October 30, 2019

Turning a Wonderful Tool for Intimacy into a Weapon of Accusation

Gary Thomas — 

I like giving and receiving gifts.

My wife Lisa doesn’t.

In my young stupid pride, I used to double down on gift giving opportunities, find something really creative to give to Lisa, perhaps a bit too expensive for our current budget and Lisa would be touched and moved but feel guilty that I was (in her words) “better” at giving gifts than she was.

Some things don’t change. Just prior to our 34th wedding anniversary I found something I thought Lisa would appreciate. When she saw the wrapped box on our table the morning of our anniversary, I noticed that insecure look on her face.

“We’re getting each other gifts this year?” she asked.

“Well, it’s our anniversary.”

“But I thought that furniture we bought was supposed to be our gift to each other.”

We had made such an agreement many years ago, when money was tight. I didn’t realize it had a future clause—that every time we bought furniture in the future, we were writing off Valentine’s Day and Anniversary presents for that calendar year.

For some years, I resented this a bit. Why couldn’t she try a little harder, particularly if that was one of my love languages? But it wasn’t just Lisa. Made in her image, my kids follow suit. Father’s Day isn’t something I usually look forward to; I try to steel myself in anticipation of an obligatory phone call.

Here’s how I’ve resolved this: I don’t want it to be a burden for my wife or kids to love me. I want it to be a joy. If I resent that they don’t recognize a “love language” (or whatever description you want to use), I’m souring our relationship with what will feel to them like a burdensome obligation. And when they do something for me out of an obligation, I’m not going to feel loved anyway.

Love languages are great as tools to demonstrate love, but they can sour the relationship if they become expectations that demand love.

Ask yourself, do you want loving you to be a burden or a blessing?

Fast forward to Christmas. Lisa and I were thrilled that all our children would be in town. We squeezed in a vacation just days before they arrived, so the preparation was going to be especially tight with most of the burden falling on my wife. We also had to finish shopping for our kids.

The best gift I could give my wife this past Christmas was to say, “let’s not do gifts for each other this year” so that’s what we did. Seeing the relief on her face was proof of the burden this is on her.

I love The Five Love Languages (which I didn’t write, though I get thanked for doing so all the time since Gary Chapman and I share the same first name) because it is one of the most practical books on the market for the “nuts and bolts” of demonstrating love. Just don’t let the five love languages become about demanding love. When people do that (and I’ve worked with several couples who have) a great tool for intimacy becomes a weapon of accusation. That’s not Chapman’s intent and it’s an abuse of an otherwise very good book.

This week, let’s do an attitude check:

  • Do we want to be remembered as the type of spouse who was always sitting back and waiting for their husband or wife to fail them yet again?
  • Do you take more satisfaction in being proved right that you’re being taken for granted again than you do in finding creative ways to express love yourself?
  • Do you want it to be a joy for a person to love you, or do you want marriage to you to feel like a continual contest, with your spouse always on the verge of falling short?

Since I’ve already mentioned one book I like, let me mention another: Linda Dillow’s What’s It Like to Be Married to Me? Linda wrote the book for women, but the question embedded in the title is worth the price of the book itself. It’s a healthy exercise: take a step back over the coming week and ask yourself, “What is it like to be married to me? Is it a joy, or is it a burden?”

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14 responses to Turning a Wonderful Tool for Intimacy into a Weapon of Accusation

  1. Yes… great post and thoughts.
    My husband’s love language is service. He serves me to love me, to which I’ve chastised myself for many years for not accepting his show of love, while I’ve purposed to love him with serving, doing what matters to him as I’ve spent years studying him and knowing him. After so many years of looking at my own stuff and taking my disappointments to the Lord, and my husband, and reconciling I’m expecting too much and not being fair, I learned of his sex addiction. I see things differently because of what I’ve been living in, and with a spouse who is skilled at deflecting and choosing no recovery.
    So here I am, reading this post, and thinking once again, is it me? Could I have done something better to save our marriage?? Did I just not accept his love well??? Ugh….

  2. Spot on, as usual. It’s so much easier to see what someone else is doing wrong! Self-awareness can save relationships.
    I’m thankful for your straightforward and unbiased advice. I don’t feel attacked, as I do by some bloggers who are also straighforward but only address wives.

