Relationships are living, dynamic things, requiring ongoing care and nurturance in just as real a way as a plant needs continuous watering over time. If you stop watering your plants, even the most beautiful, resilient plant may wither or even die. But if you continue to water that little plant, it can grow bigger and more beautiful every day. So it is with our relationships.

How can you show your spouse your love, in a way that will feel meaningful and satisfying to you both?

This can be a difficult task over the course of a long-term relationship. As the bills arrive, the children join our family with their constant needs, and the demands of work and other commitments take their toll, we may have limited time to invest in our marriage relationship. We continue to express our affection to our mates - but we tend to do so in the style most natural and fulfilling to us. This may or may not match the emotional needs or preferences of our partners.

In 1992, Dr. Gary D. Chapman wrote an insightful book called "The Five Love Languages : How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate."In this book, Dr. Chapman identifies five love languages or styles of expressing love. He notes that, as individuals, we naturally have a primary and secondary love language that we most strongly value, while the other styles may be less meaningful to us.

The five love languages he identifies are

1. Verbal Affirmation

Kind and loving words, spoken or written, expressing appreciation, affection, and admiration for our spouse.

2. Acts of Service

Practical tasks, such as housework, yardwork, or professional work providing needed income for the family.

3. Physical Affection

Touch as a means of expressing love. It can include but does not necessarily equate with sexual intimacy.

4. Gifts

Physical items expressing caring interest in the loved one. These can be expensive purchases, or can be inexpensive but thoughtful tokens of affection, such as a flower or card.

5. Quality Time:

Focused time spent with one another, with no other purpose than enjoying your relationship and association.

Dr. Chapman observes that in the beginning of a relationship, during the falling in love stage, we tend to express love to each other in all five of these languages. We talk, touch, give gifts, spend time, and do little things for one another to express that love and commitment that we so deeply feel.

Because we are expressing love in all five languages during that stage, the preferred love language of both partners gets expressed, and both partners feel deeply loved and cared for.

Over time, however, as life gets busier and more demanding, we have to divide our time and focus between our marriage and our other commitments: kids, job, and so forth. So we continue to express love to our mates - but we naturally tend to do so in the ways most meaningful to us. Meanwhile, our spouse may be doing the same thing, but in a completely different way - in a different love language.

For example, consider Clark and Mary. Clark's first love language is physical touch, and his second is practical service. As life gets busy, he continues to express love for his wife by providing for his family, mowing the lawn, helping out with the dishes a few times a week, trying to initiate sexual intimacy, and kissing his wife goodbye when he leaves for the day.

But he is discouraged to observe that she seems increasingly ungrateful for his efforts - complaining that all he ever does is work, and pulling away from his sexual and nonsexual efforts to connect physically, saying that all he ever thinks about is sex.

Meanwhile, Mary continues to express her ongoing love for Clark in her preferred love languages - which are first, quality time, and second, words of affirmation. She tries to set up times for them to talk, go out on dates, and enjoy occasional weekend retreats. She leaves kind little notes for him in his lunch, and tells him how much she appreciates the good man he is. She makes time daily to ask him how his day at work went.

But she becomes discouraged when he comments in frustration that "talk is cheap," and when he is too busy with his long task list to provide the time and focus she tries to preserve for their marriage. Over time, both people increasingly feel that they give and give and never get anything back. Both may privately wonder if their relationship is dying - if their partner still cares for them at all.

Love can be richly abundant in such a relationship. It just needs to be refocused into areas where it is most effective in meeting the emotional needs of the loved one. Each partner can learn to make educated choices about how to invest loving effort most effectively, to help their spouse feel cherished and appreciated.

Here are five steps to help you get started in this effort to learn to express love in the style most meaningful to your partner:

1. Learn more

about the five love languages. Dr. Chapman's books and his website, are the best resource for this.

2. Talk to your spouse

about the five love languages, and determine what the primary and secondary languages are for each of you.

3. Ex periment

on ways you can express love to your mate in their preferred languages. Don't expect perfection - these loving efforts may take you out of your comfort zone.

4. Give your spouse gentle suggestions and feedback

on how they can best express love to you, in your preferred languages.

5. Be p atient

This tends to be a growing experience for both partners. Initial efforts may feel awkward or unnatural. But with patience, humor, and persistence, love can be nurtured and even rekindled, in a powerful and mutually fulfilling way.

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