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Now, acts of service used to be a lot higher on the ladder for me. This used to be one of my biggest pain points, one that no amount of quality time could replace. And honestly, I think it might be true for some relationships. It’s still at the top, leading number four by a wide margin, because the closer the relationship I have with someone, the more we will likely to be doing for each other. But I also need to be extremely close to someone to be able to be able to accept acts of service with more comfort.
I think chores and handywork are the main example that Gary Chapman uses for this love language. “Actions speak louder than words.” That’s definitely something that speaks to me, because our quality time or affirmations can be so easily undermined by actions later on. Because this is the context where acts of service is used as a way to get to know someone, not to arrange chore charts or some other transaction. Usually the hopes and dreams discussed in quality time hold much more weight, with devastating consequences if they are undermined. While there are actions associated with each love language, this is one of the love languages that can be used without the other person even knowing who is speaking. It’s all action.
For example, if I’m living with someone, I expect that we both have regard for our common existence. Upholding the mutually-agreed upon system for chores or grocery shopping, etc., won’t necessarily have to do with showing love to someone. But, if acts of service are a priority for one of these people, it is most likely that a failure to adhere to this system will be a blow that will trigger all sorts of trauma responses, unlike for the other person who likes to have a clean space, but doesn’t add any additional value to it. For the less-emotionally-involved person, picking up someone’s dirty socks off the kitchen floor may not mean much, or it may grow to become an annoyance, and perhaps even one that they decide is too much to live with anymore. But for someone who puts a high value on acts of service, they probably believe that their roommate has no regard for them after the fourth or fifth time of picking up the socks. They will assume that their roommate doesn’t care for them, doesn’t see them, doesn’t value them as a member of the household, because “if they really cared about me, they wouldn’t expect me to pick up their socks a dozen times.” Even a single sock on the floor is like a blow to the heart, starting a cascading trauma response. Each time that roommate has to deal with it, the resentment grows and grows, until the offender has become an irredeemable villain. They may leave and never talk to that person again, simply over a sock!
This used to be me. It still is, to an extent. If I’m doing a project or living with someone, I expect us to be a team. If the other person isn’t fulfilling their end of the bargain, it goes beyond annoyance – It makes me hate them. And when I feel that I’m not holding up my end of the bargain, I hate myself. But again, it’s only a love language if it’s done in the context where there’s no pre-arrangement and no deal to uphold. While I may feel personally slighted and unloved when someone doesn’t clean up after themselves, them doing what I want only becomes an act of true love if they are doing it because they want to, for my sake. If they are just doing it to avoid my wrath, then I might think I’m being loved, when really there’s probably resentment under the surface that will likely make itself known in other areas.
So, while we have to be mindful of our “acts of service” speaking friends, and realize that if we don’t uphold our agreements it will strike at their hearts, we also have to realize that doing something to avoid them being mad at us isn’t love. We should still try to uphold our agreements because it’s the right thing to do, but love isn’t transactional, and trying to make it so misses the mark. Show your friend or partner that you love them by doing the dishes on time, but after a while, I’m sure they will stop getting the tinglies when these routine tasks are completed. Like any love language, we need to find ways to go deeper and change it up, otherwise our efforts will become victims of diminishing returns. I can bet that what your loved one really wants is for you to also incorporate some unexpected acts of services on a regular basis.
Just like there’s a difference between spending time together at church every Sunday and planning to go on picnic, or being told “I love you” before hanging up after every phone call and being given an out of the blue compliment on that lasagna that you’ve made a million times, I think there are necessary maintenance activities for each love language, but there’s also enhancement activities that really bring people closer. The “tinglies,” as I mentioned. Which isn’t always romantic. It’s that little jolt of love you get when someone really connects with you. For example, when my dad used to help me change the tires on my car, I would really feel like he cared about me, because it was an action that only needed to be done a few times per year. Him picking me up from work every day before I was able to drive didn’t really give me pause, because it was simply expected.
How do I give myself acts of service? Well, I do get soothed when I do things for myself. Whether it’s taking time to look after my hair, do my laundry, or clean my room, it helps me to fill my own love tank. When these things start to lapse, so does my mood and opinion toward myself, just like it does when it lapses for someone else. And just like with others, there are lots of maintenance activities that I beat myself up for not doing, I also have those little spur of the moment activities that I can do for myself to give myself an extra boost in that love tank. Maybe I’ll cook myself a special meal, draw myself a bath with scented candles, or spend time transplanting my plants.
