"What are you doing?" I exclaimed with a laugh as my husband, Dave, stood at the kitchen cabinets busily restacking our cereal boxes. I'd put away those same boxes that afternoon after shopping.
"You do this on purpose, don't you?" I saw the sparkle in his eyes.
I had no idea what he was talking about. Apparently, for the first seven years of our marriage, Dave believed that I put the cereal away upside down and backwards just to get his goat! And unbeknownst to me, my husband had, for those same seven years, quietly restocked the pantry with the cereal boxes right side up, labels facing out.
"Is this just a pet peeve you have?" I asked, still laughing.
"Nope," he said. "Since you often make our breakfasts, I figured I could pitch in and make the viewing easier, so you can read them and know what you have."
His words triggered an epiphany: that's the way my husband shows love.
When I worked to put him through seminary, he made my lunch every day without fail. He used to tell me, "Don't tell the other wives I do that, cause you'll get me in trouble with the husbands!"
I didn't know when I married Dave that he was a cereal-stacking, sandwich-making, what-can-I-do-for-you kind of lover. I'm in awe of my husband's ability to reach out to me and to others on a practical level.
Unfortunately, he didn't marry someone like him. I have a great knack for not seeing what people need.
The stretching begins
Not long after that day, someone at church introduced us to Gary Chapman's book The Five Love Languages. The book's premise sounded great—find out what "love language" your spouse speaks. Then you love him in his language, he loves you in yours, and your marriage will flourish. What could be better?
After finding out the language options—physical touch, acts of service, words of affirmation, gifts, and quality time—we decided to pick our top two favorites and talk about them.
Immediately I went for the last two—gifts and quality time. I think the best present in the world is my husband's undivided attention.
I was feeling pretty good about this whole experience. Until Dave listed his top two languages: physical touch and acts of service.
Acts of service? I thought and groaned inwardly. Couldn't he pick something better than that—especially since I'm a charter member of the "messies"? I just look at a room and it falls apart. I looked around our disorganized house. I thought about washing, drying, folding, and putting away his laundry. How in the world will I ever get my act together enough to meet his love need? I wondered.
I could feel a sulk coming on. Well, this is going to be a bust, I thought. Our marriage will never grow.
Then I looked at Dave. He had the same expression on his face!
"What are you thinking?" I asked him.
"Well," he started, tentatively, "you picked gifts as one of your love languages."
"Yes," I said. Where is he going with this? I thought. Gifts is a great love language.
"You picked the one area I feel most ungifted at."
We silently looked at each other. How could it be possible that we spoke four different love languages? Our pastor never warned us of this in premarital counseling!
Hope is on the way
The one thing we did learn in premarital counseling was to get things out in the open and discuss them. So we did. And we discovered we were making a lot of assumptions about each other. But we also found a lot of ways to connect.
As we began to define the kinds of things that filled our "love tanks," we saw we had a lot in common. Walks in a mall or park filled my desire for quality time—and because we held hands, Dave was thriving on the physical touch.
We decided to become students of each other. We'd ask questions and be genuinely interested in what the other had to say.
A cheat sheet
Many spouses think their mate should know what they want or need. But, in truth, I have to help my spouse understand me. I have to actually tell him!
The gifts Dave dreaded, the ones he thought would surely break our bank account or his limited creativity, and the ones I hoped for, were two different things. I wanted notes on scrap paper, an occasional card, flowers or chocolate, a surprise evening out, or best of all—to play board games together. When I shared that with him, he was surprised at how simple it could be. But we also discussed the importance of appreciating each other's less-than-perfect attempts—such as when I tried to keep the house clean. (I really did try!)
As we cleared up our misunderstandings about each other's language, I realized that I get just as much joy out of what I can do for Dave, as from what he can do for me.
During our initial discussion, as I fretted over his acts of service need, he told me, "You know when I feel most loved? When you straighten my shoes by the door."
That was news to me—I straightened them to keep from tripping over them!
"When you do that," he continued, "I think, She thought of me. Here are my shoes, all ready to go."
Now when I walk past those shoes, I take joy in straightening them. In that 30 seconds I realize, I'm making my husband feel loved. Maybe there's something else I can do to make him feel loved …
This summer marks our fifteenth wedding anniversary. Four years ago Dave suffered a severe disability that still affects his thinking and memory. Sometimes he struggles to talk, and our game-playing days are now few and far between. Sometimes when I touch him, it hurts him, because his whole body hurts. But I don't question his love for me.
Some days writing a note to tell me he's going out for a short walk would take too much mental energy—yet when I see him struggle up the stairs to bring in a gallon of milk, I know he loves me. It's not my language. But it's his—and ironically, seeing him communicate in his language has come to mean more to me than my own. I see the remarkable lengths he's willing to go to just to show his love. And I am in awe.
I have to confess that I haven't changed my cereal ways. But now when I see them right side up, I know my husband has been there, has thought of me—and my heart does a little jig as I remember he loves me.
Merry Marinello, an author, lives in Illinois. Visit Merry at www.hopeismyanchor.com.
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.