My pastor says love smells like pancakes. 

I disagree. To me, love smells like fresh sheets on a newly made bed and takeout Chinese.

I remember coming home one day to find that my husband had taken in the laundry and made the bed, one of my least favorite chores. I felt loved.

And one Saturday this spring I was sick, tired, and discouraged. I’d been fighting a mysterious virus for over two weeks and I was still languishing on the couch in my pajamas long after I was ready to be well. And to make matters worse, I was hungry.

Hungry is bad enough, but sick and hungry is downright pitiful. As tears formed in the corners of my eyes, and I wondered if it was possible to starve to death within 20 feet of a refrigerator, in walked my husband with a bag full of takeout Chinese food from my favorite restaurant. Now that’s love.

The contrast between my pastor’s pancakes and my fresh sheets demonstrates an interesting fact about how human beings give and receive love: what screams love to one person doesn’t even whisper love to another. 

Dr. Gary Chapman, in his book, The Five Love Languages, backs up this observation with over 25 years of research. Human beings, he proposes, each have a primary love language—the way they best give and receive love. Acts of service is mine, but others’ are words of affirmation, physical touch and closeness, quality time, and gift giving.

Not knowing our spouse’s love language doesn’t usually get us into trouble. We get into trouble when we know what our spouse’s love language is, and we don’t speak it. It is rare to have two people with the same love language sharing the same marriage. Remember, opposites attract. The same is often true with parents, children, and friends.

Typically, we default to our primary love language when we interact with each other. It happens at my house all the time. I bustle around all day doing stuff for my husband–cooking, cleaning, and running errands—all the things I wish someone would do for me.

Meanwhile, my husband, who couldn’t care less about whether the kitchen floor is spotless or the closets are organized, but blossoms when I speak words of affirmation, is starving to death for a kind word.

Likewise, he has tried to convince me for years that my love language is NOT acts of service. He’d much prefer to sit on the couch for hours telling me how wonderful I am than mowing the grass, fixing the drain, and fetching takeout Chinese.

If we know this, why do we continue to struggle?

It comes down to two reasons, and neither of them are pretty: We are selfish, and we are lazy.

Human beings are naturally selfish. This is why our default setting prompts us to demonstrate love in the ways we prefer. Speaking a love language that doesn’t come naturally means that we have to deny ourselves and act outside our preferences, strengths, and interests to serve someone else. Sometimes, on the surface, there’s nothing in it for us. Let me paraphrase the words of Jesus, “If we love those in the way we prefer to be loved, what reward do we have? Even the pagans do this.”

The second reason we fail to speak our spouse’s love language is because we are lazy. Now that’s an ugly thought. True, but ugly.

It’s easy to look self-righteously at myself and all I’m doing for my husband and think I’m actively demonstrating love. In reality it’s the exact opposite. I’m lazily choosing to speak the language I prefer, the language of service, when he desperately needs to hear the language of affirmation. Because encouraging words don’t mean as much to me, and they take more effort because they don’t come naturally, I default to my love language instead.