  3. Hey Mr. Thomas!

    I needed this, even though it is painful to receive. My love language is quality time, and I am also an extrovert that needs to talk about things out loud to process them. My husband, on the other hand, is introvert and needs his “alone time”. It’s been a struggle for me to understand and accept, and I have developed a pattern of demanding him to spend time with me. I’ve been victimizing myself about the fact that he doesn’t seem to enjoy spending time with me.
    No wonder why! I’ve made loving me a duty, an obligation.

    Thank you for clarifying something I have not realized before. At least now I know what to work on, but it is not going to be easy, and to be honest I am not really sure exactly what to do. Do you have any advice on how to deal with my own mind? What has helped you feel love when your family don’t give you gifts?

    Benedicte Coupland

    Ps: I met my husband after reading “Sacred Search”, I have a lot to thank you for 🙂

    • Benedicte,

      I think you raise two separate issues here. When it comes to an introvert/extrovert type of marriage, ,I can speak from experience. My wife needs to talk so I feed my introversion for a couple hours before she wakes up. And she doesn’t resent me going to sleep before she does, so she respects my needs as well. But during the day, I consider myself “on” and open to her. We can accept our differences and still find ways to express love languages. If an introvert can’t ever talk, he/she shouldn’t get married,, or shouldn’t marry an extrovert. So without talking to both of you, I’m not necessarily giving that a pass: “I’m an introvert so I can’t listen to you.” That’s not a God-honoring conclusion, in my view. He will need some time alone, but not 24 hours a day. My guess is that if you were truly, truly listened to with curiosity for an hour or two a day (but not ignored the rest of the day) you’d feel loved, and any spouse can/should do that.

      On how we handle our minds when we’re disappointed, I’ll repeat a little of what I said in a comment below: it’s healthy to express desires and disappointment, but then we have to pivot spiritually and guard our hearts, maintaining a thankful attitude for what we do have, and remembering that our truest and most complete affirmation and celebration comes from God. When I feel slighted by my family, that’s often the prayer times where God reaches out to me in a particularly tangible and felt way. So I leave prayer thankful to be in a relationship with a God who affirms me and even celebrates me while calling me to live for His glory. That gives me encouragement, but then lifts my eyes from me to Him for the rest of the day. And with my eyes on Him, I can love others with enthusiasm rather than resentment.

      The other thing I do is take inspiration from those amazing couples who, because of their spouse’s advancing age or illness, have to become unilateral givers. Maybe their spouse has had a stroke, is suffering dementia, or is fighting a terminal illness (or depression). Those marriages can, indeed, become one-sided, but I’m inspired when believers step up to the challenge, draw from God, and love heroically. I realize it feels different when your spouse chooses not to love rather than can’t love, but that’s when you go with what I said above. None of us deserves God’s love, and He pours it out so abundantly. If a bit of neglect from a spouse redirects you to a new dependence on God, in the end, you come out ahead

      • Mr Thomas,

        Thank you so much for taking the time and effort to give me such a profound response 🙂 I am very honored (and a bit starstruck!).
        I’ll jump right to the end of your message first, because I find it interesting that you, in response to me, talk about spouses with depression. I did not tell you that my husband is actually struggling with depression. He has most of the two years we have been married, but there are good days, and bad days. The extrovert/introvert collision I talked about in my first message is related to the good days, on the bad days the situation gets a bit different as he will sleep all day, and not be available at all.

        The flow you and your wife has with morning/bedtime differences sounds amazing, I would very much like to work out something like that with my husband. Only in our case it would be the opposite, – I am the morning person, he is a night person. Unfortunately, with depression comes insomnia, so many times he stay up all night and sleep all day. We have a 9 month old son, so it is not possible for me to adjust to his swinging day rhythm. I do end up with the burden of caretaking, and I am also struggling my way through a bachelor i Psychology, so my days are very full. But I am in no way loving heroically or stepping up to the challenge, as I should be doing, I am miserable and failing and battling thoughts of divorce constantly. I know it is wrong, and I know it is Gods will that we stay married and raise our son together, so I am extremely thirsty for knowledge, advice and encouragement. It is a battle.

