I Cleaned the Toilet for You: Speaking Love through Acts of Service
A friend of mine confided that she never felt good enough for her husband. He made his expectations seem so simple: have the house cleaned and food on the table when he got home. Not unreasonable considering she had a non-traditional work schedule and eventually became a stay-at-home mom. She even enjoyed cleaning and cooking to a large degree, but his unreasonable standards left her depleted and demeaned most days when her husband came home from work.
“Hello, honey. How are you?” turned into “Why are the toys on the floor?” and “Is dinner ready?” Her husband loved her and feared God, but somehow his needs weren't being met despite her efforts, and he withheld praise and appreciation even though she had worked to her capacity to try to meet his standards. Affection turned into resentment and skepticism.
As any spouse knows, however, hurt in marriage is never one-sided. While the husband's expectations might have been beyond the wife's reasonable capacity, she too was growing in resentment and skepticism. Underneath her insecurity of not being good enough was a disdain for her husband's values of cleanliness. She liked cleanliness, but not at the expense of other uses of her time and energy. Because nothing ever seemed good enough, she started doing the minimum and spiting him with her negligence.
What's the chicken and what's the egg? It's not always easy to tell. And what is a clash of personality versus what is a genuine neglect or abuse? In their case, it depended on which spouse you asked.
What I have come to learn over the course of their marriage journey and throughout my time in marriage ministry is that couples with one or both spouses who feel loved primarily through Acts of Service often suffer an undiagnosed wound. Even though the division of labor might be neatly divided, the spouse feels empty and undervalued and, ultimately, unloved, usually without understanding why.
Acts of Service is one of five love languages as described by Gary Chapman in his book The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts . A love language is essentially the manner in which one receives love. Think of it as if you spoke Farsi and your spouse spoke Italian. No matter how much you told them you loved them in your native tongue, they would not understand. Unless you were to speak it in the language they were conversant in, your efforts to love would be lost in translation. If your Italian-speaking spouse has a love language of Acts of Service, then loving through Physical Touch, Words of Affirmation, Gifts, or Quality Time instead is like speaking Farsi to them.
Why is Acts of Service a point of conflict for this couple? Each of them needs the other to serve them voluntarily without obligation in order to feel loved. When the wife is expected to do certain household tasks, she is no longer given the choice to do them. Not only does this snuff out a task she would otherwise cheerfully do as a way to show her husband she loves him (because most people speak love in the same language they receive it), but also it cancels the husband's opportunity to receive her efforts as anything more than her fulfilling a chore. The house might end up cleaned and dinner might be on the table, but his love tank is empty and so is hers.
How can a normal division of labor work when one or both spouses need Acts of Service in order to feel loved?
There is a practicality to domestic labor that requires some sacrifice. Bills need to be paid. Dishes need to be washed. Clothes need to be put away. Diapers need to be changed. Floors need to be vacuumed. Cars need to be serviced. Who does what is largely a matter of who cares the most about it, who has the time for it, and who is more gifted in that area. It's not uncommon for the one who might be a fit for the job to abhor the task, which is where sacrifice comes in.
For any marriage, regardless of love language, we all must serve our spouse for the good of our marriage team. When we do, it's a win! Keeping the marriage-team perspective can help us do our assigned tasks well and cheerfully. So much of the beauty in marriage is giving of ourselves for the sake of the marriage team.
For a couple with one or more spouse needing Acts of Service to feel loved, however, there needs to be an effort on the spouse's end to do a task from their Acts of Service spouse's list or from their shared list without complaint and with care. This will show that they have been thinking about them and desire to free them up and serve them when there is no obligation to do so. Even in their own assigned tasks, they can choose to do them with an attitude of love rather than of obligation or efficiency.
Tasks become a vehicle for admiration, affection, and even romance. A major distinction between cooking dinner as a chore and cooking dinner as a sign of love is the attitude with which it is done. When a spouse can choose to do the cooking that night, can plan with their spouse's dietary needs and preferences in mind, can time it to their spouse's schedule, and can use the task as an invitation for further connection, then it was done in a way that an Acts of Service spouse can receive as love. It will feel utterly different than the defrosted leftovers that were zapped and left in the serving dish for the spouse to pick at when he or she gets home.
