and they will be like icing on the cake.” - Gary Chapman
I have been married for more than fourteen years. About ten of those have been good years. When people say that marriage is work, they are not kidding. Our marriage has been forged in the fire: challenged by addiction, moves across the country, death and tragedy, and the usual ups and downs of parenthood. Married at 22, I usually tell people we have grown up together. I would say that my husband provides my calm (most of the time) and gives me room to spread my wings and be who I am meant to be -even though it is an ongoing project to figure out exactly who that might be. I really consider there to be no greater gift. He walks beside me always offering truth, sometimes harshly, in whatever form I need to hear it. And because our partnership was earned, not given, I would fight til the death to maintain what we have built. As open communication is the foundation to almost any relationship, it is interesting to note that my whole family is built upon the shoulders of two people who do not even speak the same language. Many moments and golden opportunities have been lost in translation along the way.
Years ago, we were exposed to Gary Chapman’s idea of the different love languages. The concept opened our eyes to the huge discrepancy in the way we communicate as a couple. Somewhere around this time in our early marriage, perhaps during marital counseling, we were introduced to active listening. We were asked to really listen to each other and repeat things back to one another just as we heard them. We began to notice exchanges such as these:
Me: “I do not feel any love from you.”
Husband: “I came home from work and loaded the dishwasher and did all the laundry.”
Husband: “You do not care that this mess is making me lose my mind.”
Me: “How can you say that? I wrote you a note and planned a date night.”
We were experiencing a failure to communicate. There are only five love languages, and it turns out we have all but one of them covered. I am no math person, but I would say it is fairly unlikely we do not overlap in a single area.
My husband says I love you through “acts of service.” He is a doer. He makes our breakfast and coffee every single morning. He does all of our laundry and folds towels into beautiful, perfectly arranged works of art. He handles the finances, bills and taxes - all things that make me want to run for the hills. He gets stuff done. I know you are thinking that I should just shut up and let the man continue cleaning. I agree, it is wonderful, and I am so thankful for it, but my nature does not always recognize these amazing things as tokens of his undying love for me.
Here is the problem. My love language is “words of affirmation.” I am an encourager. I can build him up with words of love, support, and praise like it’s my job. I can pick out the most amazing cards for holidays and special occasions. I have a gift for finding just the right words. Words are my tool of trade. We are a doer and a talker trying to set up a life together. He wants me to surprise him by making up the bed, and I want him to tell me that he believes in me and my abilities.
Our healthy dose of dissonance does not end there. As I mentioned, we speak four of the five languages. Brent’s secondary love language is physical touch (the DUMBEST one). Massaging his hands or feet, shoulders, or playing with his hair make him feel loved and appreciated. My secondary language is much more practical: quality time. Give me your cell phone-free, undivided attention and time (unless I want to be alone, then just leave me alone). These languages compliment each other a little bit better. We can multi-task by spending time together in close contact. Everyone is loved.
Part of the purpose behind recognizing the different love languages is that it allows us to see that our partners have been conditioned to give love in a way that they most hope to receive it themselves. Chapman writes, “People tend to criticize their spouse most loudly in the area where they themselves have the deepest emotional need.” I buy great, thoughtful cards because I want to receive those cards. Brent cleans the kitchen because he hopes I will someday learn to load the dishwasher in the correct manner. Understanding these different languages has allowed us to see that we really weren’t listening to each other or acknowledging the other’s needs. There have been countless times he was showing his love; it just was not in the way I expected or needed to see it.
With practice, I must say, I have learned to embrace both of our languages. I no longer spend time or money on cards for his birthday. Last year, I built him a fire pit - action and service. However, he has also come to expect and appreciate words of encouragement from me, sometimes even words of advice or criticism (yikes!). Afterall, I must still be true to myself, so when his birthday rolled around this year, I might for example, have written a mushy blog about him. Happy Birthday, Babe! I have no problem admitting I am far from perfect and still have moments when I think his love language is stupid and requires too much effort. Other times, I look at his interactions with me and wonder if he even knows me at all, but these moments have become few and far between.
Thankfully, my husband has also gracefully learned to speak my love language. Offering both words of affirmation and quality attention, he is my coach and the first reader for everything that I write. His native language continues to involve action, and I can’t say that I mind. He shows a selflessness in his willingness to help and do things to make my life easier. If he were to ever cease with the acts of service, I am sure I would be the first to point that out...using a lot of strong words of affirmation.
Our differences have enriched my life and pushed me to grow beyond myself. We now have two children who speak their own dialects of the love languages. My son wants verbal affirmation and quality time (just like his mom), while my daughter prefers physical touch - hugs and cuddles (thanks Brent, I’m sure that won’t cause us any problems in the future). We have our very own familial Tower of Babel. There are moments of complete discord when we are each desperately shouting for our language to be heard and acknowledged, but there are other beautiful episodes that reveal the many forms love can take. Time spent just sitting together, a gentle word, a family hike, a thoughtful gift, or an unrequested favor might be just what one of us needed at that moment. Learning to truly listen to each other makes us more human and open to growth so that as Chapman explains, we do not continue to mess up every new day with yesterday.