        I know you have a lot on your plate and that my issues need much deeper counseling, that would demand time and effort from you, so do not worry about responding 🙂 We are going to counseling, both a professional couple’s counselor (who unfortunately isn’t Christian), and an “unprofessional” couple, who are Christian and have been married for several decades). And we are in the process of getting him a therapist to work on his depression. Things take time.
My hope in sharing this on your blog is that perhaps there are others out there in the same situation I could connect with and find mutual strength and comfort with. Anyone reading this is welcome to contact me.

Benedicte Coupland

  4. Ha! That is so easy to do. Thank you for being transparent and giving a specific example. I can see that I have fallen into that trap before especially with those closest to us. Thank you for the warning and reminder.

  5. I needed this reminder right now! Thank you for the book recommendation also! It’s perfect because my hubby says I don’t know what it’s like to be married to me! 🥴

  6. My love language is gifts to and I understand the urge to buy the best gifts for my family around holidays. I’m used to not receiving because I know it’s a rare love language for people to have. It used to disappoint me when I didn’t receive thoughtful gifts in return but ive learned to expect nothing. I have to be careful not to give too much or they can feel bad that they haven’t reciprocated. It is more blessed to give than to receive!

  7. Agreed but with some reticence. I don’t want my husband to love me (in my love language) out of obligation — but we should be MAKING AN EFFORT to speak our spouse’s love languages. And why wouldn’t we, knowing we will get the best “bang for our buck” by making that wise investment in a language that provides the greatest return and fully blesses our spouse?!

    I spent fifteen years lowering my expectations in a first marriage, despite the fact that my first husband DID MAKE VOWS BEFORE GOD to “love, honor, and cherish” me. Does the excuse “That’s not my love language” absolve us of responsibility to make an effort? I have a really hard time with that. I don’t expect perfection from my husband, but I DO expect some effort at loving me, and I do the same in return.

    Truly loving someone means making what is important to THEM important to YOU. When both partners are living this way, the result of that humble, sacrificial service is AMAZING. It’s not demanded, it’s offered with a sincere desire to feel pleasure from the pleasure of my spouse. (To borrow a phrase from Cherish.)

    • I agree with you Sarah. I think we need to get to know each other’s love languages and put effort into filling them. Although I have to accept my husband is not a gift giver. He does get me one special gift at Christmas.
      I’ve learned to buy flowers with my groceries when money allows. He has many other great qualities.

    • Gary Lee Thomas November 1, 2019 at 7:50 am


      I understand the point you’re making. When I’m talking to all spouses, of course I urge everyone to make an effort to make your spouse feel not just loved, but cherished. But what if the spouse doesn’t respond? I think it’s wise to express your disappointment (long-term repression usually just leads to a subsequent blow-up) but part of this is learning to cherish someone who “stumbles in many ways” (there’s a chapter on this in Cherish). No one gets to cherish a perfect spouse, which means everyone must learn how to Cherish a spouse who occasionally disappoints. This is where we need to guard our hearts, maintain a thankful attitude for what we do have, and remember that our truest and most complete affirmation and celebration comes from God. When I feel slighted by my family, that’s often the prayer times where God reaches out to me in a particularly tangible and felt way. So I leave prayer thankful to be in a relationship with a God who affirms me and even celebrates me while calling me to live for His glory. That gives me encouragement, but then lifts my eyes from me to Him for the rest of the day. And with my eyes on Him, I can love others with enthusiasm rather than resentment.

      That’s the THEORY, anyway. I’m not suggesting it’s always easy to put into practice

      • Thanks for responding, Gary. I should have noted that my first marriage was abusive, so not only was there no effort, but it was actually destructive. It is very hard for me to see absolutely solid marriage advice (applicable for relatively normal marriages) and not view it through that lens. Another reason I am so grateful as I work my way through “When To Walk Away.” 🙂

  8. Praise God I am married to a wonderful wife who expresses her love to me out of a heart filled with delight. Her expressions are not motivated by duty.
    I am a very blessed man indeed!

  9. Thank Mr. Thomas! This is wonderful. I am also super enjoying one of your books. I purchased in audio as reading for me is hard and I am learning so much from it. Thank you for what you and your ministry do for The Lord’s kingdom.
    Maria Denver NC