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Dave Barry ironically observed that “Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the past 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages.”
It’s human nature to expect people to learn our language, to do things our way, to meet our needs. Nowhere is that more evident than in marriage.
Despite decades of marriage, Nancy has not reorganized her life, personality, and priorities around meeting all my needs. She is amazingly considerate and accommodating. But she still has her own preferences. She has not become another Wally or a servant to Wally. She is a unique person with her own strengths and her own inclinations. She still speaks her own language.
That is exactly God’s point in marriage! We may care very much about each other, but God wants us to do more than settle comfortably into our own ways. He wants us to stretch beyond our egocentric preferences. He wants us to truly learn how to love. And as part of that assignment, He wants us to spend a lifetime learning someone else’s language. We may one day speak it naturally and fluently. But, without effort, we will hardly be able to communicate.
You have probably heard of languages of love—the idea that we all have different preferences for the ways people show us love. Gary Chapman has written a popular book in which he lists five love languages:
Words of affirmation
Acts of service
His book is good. And I love the concept! Yet his system seems unnecessarily complex. I never remember all five languages. So I use a system with three love languages instead:
Show me. “I’m not convinced by words but by actions.”
Tell me. “I love words and messages of love.”
Touch me. “I love to touch and snuggle.”
I find those three love languages easy to remember and simple to classify. Of course, most of us like to be loved in some mixture of the three languages. We want to see the actions. We value the words. We like to be held. We may value all three to some extent, but each of us likely places greater importance on one or two.
To add challenge to our relationships, our preferences may change over time. For example, sometimes we most cherish what is least available. Heavenly Father wants us to learn to pay attention to our partners and their needs on a continuing basis.
In addition to the three specific languages, I sometimes add two universal languages—ways of expressing love that everyone desires:
Understand me. “Listen to my thoughts and feelings. Try to value them and make sense of them.”
Spend time with me. “Join me in doing things I love to do.”
I wish I could say that I was a quick learner. The truth is different. Because I love (LOVE!) stuff, I tended to give Nancy stuff. When I wanted to show her love, I would buy her a new dress or a lovely mixer. Yet I could tell that Nancy wasn’t excited by those gifts. She would be gracious, but I could tell that I wasn’t speaking her language.
After almost three decades of marriage (Yes. I’m a quick learner!), I decided to try a different approach. I asked myself, how does she like to receive and show love? What are the gifts Nancy has received that she most cherishes? What makes her feel loved? It was instantly clear to me that I had not been speaking her love language. She loves sincere notes. I decided to write her a note for Christmas.
Having never been knowingly guilty of moderation, I decided to review the entire year and write to her about the sweet blessings we had shared that year. It took a lot of time to review my records for the year and write a letter that covered all that time. I worked at it many hours. As Christmas approached, I printed out the 4-page letter on quality paper, put it in an envelope, and put it under our Christmas tree with her name on it.
When Christmas arrived, our youngest, Sara, handed out presents from under the tree. After a time, she got to the letter and handed it to her mother. Nancy was puzzled. But she opened it and read, “Sweetheart, I am so grateful for the joyous experience we have shared this year. . . .” Nancy had read only a few paragraphs of the letter when she began to cry. She turned to me and said, “Wally, this is what I really want for Christmas!”
I instinctively responded, “Yes, Dear. But there will be some great sales after Christmas!” Despite my natural tendency to buy Nancy stuff, I am learning to love her in her language.
Nancy also likes me to help her in the yard. Of course, that is not what I prefer to do. Showing love requires sacrifice. It will always cost us to effectively show our love to another person. But if we wish to learn God’ lessons of love, we must be willing to do be stretched.
Of course, this same principle of customizing our love applies to our relationships with our children, other relatives, and anyone to whom we would convey genuine caring. To be effective, we must notice what matters to them.
There is an exception. In new and casual relationships, we appreciate any evidence of interest. A half-can of broken Pringles may touch our hearts at the beginning. But, in a mature and committed relationship, we must care enough to notice and to act in the ways that are meaningful to our loved ones. This stretches us. It challenges us to be more like the Savior, focused on the needs of others instead of focusing on our own convenience or preferences.
Invitation: Think about your loved one. What expressions of love would be most meaningful to him/her? Are there ways you can better customize your messages of love?
Recommendation: Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages is a good book for understanding the idea of customizing our love.
Thanks to Barbara Keil for her help with this article.