Interpreting from One Love Language to Another

goldfish in an aquariumFeeling unloved and appreciated?

Maybe you live far from your family and they don’t write or call. Maybe you pour out your life in ministry and it seems like no one notices.  You may have just achieved an important goal and your friends barely recognize it. You wish your husband would surprise you on your special birthday or anniversary with an amazing gift, but he underwhelms you with a cheap gift card. You planned an important celebration and someone very important to you didn’t take the trouble to attend.

Doesn’t that person care about you? Doesn’t he understand what that small gesture would mean to you? If only she would notice one thing you do right instead of three things you do wrong. How could they miss an event that means so much to you?  Would it kill him to help you when you are working to exhaustion? Is that cheap gift he gave you an indication that romance is dead?

I hear your pain. I also know that continuing to think like that could give you a lot more pain. The aim of this blog is to give you a more productive way to deal with disappointment like this.

But first let me go back to the 1980’s when Art and I attended a marriage enrichment conference taught by Gary Chapman. He presented a new idea that opened my eyes to an important concept. People generally receive and give love in different ways. He presented the five love languages which are so well known today: Words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch.  The basic idea is that people may be showing you love in their love language, but you don’t get the message because it isn’t your love language. The reverse is true too.

Since the book The Five Love Languages was first published, Gary Chapman has added books about love languages for other relationships. This book did more than help me in my marriage. It helped me understand people in my church.

For example: Someone in our church hands me a gift. Maybe it’s a jar of jam, veggies from their garden, a pretty candle, or a plant. As I smile and reach for the gift my mind immediately goes into overdrive. Why are they giving me this? I don’t need this. What will I do with it? Will they be offended if their plant dies? Now that they’ve given me a gift I have to think of something to give back to them. I wish they would have taken the money they spent and put it in the offering instead. They don’t need to give me anything. Why don’t they just thank me for something I’ve done that helped them or mention one thing I’m doing right around the church?

You can see the problem. Their love language is gift-giving, mine is words of affirmation. We live in New Zealand, a country where, compared to some other places in the world, people are generally not effusive with their praise.  So I have a choice. I can continue to feel unloved and unappreciated and spiral down into depression. Or I can choose to translate their love language into mine, putting the best possible slant on it.

Let’s say a lady in our church hands me a jar of Vegemite, which you pretty much have to grow up in New Zealand, Australia, or the U.K. to stomach. I accept the jar with thanks and I interpret the gesture in my own way. “What she is really saying,” I tell myself, “is, ‘I appreciate what you do for our church,’ or ‘Thank you for talking to me about my problem.’” Later I give the jar to someone I know will enjoy using it. She gives me love in her love language. I accept it in mine.

Face it, some people just can’t or won’t speak your love language.  You have a choice: Feel unloved and unappreciated or adjust your expectations and interpret their love language into something you can understand.

This is especially important today when people communicate in such a variety of ways. I love email. I like to figure out exactly what I want to say, when I’m thinking about it, and send it to someone who can read it at their convenience. Overseas missionaries were probably one of the first groups to embrace email because it works so well when you are living far away from someone, in a different time zone with sky-high postage rates. I loved email from the start. I stay close to my email and try to give very prompt answers.

But I absolutely hate to text. Years ago we bought a very basic cell phone, mainly for emergencies. We seldom need to use it, except for texting people who don’t own landline phones. If I send a text, I will inevitably be frustrated, will send the shortest message possible, and will expect to explain it all to the person next time I see them.

As a writer, it should come as no surprise that I feel most comfortable crafting my words and sending them in writing. Some people, however, feel intimidated by having to write their thoughts. They may not be good spellers or they may feel writing letters makes a matter much more formal than simply talking it out face to face. For some people, texting is by far the cheapest and easiest way for them to stay in touch, and they love it.

So if a strong emailer, who likes to write long letters, communicates with a strong texter, who stays close to her phone, both sides may be frustrated.

You may wish some friend or family member would write you a long newsy letter and ask about you and your life. But some people just aren’t writers. They don’t write letters to anyone and they aren’t going to start with you. It doesn’t matter that you live far away and are hungry to hear from them. It’s just not something they do. Maybe they don’t phone you either. If you are overseas, they may not even have a calling plan that includes overseas calls. Or maybe they don’t think to call, or don’t have anything to call about.

In ministry, it’s easy to feel like a goldfish—visible to all, but closed off from friendship that could look like favoritism. You keep busy serving the needs of others, while they may not understand your needs at all.

As a missionary you may wonder why churches expect to hear from you regularly, and perhaps not one of the pastors of your churches has ever sent you a letter once or phoned you. As shocking as this concept may be, very few pastors write letters to their missionaries. As a missionary, you can resent this, but you probably won’t change it much.

This lack of attention may feel like neglect. It can make you feel bitter, angry, or hurt. It can destroy relationships.

What’s the answer?

  1. Change your expectations.

Some people are just not huggers. Many husbands don’t have a clue about what to buy their wives, and each decade of marriage only makes the choice harder. Some people can’t analyse a situation and see where you need help. Some people don’t understand the need to quit doing something useful to spend time with a loved one doing something that doesn’t seem useful. Some people feel very awkward praising people with their words. You want them to do something that they can’t do or don’t know how to do or feel uncomfortable doing. Realize that they may care about you, but not be able to express that in a way that is most natural to you.

  1. Interpret their actions into your language.

Look for the way they express appreciation or concern. Someone who is constantly handing people little gifts or prizes may be gift givers. If they give you a gift, accept it with the realization that they are expressing love and concern for you in their love language. Give the best possible slant to interpreting that gesture. And you might consider giving something back to them, not out of obligation, but as a way to express love and appreciation for them.

Some of the other love languages may be expressed in more subtle ways, but when you sense someone is reaching out to you in a way you possibly don’t understand, accept their gesture even if it isn’t your main love language. Consider how you can reach back to them in a similar way.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is the Golden Rule. Jesus taught the concept. It won’t work well, however, if you are doing for others what you want them to do for you, in spite of the fact that you are doing something they don’t want you to do. I believe the meaning of this rule comes closer to this: Treat people well in a way they can appreciate in the same way that you would like to be treated well in a way you would appreciate. The motive for doing things for people should be helping and encouraging them in the way that works best.

So what do you do when you don’t know what their love language is and you don’t know what to do? I just do what the Lord puts before me. When I sense someone needs encouragement I might say something nice to them or tell them I’m praying for them, invite them for a simple meal, praise them to their son or daughter, give them some roses from our garden, phone them or send an email, give a hug or pat on the arm, or whatever thing the Lord puts on my mind. It may not be the perfect way, but at least I am trying, and I have to hope that will count for something.

Realizing that I don’t always know the best way to connect with people reminds me that the reverse is true. I need to accept their gestures of appreciation and love, and I hope they will accept mine, however awkwardly offered.

[image by Enika100/Deposit Photos]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *