When my husband and I got engaged, the pastor of my parents’ church gave us a copy of Gary Chapman’s book, The Five Love Languages. It didn’t take us long to discover each other’s love languages and develop a newfound desire to express them. Over the years, this unique facet of the way we perceive and show love has expanded as we welcomed three kids, moved cross-country twice, and faced different challenges together. We’ve learned to be creative in the ways we meet each other’s needs, but have also seen that knowing someone’s love language is not a cure-all for the difficulties and heartache life brings.
As our family grew and we spent much of our time caring for our kids, we realized that the ways we showed up for each other needed to change too. While displaying each other’s love language in a tangible way was still important, quality time may not look the same way it did before we had a baby waking us up in the middle of the night. Acts of service might mean taking diaper duty for the day, and cleaning the house may not look the same as it did pre-kids.
While the five love languages are wonderful tools, it’s important to realize that there are limitations to them. As we go through various chapters of marriage, it’s crucial for us to be flexible and adapt to the circumstances we face on a day-to-day basis. Here are a few ways we can shift our take on the five love languages, while still being true to the focus of the book: loving each other well.
1. Be realistic about the season you’re in.
For example, if you and your husband are both working long hours or caring for small children, it may not be realistic for you to spend two hours of quality time with each other every day. Or, if your love language is gift-giving but you’re on a tight budget, you may need to think of some inexpensive ways your spouse can express this love language. The key is to recognize the effort and show each other grace instead of getting hung up on trivial things. If your spouse is intentional about showing his or her love, acknowledge that. Verbalize your gratitude and encourage him or her. One of the fastest ways to create distance in a marriage is to minimize the efforts of the other person.
As it says in Ephesians, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2 NIV). When we bear with one another in love, we see the good work God is doing in that person. We may get frustrated or angry, but we look at the person through the lens of God’s love instead of letting our feelings get the final say.
2. Let your loved one be honest without attacking him or her.
If your loved one is unhappy with an aspect of your relationship, let him or her be honest. This doesn’t mean being a doormat or allowing emotional abuse. But if we’re never allowed to complain in a respectful way or be honest, we won’t develop mutual trust. We will feel as though we have to keep all of our emotions hidden, which will lead to a dysfunctional, unhealthy relationship.
Several months ago, my husband told me I became defensive when he shared anything that resembled complaining, whether it had to do with me or not. If I took an honest look at our communication, he was right. By addressing this issue in our relationship in a loving way, I was able to reevaluate how I responded to my husband when he needed to vent and simply tell me about his day. I realized my responses often came from a place of insecurity, and I prayed to God and asked him to help me in this area. He brought me back to these words in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
A love that is proud and self-seeking thinks everything is about us, but a love that honors God and seeks to serve sees that not everything is an attack.
3. The type of love God commands us to have is based on a decision, not an emotion.
In the original Greek language of the New Testament, there are seven words for “love.” Each word has a different meaning, context, and nuance. The writers were specific in their use of this word that can have many different connotations and expressions. In the English language, we have one. We use it to describe our feelings for everything from our favorite Netflix series to our children.
If you look at the Greek word used to describe the love God wants us to have for others, it is distinct from sexual love, lust, or emotion. It is the word agape. It is the only word for love that is not based on an emotional response, and it cannot be expressed apart from God. If we rely on our own strength to love others in this way, we will eventually fail. It is the Holy Spirit who enables us to love beyond what our culture considers reasonable or possible.
Agape love is not self-seeking or based on our feelings in the moment, but it is based on a daily decision to care for another creation of God. It is the love Jesus demonstrated on the cross when even those closest to him left him alone to die.
“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8 NIV
4. Set aside time to talk about your relationship and discuss your needs.
When life gets busy, it’s easy for our marriages or relationships to go on the back burner. We may never talk to our spouse or significant other about the things that are bothering us until the issue has had time to fester, stress us out, and grow. By that point, the conversation may turn into an argument instead of a healthy conversation where both people are heard.
If we want our relationships to be healthy, it’s important to set aside regular time to talk about the issues that matter most to us. Raising the kids, financial needs, love languages, and other topics are all worthy of honest, heart-to-heart conversations that aren’t rushed or squeezed into moments when we’re walking out the door. As Pastor Jimmy Evans says, setting aside this time to communicate will allow us to be “proactive” instead of “reactive.” Instead of reacting to our circumstances or assuming we’re on the same page with our loved one, we will know we agree because we talked about it.
Friends, our marriages and relationships are constantly developing and changing. None are perfect, and we all face difficulties. The five languages are a wonderful tool to help us understand our spouses and loved ones, and can help us overcome numerous obstacles when utilized well. But the languages are not able to “bulletproof” our relationships. This safeguarding can only be done by keeping God as our foundation, seeking his Spirit’s help, and living out agape love.
Will it be easy? No. We will need to rely on his wisdom and grace daily, without fail. But when we do, our lives become living testimonies of his mercy and power. Others will turn toward us and our daily interactions and wonder, “What’s different about them?”. And when they do, a door will open.
Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Laura Ockel
Abby McDonald is a writer and speaker whose passion is to help women find the hope of Christ in the middle of life’s messes. She is the author of Shift: Changing Our Focus to See the Presence of God, and her work has been featured on Proverbs 31 Ministries, (in)Courage, For Every Mom, and more. Abby lives with her husband, three children, and mischievous lab pup in the mountains of western Maryland. You can download “The Daughter’s Manifesto” as her free gift to you and connect with her at abbymcdonald.org.