ANNIE: Today, we've become infatuated with personalizing our lives. It started innocently enough-we engraved our initials on jewelry, or stitched them on sweaters, or etched them on crystal.

But from this humble beginning, a massive industry devoted to personalizing has grown. Stationery and key rings and mugs and T-shirts all come emblazoned with your name. Your home can be resplendent with welcome mats, mailboxes, table linens, and Christmas ornaments all bearing your insignia. Your kids can sport personalized schoolbags and swim-team jackets, and read storybooks with their own names printed into the text. Every other computer-generated advertising letter stuffed in your mailbox uses your name more times than your mother does when she writes you.

In the heat of this passion to personalize our world, we have overlooked the most important facet of our lives: We have failed to personalize the way we say "I love you."

Breaking Away From Generic Love

When we were first married, I heard a message from a lady in California who claimed to know all about wifing. If a woman loved her husband, this woman insisted, she'd fix him breakfast in bed. Until then, all our meals had been eaten in an upright position, but I was anxious to do well at loving my man, so breakfast in bed it would be.

Unfortunately, Steve did not respond well to this innovation. California husbands must have some inbred athletic prowess he lacks, because juggling that tiny little tray on his knees as he tried to keep from seeding the sheets with biscuit crumbs was too much to handle.

But I was determined to show I loved him. The next suggestion I came across in one of those "keeping-the-sizzle-in-your-marriage" books insisted on candlelight dinners as the key to bliss. So the lights went down, and the candles were ignited.

But Steve had a bad experience once with food he couldn't see, so he associated candlelight with nausea rather than passion. He's since gotten over this aversion, but at the time my idea was a flop. So once again I felt a failure.

After the candlelight fiasco, I came to a new conclusion. Perhaps these well-meaning teachers spoke so highly of these expressions of love because they'd married men who liked to eat in strange places. Maybe the secret to their success was not the bedside breakfasts, but rather that they'd studied their husbands long enough to know their likes and dislikes. What a new thought!

Spurred on by these conclusions, I started a study of Steve to find out how he liked to hear "I love you." Some of the answers I came up with proved to be unconventional, at best.

When Love Means Scratching the "Sock Ridges"

Steve was born with inordinately large calves. I assume that when God designed him, He planned them as an asset to a boy from West Virginia who'd spend untold hours trudging up and down those Appalachian hills. But having calves shaped like upside-down bowling pins has its drawbacks. For one thing, his socks slide down as fast as he can pull them up, so when he jogs, he's had to resort to wearing socks with a thick elastic band around the top. Though they don't sag, the elastic also carves grooves around his ankles that feel miserable.

When he comes in from a hard run, he claims there's no experience closer to heaven than getting those ridges in his ankles scratched. In my study of Steve, I took note of this quirk, and appointed myself Official Ankle-Ridge Itch Remover. When he strips off his sweat socks, I invite him to plunk his feet in my lap, and I scratch those ridges while he lies there on the floor with his tongue hanging out like a dog.

I'm willing to bet you've never read a marriage book that recommends ankle-scratching as a way to express your love to your mate-and you're not reading it now, either! This particular way to say "I love you" does wonders for our life together only because it's tailored to us.

Nongeneric Love Works for Men, Too

My creativity pushed Steve to take a look at his adeptness as a lover. Did he love me? Of course he did, and in the generic expressions of love he was doing great. He'd married me, hadn't he? And forsaken all others for me ... and hustled to earn a living so he could provide for me.... Steve didn't beat me; he thanked me for cooking dinner and kissed me goodbye whenever he left the house.

But what I needed was to have that generic love personalized. I needed him to find my "ankle ridges," too. So Steve started a study of his own. One that he discovered came at the kids' bedtime. After a long day, I can be short on the energy it takes to oversee the baths, the teeth-brushing, the story-telling and tucking-in that two kids require. On those days, if he offers to take over pajama duty, his action shouts "I love you" more loudly than dozens of roses ever could.

Of course, your wife might insist on flowers as her most meaningful expression of your love. Or your husband may choose your companionship at a Cubs game over breakfast in bed. Sometimes personalized love does mean presents. Other times it means giving your presence in a special way.

Excerpted from: Married Lovers Married Friends  by Steve and Annie Chapman

Copyright © 2004; ISBN 0764228889
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.

Steve and Annie Chapman combine their musical gifts with marriage enrichment, ministering to families nationwide. Their most recent book is What Husbands & Wives Aren't Telling Each Other. The Chapmans have two children and live in Nashville.

Maureen Rank has authored or coauthored twelve books, is a former executive director of the Iowa Psychological Association, and is a leadership and organizational consultant. Her books have been published in five languages, with combined sales totaling nearly half a million copies. Maureen, mother of two, makes her home in Des Moines, Iowa.