A few weeks ago Pope Benedict delivered his first encyclical — a papal letter to the universal Church — entitled Deus Caritas Est (God is Love).
OK, so he probably wasn’t talking about Whitman’s-Sampler-in-a-heart-shaped-box kind of Valentine’s Day love, but bear with me: There are many languages of love.
Our faith tells us that the longing we feel for love — from our family, our spouse, and our friends — is, at core, a longing for God’s love. Why can we never be satisfied with the gifts of love that special someone gives us? Because they are human, and we’re searching for a greater love.
Body and Soul
“We speak of love of country, love of one’s profession, love between friends… Amid this multiplicity of meanings, however, one in particular stands out: love between man and woman, where body and soul are inseparably joined, and human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness,” writes Pope Benedict.
The Pope continues by explaining that, in the Bible and throughout our culture, “the idea is certainly present that man is somehow incomplete, driven by nature to seek in another the part that can make him whole, the idea that only in communion with the opposite sex can he become ‘complete.'”
But Pope Benedict wants us to be realize that this love we seek on earth is something that we’ll always need to work at: We’re humans, we have flaws, and totally unconditional love only comes from God.
The Real Deal
So, no, the Pope wasn’t talking about commercialized Hallmark love. He’s talking about the real deal. But even brushing aside the cutesy conversation hearts on Valentine’s Day, couples face a dilemma in their quest for this real love here on earth: It’s a day that is supposed to be about romance, about doing something special for the person you care about. Yet so often it goes wrong because we’re speaking different languages of love.
Here’s one scenario: Erin spends several hours of preparation to cook a romantic dinner for her and her boyfriend, James, but he calls to say he has to work late at the office, that he is so sorry and that he loves her more than anything. James writes her a sweet email to reiterate his feelings of love. But Erin still feels hurt and deep down thinks that she must love him more than he loves her because she made him this beautiful meal, and all he could do was say he loved her.
Or this scenario: Kyle buys Nancy an expensive necklace for Valentine’s Day. She’s very happy when she opens it, and with a smile says she didn’t get him anything tangible. Instead, she organized a hike where they could talk and spend time together. Kyle feels a little let down: Here he went to all this effort to buy her something nice, and Nancy didn’t get him anything?
Love in Translation
In his book, The Five Languages of Love, marital counselor Gary Chapman writes that everyone has a primary way of expressing love, and most of the time, when we fall in love and get married, we end up with a person who has a different way of showing love than we do. Just like it’s hard for someone who speaks only English to communicate with someone who speaks only Chinese, to build ties between two people who speak different love languages, we have to be open to learning what the other person needs.
Some people speak the language of “words of affirmation” and need to hear verbal encouragement and kind words from their spouse or significant other. For other people “acts of service” — doing things for the person, like making dinner or helping with chores — is the best way to show you care. Erin was giving James the gift of service — she was making him dinner to show her love. Instead, James was giving Erin his love through words of affirmation. But Erin wasn’t speaking that language.
Another way to give love is through the gift of “quality time,” time where you and your spouse talk, give each other undivided attention, and share feelings. Yet still others need love in the form of an actual gift: By “receiving gifts” — a single flower, or a thoughtful present — these people demonstrate their love. Nancy wanted to show her love for Kyle by spending quality time with him, but Kyle needed to receive love in the language of gifts.
Finally, there is the language of “physical touch”, where a person needs to be shown love through physical intimacy, kissing, holding hands and sexual desire. Leslie and Phillip had been dating for a while when Phillip’s job required him to move overseas for six months. It was a tough time for the couple, Leslie says, because while she shows her love through acts of service, Phillip showed his love physically. “I could do little things for him while he was away, but he couldn’t even hold hands with me, and he felt very frustrated and far away. It took us a long time to realize what was going wrong,” Leslie said.
Love or Chore?
The two got married and early on Leslie said she and Phillip had to have a conversation about their different expressions of love: “When Phillip doesn’t help around the house it means a lot to me — it’s more than just chores because I express love through service. When I clean the house, it’s a way I show him that I love him. So when he says ‘I’m not going to do that chore,’ it was making me feel like he didn’t love me as much as I loved him.”
When Pope Benedict talks about love, he is speaking of the love of God that awaits us in Heaven, but also the love we struggle to communicate in our most intimate relationships here and now. This Valentine’s Day, think about the ways that you can best express your love to that special someone. Through open, honest talks, and by giving of ourselves to others we can come even closer to that “irresistible promise of happiness” that makes us celebrate February 14 as a day of love.