Friendships, marriages, and family relations all need investment, maintenance, and love. What I've learned and observed in every relationship is that it matters how I invest in and maintain relationships and how I love the people around me.
Love languages. They're a real thing, and I think they're incredibly important. Gary Chapman wrote a few excellent books all about it—this is the one I read several years ago. This specific book centers on marriages, but I'd argue that nearly all the points he makes are applicable in relationships with loved ones of all kinds. For a quick breakdown*: We all feel most loved when we receive love in one or two (or three) specific ways or "love languages."
The big five love languages are:
- Quality time
- Words of affirmation
- Physical touch
- Acts of service
- Receiving gifts
My top love languages are quality time, physical touch, and words of affirmation. I feel most loved when Nicholas spends intentional time with me, gives me a spontaneous hug, or compliments my character or appearance. His love languages are quality time and acts of service. He feels most loved when I make him good meals and keep our home tidy and clean or I join him in an activity that he loves. It's tempting to think it must be easy/nice to love each other with quality time, since you both feel loved in that way.
My response? It's still not always easy. We can all have slightly different "dialects" of a specific language. For example:
Quality time for him = cuddling on the couch and watching a movie
Quality time for me = going on a coffee date, walk, or drive around town and have meaningful (and undistracted) conversation
We generally give love in the way we feel most loved. But if your family member/friend/spouse has different love languages, they might not feel all that loved if you're only speaking in your language. When you love someone in their love language, it is saying, "I value you enough to make an extra effort to love you in the way you will feel most loved."
This takes a lot of conversation, since reading each other's minds isn't a viable option. We check in with one another and ask, "Are you feeling loved?" Gracefully saying, "I'm not feeling loved," is the first step to figuring out how to love the other person well.
In answer to the question, "What if my spouse/friend/family member is loved best with gifts, but I'm not a good gift giver?" Chapman says,"You need to get good at giving gifts." (paraphrased) Once you get over the inconvenience of loving someone not necessarily how we assume they need love, but the way they truly need love, it gets easier and easier. Practice makes better.
How is all of this a good thing? If we feel loved, we're more likely to love others better, and on and on.
A few notes:
- Remember your motivation. Don't perform acts of love for others, merely in hope that they'll do something for you. In the words of John Piper:
To be sure, unifying love in the body of Christ includes a rugged commitment to do good for the family of God whether you feel like it or not (Galatians 6:10). But, as difficult as it is for diverse people, the experience of Christian unity is more than that. It includes affectionate love, not just sacrifice for those you don’t like. It is a feeling of endearment. We are to have affection for those who are our family in Christ. “Love one another with brotherly affection” (Romans 12:10). “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart” (1 Peter 1:22). “All of you, have . . . sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8).
- Have lots of grace on your loved ones. Not one of us loves perfectly, ever.
- Witnessing someone feeling loved affects you. Nicholas lights up when he's loved and that brings me joy.
Practical ways we do this:
On my days off, I sometimes surprise Nicholas with midday coffee "dates" and he takes a little time out of his work day/lunch break to walk around downtown for 20 minutes. The result? I'm loving him with food, and he's loving me with quality time/conversation. If you're wondering if this takes the fun spontaneity out of loving one another—no. The first time I surprised him with coffee, I didn't even think about it. Looking back and seeing how this specific arrangement makes both of us feel loved, it's no wonder why we enjoy it so much.
I'll surprise him with a clean and tidy home. And then, because he feels loved and wants to love me back, he'll give me extra hugs for the rest of the evening, without even thinking about it.
We have breakfast and coffee or tea together every morning we can—if we do, it's usually super early, before the sun comes up. When we have a chance, we'll read an entry from a book together, too. He feels loved by the breakfast I make him and I feel loved because I get to start my day off with some time with my sweetheart.
My security doesn't come from a love-filled, encouraging marriage, since only my Heavenly Father can bring ultimate security. But for as long as I can, I plan to keep learning to love Nicholas and my other loved ones well. Speaking from (an itty bitty amount of) experience, mindful love is so worth it.
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 1 John 4:7
*This book is excellent. Gary Chapman has written extensively about the love languages and can offer much more practical and detailed help. Additionally, the book has a quiz you can take to help you figure out your love language(s). There are various online quizzes as well, but really, the book is the best :)