My son is a person who really loves extending acts of service toward others. He loves to help, and always takes the initiative if he sees something that he thinks needs to be done. Granted, he still leave his little socks everywhere, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about acts of service. And if I try to get him to learn to do things for himself, like getting dressed or brushing his teeth or putting on his shoes, there’s a lot of push back because he sees that as me abandoning him.
On the other hand, sometimes if someone tries to do something for me, it makes me more uncomfortable than even words of affirmation. I’m learning to let people do things for me without obsessing over how I’m going to reciprocate, because what usually happens is I fall into a depression and don’t want to see that person again, even though they tried to do something nice. Ironically, it takes humility and vulnerability to let someone serve us in a deep way. It means allowing yourself to not allow it only based on your ability to pay it back someday. I have to fight feeling weak and incompetent, which sometimes I actually am. I have to fight the pride that makes me want to be able to do everything for myself on top of doing everything for those I care about, so that I’m the only one giving. It used to be my whole personality, and one of the main reasons that I got into the field of social justice and nonprofits. I would volunteer for everything, and be terribly embarrassed if anyone tried to do anything for me. For a long time, I didn’t let my parents help me in any way, because I didn’t like what I thought that would say about me.
And yet, of course, there are times when I am offended if someone doesn’t offer to help. For example, when I slept over at my friend’s farms, I would of course offer to help with chores, making breakfast, playing with siblings, anything that could make me feel useful. But if they came to my house and didn’t offer to help with the chores, that felt like a slight. For the most part, I don’t like sitting around if someone is doing something, and if I’m doing something and someone’s watching me without offering to help, even if I decline, then I see them as not caring about me. If I do something for someone and they don’t acknowledge my act of service with at least a thank-you, it can fill me with honest-to-God rage. For some of us, it’s that bad.
Currently, I like to volunteer, and do practical work like cleaning for others. If I need help moving, I want my church to be there for me. But I do have some friends whose primary love language is acts of service, and I just feel terrible about the fact that they spend so much time doing things for me that I consider “work” and not love, the way they see it, because I know it’s not necessarily the primary way that I want to reciprocate my love for them in the relationship.
Even deeper than that, though, I know that acts of service are very important to me because it’s what I long for in my darkest moments. I envision a partnership where if one of us is going through an episode, then the other can be there to not only pick up the slack, but also do small things to take care of each other. In my absolute darkest moments I don’t want to spend time with someone, no matter how desperately lonely I am. I don’t want to hear any attempts at words of affirmation. I may not want to be touched, and I don’t necessarily want gifts. But I do wish that someone was there to fill my water bottle when I can’t get out of bed, or check on my business for me, or look after my plants, or run to the store. Maybe give me a ride to check me into the hospital if need be. But again, that would take the ultimate level of trust and intimacy built through my other primary love languages for me to be able to accept those acts.
Acts of service might also be triggering or traumatic for you if you grew up in an environment where it wasn’t your love language, but it was for your caregivers, and they performed them for you at the exclusion of something like quality time or affirmation. All you were longing for was to sit down and have a conversation with your loved one, but they were always busy. For them, they were loving you by cooking for you, cleaning your room, or fixing your electronics. They drove you all over town for extracurricular activities, but the ride was silent or only full of surface conversation, where you didn’t really feel close or intimate with that person. So, if someone tries to do something like this for you without the foundation of your own love language, you might be worried that you’re walking into another relationship where it’s all about doing, without any space to simply be or really get to know each other.
As for God? Well, despite the whole Mary and Martha thing, I thing acts of service is probably one of His main love languages, too. Service, especially in the form of obedience, is one of the things that God says separates us from nonbelievers. If true love for Him means that we do what He tells us to do, because He’s the one telling us to do it, then we do it because we hold Him in higher regard than ourselves. He calls us to serve others with joy in our hearts. He came and He served us, washing our feet and healing us. We are asked to do specific things like caring for orphans and widows or anyone else who needs our help. He gave us talents that He has asked us to use for the good of the kingdom, whether it’s prayer, prophecy, or art. There are many instances where He’s given people building projects that show the depth of someone’s faith, like when Noah was called to build the ark or Moses was called to build the sacred tent.
I’m probably the most ambivalent toward acts of service, which is why it’s so difficult for me to define. It has layers, but it’s still a decently large part of meaningful relationships for me.
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~ Romans 15:13