A marriage strategy made popular by The Five Love Languages book and others like it is that if you love your spouse, they will love you back.
Many a client has walked into a marriage counselor’s office and asked what they can do to get their spouse to show them love. They’ve tried and tried to be a good husband or wife, but the reciprocation just isn’t there. The heartache and pain of this sort of rejection leaves a person raw, desperate, and unable to take much more. If only a marriage counselor could solve this riddle for them.
After seeing enough clients like this walk into their office, patterns begin to emerge: patterns in the way people are wired to give and receive love. Many times the unloving spouse isn’t actually unloving, their efforts to give love back just aren’t seen and/or the efforts to show them love never found their mark. After seeing these sorts of patterns hundreds of times, the experienced marriage counselor can diagnose that these two spouses just aren’t speaking one another’s love languages. Through some assessments of what makes that person feel good, a love language is discovered and now the husband or wife has the magic key to unlock their mate’s heart. As long as they show love in that language (in the way the other person wants), their spouse will receive it and will show them love in return. Marriage crisis solved.
This type of strategy has helped many couples and it has sold lots of books, but there are foundational flaws to it that have set spouses back much further than when they began.
Flaw #1: Love is Not Self-Seeking
What happens when the underlying premise of a marriage counseling strategy is to get your spouse to do for you what you want? What happens is we undermine the very definition of what love is, which is a catastrophic problem.
Trying to get my spouse to do what I want might seem innocent, but we’d agree it is the very definition of “self-seeking.”
The problem here is that 1 Corinthians 13:5 clearly tells us, love is not self-seeking.
Jesus then models sacrificial (the opposite of self-seeking) love for us and tells us to do likewise:
Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! (Romans 5:9-10)
But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? (Matthew 5:44, 46)
I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:11-13)
The irony of modern marriage is we include these sorts of things in our marriage vows, that I will “love, honor and cherish you…for better or worse…’til death do us part,” yet the rubber hits the road what we really mean is, “I will only love you if you love me back.”
This is called kickback love, which according to the Bible, isn’t love at all.
Instead of diving deep into the gospel to allow our hearts to be transformed to love sacrificially, we run to a marriage counseling strategy that is meant to transform our spouse.
This is backwards.
Flaw #2: Connected to the Wrong Power Source
Is it easy to love someone who doesn’t love you back? Not at all. Especially when this person made avow to you that they would indeed love you back.
This hits pretty close to home for God. On his wedding day with His people, they proclaim to him:
Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey.” (Exodus 24:7)
Centuries later, God even reminisces about this day:
This is what the LORD says: “‘I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me. (Jeremiah 2:1)
This reminiscing only prefaced the pain God felt toward his unfaithful and unloving bride:
Long ago you broke off your yoke and tore off your bonds; you said, ‘I will not serve you!’ Indeed, on every high hill and under every spreading tree you lay down as a prostitute. You are a swift she-camel running here and there, a wild donkey accustomed to the desert, sniffing the wind in her craving—in her heat who can restrain her? Any males that pursue her need not tire themselves; at mating time they will find her. (Jeremiah 2:20, 23-24)
God knows what it feels like to be unloved by a spouse. He knows your pain and he longs to hold you and comfort you. But more than just comfort you, God also modeled to us a path of freedom through the pain.
We are, after all, God’s spouse. The same rebellious and unfaithful spouse written about in Jeremiah is the one Jesus came and died for in Romans 5:9-10. The path of freedom to love an unloving spouse is the same one God himself traveled.
This path begins with taking our eyes off our spouse and on to Jesus as the power source for our love. The reason a “love language” strategy won’t sustain a marriage for the long haul is because it requires that we look to another human being as our motivator and source for love.
This is like plugging one end of an extension cord into its other end. What happens?
Nothing happens. You just have a dead wire.
For an extension cord to work and to be full of life, it must be plugged into a power outlet. This power outlet in your marriage is God’s unconditional love for you. It is knowing you are God’s child (Romans 8:14), an heir to his kingdom (Romans 8:17), beautifully and wonderfully made by him (Psalm 139:1-18), and that He is sovereign and knows what He’s doing (Romans 8:28, 31).
I’m not saying you shouldn’t go to marriage counseling or read marriage books, but you need to understand that they aren’t a silver bullet and the ultimate solution will not be found in these things. These often bring short-term solutions and sometimes will give you long lasting tools that can help your marriage, and sometimes they don’t help at all because your spouse simply isn’t going to change right now.
The key to finding the path of freedom in your marriage isn’t that God will change your spouse, it’s that God will change you. Not necessary to change you into a “better spouse” but to change your heart and perspective to find your sustenance in God’s love for you, not in your spouse’s love.
It’s removing marriage and your spouse as idols in your life and putting the person of God and the sufficiency of his love front and center as your life-source.
It’s removing the scoreboard that love languages create (“I’m doing my part, why isn’t my spouse doing theirs?”) and soaking in the grace and mercy of God; focusing on what he’s given us that we don’t deserve rather than feeling entitled to and idolizing the marital carrot on a stick that is always just out of reach.
It’s going to the Father, the way Jesus did (Matthew 3:17; Luke 23:46), to know He accepts us and approves of us (Colossians 1:22; Romans 8:4), when no one else in our lives is giving us that message.
Two beauties come from this divine power connection. One is that your spouse will be shown the supernatural love of Jesus in spite of how they are treating you. Even more profound than this though is that you, the extension cord, will be full of vibrant life at all times, regardless of how your spouse is treating you. How else could Jesus tell you that your joy will be complete when you lay down your life in love for another in John 15:11-13? These two things don’t seem to go together.
Laying down one’s life can only equate to complete joy when a power source is involved who transcends both the one giving and the one receiving.
No wonder so many of us are starved for a love that satisfies. We are looking for it everywhere except from the Source itself.
Written by: Noah Filipiak is the founding pastor of Crossroads Church in Lansing, Michigan