February 10, 2014

This Valentine's Day, Learn a New Language

Collin had just graduated from college. At the time I was a sophomore, and we had been dating a mere six months.

I remember writing him a letter to congratulate him on his achievements, pouring as much of my feelings and admiration onto that piece of paper as I could without actually spitting out the words “I love you.” (We weren’t there quite yet.) I gave him the letter and told him to read it on his own later.

But of course, I still wanted to know what he thought of it, so I asked him on the phone. Okay, I didn’t really ask. I said, “Soooooo…?”

“Soooooo…what?” (Strange. He doesn't know what “Soooooo…”was referring to. Maybe he didn’t read the letter yet.)

I continued to prod. “Soooooo…what did you think?”

“What do I think about what?” (Okay, he must not have read it.)

“Um…what did you think about the letter? Did you read it yet?”

“Oh yeah, that. Thanks.”

(Thanks?! That’s it?! Why was he not rejoicing over the sheer beauty of the words I had so carefully crafted on that piece of paper? Why was he not telling me how he was going to store it in his keepsake box where he could take it out every day and read it just so he could relive the sentiments I had inspired him to feel?!)

You can imagine my confusion and disappointment, as well as the mini dating spat that followed.

Flashback to 2010.

But while I did not get the reaction I was hoping for, I did learn something new that day. I learned that I had it all wrong: I was speaking the wrong language.

I’m guessing many of you have heard of the 5 Love Languages, written by Gary Chapman. If not, I recommend reading it or the following short summary: There are five different ways you can show love and be loved - gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and physical touch. Learn which language of love your spouse appreciates most, and “speak” it.
Of course we can be a combination of love languages, but I am above all else a “words of affirmation” gal. I am so easily lifted up with kind words, you could probably sucker me into anything if you sweet talked me enough. And because I love to be loved with words, that is how I most naturally attempt to love others, (at least when sarcasm does not get in the way.)

But the truth is, Collin is not a “words of affirmation” guy. At least, not in the same ways that I am a “words of affirmation” gal. As a wife there are simple ways I can use words to encourage, uplift, and affirm my husband, as well as simple ways to avoid tearing him down. (Like at times, learning to tone down the sarcasm.) But sonnets and poetry and carefully crafted, mushy love notes are not where it’s at with him.

So here is why this gets tricky for me: the Golden Rule does not apply to "love languages."

“Words of affirmation unto Collin, because I would like them done unto me” is not how marriage works. (At least, that’s what I have found out for us in our few short years of being married.) Just because I would love for Collin to write me love songs and whisper sweet nothings in my ear all day long, does not mean that is the way he likes to be loved.

Which means that all of the sudden, the way Collin likes to be loved may not be the way I most naturally “speak” love.

It’s like trying to communicate to someone in English when they only speak Spanish. English is the only language you speak, so it’s the language that naturally comes out. But you quickly realize they aren't getting the message. You repeat yourself, you try speaking louder. (Surely they will understand you when you speak louder.) Nothing changes. They are confused. You are frustrated. But the answer seems so obvious, right?

I need to speak Collin’s language, the language he best understands the "I love you” I want to communicate.

It might be tricky. It might take work. It might feel awkward at first, like putting together sentences in a new language when I only know the vocabulary to ask “where is the bathroom?” And it might be something that I don’t enjoy doing at all. (Like sitting on the couch and watching baseball. Or offering to give a back rub. I hate both those things.)

But what I have learned is that when I put forth the effort to speak his language, to work through the awkwardness of something that doesn't always come naturally, it is so worth it. As Chapman describes in his book, our “love tanks” are filled. We get on the same page; we live in better marital harmony. We feel encouraged to “keep on keepin' on.”

I will never forget when Collin sent me an email from work, the morning after I had been up way too many times with Jocelyn. It was a simple note, complimenting me as a wife and a mom, encouraging me to get through another "mom day." It was like the wind in my sails had picked up, and suddenly the pooped-through clothes I was changing did not seem so horrible anymore.

Because he was speaking my language.

And on the flip side of things, learning Collin’s love language has helped me not only learn how to better love him, but also how to interpret his actions of love for me. Maybe I am not getting a love song written for me every day, but his doing the dishes and sweeping the kitchen and giving Jocelyn a bath are the “acts of service” that he is so naturally good at. He is saying “I love you” in the ways he knows best.

So on this Valentine’s Day, this horribly clich├ęd/Hallmark holiday, let’s learn a new language, our spouse’s love language.

For the “gifts” people, it might still mean roses and chocolates. For the “words” people, it might still mean a last minute card from the gas station with a heartfelt note written inside. Or it might mean trying something new, like doing the dishes, or sitting on the couch and watching ESPN with a positive attitude.

Either way, I think it’s a great occasion to learn a new language. And speak it.

Grace and Peace,