Cooking is perhaps an easy example because eating is social in its essence. What about paying the bills? If your spouse normally pays the bills, but you want to take that off his or her plate in order to show you love them, then find a time when you can do the job well. Use their process so when they take up the task again next time, they will be able to pick up where you left off. Refrain from criticizing their process (as well as their expenditures). No matter what the results of your finances are, don't sabotage your good deed by then expressing all your financial fears to them. Part of doing this out of love is to give them a break from the mental stamina that they commit to this task, so if a discussion needs to be had, give enough time before arranging a meeting with your spouse about it.
Or toilets. How can that ever be a romantic gesture? If your spouse hates doing it and you do it instead, it just became the coat over the mud puddle. Do it well. Do it without complaint. Do it without expecting any credit for it. You are doing it so your spouse doesn't have to, not to receive points that by essence put your spouse at a loss.
If your spouse has a high Acts of Service love language, you might be thinking right about now, “Wait a minute! This means I have to do more than my half. That's not fair!” You were reading correctly, my friend. This means that you will have the challenge of picking up extra tasks that are above and beyond the agreed upon division of labor. Your spouse needs that from you in order to feel loved and special and valued and respected. Hiring a cleaning service doesn't necessarily help your spouse feel loved. If your efforts do not come at a cost, they do not demonstrate the kind of love that refills a depleted love tank.
What you see as unfair is simply a beautiful part of marriage: selflessness.
Each love language requires efforts from the spouse that aren't necessarily natural or comfortable, but if your spouse only speaks Farsi, then you must learn Farsi. And how great it will be when she or he hears you say, “I love you” for the first time in a long time.
The flip side of this coin is that just as choosing to serve your spouse can lift them up, neglecting to serve them depletes their love tank; it's not just a status quo. While a different couple might be able to tolerate the house staying cluttered, the clothes being wrinkled, dinner being mostly take out, and the mail heaped and unsorted during a season of busyness, your Acts of Service spouse cannot experience that without feeling unloved.
Because life happens and you will not be able to always serve your spouse cheerfully, you will need to heighten your sensitivity to their needs and communicate, communicate, communicate. When your work deadline keeps you out until 10 pm, you clearly will have nothing much to contribute to the household chores. That is reasonable, but it is not sustainable for your spouse. Even if it's just for a few days, your spouse needs you to reassure him or her that you are aware of this limitation and will do what you can to help in other ways and to assure them of your love for them.
Back to my friend's story. The husband certainly did have high standards as part of his personality, but his rigidity in reserving gratitude or praise for his wife's efforts was out of fear that she was not understanding how he needed to be loved. A mediocre job cleaning the bathroom was not just a frustration for his style of cleanliness; it was like his wife was saying, “I don't care that this is important to you.” By that, he felt unloved and was grasping where he could to fix that.
And the wife's lackadaisical attitude about the quality of her tasks was in part a survival mechanism against an exhausting and seemingly unachievable feat, but it was largely a protection from feeling like her “I love you” was always being rejected. It was also subconsciously in an effort to leave something for her husband to do for her because she needed to be loved with Acts of Service too.
Being able to sort through why they each had a trench of loneliness and resentment in their hearts allowed them to re-strategize. One of the biggest changes they made was to assign cooking nights so they could each have an opportunity to serve each other and to be served. Also, they designated which areas the kids were able to leave their clutter and which needed to be ordered and cleaned for their own peace of mind.
It was and still is an ongoing process for them, as it will be for you if you or your spouse needs Acts of Service to feel loved. But there is such a perfect example and inspiration in Christ, who gave himself up for us when we did not deserve it. In the same way, we take joy to share in Christ's sufferings for the sake of those Christ loves. Serving your spouse at a cost to yourself will reap reward in your marriage.